Anton Mertens on ‘Beau Séjour’

This post is also available in: Français (French)

Hotel Beau Séjour : Kato, covered in blood, wakes up without any recollection of what happened the night before. Moreover, nobody seems to see or hear her. Slowly it sinks in: she’s dead. Who did this to her? And how come a handful of people can still see her, as if she’s among the living? Why them specifically? In her search to uncover the truth, Kato will discover that a lot of secrets lie beneath the surface of her supposedly peaceful village community.

This is the premise of a the tv series Beau Séjour directed by Kaat Beels & Nathalie Basteyns, and shot by Anton Mertens.

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Could you tell us how you got started?

AM: from the start I wanted to go to a film school in Brussels, but when I wanted to enrol they were already fully booked. So finally I ended up studying in Ghent, at KASK. Which, at the time when I started there was still a stills photography program, focusing reportage work. In my first year at the school they were planning to start a film program. Nowadays they have a good reputation, mostly for directors. But at that time they did not have anything in place, even the class rooms and soundstage still had to be build. But this is where I met dop Jan Vancaillie and producer Dirk Impens, who proposed me to join them as second camera assistant on a film. That was my start.

And how did you become a cinematographer? Did you go through the ranks of the camera crew ?

AM: not really, I wanted to shoot documentaries, so I got to travel a lot. In-between those jobs I slowly started lighting some commercials, music videos and shorts, gradually becoming a full time dop. In reality it is a director that moves you up to be a dp, by giving you the confidence. You can’t start calling yourself a dop.

And who moved you up?

AM: Serge Leurs, a tv series director. I shot a series of documentaries with him, very stylised and visual ones. Which went really well, so he asked me to light and shoot a series. It was a children’s show genre the Muppets show. We had very limited means. The camera crew was one person, me. But is was fun.

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And then ?

AM: I’ve shot a lot of tv series like Clan ( 2012) and Jes! ( 2009) with Kaat Beels and Nathalie Basteyns, Vermist ( 2013) with Jan verheyen and Kaat Beels, and the upcoming De Geboden ( 2017) with Maarten Moerkerke. In flanders we shoot a lot of the series. I also shot some features like Ventoux (2015) with Nicole van Kilsdonk, North Sea Texas ( 2010) by Bavo Defurne and the upcoming Facades with Kaat Beels and Nathalie Basteyns.

Lets talk about the tv series Beau Séjour. It has an interesting subject matter, could you explain it a bit?

AM: It is the story of a girl, Kato, that has been murdered, but returns among the living to look for her killer. During her quest she discovers that some people can see her and for others she is invisible.

I really liked the genre: a mix between a whodunit and a fantasy, in a raw realistic style.

AM: yes, that was our goal. We did not want it to be a too fantastic ghost story, it needed to be grounded in reality. But at the same time in crafting the look, by choosing certain locations, wardrobe or set pieces one gets the feeling of a stranger reality. That being said, the locations we used are actual places. The hotel Beau Séjour is depicted as it is, we did not change a thing in it.

Not even the wallpaper?

AM: No, nothing, expect for the hotel room, which we rebuild in a warehouse next door. The actual rooms were to small for us to be able to get the shots that we wanted to do. But apart from that everything was authentic. The same was true for the house of Kato.

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What is it that gives this strange feeling, taken into account that everything was filmed in actual places?

AM: we simply rejected the locations that did not suit the reality that we were creating. During the location scouts we always asked the question wether the proposed locations matched the look of the hotel. To come back to the origins of the project, Nathalie, one of the directors knew the hotel from her childhood, and wanted to write a story situated in that arena. Also they wanted to a story of a missing girl. Some what based on what happened during the Dutroux period, as well as what happened to a missing girl that was found murdered in Limburg. So together with the writers Bert & Sanne, they came up with the idea of the girl coming back to find her murderer. During the writing they visited the hotel, but also the surrounding village and houses. Actually most of the locations were found in the same street as where the hotel is situated.

But in the series Kato goes from one place to the next on a motorbike …

AM: yes that is true, but most of that was filmed in the same street as the hotel was done. Except for a few scenes like the one in a cave, we shot most of the scenes in the same village. Even the crew was lodged in the hotel during the shoot.

So they wrote the scenes based on the locations, and even during the prep they provided us with inspiration. For example we found this kind of small country chateau, that was inhabited by this 90 year old lady who owns a small business in selling wrapping papers and ribbons. We found the place to be in its wonderful original state, which let us to ask the writes to integrate it into the story.

So you were involved very early on in the production?

AM: Yes, this was the fifth project I’ve done with Kaat & Nathalie. So they had mentioned the basic idea to me for some time. The first time a started working on it was about two years before the shoot, working on references and shooting a test. Which is kind of atypical.

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Which is nice as you can give input on a project in its infancy, not all dop’s have that opportunity.

