Kenneth Mercken – former cyclist turned director – debuted his brand-new film ‘The Racer’ at the Raindance Film Festival. The film was inspired by the directors cycling story. We recently got in touch with Kenneth to talk about his hard-hitting new film. This is what he had to say:
Hi Kenneth! So, you have a new film out called ‘The Racer’ which is making its UK debut at the Raindance Film Festival. Why don’t you start off by telling me a bit about what the film is about?
Okay. The film is about a boy called Felix, and he has a dream of becoming a pro-cyclist. But the dream was actually installed by his father who had the same dream but never really went to the top, and he wants his son to pursue his dream for him. And they’re kind of both put on the line.
So, the film follows a character called Felix and you’re essentially telling your story through this character. What made you want to direct a film inspired by your own experiences?
I made a short film called ‘The Letter’ and it’s about the same thing. That was actually a story about a Russian boy who comes to Belgium to become a pro-cyclist and meets the dark side of the sport. During the shoots, the script was very explicit. And one of the Russian actors asked me “where’s the finished film?” And I wanted to show this in the way I lived the sport and the way I saw it. I think I kind of hid behind him – hid behind the character in this short film. So that was the moment I realised I had to tell my own story and be open about everything.
Directing this film, I can imagine gave you a lot of time to reminisce and reflect on your life. If you could go back to any point in your life, what would you change?
I’m not sure. There are times where I think I would do it all again. Looking back now I know that’s a foolish idea. If you’re inside it, if you’re in it, you’re kind of in this tunnel vision. Being on a bike for 4-5 hours a day, it gets very addictive. This is something that I tried to show in the film but it’s not something you can describe. It’s alluring and very addictive and difficult to get out of. So, you can lose perspective on what you are doing.
I suppose if you change anything you wouldn’t have the opportunity to make this film now.
Yeah, I guess also, I wouldn’t have started making films if I hadn’t had that experience so I am grateful.
Not only does the film cater to athletes who can relate, but also to people who aren’t necessarily into sports. My favourite scene has to be when Felix returns home for his uncle’s funeral. I thought that it was really powerful and we got to see just how strained the relationship between Felix and his dad really is. And I loved the personal touch at the end. What was your favourite scene in the film? A scene you were either really proud of or you just enjoyed directing.
Well since you mentioned the scene at the funeral, I really enjoyed directing it! I had this whole speech written out, and that was just something that existed on paper and Niels the actor, he’s not an actor he was a cyclist and that’s not his strongest point. I also wanted a closed character like this. But then when he started to do the speech, I saw it didn’t work. We had been shooting in a cemetery so I said to the crew; “okay give me 10 minutes,” and we actually re-wrote the speech on the graves! And it was interesting because he said to me that he feels so embarrassed doing this in front of all these people! Then I convinced by saying that is the point. If you welcome it and embrace it and you feel embarrassed, that’s how the character should feel. That will make the scene work because you’re afraid of failing. I tell him it’s okay to be embarrassed because that’s what made the scene work and it really convinced him. So yeah, I enjoyed that.
It sees some incredibly talented actors. You have Niels Willaerts, playing Felix who, until you just said he wasn’t an actor I had no idea! He works alongside Koen De Graeve who plays his dad. What was it like working with these actors?
To work with Niels, it was tough because you are limited as to what you can do. I wrote the script with a lot more dialogues but I had to make it work for him. The dialogue was maybe too outspoken, I don’t know. He wasn’t able to reproduce them. So, I had to find a way of how he would say it in his own language. He’s very introverted and I’m happy with that because it made me change the script and the scenes in order for it to work for him. That also made me find the character the way I wanted. I wanted to have someone very introvert. I guess I was like that before going to film school as well. I wanted the viewer to see what was happening inside and understand the choice that he is making, and that you feel with him, and that the conflict is mainly internal. But I also had to find something in his life or find something very close to him for it to work in the scenes. That was actually really interesting and exciting.
It talks about a lot of serious issues that athletes have to endure. We see drug use and the pressure that you’re up against when you’re training and competing in races. Nothing is sugar-coated. What advice would you give to a young athlete who might be experiencing the same struggles?
Well, I guess, to be surrounded by good people, and people who make good choices and create a healthy environment. I didn’t always look for the most healthy teams because my surroundings, and the people like my father, just wanted me to perform. I think the sport has changed now, there’s more room for that. But the pressure these kids are under, it’s not just about the top athletes, it’s also these young kids that are just starting out. The pressure they’re facing is enormous. And for me, that was also something very confronting to work with Niels because it kind of happened back in the film. We had to make him lose weight, and I was also facing responsibilities. We made him drop like 8 or 9 kilos, and to a certain point, he started to skip his breakfast. He was on a very very low-calorie diet. At a certain point, we were filming a very long day with a lot of extras – like a bike race – and they called me and he just fainted! He confessed to me that he skipped his breakfast. It was very confronting for me because I saw that he was becoming almost anorexic. He was going through the same sequence as I did, I felt it. For me, I was just re-living all these moments again.
After you quit your athletic career you went on to pursue a career in directing. A career change is never an easy decision. You’ve already given your advice to someone who wants to be an athlete but what advice would you give to someone who wanted to pursue a career in the film industry?
I guess that for me personally, the way I worked in sports was that “okay you give it all you got,” and if there’s a bike race, you train for 6-8 weeks, and the you either win it or you don’t. Film making doesn’t work like that. I had no idea what I was getting in to and you need patience, you need time to find your voice. You need to study, you have to have a technique. So, I guess my advice would be to be patient. Also, to take the risks and try to make mistakes. Allow yourself to make mistakes in order to find your voice and the things that you would want to make.
I have one last question for you before I let you go. I can imagine that you have quite a busy day ahead of you. I just wanted to know there are any future plans that you can tell us about?
Yeah, I’m writing my second feature film now. I’m very happy it’s not my own story. Now I can start to truly write fiction. I have a Ukrainian actor in this film, who also used to be a semi-professional cyclist like me. After his cycling career, he started to struggle. And it’s kind of this Eastern guy who’s looking to the west and has a dream of going to the west. So, it’s all about that.
That sounds really good! Will we be able to see that anytime soon?
Well I’m still in the writing process so it won’t be for a while!
We’ll be sure to look out for more of Kenneth’s work! For now, his film ‘The Runner’ was debuted at London’s Raindance Film Festival, the official release will be out sometime in November, so be sure to keep an eye out! You can watch the official trailer here: