(Image : Willy Vanderperre by Nicolas Karakatsanis)
I come from an upbringing where I struggled with the dichotomy that comes with spending one's childhood and early teenage years in a strict catholic school environment with mandated weekly church visits and all its accompanying subservient rituals, while on the other hand going home to the gritty and grey but proud and somehow boasting and free-feeling aesthetics of social housing. The latter is where I spent a lot of hours holed up in my room with my books and music (and the few magazines that were available in our small-ish town), watching my older brother hang out with his skater friends and observing the lanky and pale drugged-out neighbourhood boys with faded haircuts wearing shiny skinny necklaces circle around on souped-up mopeds, football scarves tied around mouth and chin.
I know now, this is why, some years later, in the late 90s, the fashion imagery of Willy Vanderperre because of its familiarity and authenticity, hit me like a ton of bricks. Not only was it painfully (because obviously there was a divide and perpetual feeling of guilt that I needed to come to terms with) while at the same time being most comfortably (there's more of us!) clear to me (and I was obviously projecting) that this genius photographer was thoroughly marked by his own upbringing and milieu and knew how to use all of this to his advantage. He also absolutely nailed the iconicity and beauty of the surroundings I, myself, knew and deeply cared for. He made the world of high fashion look. Period. He also made their high glam look kind of bad. But either way, Willy made them look at us.
About a week ago, I got invited to the world premiere of "Naked Heartland", the very first non-commissioned short film Willy Vanderperre wrote and directed. The London screening co-hosted by Dazed & Confused and AnOther Magazine co-founder and longtime Vanderperre enlister Jefferson Hack, was, as I wrote to Willy's office the next day, "a most gorgeous gut-punch".
It was agreed that I could send him a couple of questions via mail. I really wanted to speak to him, but I knew my best bet would be coming up with some hopefully triggering questions that he could not but want to answer, but would prove to be too long to go into via mail.
Almost immediately after sending my list of questions, Willy Vanderperre's most appreciated studio manager contacted me to see if I was free for "a conversation". Less than an hour later, my phone rings: "Hey Dominique. It's Willy. Let's talk."
Let me end this intro by stating that Willy Vanderperre has been making the most defining high fashion imagery of the last two decades and it doesn't look like he is slowing down any time soon. As is shown again and again in his continuing campaign work for Raf Simons, Dior Homme and all my favourite magazines (everything published by Dazed Media to 032C to name but a few), Vanderperre is a master in the art of singling out. Willy has a heart for the hardcore, a feel for the subtle fierceness that a 0,50-inch crucifix on a thin sterling silver necklace can evoke. But the best thing of all: Willy is not about to forget where he came from. And that's very hood to me.
Here's what we addressed.
KNOTORYUS: First of all: congratulations on ‘Naked Heartland’. I was truly moved by it. I’ve raved to my colleagues here at KNOTORYUS about how great it was and I hope they will get a chance to see it too. Thank you for letting me attend the premiere.
WILLY VANDERPERRE: Obviously it means a lot when people show up, so thank you. It’s great to hear that you enjoyed it. At the end of the day, that’s why we do it, to touch people. You know that, you do it with words, I do it with images and film. I’m glad the film stayed with you.
KNOTORYUS: During the interview with Jefferson Hack after the London screening, you talked about how Anders Breivik’s terrorist attack in 2011 on the island of Utøya had really struck a cord with you and sort of functioned as a starting point for this film. There are so many emotions surrounding such a dreadful event. I remember being really haunted by the fact that a lot of the teenagers involved were stuck not knowing whether they were going to live or die. After Breivik first started shooting, they ran and looked for cover, but were stuck and just had to await their fate. That really hit me. What was it that specifically got to you?
WILLY VANDERPERRE: The first thing was obviously the violence. Secondly, these kids were part of a political -socialist in this case- community who went all together on a retreat on an island. It was their reward for finishing high school. There is a certain freedom that goes with this kind of passing ritual, something to look forward to. You know, you’ve just graduated; you start to take control of your own life and can finally venture out. It’s like a celebration of what they had gone through as teenagers and now their future lay wide open. In that moment, these kids were full of life and all of that was taken from them. What really moved me is the fact that these kids didn’t get a voice. We keep remembering the name ‘Anders Breivik’, but we don’t remember the kids. It feels like they’re not important, even though more than a hundred were killed. Maybe we lost a huge talent that day. We will never know. Also, like you said, there was a sense of anticipation. You don't know what was happening. Maybe one of them had just loudly declared his love to someone, or maybe some of them were having sex, a fight. We will never know, but in that moment something really important was happening in those teenagers’ lives.
KNOTORYUS: Did you ever consider contacting one of the survivors? Or did that not factor into this film?
