The pair’s work exhibits a remarkably considered maturity with subject matter ranging from assisted suicide to the complexities of sexual relationships in the context of a critical illness. Far from a tidal wave of doom and gloom, though, there’s a redemptive and deeply human impulse at the core of their work. Norman Bates create work with an emotional resonance that lingers past the fade-to-black, a rarity in the midst of immediately disposable pop-promos.
As the duo announce their arrival in the UK by signing with Stink for representation, we caught up with Norman Bates to chat light and dark and child bodybuilders.
Tell us how you two came to meet and adopt the rather sinister Norman Bates moniker…
We met a few years ago during a script-writing workshop. We soon discovered we had similar twisted minds, sharing the same passion for cinema and less obvious characters.
After the workshop we teamed up to write together on a feature film project. We really love those brainstorming sessions that can last for hours and hours. It was probably during one of those sessions or during a late night drink that we got the idea to direct as a duo under the name Norman Bates. We believe the name matches both our personalities. Not that we have any intention to kill people, but there’s definitely a schizophrenic twist in both of our brains ☺
Speaking of sinister, there’s quite a dark streak running through your work – from the assisted/enforced suicide theme of the Zornik promo to the street fighting kids in your Roscoe video. What is it about that darker side of life that appeals to you as filmmakers?
You may call it dark, but we don’t necessary perceive our work as dark. Perhaps you’re right in the sense that all of our videos carry some emotional weight, but we don’t want to make dark stuff per se. Instead of referring to it as “dark” we like to see it as ‘character driven emotional portraits’. Stories about real people with real emotions, sometimes alienated, but always rooted in reality.
We feel this approach towards film is really interesting and we see it as our goal to make things people can relate to. That’s why for our music videos we have a tendency to stick with narrative character driven pieces. This doesn’t mean we don’t like other approaches, there are a lot of performance driven stuff or graphical inspired stuff, made by some great directors. But this approach wouldn’t really work for us. Also with commercials we would like to strike the same chord, making character driven pieces.
Were you ever worried about how people might react to the violence in the Roscoe video? The narrative definitely isn’t about condoning the situation the child has been put in but it’s still quite close to the bone. And how did you cast the lead boy and his father – they sustain the relationship brilliantly.
In our minds, the violence is just a backdrop to tell the story of a father-son-relationship. We could have made the violence much more explicit, but we choose not to do that, because it would take the attention away of what was important to us: the coming-of-age story of the boy who outgrows his father.
During the casting process we found the father quite quickly, he’s a great Romanian actor who mainly works in theatre and art house cinema.
It was very hard to find the right boy though. Two days before shooting we still hadn’t found him. The producers became anxious because the shooting could not be postponed. We just didn’t find what we were looking for. So together with the casting agent we went to visit all sorts of martial art training schools. All of a sudden, there was this one boy, he was rather shy at first, but the moment he did a screen test, the magic was there.
Although he had never acted before, he turned out to be a natural. He was such a great collaborator on the shoot and so smart. On the final shooting day he came to us and said: you know, my father in the video is not such an asshole after all. He does love me, but he doesn’t know how to say it! We looked at each other with some fatherly pride. This 10 year-old boy really nailed it. We hope we have the chance to work with him again. It would be great!
Your Scala video takes that darkness and transposes it into a really emotional context – how did the idea for that project come about? And is the ending a metaphor for wanting to cleanse the relationship between the two characters?
When Scala asked us to make the music video for their version of ‘Use Somebody’ by the Kings of Leon, we decided to create a story that would give the song a different interpretation and not make a literal translation of the lyrics. We just tried to capture the atmosphere of the music and turn it into something new.
So we took one of our worst fears and used it as a base for our story. What happens when a woman/man can no longer be intimate with his or her partner/husband’. It is something that speaks to all of us. At a certain stage in our lives, we will have to face this.
Another element we tried to explore in the Scala video is what’s between the lines, what remains unsaid. We somehow wanted to express these restrained emotions on a visual level. That’s why the house starts crying instead of the characters, everything has changed, and all is the same. We like to believe this is more powerful instead of making it too literal.
And then there’s the more humorous territory you’ve ventured into with your Pjur commercial. Is comedy something you’d like to explore more?
Of course, we love comedy. But not the “laughing out loud” kind of comedy. We like the sort of humour where you don’t really know if this should be funny or not. We like the unsettling humour, the things that pull you out of your comfort zone. Coming from Belgium we have a great tradition for all things absurd, and we’re probably no different to that.
Given that your work seems to straddle these multiple different styles, how would you describe your aesthetic?
We both live in Belgium, a surrealistic, absurd country without a real fixed identity. We want to be French, British, German and Dutch at the same time and we end up being none of them. This gives us a different take on reality.
As Norman Bates we like to use the real world that is surrounding us, but are always on the lookout for anomalies, little observations and snappy details that transcend everyday life.
There are a lot of great directors out there who make great work. For a young director it’s very tempting to mimic those great examples and that’s something we want to avoid. True, sometimes it’s hard to find you own voice, but it’s very important to do so.
We found out that by limiting ourselves, most of the time we come up with better ideas. We always discard our initial ideas and make a fresh start. To be honest, we throw a lot away, because that’s what it takes. There’s nothing glamorous to what we do, just hard work.
Where do you draw your creative inspiration from?
In general we get inspired by all sorts of things. We are both cinema buffs, so naturally those influences keep coming back. But just to give you an example of how our inspiration process works, let us tell you how we came up with the Roscoe project.
For this particular video we were brainstorming on our fascination for those dreadful beauty contests for little kids. Immediately we saw the potential of doing something on the relationship between these types of kids and their parents. We knew we had something that could work, and a few hours later we stumbled upon a Romanian boy named Guiliano Stroe. Just Google him and you’ll find some amazing you tube videos.
He’s an eight year-old bodybuilder. He looks scary and we asked ourselves “Why would you do that to your own kid?” – this led us to the Roscoe video. At first we wanted to work with this boy, our Romanian producers even contacted him but due to money issues it didn’t work out. Perhaps for the best, otherwise we wouldn’t have found the amazing boy we used in the end.
Again, the reason why we love it, is because it has great storytelling power. Quite often these worlds speak to the imagination of the audience because they don’t give all answers, it plays with your mind. That’s what we like to do as well: mess with people’s minds. Our apologies in advance.
Norman Bates is represented by:
Director: Norman Bates.
Label: Pias Recordings.
DOP: Bjorn Charpentier.
Production company: Saga film Romania.
Executive Producer: Alex Teodorescu.
Production Manager: Raluca Mateescu.
Post production company: Pixmix, Belgium.
Editor & composits: Maarten Verlinden.
Colorist: Veerle Zeelmaeckers.
Sound-design: Thomas Houthave.
1st AD (RO): Mihaela Ionita.
Make up Artist: Olimpia Stoicea.
Art Director (RO): Ioana Dumitru
Costume: Sonia Cristina Marin.
Stunt coordinator: Atilla.
Scala, Use Somebody
Director: Norman Bates.
DOP: Bjorn Charpentier.