An intimate story of friendship projected across the vast alpine Italian landscape, Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s The Eight Mountains is a stirring, at times spiritual experience of reconnection on both human and environmental levels. Starring Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi, the decade-spanning story adapted from Paolo Cognetti’s novel gives its audience the proper space to breathe in the surroundings while our characters attempt to find a footing in their lives.
Ahead of the U.S. release of the Cannes winner, I had the pleasure of speaking with the Belgian directors about the complex process of crafting a Dutch script that was then translated into English and then into Italian, what their collaboration process entails, their personal connections to the film, setting the perfect pace, and their visual inspirations.
The Film Stage: I love the juxtaposition in the movie, where you have the most beautiful, vast surroundings possible, but on a human level you’re dealing with the most intimate feelings, which are unspeakable in some ways. What interested you about capturing that dichotomy?
Charlotte Vandermeersch: It’s an intuitive process where you don’t really make images like, “Here’s this scene. And then [the character] should be against this backdrop.” Things just go very intuitively where we decided we often wanted a person to be able to feel the mountains and the vastness of the landscape and then this little human being––what you feel when you have a deeply spiritual moment, feeling small in an existential moment. We wanted to capture these feelings that you have when you go out into nature or you have a moment in front of the ocean. It can be the ocean, it can be mountains, but this feeling of being one with everything and then at the same time feeling very tiny and lost. And the depth of your feelings, maybe it’s as deep as the mountains are high. Our bodies are tiny in proportion to the mountains, but the way we feel is big.
Felix van Groeningen: There are a lot of things that make it work, and we didn’t necessarily start from the characters to make it work. But different things are at play, like how are we going to make the mountains work? Or this specific mountain where the whole story is taking place? How do you get to know it better? How do you really have the feeling that you understand the place geographically within the movie? How do you know at what height you are? Because of the book, it became really important for us to understand where you are. There’s this beautiful thing that Paulo [Cognetti] writes: there’s something about getting to the top, wanting to be at the top, and only to have to go down again once you’re there. Pietro feels more at ease where the mountains open up, where the trees disappear and that’s sort of where the house they built is. And then his mother feels more at ease in the village. That description made us really understand that it was very important that every location had a certain feel, and that you felt this going up and going down again and going higher. And so the first moment you arrive at the peak you also have this physical feeling almost like “Wow, this is incredible.” And before you know it, you’re down again. And then next time you go higher and play with this movement.
Additionally, it made us think about how the characters have to fit in the landscape or do they stand out a bit with colors and clothing. We played around with Bruno being more earthy so blends more in. The father is grayish and looked like the rocks. And Pietro is blue or red so he always sort of doesn’t really fit in. It’s in those mechanics that we make the landscape work within the story. And because it works in the story it becomes part of the characters. Bruno becomes this mountain because of the way we frame things and how the story is built up.
As co-directors, what is your creative process like? Is everything integrated or do you each specialize in certain areas?
Felix van Groeningen: It was from the writing where I really felt that Charlotte was all in. She was super-passionate about it and she really brought the story to a higher level. And that’s why I asked her to also direct with me and when I asked her, she told me, “How is it going to work?” And I said, “I don’t know, we’ll see. I have no idea.” But as the writing went well, I think it was the perfect basis because we ping-pong a lot. There was a lot of stuff that we I don’t necessarily agree on, but because of interacting, we found a middle way and that made things better. And I think we’re both pretty stubborn, but in a good way. [Both laugh] Then we moved to casting and we realized that our taste was often similar. And during production Charlotte just kept on focusing on the writing, mostly. There was a transition where you kept on working on the screenplay, and I started to figure out more about how we were going to shoot things.
