“Making a film is never a picnic for Felix. It’s more like ploughing a field, and then ploughing it all over again, and again — only to end up pulling up the potatoes with your bare hands. In other words, it never stops being hard work.”

Film editor Nico Leunen offered this description of writer-director Felix van Groeningen’s grueling work ethic, and after sitting down with the Flemish filmmaker one recent afternoon to discuss his newest film The Broken Circle Breakdown, it’s easy for me to see what Leunen was getting at.

The film, which made its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April and opened in New York to a public audience on November 1, tells the rollercoaster love story of Didier, a strong-headed, banjo-toting cowboy, and Elise, a vivacious, tattoo-covered sentimentalist (respectively played by Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens in dynamite performances). Fate deals a nasty hand when their daughter Maybelle becomes terminally ill, testing the couple’s relationship to the breaking point and navigating viewers through turbulent domestic waters.

Van Groeningen has written and directed his three previous feature films — Steve + Sky (2004), With Friends Like These (2007), and the critically acclaimed, breakout success The Misfortunates (2009) — and this one is no different. With the charming hint of a Dutch accent and near-flawless English, he describes a lengthy and frustrating screenwriting process, as well as a piecemeal editing undertaking (in collaboration with Leunen) that saw the film largely deconstructed and stitched back together to achieve the non-chronological narrative.

He may have pulled up many a potato to make the film, to borrow Leunen’s analogy, but he’s certainly reaping the harvest now. The Broken Circle Breakdown is Belgium’s official foreign-language entry for the Oscars this year, and after winning two major prizes at Tribeca — best screenplay for a narrative feature (Van Groeningen, Carl Joos) and best actress in a narrative feature (Baetens) — it’s certainly a strong contender to take down the top honor.

Editorial Note: Portions of the interview have been edited and shortened.

GALO: Broken Circle Breakdown is an adaptation of the musical stage play The Broken Circle Breakdown featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama, co-written and starred in by Johan Heldenbergh (who plays Didier in the film). What about the play attracted you to the idea of an adaptation?

Felix van Groeningen: What attracted it to me the most was the impact it had on me. I was blown away by the play. I’ve never experienced something like that, where you start crying after 20 minutes, and nonstop. [Laughs]

Usually films can touch you deeply and very personally inside, at some point. Usually it’s at one hour or one hour [and] 15 minutes [into it], but this happened at 20 minutes already [for me]. So what you did at some point, you got over that and you just let go and went along with the flow. So there’s that and the fact that it starts out as this small story which becomes sort of huge, and which talks about so many different things: love, religion, passion, frustration, and all that combined together.

GALO: What difficulties were involved in adapting the play for the screen?

FVG: What was difficult in the adaptation is also why you want to do it. There is something very strong about the play, and that’s why you want to make a film out of it. But then you realize very quickly that you can’t do it the same way. That just takes a while, and you need to go through difficult stages to make the right choices and discover what you really want to keep and for which parts you have to find a translation.

GALO: You and the co-writer, Carl Joos, had to restart the writing process a few different times, and it sounds like it was a tough process.

FVG: It was, but it’s never simple. I’m not sure if it was harder than the previous film [The Misfortunates], which was also an adaptation [of a book by Flemish author Dimitri Verhulst]. At some point maybe I doubted [it] more because there was so much of everything and I didn’t want to lose anything to not ruin the experience that I had the first time I saw the theater play. What is frustrating about it is that you have to do it differently, but that’s also what really inspires me, and the fact that it has touched you so deeply makes you not stop and try it over and over and over again. In the end, it excites me to come up with something new and original.

GALO: The first movie you mentioned, The Misfortunates, you wrote it and Johan is in that film as well.

FVG: Yes. Johan plays a character called Beefcake [Breejen, in Dutch]. [Laughs]

It was while we were rehearsing for that movie that he used to come in on the rehearsal with his banjo and everybody was like “Johan, what’s happening man?” He said he was doing this theater play and learning how to play the banjo.

(Interview continued on next page)