One-on-one with Filmmaker Thomas Renckens - "Fantasy and Escapism"
Thomas Renckens is a Dutch documentary filmmaker based in London. A recurring theme in his films is the conflict between fantasy and reality.
While at the National Film & Television School, Thomas directed the films 'I am never really here' (2018), 'Taking the Plunge' (2018), 'Jenny & The Highway Blockers' (2019), and his graduation film 'The Daydreamers' (2020). Before studying at the National Film & Television School, Thomas worked for indie prod comps such as October Films and Lion Television for 5+ years. While there, he developed documentary programmes for broadcasters such as the Discovery Channel, Channel 4, BBC, and Viceland.
iFilmFestival: Tell us a bit about your most important film so far.
Renckens: "'The Daydreamers' is my graduation film from the National Film & Television School. It is a film that takes a closer look at the phenomenon of ‘Maladaptive Daydreaming’ – a psychological term coined by professor Eli Somer, which is characterised by extensive fantasy activity, so much so that it replaces human interaction and impairs real-life functioning. Protagonists Agatha and Jessica meet Eli Somer for the first time on-camera, sharing their experiences of living with maladaptive daydreaming with him.
Having made various short films that explored the conflict between fantasy and reality in the past, for ‘The Daydreamers’, I wanted to explore what happens when fantasy is taken too far – when it takes over your life. After speaking to many individuals suffering from Maladaptive Daydreaming, I realised how much of an impact it had on their life, and how embarrassed they were to open up to others. Telling a friend or family member that you like to spend entire days living a life in your head that’s not real, must be difficult. To me, it brought back parallels with my own coming out. The feelings of shame, and fear of others not understanding, felt similar to me, which compelled me to make a film sharing the stories of individuals suffering from this largely unknown condition."
iFilmFestival: What were the key challenges making it?
Renckens: "As always when making films, I came across quite a few challenges while making ‘The Daydreamers’. Aside from the more obvious challenges, such as finding contributors willing to share their stories on camera, or having only limited access to working with my cinematographer because of his other projects, there was the question of how to make a film about a rather intangible idea, i.e. the experience of living a life cut off from reality. After speaking to probably close to a hundred individuals suffering from Maladaptive Daydreaming, I realised that making a film where simply talking about it would probably be the best way of approaching it."
"Then, there was also the question of finding a way to somehow convey the idea of daydreaming, or what it feels like to be in a daydream. I mean, you can’t make a film about daydreaming without adding in some visual daydreaming element, right? In order to get into the right frame of mind, I kind of got into a ‘fantasy hole’, and locked myself in a room for a couple of days, watching a lot of Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick films. I also had several brainstorm sessions with my cinematographer Twan Peeters, to try and come up with some good idea. I think it paid off in the end, as I’m very happy with the daydream scenes. All in all, then, I would say the key challenge was really finding the right form for the film, because it’s a film about such an unusual subject."
iFilmFestival: What’s one aspect that you’re particularly proud of?
Renckens: "‘The Daydreamers’ is a film that speaks to particular community, i.e. those suffering from Maladaptive Daydreaming. I would therefore say that I’m particularly proud of how appreciative people have been around the world since making the film. I continue to receive e-mails almost on a daily basis from individuals who have seen the trailer somewhere, thanking me for making the film and expressing their gratitude for highlighting something that’s affected their lives so much. I have even received e-mails from various psychologists, who told me they had patients who they believed suffered from Maladaptive Daydreaming, and were keen to see the film. Of course, getting the film into festivals is great, but for me, receiving these messages from people all over the world makes me feel very grateful. It’s strange how something that starts very small in your mind can grow into something much bigger."
Trailer: The Daydreamers (2020)
iFilmFestival: How did you get involved in filmmaking?
Renckens: "I wasn’t always a filmmaker. I studied Communication Science in my early twenties, and after I graduated from university, I started working in PR and communications, mainly for Discovery Channel. After doing this for a couple years, I began to feel quite unfulfilled in what I was doing, and couldn’t see myself spending the rest of my life working away in corporate offices. So, that’s when I really took some time to reflect on what I was most passionate about in life. Cinema has always been very important to me. Even when I was only 10 or 11, I would go to the local video shop all the time, and rent pretty much any film that seemed interesting to me. Growing up in rural Holland, I was often quite bored, so I think having that access to cinema really helped shape me as a person."
"I think one of the key things in life is figuring out what you’re passionate about, and trying to find a way to turn that into something you can somehow make a living of. For me, that just happens to be making films. After leaving my communications job, I started working as a development researcher for various indie production companies in London. Eager to make my own films, I decided to apply to the National Film & Television School’s ‘MA Directing Documentary’ course, and thankfully got offered a place. I feel like the NFTS is where I really discovered who I was as a filmmaker, and what I hope to express in my films, even though I have to admit that being there was a pretty stressful experience most of the time."
iFilmFestival: What new projects are you working on or are you hoping to work on in the future?
Renckens: "I’m currently focusing on two projects. First of all, I’d like to explore the option of making a bigger film about Maladaptive Daydreaming. I feel like I’ve only really scratched the surface of what it is, and how it affects people’s lives with my NFTS graduation film. Since finishing the film I’ve received so many messages from individuals around the world who are willing to share their experience of living with Maladaptive Daydreaming with me, and I continue to regularly speak to individuals through Zoom/Skype. I like the idea of making a film featuring different characters, all over the world, incorporating more observational scenes into the film, and elaborating more on what Maladaptive Daydreaming really entails. Possibly I’d like to work myself into the film more as well, and explore my own fascination with fantasy and escapism."
