For Racer and the Jailbird, the new film from Bullhead director Michaël R. Roskam, Savage Film’s Bart Van Langendonck has managed to unite all sections of the Belgian film world in one adventurous funding package.

Is Bart Van Langendonck a superstitious person? You could be forgiven for thinking so. When Bullhead, the film he produced for director Michaël R. Roskam, was having its first test screening in front of an invited audience, he somehow couldn’t be there. Same thing for Robin Pront’s directorial debut, The Ardennes, which was one of the most acclaimed Flemish films of last year. So this Christmas, with his biggest film yet booked for a test screening, Van Langendonck was taking no chances. “It turns out I’m never there for the big audience test screening,” he says over the phone from Costa Rica, where he has gone to pick up an award for the documentary The Land of the Enlightened. “But the other two both turned out to be successes, so let’s hope the same is true for this one.”

The Film Kept On Brewing

‘This one’ is Roskam’s third feature, the EUR 8-million Racer and the Jailbird, and Van Langendonck could be forgiven for taking a little R&R: the film took up most of last year and the result has been eagerly awaited, ever since Bullhead made it through to the nomination stage in the 2012 Academy Awards. That brought Roskam a lot of offers. He eventually went with Fox Searchlight, making his US debut with The Drop, a stylish Brooklyn-set thriller based on a story by cult crime writer Dennis Lehane. But, all the time, what would eventually become Racer and the Jailbird kept on brewing. “Michaël is very intrigued by stories that happen in Belgium,” says Van Langendonck, “and he’s very into gangster movies. He’s a big fan of Michael Mann, so he wanted to make his own gangster movie in Brussels. What is more, he and I were both intrigued by this gang in the 1980s in Belgium led by a very charismatic gangster called Patrick Haemers.”
The gangster milieu provides the background - as it does in Mann’s films - but at heart Racer is a tragic tale of the love between a fearless woman, Bibi Delhany, who races cars and is played by French star Adèle Exarchopoulos (she grabbed the world’s attention with Blue Is the Warmest Colour in 2013) and the charismatic but damaged gangster Gigi Vanoirbeek (Matthias Schoenaerts).

Michaël is very into gangster movies. He’s a big fan of Michael Mann

Bart Van Langendonck
Racer and the Jailbird © Savage Film

Putting the Bullhead Crew Back Together

“I consider Racer and the Jailbird to be the second part of my crime trilogy,” Roskam has said. “Each part is loosely based on a particular moment in Belgian criminal history. This time, I draw inspiration from the Haemers and de Staercke gangs and particularly the story of Murat Kaplan. However, it is a totally fictional tale of love and crime, of desire and failure. A love tragedy, or better, an ‘amour noir’ film.”
There is obviously a lot of ambition on the table here and, like all ambitious projects, Racer was a while in development. “Michaël always had an idea to make a Belgian film right after Bullhead,” says Van Langendonck. “We started thinking about a cycling movie, but then he got offered this deal by Fox Searchlight so he abandoned it. In the meantime, he came up with another project which marked the return of Matthias Schoenaerts, together with the DOP Nicolas Karakatsanis, the composer, the 1st AD… we really tried to put the crew from Bullhead back together.” Also back on board are such top Flemish professionals as steadicam operator Jo Vermaercke, production designer Geert Paredis, costume designer Kristin Van Passel and editor Alain Dessauvage.

Racer and the Jailbird © Savage Film

All six money sources

Putting the crew back together was one thing; however, funding the new film was another matter. Costing around four times as much as Bullhead, Racer and the Jailbird is a co-production between Belgium, the Netherlands and France. Most interestingly of all, it is the first film ever to tap into all six Belgian money sources, to which was added the money raised in France by Pierre-Ange Le Pogam of Stone Angels.
“It’s really a 50/50 co-production between France and Belgium,” explains Van Langendonck. “Michaël is a partner in Savage Film so it was only logical that we would collaborate on another film. Meanwhile, he had met with Pierre-Ange in France and he proposed to raise the financing for his next film. In the end, we did it together on a 50/50 basis, in which he brought in the French Canal +, Orange, Pathé and Wild Bunch for distribution and international sales; and we went to the funds and other local financiers.
“First, of course, we went to the VAF (the Flanders Audiovisual Fund); that’s the one you need if you want to get additional funding from the French-speaking cultural funds and from the Dutch cultural funds. That’s really the cornerstone of financing for a Flemish film. Then we went to Screen Flanders, Eurimages, Wallimages and then finally the new Screen Brussels. They came in just before we started shooting.”
The screenplay - by Roskam and French writers/directors Thomas Bidegain (Un prophète, Les cowboys) and Noé Debré (Les cowboys, Dheephan) - portrays a polyglot world where people slip naturally from one (Belgian) language to another, and that certainly smoothed the production’s path through the funding process.
Things went less smoothly with the weather. “It was a 60-day shoot,” says Van Langendonck, “and the idea was to have nice spring weather. But it was just horrible… the worst spring ever!”