Charlotte Vandermeersch: I also come from theater and I like to work with text and language. We were learning the language together. There was a lot to integrate at a certain point: moving to Italy, getting to know people, the places. How are we going to do this? The actors and the language, adapting everything from English. First there was a Dutch script and an English script and then an Italian script, but we really understood during this process how important it was. We wrote a very detailed Dutch script, so you want the translation to be exact, and after a while you don’t want it to feel like a translation anymore. It should just be Italian and we should just connect with that totally. And we did. And it was a big project. I always kept close to the script when we rewrote things after rehearsals or preparing for Nepal or for the autumn and the winter shoots. Because we had a lot of blocks, we could look at work that we had done and then reassess stuff, so rewrite stuff.
Felix is a big organizer. We had some problems with losing first assistants, hiking in the mountains and then falling and losing them to an accident––not dying, but a bad accident––so actually it was a very challenging shoot logistically. Plan A, Plan B. Every shooting day it was like, “If we have good weather and if we can get there and this actor will be there, then then we can do this day. And if not, it’s this.” So it was just a big puzzle and I was overwhelmed by all that. And I kept close to, like, the story. And then Felix was together with Ruben Impens, the DOP––they’ve worked together for over 20 years. We didn’t use a lot of lighting. So the natural light was always super-important.
So I saw them making crazy plans, like, “How can we get to this location at this time? We need this much time. Then we need to go there because the sun will move there.” There’s this huge puzzle and they did that. I can say that because I witnessed this for the first time. I only then realized how important it is; the timing of filming things makes everything different. These were a bit of our different qualities coming together and then just directing a scene together––we truly did it together. Sometimes I would take the lead more because you were checking your watch to make sure the timing was right [for the light]. It was a very organic thing. We would always talk after we shot a scene or a take, just talk to each other. And then one of us would go talk to the actors.
I had an interesting experience watching this. My dad actually passed away earlier this year at the age of 62, the same as Pietro’s dad in the film. At his funeral, I reconnected with a childhood friend that I hadn’t seen in like 15 or 20 years. So after watching the movie, I was amazed at how well you nailed the moment of reconnection and the emotional tenor of how there are many feelings and emotions that are left unsaid. In the process of developing the movie, did you pull from personal experience? How did you calibrate the actors’ performances? And have you been surprised at how many people relate to the film in this way?
Felix van Groeningen: I’m sorry for your loss. We actually both lost our dads at 60, 61. It’s been a while now for us, like 10 [for Charlotte] and for my father almost 20 years. It certainly is one of the reasons why we wanted to make this film. When Charlotte first read the book, I read it for the second time, and then Charlotte was reading out-loud towards the last chapters and we both cried so hard together. It really was like the core of why it made sense that we did this together. It was very beautiful. On the one hand, we stayed very close to the book. On the other hand, it’s––for a lot of reasons––a very personal story. The loss of the father, dealing with loss, going back and forth from the city to the mountains or to a remote place. And I’m talking for myself––that’s something I know very, very well. I always went to a place in France. I have a personal Bruno there. He was someone who is very important for me because he grounds me. He sees true of me. I’ve had moments with him where I feel like cannot really help him. And I see him suffering. And it’s also really hard. There’s really a lot that’s super-personal. And that’s why I think we were able to go deep in that, to make it pure, to make it work.
Charlotte Vandermeersch: And our actors, they go back. They are friends. They shared a very beautiful filming experience shooting Don’t Be Bad, which is an Italian movie. It’s like a cult movie because this director [Claudio Caligari] then died, but they were really looking for a next project together and they wanted the right project. They did that as really young men and now they have matured. It was like a beautiful moment of reconnection for them. I think they understood really well what this moment in the film also needed. We didn’t need to talk about those things a lot with them. It was understood.
Felix van Groeningen: And the last part of your question, we’ve been––maybe I’m exaggerating––really overwhelmed, but also not. We’ve just gotten extremely beautiful messages from people.
Charlotte Vandermeersch: It’s my first film, so for me it was really like “Wow, I don’t know if you’ve had this always.” I have no comparison.
Felix van Groeningen: We had it with Broken Circle [Breakdown], but this film, too, has that quality where it really makes people vulnerable and makes them want to reconnect or be open with their loved ones. Go out into nature.
