Belgian film director on working with Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini
Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam may not be a household name just yet, but with his new film The Drop, starring Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and the late James Gandolfini, he is winning over movie fans and critics alike. So it’s probably time to get to know him.
The Drop was adapted from a short novel by Dennis Lehane (called Animal Rescue) and tells the story of Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) who finds himself at the centre of a robbery and entwined in an investigation that delves into the neighbourhood’s gangster underbelly. We caught up with Roskam at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where the movie was screened for the first time in the UAE.
How did the film go down at the festival? I think it went well. I only heard feedback from people who liked it, the guys who didn’t probably snuck out of the cinema halfway through!
It was adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote Shutter Island. Did you feel any pressure handling his work? For the first time Lehane has adapted his own story into a screenplay. Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone were all his novels but were adapted by other screenwriters. But this one was a short. He calls it a failed novel because he always meant for it to be [longer], but ten years ago it didn’t work out. It showed great potential to be turned into a movie, though. It was actually perfect. I read the script and I loved it, I wish had written it myself. That’s the only reason I would do something, if it makes me feel that way. I met Lehane and he said, ‘This is my story. I wrote the script, but it’s your film, good luck. Call me when you need me.’ He was really generous, very open and didn’t pressure me at all. I had a lot of freedom to mould the story into my personal universe, where it fitted pretty easily, but you have to shape it a little bit.
You have an amazing cast – Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini and Noomi Rapace – were they your first choices? It was exactly my first pick of all of them. It has been the easiest movie to cast in the past ten years in Hollywood. I knew I wanted Noomi, Tom and Jim, and they all said yes right away, so that was lucky.
What was it like working with James Gandolfini, especially as this is his last film? It was great. First and foremost, he was a professional. A great talent and a great actor with a wonderful track record. I was a fan, and I still am. What was very inspiring to see was that he was a man with so much experience but who never relied on it. He would come to the set as if it was his first-ever part and be as vulnerable as any young actor. He would have his own doubts about the character, picking my brain on lots of things. He was very eager to give a great performance. He was so into it, you can tell he just loved what he was doing. It’s scary being an actor, but that’s when they’re at their best. As a director you have to respect that fear. He was a very funny man. He had a very cheeky sense of humour, we laughed a lot.
Was he easy to direct? Yes. You don’t have direct those guys. It’s all about having conversations and building the character. You don’t have to tell these guys to look a bit to the left. They’re real artists, they know what they’re doing.
Tom Hardy has a reputation for being a bit intense. Was he well behaved with you? Where did you get that? Who told you that? He’s the sweetest guy in the world! No, he is actually [a little intense]. He’s a very sweet guy, but he’s tough on himself and that makes him tough on the others when he’s working. He’s just raw talent, he’s like those great men with great capabilities and that come with a lot of energy. It can be deep love, deep fear, anger or sadness, but he feels it and he’ll make you feel it too. As a director you respect his way of working, and I can imagine some people can’t deal with it and consider it difficult. It can be sometimes, but I’m challenging for him as well – it was a journey. During production we became good friends and we still are and we’ll work together again one day.
Did you have to do much research into the mob and underground gangster cultures? This is a social phenomenon and of course a criminal thing, but gangs develop when there’s no law, so another law is applied by different forces. Gangster culture has been portrayed many times. We went to Brooklyn. The most important thing was to portray the real world. Lots of scenes take place in a bar, which is based on a few existing blue collar dive bars in the area. But by scouting the bar, you end up on an anthropological expedition, seeing the people who live there and you talk to them, you discover a lot. After six weeks you have a good idea of how the neighbourhood looks and feels.
You were linked with The Tiger, starring Brad Pitt. What’s happening with that? It’s an old project I was attached to developing, but it’s a hard one. Many other directors have tried, and not failed as such, but it’s a tough one. Everyone believes in it but sometimes a project has its moment and sometimes it hasn’t. In this case, we had a thing that was just very difficult to do.
So what’s next for you? More movies. I’m writing a TV film for HBO, which is still in development. I’m still not sure if it’s going to happen, we’ll see.
With The Drop released, and with a big-name cast, do you think the film will open new doors for you? I hope so. Every time you make a movie doors open and some close. When they open you have to think twice – will you walk in or not? The Drop is out in cinemas across the UAE from Thursday November 13.