AM: that is true.

And how as it to work with two directors and you as a dop? This must be difficult?

AM: It was the third project that we’ve done all of us together, so we know each other very well. The next job I’ll be doing, a feature film, is going to be directed by them as well. So we don’t need to discuss that much any more.

But do they share directing duties, concentrating on the visuals, acting etc?

AM: actually they had split up the schedule in two. The system being that every week one of them would shoot two days and the other three, or vice versa.

So they’re not together on set? That must be a hard task to communicate the days work to the other director?

AM: yes, its unusual, but works well for them, as the they are a couple and the have real synergy between them. Also they have two small children, so that’s also a reason for this way of working.

That is an interesting way of working.

AM: yes, it was the script supervisor, the AD and myself who had to keep an eye on the continuity of the shoot as well.

What was your idea for the visuals?

AM: we started from the idea that it had to be grounded in reality. We did not want it to look fantastic. And we wanted it to take place in winter.

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That is an unusual choice for a Belgian production, because of the weather and the limited amount of daylight in winter.

AM: yes, it was not easy to do. But we did not want it to look happy, to green. The idea was to make the viewer feel uneasy. It is not a happy story. As for the wardrobe colors we chose for an autumn palette, sets already had a lot of colder and bland colors. For example the hotel had a lot browns. The one real outspoken color in the series is the one of Kato, dressed in a yellow sweater.

But there are some other characters as well, for example her ex Leon, riding in the motocross game.

AM: yes, but that is because it is difficult to chance the colors of the outfits that these riders have, which are quite vibrant in color. But we had him wear dark blue, in order to be less outspoken than Kato. But at the same time I think that it’s ok that not very scene is as polished at the next, that there is not one overall tint to it.

How many episodes are there? Will there be more seasons?

AM: There are ten, and it is a one off story, with an ending to it. I don’t know if there will be a next season.

How long did you shoot for?

AM: We had ten days per episode.

That is rather short.

AM: yes , but for a regular flemish tv series, it is already a lot. That doesn’t mean it was an easy shoot, the days a really short in winter time.

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I suppose that despite the close proximity of the sets, you did not shoot in order?

AM: no, certainly not, for reasons of scheduling the actors and financial reasons, it is less expensive to shoot all scenes in the same set at once. This is hard for the actors who have to take note at all times at what point the evolution of their character is at in the story. But also for us, to keep it in continuity visually. That being said a big difference between a tv series and a film is that with tv the order of the story changes a lot from script to edit. Often in editing scenes may be put in a different order or even change from one episode the next.

You mentioned that the crew stayed in the hotel, so I suppose that it had to be small crew then?

AM: yes it was, I think on average around 20 without the actors. With the exception of some night exteriors I had a regular crew of 2 or 3 in the lighting department and 2 in the grip department, 2 camera assistants and an intern. It works, but it does not allow you to anticipate on a lot of things, you can not split the crew up in two to do pre-lights. So you have to take this into account and adapt.

And what did you chose for camera equipment?

AM: I shot on the alexa, which I own. But I used a mix of of lenses: Cooke S2-S3, ultra primes, some standard speeds or zooms.

And you mix them up? That is surprising !

AM: yes, I don’t chose one set per project, as I think you can get away with it. I think you can mix them even in a scene, as long as you understand their strengths and weaknesses, mostly by riding the aperture. But I am really into choosing the right focal length. On this shoot we used the 32mm a lot, either for long shots or close ups, sometimes we used it for every shot in a scene .

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I understand it you used the 32 a lot, but from the different sets?

AM: the cooke 32 was the workhorse of the shoot, but sometimes I would use one of the other series as well. The older cooke flair easily and are soft on the edges. So if I found that to be disturbing or needed more light I would switch.

Why the 32mm?

AM: because by using a 32 you can frame the character in the set. The set stays visible. It is not too out of focus or that sharp at the same time. The idea was to show Kato in her surroundings, to show that she is there, but at the same time that she is not, that she is disconnected from reality. And that really worked well on a 32, shooting her from behind keeping her in focus, as she was watching other characters in front of her, out of focus, having a conversation without knowing that she is there. That was really an odd thing for the focus puller to do, as he wanted to pull focus to the other characters, but I wanted the focus to be on her even when she was facing away from us, which she was often.

Also we shot a lot of handheld, mixing it up with a dolly or steadicam, even within the same scene. Shooting shots on her handheld and using a dolly for the other characters. So the 32mm was great for that as well as you can move in sync with an actor at a natural distance.

And lighting wise?

AM: I wanted a light that was directional, but soft. Very natural. So I used a lot of bounce light coming from outside, using frames of bounce material positioned above the windows and lit from underneath by HMI’s. Often this was the only source to light the space, a part from some bounce fill light from a polly board or a small led. I used a mixture of hmi, fluorescent and led lights. I like the arri led lights a lot, as you can dim them or change color easily.

