Nicole van Kilsdonk


“Het blijft betoverend, als je film af is om dan samen met die hele ploeg met wie je zo hard gewerkt hebt en van wie je veel eiste, op het grote doek in het donker je film te zien...”

We spoke with Nicole van Kilsdonk about the enchantment of a dark movie theater, the traveling circus during the filming of a movie, and Happy Palace, her new telefilm about a disappearing cultural phenomenon: the Chinese-Indonesian Takeaway Restaurant.

Step by step with Nicole van Kilsdonk "It remains enchanting, when your film is finished, to see it together with the whole team you've worked so hard with and demanded so much from, on the big screen in the dark..." After finishing journalism school, Nicole van Kilsdonk made the transition to the Film Academy. Seeking more depth, she found it there, as a director. Film had always been magic to her. She loves the traveling circus during the filming of a movie. After a few months of just writing scripts, she slowly transformed into one of those loners. It's amazing to then walk onto the set at 6:00 in the morning with a great crew to create a story together. How did you end up at the Film Academy after Journalism School? "Since high school, I wanted that, but I didn't know anyone working in film, and I didn't really know anything about it. Film and the cinema just enchanted me. Every year, I requested the application form again, but I still felt too young for it. Furthermore, I loved writing. I made the local newspaper for the village, which we then stenciled and distributed ourselves. And I wrote plays for the local theater. Out of idealism, I later studied journalism. I really believed that I could improve the world with it. But I found the program superficial. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking that you could also make documentaries for television. I wanted to continue studying anyway. At the Journalism School, I learned the practical side, but I missed a kind of depth and self-reflection. What do you actually become as a journalist? I had made documentaries as my final exam. So now I had material to show at the Film Academy admission." Did you feel at home right away? "I felt more mature to apply because I had also interned at television news programs. But at the same time, I was still very inexperienced. I saw a lot of things: the egos and the sluggishness of television journalists. I had read a lot about documentaries and background stories. I also had a weakness for fiction, although I didn't know much about it. At that time, you could still choose two specializations. So I chose documentary and fiction. The screenplay department had yet to be started. I alternated between documentaries and fictional stories, but I leaned more and more towards fiction." Where does your heart lie, in documentaries or fiction? "What's difficult about documentary filmmaking is that you often intrude into people's lives with a camera. Someone takes a walk, and then either the lighting was wrong or not sharp, and then you have to ask them to repeat that walk upon arrival... While I often thought - you're not an actor (while you can just ask an actor to do that), this is just your life. You're always present in someone's life, and I often felt burdened by that. As a consumer, I definitely love documentaries, but the fact is that as a director, I prefer making fiction with people who choose to be on camera and be directed. That working process, with a 'small crew no frills': filming like that, I still really like, with the agility of a small documentary crew." What do you consider most important (as a director)? "Ultimately, the art as a director is being able to let go of all the practical matters and bring back creativity. There are directors who just have a mindset of 'yes, it's 6:00 pm, I don't care, we're going on!' I can't do that because of my too strong sense of responsibility. But sometimes I wish I could. Because then it's just not good enough yet. I just see very well what the issues are, and I really see it as a team effort. Sometimes it can take over you - that you don't even dare to suggest something that you know there's no money for. That's a bit of a balancing act. Furthermore, I really love working with actors, what they can add to what's on paper." What have you done with FIXY? "Happy Palace, a telefilm. A film where I discovered a whole new group of actors again. Every film is something you have to reinvent completely - despite years of experience. That's why I keep doing it. I had been working on the story for Happy Palace for a while. It actually started with another project about all the city centers in the Netherlands that are so similar: with the Chinese takeaway, the drugstore, and the department store. I wanted to portray that in a film. Along the way, I thought those Chinese takeaway restaurants, they're all disappearing. While the Chinese-Indonesian restaurant really belongs to the Netherlands. How can you capture that in a story? I spent a long time puzzling over that... Then I decided to do some research around the corner in the Jan Evertsenstraat. As I did the research, I became certain: this is a good story." How did you approach it? "I realized that I only knew the story from the outside, the Dutch side. What do we really know about it? We know it from people watching Studio Sport with a Chinese takeaway on their lap. And that in every village, there was a Chinese takeaway. At Doxy Fixy, I talked to Janneke, and we quickly came to the conclusion that someone from the Chinese community needed to be involved. Otherwise, it remains made from the outside. A photo book about all those Chinese restaurants came out, and it received a lot of publicity. But it was always Dutch people talking about those Chinese restaurants and their childhood memories, but it was never the Chinese Dutch who spoke. Then we still know nothing, while there are so many stories behind it. So I started talking to a lot of Chinese Dutch people. Restaurant owners but also people from the Chinese culture." So you collaborated with Chinese Dutch people? "Indeed. Yan Ting Yuen