How could anyone resist a feel-good family film, that leaves you tingling with joy and encourages meaningful conversations between parents and children about the complexities of life. Award winning director of children’s content, Steven Wouterlood’s first feature film, My Extraordinary Summer With Tess, explores young love, and confronts a spectrum of fears encompassing loneliness, death and parenthood.
The Dutch film, which was dubbed in German for its world premiere at the Berlinale, is based on an award winning Dutch novel by Anna Woltz. The script is injected with mounds of hope, and resonateswith the adventurous, curious and sensitive child in all of us. We had a chance to chat with Wouterlood in Berlin about celebrating his feature film debut with this sweet film, on working with talented child actors, his fear of death and fellow directors he admires. The film will make its North American premiere at the New York International Children’s Film Fest next!
LRM: How was the World Premiere of the film here in Berlin, and why did you guys choose to premiere it here?
Steven Wouterlood: I think for family movies, Berlin is the best place, I’ve heard, to have the premiere. So it’s the best podium, the best stage, to show our movie to the world.
So it was our mission, or our dream, our wish to get to do better now and was also our schedule, our production process. Well we tried to submit the film on time, that was a challenge because we shot this last summer, and now we are here.
Two weeks ago, we finished the DCP Track. We are just finished, but the premiere was amazing. It was a packed cinema with more than seven hundred and fifty people, and we have like thirty people in our crew and cast, also the two main actors, the two children in their most beautiful suits and the response was…it was great. People were clapping and standing up at the end and above expectations.
LRM: It’s a very feel-good film and it’s heart-warming, so I could see that.
Steven Wouterlood: Yeah and people were also saying, “ugh I have to cry.” And people come to me, “I have to cry three times.” And maybe there are also people who don’t like the film, but I’m very happy with the results.
LRM: Was it equally a younger audience or was it a mixed audience?
Steven Wouterlood: It was mixed but there were also a lot of children. It was a bit weird for me with the German live voice over. There were English subtitles and you hear a bit more softly the Dutch language and then you hear someone doing the German voice over so for me that’s not an ideal situation but of course it works here for the children.
LRM: This was your first big feature film. How did this script find you?
Steven Wouterlood: It was based on the book; ‘Mijn Bijzonder Rare Week Met Tess’ or in German; ‘Mein Wunderbares Sommer Mit Tess.’
It’s a very popular book. It’s a beautiful story and four years ago my Aunt; so the sister of my Mother; she recommended this book because me and the producer; Joram Willink we felt like I’m ready for my next step, my first feature film and maybe based on a children’s book. So I asked her; she’s a writer; my Aunt and she came up with this book because she knows me very well and well I fell in love with the story and I think it’s a beautiful mix of excitement and humor and emotions and I can identify myself a lot with Sam and the way he thinks about life and death. Well, he is afraid of death and that’s also what I had since I was young. The same thoughts and I like the tone in the story so there are serious topics; confronting moments with a lighter voice and so I fell in love with the story and it was my wish and also the producer thought it was the perfect fit and well I was part of the development of the script from the early beginning and we worked with a script writer; Laura Van Dijk.
LRM: And what would your advice be to other kids to get over that fear of death? How did you get over your fear?
Steven Wouterlood: I’m still not over my fear I would say but I think cherish the moments without it, that’s one of our messages in the movie and I think that’s true that you have to grab life and to make the possible beautiful moments with others and maybe I’m also making films to express myself and to inspire others and well, it sounds depressing because I am still not over this…it’s a difficult topic but I think it’s good that people talk about it or see that they aren’t the only one with those thoughts.
LRM: I thought the ‘Aloneness Training’ was clever and sweet.
Steven Wouterlood: Yeah, well we made it bigger in our script and the words ‘Aloneness Training’ we added that word.
LRM: Can you talk a bit about working with kids and you got into directing and working with them?
Steven Wouterlood: Yeah, I think it came in a natural, organic process since I was in the film school. Sometimes I write coming of age stories or the point of view of an up growing child and the transition from child to adult. It fascinates me and so it’s these kinds of stories that are fascinating me and also I experience that working with children; I really like to work with children. it’s like natural maybe talent or I get energy off them and always find the right balance between being serious but also making fun and be crazy and wild and for this film; they were 13 and 14 in real life and they really like acting and they’re doing acting school.
it’s different than when you are doing a film with a kid of seven years old and you have to make them feel comfortable always but they have to copy everything and here they could sometimes act the scene on the beach; where they are sitting together, long dialogue but they could do it over and over again and for three minutes; one take and every take you could choose. So these were two fantastic kids I think.
LRM: Yeah, both were great actors, but Sam was incredible.
Steven Wouterlood: He’s very open to show his emotions and a very sensitive boy. He’s not afraid of acting and showing different emotions and it’s also important to have the right team, to have a good atmosphere on-set for me is very important and the casting process…I’m working together with a good casting director in the Netherlands. So it’s also her.
LRM: Do you find it’s easier to direct kids?
Steven Wouterlood: Maybe, yeah. A lot of people ask me, “Oh, isn’t that difficult to work with kids?” But I think sometimes it is but sometimes adult actors are more intimidated by other actors with their experience and techniques and I also like to work with them and I also like to develop or make movies also for adults but I like this more open…well I like to work with kids…
LRM: It keeps you young too, I’m sure?
Steven Wouterlood: That’s true.
LRM: Do you have any other genre of films in the works?
Steven Wouterlood: Yeah, I think there’s ideas or plans for new movies and maybe for a bit of older coming of age kind of genre; like ‘Fish Tank.’ it’s one of my favorites and maybe also more adult movies and sometimes projects come to me when people ask me for adult projects. I think I’m not fixed, I don’t make too childish movies so they can see that I also…i call it adult children movies that I make; they’re more for older children and adults too. So I would like to continue with this genre and also I’m open for adult projects.
Steven Wouterlood: Maybe, maybe later but I’m well as I said I like more closer to reality so when it’s too…horror or science fiction or…this is not my genre, no.
LRM: Are there any directors you admire or are inspired by?
Steven Wouterlood: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. He’s one of my favorites but it’s not about children or coming of age but this very realistic movies and also sometimes almost documentary style coming into different worlds like ‘Babel’ like American and all these different countries and working with people who never acted before and so I like this realism in this movies [inaudible 00:15:20] like ‘Babel’, ‘Amores Perros’, ’21 Grams’, ‘Biutiful’. Or ‘La Vida’, they are a beautiful movie. ‘The Florida Project’ last year was my favorite. I’m looking forward to his next film.
LRM: What is your best advice to directors that have never worked with children and how to best direct them?
Steven Wouterlood: I think it’s, well, making fun and make them feel comfortable. They trust you. I think that these are the two most important aspects. So, every actor is very…how do you say it…no. I think these are the two ingredients which are very important and also I’m working with a children coach and she’s taking care of the kids also; to take them off set or when I am talking with the camera and when the other crew…she’s telling what’s coming next and try to get these emotions so it’s very important to care and to have a lot of fun I think.
LRM: Are there any children’s labor restrictions in the Netherlands?
Steven Wouterlood: So that’s the hard thing. it’s becoming more and more strict.
LRM: I hear there has been some criticisms about not elaborating on Tess’s story a bit more.
Steven Wouterlood: Yeah, yesterday there was a screenwriter I worked with before and she said, “Oh yeah, you would need to extend this moment and then he runs away.” So she had same opinion like this is a missed chance but I didn’t want to switch to her point of view or something and I still love the scene when he’s running away and crying and in his mind it’s totally a disaster and then she comes…well I don’t want to spoil so much but I love this scene but I can imagine that it could be altered differently.