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You operated yourself. And the steadicam as well?

AM: no, we had a steadicam operator for that, but  it was a single camera shoot. Which I prefer, as you can get the best angle that way for every setup.

How did you treat the image in post? Do you use a DIT?

AM: no I don’t. I build my own LUT during prep, but on set I watched a rec 709 image, as the alexa could not display 3d LUTs at that time. The second assistent created still frames for me out of the rushes of that day, that I would put the LUT on in the evening, and do some corrections that served as a base for the grade.

So you never stop working?

AM: ( laughs) yes that is true. But I see it as one would use a one light when shooting on film. It is kind of the same idea.

And how did the post production go?

AM: I did it at Ace image factory, together with grader Olivier Ogneux. I often work with him. We were given two days per episode. We could not do everything at once, as there are some vfx shots in the series, even if you don’t notice them. For example removing a building on an exterior set that did not fit our look. So this took some time, but the grading itself went really smoothly.

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But at the same time as you prepare the grade using stills, the look had been decided on in advance ?

AM: yes that is true, but also because the look was crafted in such a precise way on set that in a way not a lot else is possible to do with it. I am always curious to see what Olivier is going to suggest. So on the first half a day I leave him to work on his own, but often he ends up with something similar to what I had done in prep. So I think that is because the look had been backed in during the shoot. We both wanted to reinforce the raw, dark and softly lit look but with some contrast. I tried to look for what I liked from what one got out of a one light print on film. An image that is not altered too much in grading. For example I try to avoid using a lot of windows.

Did you encounter any particular difficulties?

AM: the most challenging part of the series is the fact the main character is not there, being seen by some but invisible for most characters. That was a difficult story element. If we did not get that right people would not understand the story. Mostly in scenes where she is communicating with her friends , while being amongst other characters who don’t see her.

To solve the problem we shot some tests with the actors in the hotel, a year before we started shooting. The idea was that we always had to stay with her, even if the scene had a lot of other characters in it. We tested different ways of framing and editing. I took a lot of inspiration from the Dardenne brothers for this. For example by following her from behind into a room, never being ahead of her. This way by following her we wanted to give a feeling her reality, of discovering the scene with her. Even in scenes where we start of with other characters that don’t see her having a conversation, we cut to enter the room following her from behind to see the scene from her point of view. I think this approche worked well as most viewers got it.

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What is interesting as well is that in contrary to most ghosts that we see in films who communicate by moving objects, or closing doors etc, when Kato moves something the object has not moved in reality.

AM: yes that was one of the rules that were established from the start. It made shooting somewhat difficult though, mostly for the actors because they were not allowed to react to the actions of Kato, even when she is for example holding her mother, but that makes is quite original.

What do you think of the resulting series?

AM: I am happy with the result. The show has gotten good reviews at the Berlin festival where it was shown in the tv section, and in Paris where it has won the audience award at the Série Mania festival.

Luckily there is an opportunity now to enter series in festivals, where Belgium has been well represented in recently.

AM: yes indeed. Generally speaking I think that in terms of series we have come long way since the first series I’ve worked on, mostly in telling more complex stories in a more nuanced look. We are getting closer to the way of making films. Actually we use almost the same size of crew, the same equipment etc. And also I think that we try to make every series better than the last, more film like, in a more complicated aesthetic, in order to compete with foreign series coming out of the US,UK or Denmark. And not only in flanders , but also in wallonia with series like La trève or Ennemi Public. So I hope that we are going the become as successful as our foreign colleges in this, and this will in turn secure more means to make series, to have more time to shoot episodes and a large enough crew. Some series in Denmark I believe shoot for about 20 days per episode. They can afford do this because their series sell abroad. So I believe that Belgian crews should understand that in order to get there, we should try to keep and raise the quality of our products, to give ourselves the possibility for growth in the future.

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Directors : Kaat Beels, Nathalie Basteyns

Producers : Marijke Wouters, Saskia Verboven

Writers : Benjamin Sprengers, Sanne Nuyens, Bert Van Dael

Cast : Lynn Van Royen, Johan Van Assche, Inge Paulussen, Kris Cuppens, Jan Hammenecker, Katrin Lohmann, Mieke De Groote, Barbara Sarafian, Reinhilde Decleir, Charlotte Timmers, Joke Emmers, Joren Seldeslachts, Roel Vanderstukken, Maarten Nulens

Camera crew : 

Focus puller : Gaetan De Poorter

Second assistant camera : Sara Van Der Elst

Steadycam operator : Jan Lemmens

Gaffer : Gideon van Essen

Electrician : Jamie Drossaert, Koen Martens, Andries Vandegught

Key Grip : Philippe de Smet