Charlotte Vandermeersch: I heard a few times, “I was planning to go to this birthday party after the film, but then I just went home and looked out of the window,” or something. “I needed to be by myself and to think about things, just to sit with myself.”
What you’re kind of talking about is almost a spiritual or transcendent moment people have watching it. I think a lot of it has to do with the editing and this pace you’re able to set in the movie. I feel like if it was cut any quicker or if you were just trying to get to the next scene, you wouldn’t have that space for the audience to reflect with the characters and what they’re going through. What was that editing process like?
Felix van Groeningen: Well, we struggled quite a bit, but not in an obvious sense. Because the middle part and the ending were always working. But we got a lot of notes and pressure to make the film shorter, and at some point it was longer. We kept hearing, “We need to go down, we need to go down,” from different sides, angles. We always said “Okay, we’ll try, but we really want to give the movie the time.” And this was not only in the editing, but it was throughout the whole process actually. [Laughs] It always kept coming back, and of course for budget reasons: the longer the movie is, the more expensive it is, and you want to get it made and it’s in the mountains. And it did help us in the process to boil things down and to make it work in a sometimes simpler way. But we sort of always hit a limit where we were like––
Charlotte Vandermeersch: It cannot be faster than this. We were in shock when we cut some stuff.
Felix van Groeningen: But sometimes it did work and we’re in agreement. We did have a cut that was 15 minutes longer and that we liked as much.
Charlotte Vandermeersch: It was a good film, 15 minutes longer. But it’s still a good film when you cut these 15 minutes. That’s what we realized. We were a bit afraid, of course. You work like crazy nutcases and then you show it to the world and we’re doubting our choices. Was it too brutal in the end? Have we succumbed to the pressure? Or did we do sensible things? We never touched it again. We just left it at that because… because it worked.
Felix van Groeningen: Yeah, it does work. Although what is really weird is that every review talks about the length. Sometimes it’s mentioned that it does feel lengthy, whereas when we did screenings with a cut that was longer, it was never mentioned. [Laughs]
Charlotte Vandermeersch: So that’s a weird thing.
Felix van Groeningen: Yeah, it is a mind mindfuck in a sense because when you start quicker, it does feel lengthier.
Charlotte Vandermeersch: It’s subjective.
Felix van Groeningen: With my first films, when the edit was done, I was always very scared to let the movie go, but always very clear, like, “This is the movie, this is what it was always supposed to be.” And the last three films I did doubt more. I keep on doubting, and I know that there are different versions possible and that it all depends on chance or luck or what your feeling is towards the end of the editing process, which is weird. It’s hard to let go after working two-and-a-half years on something and you want to control everything. But at some point you don’t see it anymore. But to end on a more positive note, from the beginning on in the edit, we felt giving scenes with the adults time, that it was right. You were there with them. We didn’t change a lot in the pacing compared to how it was played on set. So it felt very true. Although mostly in my films, that is not the case, but here with the actors we read the whole script through quite a bunch of times and we found this spacing that worked for all the scenes and to give it time to play it out, to be there with them. So it was more of taking other things out and then cutting within the existing scenes.
Got it. I think it hits a perfect rhythm to feel like you are involved in the emotional journey. Lastly: I was wondering if there were any visual inspirations you looked to during development?
Felix van Groeningen: Well, the [4:3] aspect ratio defined everything, and that was inspired by the cinematography of Ida and Cold War.
Charlotte Vandermeersch: Yeah, we really love that.
Felix van Groeningen: Just the deliberate framing and the compositions, and it happened because we realized all of a sudden that mountains worked really well in that frame because they are vertical and what you don’t see left and right, you don’t miss it. It creates a mystery. And we had just more freedom. Other than that, we did watch Into the Wild closely and Brokeback Mountain. So we had a couple of references and then the movie found its own voice. Another movie that we rewatched closely a couple of times was The Return by Andrey Zvyagintsev.
The Eight Mountains opens in limited release on April 28 and will expand.