I tracked down Rogier Stoffers, ASC, NSC, at his 10-acre horse ranch near Austin, Texas. His most recent project reunited him with director Mike van Diem, with whom he made Alaska, which won the Foreign Student Film Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 1990, and Character, which won a Golden Frog at Camerimage and the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film in 1998. Aside from commercials, Van Diem had not directed in the interim, despite several false starts.
For De Surprise, the project that brought the duo back together, they returned to their native Holland. The film provided Stoffers with interesting comparisons: working with the same director 17 years later, and shooting in Europe after working mainly in North America for many years.
Rogier says that Europe is currently going through the same incentives competition — some call it “a race to the bottom” — that filmmakers are navigating in the United States. “Belgium has by far the best incentives, so it’s almost impossible to make a Northern European film with any budget without having Belgium involved,” says Rogier. “The Belgians are really good at keeping the money in Belgium; it’s spent on Belgian equipment and Belgian crew. We ended up making De Surprise for €4.5 million or so, which for Holland is a lot of money, so it was a coproduction with Germany, Belgium and Ireland. We shot a Dutch movie based on a Dutch novel, with Dutch actors speaking Dutch, and we didn’t shoot one day in Holland."
“There’s a lot of weird shifting around of money,” he continues. “I had to jump through hoops to get some of my crew from Holland on the movie. You need a producer who knows how to work it, and you need art departments in every country. We had to find really beautiful locations, and that meant that there was a lot of travel. We might drive all day to get to one location and then do just one scene there. Since we had to shoot in three different countries for the financing, we had to create a special ‘European country’ for the film, and that gave us the opportunity to combine many beautiful locations. We shot in nine different cities in three different countries.”
Extensive visual effects were required to stitch locations together — for example, a castle exterior and garden in Ireland with a castle interior in Belgium. “We needed eight blocks on a steep hill in a city, and that doesn’t exist anywhere in Northern Europe,” says Rogier. “We had a block and a half, and we edited in all the other layers with visual effects. It was very interesting to see that you can now alter real locations for better storytelling for relatively little money. Mike is technically very savvy. He had made animated storyboards to scale and based on the actual streets, so we could figure out the lenses, the camera positions and the picture vehicles beforehand.”
Rogier notes that in Europe, production value can be put on the screen for less. “The whole attitude is completely different, and there are different rules. In Ireland, for instance, a day is 10 hours, and if you want to do overtime, it must be announced a day or two ahead of time so that everyone can let their families know.
“I was looking forward to shooting my first film in Holland in 15 years, but I was also a little worried. Crews are less than half the size [of the typical U.S. crew], but you need to achieve the same things. I’ve become accustomed to doing things with more crew. I negotiated a minimum three-person grip department, whereas in the U.S., you usually have something like six electricians and six grips. That’s a big difference. But our crew on De Surprise did an amazing job.”
Whereas Character was a dark period tale, De Surprise is a romantic comedy. It focuses on a suicidal man (Jeroen van Koningsbrugge) who hires a company to end his life, but then falls in love with a female client (Georgina Verbaan). “Character is a nice dark movie, and De Surprise is quirky and funny, but in a way, the lead character in both films is Mike — there is so much of him in the writing,” says Rogier.
“We have both probably grown up a bit since Character, and De Surprise is a different kind of movie, so there are fewer swooping camera moves. There are almost no real close-ups. It’s old-fashioned in that way. Mike was worried about being rusty, not having done a movie for so long, but just as with Character, he had the whole movie in his head. When he directs, he compares what he sees to what’s in his head. It’s really fun to see that, and to watch the movie grow.”