Leader of the Gang
Matthijs van Heijningen’s THE GANG OF OSS was, like many of his other film projects, an idea many years in gestation. A historical piece about the sectarian divide evident within the pre-War Netherlands, it is a subject that the producer concedes has fascinated him for a long time.
In the film, Johanna, a young woman played by rising Dutch star Sylvia Hoeks, is desperate to distance herself from the activities of a violent gang that meets at her inn. But a core member of the gang is her husband Ties, played by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenarts, so the harder she tries to break free from the gang’s tyranny, the stronger the links become.
The socio-political context of the film, Van Heijningen explains, is located within the oppression of Holland’s Catholic community congregated in the south of the country, beneath the Rhine and Maas rivers, during the 1930s. ‘This story has struck me for years,’ he says. ‘That of this little town, Brabant, already dating from the 9th or 10th century, where a fight breaks out between the enormous, local poor population and the authorities - the authorities being the Roman Catholic church, the Jewish meat industrialists and the Protestant state police. You had this great friction and you had lots of murders and fights etc, and it got so bad that they called it Chicago on the Maas.’
The resulting political turmoil following Brabant’s occupation by the State police was such that the national government fell. ‘But this is just the second line within the film,’ van Heijningen continues. ‘On one side you have all of these political and gang problems that more resemble Chicago from this time. On the other hand, it is a basic story about a girl who tries to fight her way out of a bad situation.’
Van Heijningen used films such as GOODFELLAS and THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY as reference points, both for their look and the political resonance that they offer.
THE GANG OF OSS was shot in Brabant and Rotterdam over a seven week period, on a budget of €2.9 million. Most of the key cast came from the region, so their use of local dialect offered the film more authenticity. ‘It was fun using actors from there,’ comments Van Heijningen. ‘It worked very well.’
Production finances were sourced from the Netherlands Film Fund (25%) and the Matching Fund (25%) with further contributions from the Rotterdam Media Fund and Dutch broadcaster NTR. Van Heijningen managed to raise private equity valued at €600,000 from 150 investors, each paying €4,000. A 10% gap in the budget was filled by Van Heijningen himself.
The producer was happy to shoot away from Amsterdam where, he feels, locals are beginning to tire of location crews pitching up with increasing regularity. ‘They are getting a bit bored with all the shooting in Amsterdam,’ Van Heijningen stresses. ‘So you have to move somewhere else like Rotterdam or The Hague or Brabant.’
Now locked, but with final touches currently being applied to sound and soundtrack, THE GANG OF OSS is Van Heijningen’s third film to open the Netherlands Film Festival. His A MONTH LATER, by Nouchka van Brakel and starring Monique van der Ven and Renée Soutendijk, opened the 1986 festival, while KRACHT by Frouke Fokkema kick-started the event in 1990.
‘Opening the festival has always turned out well for me publicity-wise, and we really aimed for that again this year,’ he points out. ‘We were fast enough to show the festival a working print that they could decide on. THE GANG OF OSS isn’t really commercial, more of a cross-over, but with its historical background it’s a good mix for opening film.’
In 2012 Van Heijningen will celebrate 40 years as a producer. How has the business of being a producer changed over this period? ‘Before, you had individual producers,’ he opines. ‘Now it’s completely different. You have all these big companies with really big overheads and foreign stockholders, doing tv, commercials, films. But individual, independent producers like me? There are only two or three of us left. We are absolutely in the minority.’
Strictly a one-film-at-a-time producer, Van Heijningen will oversee the world premiere and local release of THE GANG OF OSS before he returns to his epic GIJSBRECHT VAN AEMSTEL project. The film will be an adaptation of the classic and emblematic Dutch play written by Joost van den Vondel, who is to the Dutch what Shakespeare is to the British.
‘It is about the rise and fall of Amsterdam in the 13th century,’ explains Van Heijningen. ‘It’s our national epic play, performed for the past 400 years every New Years day. It is like our King Lear.’
Budgeted at €8 million, financing for GIJSBRECHT VAN AEMSTEL hit the buffers in 2009 during the recent financial crisis, but nevertheless Van Heijningen has retained good contact with potential international co-production partners in Belgium and Romania. The project’s status as a national icon should free up local institutional funding, although wholescale cuts in arts funding from 2013 add an added level of uncertainty. But Van Heijningen is hopeful that by then a working tax shelter system will be in place within the Netherlands.
‘I think that a tax shelter is the only way that we can survive, and it also works with these type of projects,’ he stresses. ‘Everybody older than fifty with a bit of money knows GIJSBRECHT VAN AEMSTEL. You don’t have to explain anything. When you go to them for finance they know exactly what you are talking about. Then if everything goes to plan, we can look to shoot in 2013.’