The 6th film from director Mabrouk El Mechri, JCVD takes its name from the initials of its star, action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme, who basically plays a thinly fictionalized version of himself. In JCVD, Van Damme is feeling all of his 47 years as he films yet another action flick. Frustrated with being unable to break the stereotype that has confined him within the genre, and depressed at losing custody of his daughter, he takes off to Belgium for a vacation only to become embroiled in a robbery and subsequent hostage-taking at a post office. But has he really, as the police believe, reached the end of his rope and resorted to criminality, or is there more to the story?
Told from a frame of reference that shifts back and forth in time, gradually revealing more of the situation, JCVD gives its star the chance to do more than just toss off one-liners while kicking the crap out of a series of bad guys; it allows him to actually act and reveal many of the raw emotions and feelings the real Jean-Claude Van Damme actually has. While ostensibly just a film, JCVD is actually at times a confessional for Van Damme to talk through the personal and professional challenges in his life. He comes off quite self-deprecating, funny, honest, and sympathetic as both a character and a human being.
I really enjoyed this film, and it gives me a new appreciation for Van Damme. Whether he could pull this off in a role that wasn't basically playing himself remains to be seen, but after this, I'd be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Van Damme couldn't be at the screening as he is in Thailand (I think) directing (for the 2nd time) a new film. He did tape a short greeting specifically for the festival thanking everyone for coming out for the film.
Director Mabrouk El Mechri was in attendance, and did a Q&A after the movie (no spoilers):
- The concept for the film originated with a producer that had an agreement with Jean-Claude to play himself in a movie. The producer, knowing El Mechri was a Van Damme fan when he was young, asked him to review the original screenplay, as it wasn't quite what the producer had expected, in that the screenwriters had perceived Van Damme to be just a clown.
- El Mechri felt that there was more to Van Damme than just what people saw on the screen, so he offered to write a draft, and the producer asked if he would direct it as well. El Mechri agreed on the condition he could meet Van Damme first before starting the draft, so he wouldn't waste six months on something that Van Damme would veto.
- El Mechri and Van Damme had dinner, where the idea for the film was pitched, with the post office and not knowing what has happened inside, and Van Damme was thrilled, and watched El Mechri's first film, and then he went to work.
- About 70% of the film was scripted, and the other 30% was improvised from the actors.
- El Mechri actually didn't write much for Van Damme, as he did want Van Damme to be limited by the words, as he has 'his own music'.
- El Mechri and Van Damme had an agreement that the latter couldn't yell 'cut' to end a scene (as he has done on many of his other films), because there wasn't room for two control freaks on the same set, and Van Damme put his trust in El Mechri.
- The scene with Van Damme's agent, after the custody hearing, was ad-libbed.
- The woman who played the cab driver actually owned the restaurant where they ate lunch during pre-production of the movie; El Mechri was entranced by her Belgian accent, and had her audition for the role (which was originally for a man).
- The whole scene in the taxi is completely improvised. El Mechri told Van Damme to just be nice to the driver no matter what she said.
- El Mechri would love to work with Van Damme again if the right script came along.
- The opening intro scene was filmed at the end of the shoot for insurance reasons.
- They rehearsed the intro over an entire night and shot 4 or 5 takes.
- Jean-Claude actually has a son, but they had to change his child in the movie to a daughter for legal reasons. El Mechri joked that he thinks the daughter's name, Gloria, came to him because he was listening to the Van Morrison song of the same name.
- El Mechri was drawn to Van Damme in particular because they are both European, and Van Damme was a regular guy who wanted the American dream. El Mechri said it isn't the same for Chuck Norris or Steven Segal.
- El Mechri's favourite Van Damme film is Bloodsport. His influences include (I believe he said) Robert Richardson, who was the cinematographer on a number of Oliver Stone films (and for Scorsese as well). He wants to make films that he would want to see as an audience. You need to respect your influences, not dodge them. He likes Robert Wise, Sidney Lumet, P.T. Anderson, and Park Chan-wook as directors.
- The coke scene in the club and the fighting scene from the promo teaser are not in the movie as they didn't fit the rhythm of the film. They would have been long flashbacks, and El Mechri wanted to get to the post office quickly. But he will do a version of the film for the DVD where all the scenes are in chronological order, including those deleted scenes. Also, he feels in the theatre, attention spans are less than when you are at home watching a DVD.
Other notes (no spoliers):
- Pay close attention to the Gaumont logo at the beginning of the film, before the credits start; you don't want to miss it!
- Toshio Lee, director of Detroit Metal City, was in the audience, and flashed metal horns to the audience to great applause.
- I believe it was JT Petty, screenwriter and director of The Burrowers, was also at the screening.
Other Q&A notes (possible spoilers):
- In the opening intro scene, Van Damme's comment about not being able to film in one shot was his own ad-lib, partly in response to El Mechri actually wanting to shoot the scene in one shot.
- By the third part of the scene, he had already killed 5 or 6 guys and Van Damme felt that was enough, but El Mechri told him there was 20 more guys waiting over there, and Van Damme tried all night to get him to shoot it in 3 shots.
- El Mechri surrounded Van Damme with young stuntmen in their 20's, which ticked him off and actually prompted him to do the scene in the one shot.
- The scene with Van Damme's monologue was not scripted by El Mechri; Van Damme called El Mechri at 3 AM the night before shooting started with concerns about doing the film and what was at stake. Van Damme was worried that they hadn't addressed his problems with drugs or his relationships with women, and he wanted to put lots of other things in. But El Mechri demurred as they already had a script and a schedule. El Mechri told Van Damme that he'd prefer to just shoot Van Damme talking about all this stuff naturally. After all, the film is named JCVD, so why not have a reel for him.
- El Mechri didn't want to awkwardly edit in the scene, so he thought right after when the mother tells Van Damme that he can't take care of his own kid would be the right place.
- Van Damme made El Mechri swear not to tell anyone about the content of what he wanted to say. So El Mechri booked off 2 hours in the 5th week of shooting, and called it the X scene. He had a big black curtain set up, as Van Damme is a shy person, and El Mechri didn't want him to make eye contact with anyone before or during the scene.
- Van Damme didn't know about the crane in the scene. El Mechri just buckled him into the chair.
- When Van Damme talks about not wanting to die in the post office, that was the cue for El Mechri to bring him back into the film by lowering the crane. There was a red light next to the camera to indicate how much time was left for the scene.