joined fairly quickly afterward - screenwriter and documentary filmmaker. First, we had a lot of conversations. How do you ensure as a white Dutch person that you strike the right tone? We also agreed to really try on all fronts, such as also in the crew, to ask Asian Dutch people, so that we avoid using stereotypes and that we really do it together. And that succeeded. In the conversations, we also mentioned that we were just going to make a movie and not think every time someone said something - oh, can I say this? Let's agree that if things aren't right - we'll speak up. That worked out really well. Everyone was very open to it. Of course, there are sensitivities, and if you can't talk about them... that doesn't work, you have to name things. That was very nice about the whole process." What would you like to change in the film industry? "In the end, we had to shoot this film in 20 days. That's really very little. So it's nice to also work with experienced people in a well-oiled machine. The fact that it has to be so fast is a financial matter. Such a film just has a certain budget. You know it in advance. Also, that it actually can't be done with that budget. I find that very complicated too because there's a lot of talk about fair practice. That, of course, involves all sorts of things like gender, color, and whatnot, but fair practice also means, as far as I'm concerned, that everyone gets paid normally. Some people, like such an art department, work so insanely hard. I've also done all sorts of low-budget things. But at some point, you don't want to ask people for a pittance anymore. I often think about all sorts of things that need to be organized: let film people do it. They're used to working super efficiently with very little money; everyone is on time, and everything is well-organized." Was this the first time you worked with FIXY? "I actually knew Janneke for a long time, from when she was still at Egmond and at KeyFilm. We chatted in the hallways. Also with Annemarie. Janneke once said come for coffee. Somehow it seemed like we had known each other for a long time, and I am now super grateful that they saw potential in Happy Palace. The whole process with this producer also went well; with the casting and the crew, and a nice balance between getting involved and not getting involved. Now I'm working with them on another project." How does a film start for you? "Most of the films I make start with me. Then I have an idea, and I think; I need a writer or a producer for this. Sometimes I'm just asked, like now for that series where they were looking for a second director. Many producers, like FIXY, also initiate their own projects, like buying the rights to a book. When Happy Palace as a series came to a standstill, we all went out to dinner. I appreciate that in them as producers; that care. And they ultimately made sure that Happy Palace still became a telefilm. Financing is always difficult. My next film, Noodweer, is already in a very advanced stage. Yet it still needs steps to be resubmitted. Steps that sometimes take endlessly, risking losing momentum. Before you can resubmit, you're six months further." What film do you want to make now? "Noodweer is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Marijke Schermer. The story is about the life path of a forty-year-old woman, which slowly becomes slippery and dangerous. It's a sharp and ruthless portrait of a woman who gets entangled in good intentions, and it revolves around the question of whether you need to know everything about each other in life to be intimate. We have very high expectations for this film, and we are happy with the script. We also participated in an English-American Script Lab, and they were very enthusiastic." Is this your job or your passion? "I find 'passion' such a worn-out word. But this work is my essence. I think about it quite often and have many conversations about it. Because indeed: how long can you keep going? Because of the uncertainty and the hassle with money, I sometimes find it quite heavy. Because it's always too little, what you have to make something for, and so you always have to beg. No, sometimes I really get annoyed by that. But then when I start shooting again and get to tell stories that I want to tell and edit... That's all so fun and varied, and then it's just a luxury. Every film teaches you new things." So you're not retiring yet? "Filming is something very fundamental for me, so I think I'll keep doing it, maybe at a slightly slower pace. But I also realize that I'm now at an age where I no longer belong to 'Young and Emerging Talent.' That's really a thing in the Netherlands (a little complaining is allowed, right?). When you look abroad, experience and age are much more respected and appreciated. And I'm not just talking about directors but also about cameramen or many other positions in the film industry. Then you finally have that experience that you think well, now I dare to call myself this, and then it has to be young and emerging talent again. Of course, youngsters need to gain experience. For Happy Palace, we had a very nice mix in the crew. Some people are hot for a while. And then not anymore, while as a cameraman, for example, you can only get better." Can you say something about your style? Is there a Nicole van Kilsdonk signature? "I am really a step-by-step person. Within my family, I was always a withdrawn child, with a fear of thresholds and fear of failure. But still, ultimately at my own pace, I always progressed. Now that I'm where I am, my parents are quite surprised. They never expected that it would be me of the four children to do this. I just have to tackle things at my own pace. Many times, my films deal with serious topics, but I always try to approach them in a somewhat lighthearted way. Lightness is my middle name, yes maybe that's my signature. I also love that whole traveling circus with such a film crew. When your film is finally done, then you go into editing. Everything comes together in that, and I find that really special."

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