"In addition, I’m currently developing a short film about pet loss, and the intensity of the grief that people often experience when losing a pet. I feel like there’s still quite a big taboo around grieving the loss of a beloved pet, it’s something I want to explore further, partly because of my own experience of losing my cat last year. My idea is to focus the film around big pet cemetery in the Netherlands, and try and tell people’s stories through there, so the cemetery effectively acts as a gateway to the greater experience of grieving over a pet."
iFilmFestival: What role do film festivals play?
Renckens: "Obviously, they’re important for getting your film out there, and getting recognition, which can in turn help you get funding to make more films. I didn’t really enter the festival circuit until after COVID-19 hit, so I pretty much only have experience with online versions of film festivals, which is obviously less exciting and engaging than actually being there in the flesh, watching a film in the cinema, as the film was intended to be shown. I took part in this year’s IDFAcademy, which was done completely online. Of course, I really enjoyed it, and gained a lot of insights from the various workshops, masterclasses, and discussions with peers. But still I know it would’ve been such a different experience had we all been there in real life. Here’s hoping we can get that damn pandemic under control soon!"
"Also, I have to admit I struggle a bit sometimes with the whole ‘laurel chasing’ aspect of filmmaking; the urge to try and get your film in as many film festivals as possible, so you can make that nice film poster with 10+ laurels on it, and show it off to everyone, like “Look how well I’m doing!”. When I started making films, I never realised that getting into film festivals was going to be such a part of the job, and to this day I kind of struggle navigating my way through this world. It sometimes makes me question why we make films. Is it because we care so much about the subject of our film, or is it because we have such an inflated ego? I think you can often tell if a film comes from a good place, or whether it’s someone’s vanity project, and I like to think it’s the more sincere films that end up doing really well at festivals."
iFilmFestival: What is your advice to filmmakers tackling the festival circuit?
Renckens: "This kind of relates to my previous answer. I think you really have to think long and hard about why you want to make a particular film, and what it is that you’re trying to convey with it. The more you have a connection to the subject, and it comes from something you really feel inside, the more likely it’ll show in the final film, which makes it more likely for your film to get selected. Also, on a practical level, I would say it keep it short. Film festivals like short films, as it’s easier for them to programme it. My film ‘The Daydeamers’ ended up being 33 minutes, which in hindsight wasn’t the smartest thing to do, as many festivals have a 30-minute limit for shorts. But even then, I think getting it below 20 minutes is even better, and will increase your changes of it getting in somewhere. I also think a cover letter is important. It’s an opportunity for you to explain what motivated you to make the film, and try and convince the committee why you think your film would be such a great fit for their festival."
iFilmFestival: How do you see the future of film?
Renckens: "For me, film is probably the most magical thing in the world. Every time I feel down, or if I’m struggling with a particular situation, it’s films that really help me get out of it. I think of how a particular character acted in a film I love that was facing a similar situation, and try and learn from how they dealt with it. In that respect, I really think the film has the power to transform people’s lives. The other day, I was watching Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Close-Up’. I can’t really explain the plot in too much detail as it’s so complicated, but the final scene, with the two men riding a motorcycle, while holding a bunch of flowers, is pure cinematic perfection to me. It touched me like no other film has done in a very long time. For me, getting to experience these moments of pure joy, simply from watching a film, is magic to me. It makes me realise that film will always be there, and that people will always have an urge for seeing captivating stories on the screen. I just hope it won’t all be through TikTok. (sigh)"
iFilmFestival: Which filmmaker do you admire and why?
Renckens: "I’ve got an endless list of filmmakers that I keep coming back to. The real master of cinema for me is probably Andrei Tarkovsky. I recently read his book ‘Sculpting in Time’, and so many of the things he says really resonate with me. Then, there’s a whole other list of filmmakers such as Terrence Malick, Béla Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, Chantal Akerman, and Derek Jarman whose films really stir something in me. In terms of documentary, I think the work of Dutch documentary filmmaker Coco Schrijber is really special, and I think her films deserve to get more recognition internationally. If you’re interested in seeing her work, I recommend starting with ‘Bloody Mondays & Strawberry Pies’, a film that explores the art of boredom."
iFilmFestival: What film have you recently seen that you have admired in one way or another?
Renckens: "I mentioned this previously but it would have to be Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Close-Up’. The film is part documentary, part fiction, and it tells the story of the real-life trial of a man who impersonated filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, conning a family into believing they would star in his new film. It features the people involved in the real case, acting as themselves. The film resonated with me so much because it’s essentially a film about the love of cinema, and how much this can actually sometimes take over someone’s life. The intricacy with which Kiarostami combines real documentary scenes with fictionalised re-enactment scenes, is nothing short of masterful. Then, the final scene where Hossain Sabzian, the man that impersonated filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, actually meets the filmmaker in real life at the end… I have no words. Pure genius. Sometimes reality truly is stranger than fiction."
Thank you Thomas for answering our questions!
Interview by iFilmFestival on 19 February 2021