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‘Tonio’ Director on Filming Private Grief, Why Female Directors Aren’t a Rarity in Europe

TheWrap Screening Series: ”I have no idea why there’s so few women directors in Hollywood,“ Paula van der Oest tells TheWrap’s Steve Pond

Paula van der Oest began work on her latest film, “Tonio,” with an ending. On the morning of May 23, 2010, a young man, Tonio van der Heijden, was struck by a driver while riding his bicycle back to his home in The Netherlands. The budding photographer, in critical condition, later died at the age of 21.

For his parents, Adri and Mirjam van der Heijden, the time after his death was consumed with grief and longing for a life snuffed out so soon. For Adri, a renowned Dutch fiction writer, his son’s passing resulted in a blaze of creative energy that led to “Tonio,” a “requiem memoir” published a year after his son’s death — a memoir that was the seed for van der Oest’s film, the Netherlands’ official Oscar submission.

“The producers came to me they optioned the book and said, ‘Are you interested?’ I said no … they didn’t give up. … I was, of course, afraid to swallow this book,” van der Oest told TheWrap’s Steve Pond on Wednesday in a Q&A as part of TheWrap Screening Series. “I was asking myself, ‘What can I add to it, what justifies you to make a movie out of this beautiful book?'”

After first resisting, the director was finally attracted to the project by the power of grief. “Like when you lose somebody, in this case a child, there’s no future and you tumble through time,” said van der Oest, whose 2001 three-sister comedy “Zus & Zo,” received an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. “It’s like memories they come and go, you don’t have control about it.”

For van der Oest, directing “Tonio” was a lesson in navigating the universal experience of grief within the private creative process. “I was with someone who grieved for years and years about the loss of his father, and I realized how lonely it is to grieve. You can’t really share it,” she said.

“We live in a time that people want to be happy all the time and do everything to create happy, healthy lives,” she added. “But sometimes horrible things happen and people die, so all those feelings are the underlying motives.”

Despite the artistic vision van der Oest brought to the van Heijden story in the script, some parts of the story — kaleidoscopic, nonlinear, imagistic — didn’t emerge until the editing process.

Mirjam van den Heijden, the mother of the real Tonio, provided some direction with Tonio’s Soundcloud access, and access to his music devices. “He loved electronic music,” van der Oest said. “I could see all his favorites and the songs he listened in the last weeks. It was strange and moving at the same time.”

“The last song was one of his favorites. I was driving and listening to this song and I suddenly envisioned the ending. That’s how I wanted to end this movie: with him alive. Full of hope. … maybe in love.”

“Tonio,” which stars Pierre Bokma, Rifka Lodeizen and Chris Peters as the van Heijden family, is one of 85 films in the Oscar race for best foreign language film.

Van der Oest also downplayed the fuss about her status as a female filmmaker. “In my country it’s one-third of the directors are women,” she said. “I have no idea why there’s so few women directors in Hollywood. I can’t see why a woman can’t do the same as a male director.”