Dark materials

Hans Herbots on adapting Mo Hayder's The Treatment for the big screen.

by Jennie Kermode

The Treatment
The Treatment

Premièred in the UK by Frightfest, released in cinemas early this year and now out on DVD, The Treatment is a Belgian crime thriller with a very dark core, exploring the subject of child abuse. Its hero, Nick (Geert Van Rampelberg), had a brother who was abducted when they were kids, and now, as a police detective, he’s faced with a case that brings back troubling memories. If the story sounds familiar, that’s probably because it was a best selling novel before being adapted for the screen. This version is directed by Hans Herbots, best known in the UK for his work on hit TV series The Spiral, so we arranged to talk about how it came about.

A warm and friendly person whom you might not expect to be telling dark stories like this, Hans is also a father of three, a fact very much in evidence from the room where he sits for the interview. I wonder if that made the subject matter difficult, but Hans explains that he was hooked after being given the book (by Mo Hayder) at a point when he’d been looking for the right story to adapt. I wonder if it was intimidating to take on a book that had been filmed twice before, unsuccessfully. Did setting it in Belgium, which experienced a national crisis after child molester Marc Dutroux was arrested in 1996 and a paedophile ring exposed, give it an extra weight that made it more effective?

“Yeah, I think so in a way, because I think at first, before I came on board, they tried to set the project up in England, in one of the parts where the book is written, but that didn’t really work out o an international level, I think the financing didn’t go well, so there was a critical point in production when they had to decide to continue and bring it to Belgium. I think that was a very good decision because the story, here in Belgium, was a success. The story really resonates because of what happened here. But also, we had good reactions from the UK and France, I think for them it makes the film a bit more exotic in a way.

“For us, it’s partly because of what happened at the end of the Nineties, and I think before, perhaps, we wouldn’t have believed so easily that all these things happen. When you see it in the film you really think back to all those things that happened here and that are in the collective memory of the whole country because it was really a big thing, it influenced politics, it changed the way the police work and the way the judicial system works. I also think it’s good that it was 15 years ago so the distance is right and it doesn’t feel like we’re exploiting it. I think it made the film stronger that that was part of the subconscious for people watching the film.”

Was he worried about how it would find an audience when he first started working on the film?

Geert Van Rampelberg in The Treatment
Geert Van Rampelberg in The Treatment

“We knew that this was not going to be a film that was going for a big audience. We were aware that it was a dark subject and it was going to be more arthouse, but that was good in a way because it meant we didn’t have to make any decisions about opening it up to a wider audience, because it was going to be too dark anyway. We tried to keep the subject out of the press as much as possible. We tried to emphasise the police story, but of course the first article that was in the papers said it already, so it was out really soon. So we were aware of the fact that it was going to be hard but it turned out to be okay actually.”

Hans got some unexpected support from the Frightfest team and horror fans more generally.

“That was really weird because I hadn’t been to any horror festivals before,” he says. “It was all new for me but it was an amazing experience because, first of all, the audience is very dedicated, and they loved the film. It stood out because the story was very different from the other films that were at the same festival. I never thought of it as being horror but in a way it is psychological horror because of the way it comes in and gradually gets to you more and more. So that was a new experience but I gradually got to know some of the festivals and I must say that I enjoyed it a lot actually, to be able to talk to those people who watched three or four films a day, who stayed at the festival for eight days in a row. It maybe changed how I look at the film as well, it changed how I look at storytelling in a way. I learned from it, undoubtedly.”

Basing a film on a novel means there’s already a lot of material to work with, but original research was also important to building up what is a very densely layered, detailed film.

“We used a lot of research that was done in the book but we did a lot of research ourselves as well. I especially wanted to do that for me, to be able to make the film as authentic as possible, I wanted to be as knowledgeable as possible. Also for Geert, the main actor, I wanted him to be full of knowledge about police work and also about trauma and what happens when you lose a family member and then it all comes back. So we talked with a lot of psychiatrists who work with victims of abuse, and also psychiatrists who work with people who have lost a family member in a traumatic way and have had to learn to cope with that and to change their lives, and that was very interesting as well. There were places that the film only went to because of those conversations that we had. I think research is very valuable because it influences every choice that you make – a choice of word, choice of location, choice of props – it’s a very interesting thing.”

Dd that approach extend to preparing the actors?

“I always like it when they’re as prepared as possible so that on the set they’re able to let it go, so we arranged for a lot of meetings with police inspectors and psychiatrists, and of course I asked them to read the book. The shoot helped as well because I wanted to use a lot of the evening light. We shot a the beginning of summer when the light is very beautiful between about seven at night and ten at night, here in Belgium, as it gets darker and darker. So to do that we had to shoot between midday and midnight, which meant that very fast – between three and four days – the shoot became a universe of its own, because when you start to shoot at twelve you leave the house at ten, for example, or eleven, but you only come home at two in he night so everybody is asleep, and when you wake up in the morning everybody’s gone to work or school, so you start to live in a parallel universe of your own. Also, for the first three weeks we only shot scenes with the main actor, so the set was very quiet. After a few days there was a certain atmosphere on the set which also allowed us to create the right vibe.”

One of the things that stands out about the film, when compared with others tackling the same subject, is its lack of sensationalism, the way it deals with a very difficult subject and remains thrilling to watch but not by depending on the shock value of that subject.

“I was very conscious that I wanted the film to be as authentic as possible, because of the subject but also because I didn’t want to be accused of exploitation of something, so every decision that we made in the process of preparing the film was very careful,” says Hans. “Apart from Geert, who’s pretty well known here in Belgium, every other actor in the film comes from theatre, so most of the actors were not widely known in Belgium until this. That gave the film a high level of authenticity, I think. For me it was really important to find locations that really were gritty and believable. We looked for things that were visually interesting but also dirty and muddy. It was shot in Belgium but I wanted it to look almost like it was shot in the south of the United States where it can be very hot but also very humid and gloomy. In the first few weeks when we shot the sun was up and the leaves were on the trees so everything was very pretty and green but the weather was not so good. It was always cloudy and grey, so that really helped us to ceate a gritty atmosphere.”

Did his experience in television impact the way he approached the film?

“I think that the difference between television and film is getting smaller and smaller,” he says. “TV screens are bigger and people are really discovering television as a medium to tell bigger stories, to go deeper into characters, so for me television and cinema are coming more and more closely together. On the other hand I am always led to television because it’s an exercise for film. You can always try things out in television, see what works, what doesn’t work, and then bring that back to film. So if I hadn’t done as much television I think that I wouldn’t have been able to make The Treatment the way that I did.

“I always compare filming to building. With television you have to build a whole new neighbourhood so you have to build, like, 20 new houses and they all have to look vaguely the same. You have to think a lot about the way you set out the streets and so on. And when you make a film it’s like you build this one beautiful house and you don’t have to think about all the other houses and about functionality. So there’s a big difference in how you approach the material. you have to always go further I think, when you make a film. The stage is bigger, the audience is bigger. People come out to the cinema and pay money to see the film, the really make an effort to see it. So I think you can make different choices and maybe make it a bit harder for the audience because they are willing to do something.”

So what’s his next project?

“Next there’s going to be more of the same, actually. There’s going to be more television for the next six months. I’ve been preparing a new series which will be shot in Holland and in Belgium. And for next year I’m preparing a new film which will be a Belgian film, and then we are preparing a Belgian-British co-production, which I hope will also go through next year, 2016, maybe 2017. So it’s still television and film together.”

Finally, what message would he like people to take away about The Treatment?

“For me it’s important to emphasise that although it has a very dark subject it’s also an entertaining film... ‘Powerful’ is a good word.”

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