Berlinale Exclusive Interview With Paradise Drifters Director Mees Peinenburg

It’s a cold and uncaring world for so many teenagers (and adults), living in poverty and alone in the streets. Written and directed by Mees Peinenburg, Paradise Drifters is a gritty and sobering story about three teens whose lives intertwine, as each is running away from the harsh realities of life. With no-one else to turn to, they eventually go on a road trip and develop attachments to one another. Somewhere in the middle of the bleakness, is a glimmer of hope and perhaps, some unexpected liberation.

LRM had a chance to meet the pleasant, young director last week during Berlinale to talk about this serious topic of homelessness, which has become a growing epidemic worldwide. See what Mees had to say about his provocative cast, riveting cinematography, cool soundtrack and what he hopes to accomplish with his directing career. I bet Paradise Drifters will be the mark of many more features for the talented director.

LRM: Let’s talk about the conception of the story and why this subject interests you. 

Mees Peijnenburg: I made a film before this one, about two kids being raised in youth care. Jumping from foster home, to foster parents, to youth prison under the wings of the government, under the wings of society, under the wings of institutions. While I was finishing the film, I was thinking which film I want to make my debut with afterwards. So many interesting and beautiful stories came across doing the research of that film. So those kids kept coming back to my mind while I was thinking about my debut feature, so I was so intrigued by the fight for a better life, even though all ingredients for a rotten future were present. I was thinking of what happens if there is no back drop anymore, when there’s no youth care, when you turn 18 on that list, you’re being literally dropped on the streets.

LRM: What happens then? Is there no continued help from the government?

Mees Peijnenburg: It is a self choice most of the time because you are done with care, but still when I was 18 I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t do it when I was 18 , reckless, young and completely in a different state of mind than I am now, as I’m 30, self relied, know how to make a living. But, when you’re 18, you’re really pure, really fragile.  I was researching further through other very different stories and worlds and I started to develop that further and I was seeing everything that is of interest to me in my life now. The quest for love, the quest for tenderness, the quest for a family, the quest for people around you because I can’t live life by myself and I don’t want to. I really do need people around me, so that quest was the main core of the conception of everything. This fight for a better future, fight for a better home, fight for a home in general. All of the things put at stake at the highest and intense levels.

LRM: Were any of these stories based on true stories?

Mees Peijnenburg: All of them.

LRM: Have you had any friends who have been through this type of experience?

Mees Peijnenburg: Not in my nearest group of friends, but I met during research so many youngsters who lived these lives. It is not a documentary, so it is inspired by true events. So many people opened up to me with their narratives, with their lives.

LRM: What do you think it says about the social realism of youth and homelessness? In L.A. and many other parts of the US for example, it’s an epidemic.

Mees Peijnenburg: I see this as well in L.A. when I’m there. I see this everywhere. I see this in Paris, I see it in Berlin up here, I see it in London. I see it in so many places. People in quest, people in struggle. I don’t know if it says something specific or says something at al. I don’t know how to state it. I think we’re all in search. At least, life doesn’t come for granted for anyone. It’s a harsh reality to be confronted with that level. It’s heartbreaking most of the time.

Paradise Drifters LRM Interview

LRM: It’s a very important topic. Have you thought about using the film for social development and helping the voiceless?

Mees Peijnenburg: Totally, we are in conversation with a lot of institutions about it and I would love to use this film as a platform for a lot of people to share their narrative. To find solace in any sense. It’s difficult because I don’t have a political background. I don’t feel the urge to make statements on that level. I want to raise questions, which are very difficult to answer most of the time because it’s such a huge topic. There are so many levels, there are so many struggles, there are so many people in quest.

LRM: Let’s talk about your direction and your involvement in the cinematography. I really loved the vibrant, edgy look and feel of the film. 

Mees Peijnenburg: Yeah, the grittiness. I have a really close relationship with my cinematographer, whom I’ve been working with for several years already. We talk a lot, we share an enormous amount of focus with each other. How each scene should look, how the feel of it is. This is a really inspiring phase because you really shape the aesthetics and then the next round comes with how you do the picture with the sounds. It’s one big fluid dance between all these departments. I’m very much involved.

Related: Berlinale Exclusive Interview With Wildland Director Jeanette Nordahl and Screenwriter Ingeborg Topsøe

LRM: The soundtrack was really nice as well. How soon do you bring the music into the mix?