WILLY VANDERPERRE: I think that's very difficult. You could delve further into this but then your role as a writer and director changes.
I didn’t contact any of the survivors. Some things are just too delicate. As an outsider it will always come across like a hunt for sensation and I think that’s wrong. So I tried to word it differently, to make it more personal, I painted the idea of the impact it had on me, without having to violate anyone’s privacy or harassing them.
KNOTORYUS: The isolation of the kids in ‘Naked Heartland’, being in those late teenage years, is really beautifully pictured. There’s that ‘loner’ feeling, but to be a loner you don’t necessarily have to be lonely. I was wondering, how were you at that age? In your fashion images - however different and ever evolving they are - I feel as though you get ‘loners’ and have a real feel for them. Am I making any sense?
WILLY VANDERPERRE: I think that is really beautifully put. We did work around isolation because that’s the setting. We’ve set the story in the south of West-Flanders, because for some reason it is a really isolated region. On top of that we put the kids in their room, and in that room the isolation magnifies. You know, as a teenager your room is your sanctuary and it is your world, your safe place. I really like the word ‘loner’, because all these characters are. They are not afraid of solitude. They even embrace it, they just want to be loved and be alone. Yes, that ties into my own history, into my youth. I was exactly that: the oddball, the outsider. I was an outcast, because I was pretty flamboyant. I come from Menen, a very peculiar little city on the border of West-Flanders. There was a lot of violence, drugs around, crime around when I grew up as a teenager... It was really quite a dangerous little town I grew up in as a teenager. At that time, I was fully into self-exploration and self-development and it showed in my outfits, my hair and my music. I was never afraid to go out like that, it was just an honest expression of my personality.
KNOTORYUS: I also wanted to talk about the poignant phrases in between scenes. They could be like diary entries, or more like poetry maybe? There’s a kind of rhythm to them. And then they end with ‘I Love You’ and the dedication. How did you decide on that?
WILLY VANDERPERRE: I always refer to the film as a visual poem as the rhythm and the pacing of the scenes and sentences is important. Also, these kids are keeping a virtual diary. That could also include a Skype session for instance, their diary is about much more than them just talking to themselves. The computer screen or video camera they talk into is like a mirror: you talk to it but it’s also a reflection of yourself.
I used those sentences because they also function as a reflection. As a viewer, you are confronted with this and you automatically superimpose your own image on that black screen. I thought that was interesting. I didn’t really see those sentences as chapters. But like you said, they give a sort of rhythm to the film, a sense of orientation. There are short and longer segments. It’s like spoken word. I thought that was nice, I liked that rhythm. I didn't want to go for pompous phrases, though. They needed to be honest and contain a universal essence.
KNOTORYUS: Your actress, Line, was also in the audience Monday. You seemed really happy to see her. In the interview you did with Document you mentioned how amazed you were by her dedication to the role. I thought she was beautiful in this film, and it's where I need to shout out the styling and photography as well, for really nailing that quintessential Flemish catholic schoolgirl… My best friend from high school could have been her twin. So, it was super believable to me.
WILLY VANDERPERRE: What you expect from an actor is that there is a sort of ease, effortlessness. That what you are seeing is not acting. Line is someone who really digs deep. The tenderness she displayed in the film by doing very little. In the bedroom scenes, I had given the actors a lot of time, without a camera crew, so that those bedrooms could really become theirs. When the camera rolled Line then sat for ten minutes with her back turned to it. Eventually slightly turning her head, or picking up part of her blanket. It was so beautiful. She wasn’t preoccupied with being in the shot or looking good. She assumed the part, and that was it.
One of the other actors, Gilles Van Hecke, is a diamond in the rough that I had spotted in a short film. I worked on "Naked Heartland" for four years, but from day one it was clear to me that I wanted to cast Line and Gilles and I wished that Nicolas Karakatsanis would come on board as the Director of Photography. Gilles was not a trained actor, but he also really committed to his part and played it with the right emotions.
KNOTORYUS: Did you test with Gilles before you started filming? Did you do a photo shoot first?
WILLY VANDERPERRE: I contacted Gilles and had a sit-down with him. We read some lines together and that went really well. A couple of years ago Dazed asked me to work around the Belgian new wave…
KNOTORYUS: Yes, the issue with Matthias Schoenaerts and Veerle Baetens on separate covers.
WILLY VANDERPERRE: Exactly. Line was also in it, and Gilles too. So I shot him before and it grew from there.
KNOTORYUS: Can I just ask, when you contacted Gilles for the first time, did he know whom he was talking to?
WILLY VANDERPERRE: (Laughs) I don’t think so.
KNOTORYUS: So you had to introduce yourself a bit?
WILLY VANDERPERRE: Of course! I always do that. It would be a bit obnoxious if I didn’t.
KNOTORYUS: We need to talk about the dancing in the film. We called it ‘jumpen' where I'm from.
WILLY VANDERPERRE: Because that's exactly what it is called, Dominique.
KNOTORYUS: Oh, ok.
KNOTORYUS: The scene where the two boys are 'jumping' on the schoolyard while trading places is stunning -really one of my favourite moments in the film- and again, very authentic. Did Gilles and the other young actor, Nicolas Scheltens, know this type of dance?
WILLY VANDERPERRE: Oh no. Gilles knew the music genre, but I had him jump to one specific song the whole time, this jump anthem by DJ Coone. The poster that’s slightly lit in Gilles’ room, since I didn't use the song in the film, that's how I paid homage to DJ Coone and his music.
I had a real jumper work with them and he taught Gilles and Nicolas very basic moves. They jumped to that same song for one day. I didn't need them to be masters of jump, just kids doing it. It’s not the best jump style in the world, but that’s what makes it real. If it would have been too perfect, it would not have worked.
KNOTORYUS: The soundtrack is by Belgian doom/sludge phenomenon AMENRA. I would really like to know how and where, after commissioning them; you first heard what they made for you.
WILLY VANDERPERRE: I didn’t show them any images beforehand, because I knew they were perfect for this task. If you listen to their album Mass IIII from beginning to end, you will understand West-Flanders. That record moves me to the core. So I asked them to make a West-Flemish soundtrack. But to really ‘make it a soundtrack’. They didn’t have to make songs. When they were finished, they brought me this sublime music.
I prefer the soundtrack to be made without showing the images, otherwise the image is too synched with the music. Too perfect, which you already know I don't like. If you keep it separate, you can let the artists do their own thing. The music stands on its own.
KNOTORYUS: We need talk about the collaboration with Nicolas Karakatsanis, who I consider to be the best Director of Photography in the world. Even with everything he has accomplished, he is still pretty modest. A few years ago, when you first asked him to work on a Dior ad for the first time, he wondered out loud how you came to that decision. Two photographers on set, he called it ‘strange balances’. How do you feel about that?
WILLY VANDERPERRE: I’m a firm believer in collaborating, I really think it's the best thing in the world. We’re very similar in mind-sets. I don’t fully understand the technology and vocabulary that trained directors use. So I explain my intentions in my own words and Nicolas knows how to translate that really well. Maybe that’s because he shares the same sensitivity as I do. He wields the same susceptibility while at the same time having a different eye.
I find these moments where two collaborators give each other directives kind of magical. You both learn from that. To me it’s all about sensitivity. And Nicolas can translate this so well. He always understands where we are headed.
KNOTORYUS: Another thing that impressed me so much was the set design.
WILLY VANDERPERRE: Art Director Pepijn Van Looy from Tanker created these magical interiors.
In Gilles’ room you have all this dance stuff and Coone posters. But then Pepijn also added a little frame with a picture of a dog. And that really touched me. I hadn’t thought about that, but of course it's perfect because it reflects the fact that this character also still has that child in him. In between all the tough and cool stuff, he still needs that little picture. I think that’s so clever, and I’m really grateful to Pepijn for that.
KNOTORYUS: Your long-time partner and arguably the best stylist in the world, Olivier Rizzo styled this film. What was one of your favourite things that he added?
WILLY VANDERPERRE: Olivier is someone extremely sophisticated. We knew the film was revolving around high school kids wearing similar school uniforms. But then all the characters ended up wearing each a different little necklace. They might all be wearing a blue shirt and blue trousers, but everyone has their own special item. That makes it very personal and, again, so special to me.
KNOTORYUS: Two quick questions to finish. A lot of people want to see this short film, can you tell them where to go?
WILLY VANDERPERRE: There will be some screenings soon, like we did in London. There will be one in New York, and possibly Asia. Furthermore, the website is up: www.nakedheartland.com. At the moment there is a teaser on there, we’ll put up a trailer and at a certain point it will be fully uploaded. I think the website is the perfect medium, because that’s what we play into, the fact that everyone is transfixed by their computer.
KNOTORYUS: I agree. And what about the second part, because if I'm correct, you are making a trilogy.
WILLY VANDERPERRE: The second one is on the way, we’re in pre-production as we speak. The one after that, that’s a bit too early to say, but the second one is definitely coming.
KNOTORYUS: Thank you so much, Willy, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
WILLY VANDERPERRE: You too!
Look for the book:
published by IDEA.
Softcover. 128 pages.
20 x 25cm.
Edition of 300.
Sold at Dover Street Market London and New York, the Comme des Garçons Trading Museum in Paris and 10 Corso Como in Milan.
All images c/o Willy Vanderperre