Mees Peijnenburg: Quite early, but not definite because music is so dominant easily and it’s also an easy hideaway. If you go too much into this poetry of music, poetry of tonality, you can easily hide stuff with music. I find it very interesting when you get emotion from it or when you engage in the story through subtle tones, and that’s all in the edit. Beforehand, we knew this one hip-hop track, which is a New York artist, which I really admire. He was there from a very early stage on. I hoped it would work, you never really know if it really works until you see it in the end.

LRM: It worked! I loved the tracks. There were also a lot of silent moments in the film, with tight shots of the character’s expressions. Did you have to guide your actors through those moments to speak through body language? What was your process in capturing those moments?

Mees Peijnenburg: I really enjoy these moments because as we start off with doing research together with my actors and then we’re shaping the characters. I gave them assignments to write letters to themselves, but mainly how do you walk? How do you sit? It shouldn’t be a whole posture or anything, but it’s more in the details. They bite or do this with your nails in certain stress moments or all these small moments and that creates simple mindsets. How do you walk into the room when you are in fear? That’s my rehearsal stage. I don’t rehearse the scenes, I rehearse behavior and that’s eventually what we rely on when we are shooting. For instance, “You just heard this, do you remember when we did this one?” It can be a completely different direction just to get into that atmosphere because we shoot so elliptically to everything that we’re shooting, so we have this core of who the character is that I’m in and who am I with this character? It’s a personal note to it as well and I really enjoy their personal input.

LRM: Is there a lot of improvisation?

Mees Peijnenburg: Of course, yeah! I really enjoy that. There’s a great chance that they have a better idea than I have. So if they come across it, it’s a group process. The cinematographer is just going to say, “You know what, I think you should maybe try it one time and then do it like this, and I will be here and then let’s see what happens”. At least that’s how I really enjoyed this group process involvement of everybody.

Paradise Drifters LRM Interview

LRM: How long did it take for you to cast the film? Was the selection process a tough one for you?

Mees Peijnenburg: It wasn’t really a tough one, it was a precious one because eventually they are the backdrop of the film. They are the film in its core. For instance, the girl which we were casting, we saw a numerous amount of girls. Then I came home one day after casting and my girlfriend, who is an actress, was watching a television show, a reality show. She said “You should ask that girl”. Just for an audition, and I said, “Yeah, why not?”.

Yeah, eventually we asked her (Tamar Van Waning) and she came on the audition and she had never acted before. She came into the room, I gave her one scene, really one classic thing to do and she was immediately in it. She blew everybody out of the room and that was the most revelational moment of “I think we found her”. Now let’s see, because she never acted before, how Jonas Smulders, her other lead character, who played Lorenzo, he’s been playing in many of my films, so I hope that their dynamic will be brilliant as well. He is an actor, he knows how the tricks are being set up and they matched, and they learned from each other. She learned from him how he did stuff and they became a real pact. It was a really inspiring way to see, it’s also how you cast your crew. It’s also a casting process. It’s all in the atmospheres, and energies that everybody feels at home to make mistakes.

LRM: What about the part of Yousef played by Bilal Wahib? He was also great!

Mees Peijnenburg: He is an actor, he is a shooting star now at the festival. He is a character because he has really A.D.D, so he is extremely energetic. He has been in my previous film as well before, so I needed this total introvert. I thought, okay, let’s ask him for a casting and the only thing he can do during the casting is sit.

He has to sit and he has to doubt on one thing he has to do. He was positioned there and he sat, and because of his energy, he wasn’t allowed by me to portray it, so everything came from internal. His whole fight for this became his inner fight, which was the best. His eyes started to fire something, and that was a really fun experience while shooting. So, when we stopped, he bursted all this energy.

LRM: What would be the most important thing for you to achieve as a director?

Mees Peijnenburg: On my path where I am now, I would love to get better and achieve a certain artistic language in cinema for a good audience. For instance, in the Netherlands, which I really hope to achieve, that art house gets a better and broader horizon instead of it being maintained into small artistic corners. The thing is, the biggest thing to achieve is I’ve got so many worlds I want to discover. I can’t imagine the numerous worlds I still want to dive in and crawl out afterwards.

I want to make, dive into new worlds, feel empowered by the people around me and get everybody emotionally attached to it.

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