The director: Philippe Blasband
Philippe Blasband wrote some notes about the movie: here they are...
"Step By Step" can be summed up in the following sentence: He is the self-portrait of a small fry drug dealer.
This, for me, is the main point of the movie: how does a drug dealer describe himself? How does he account for such socially-reprehensible actions? What reasoning or sophisms go through his mind? How did he come to be what he is? Basically: what does the human face of Evil look like?
Some may find this question absurd or naive. I personally believe it is essential.
A short movie from England was shown at the 1998 Brest Festival. It was a kind of documentary in which four dictators (Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Mao) talked about their lives, narrating over archive images. They did not comment on their public lives - the ones we read about in history books. Quite to the contrary, they described their private lives, their foibles, their ailments, their habits, their neuroses and their family troubles.
Many of the spectators were outraged by the film, considering it morally despicable.
But as a half-Jew, I find this movie very important. I need to know that Hitler was unlucky with women, that he loved dogs, that he had digestive problems. It is important for me to know that Hitler was not some kind of supernatural demon, but that he was a human being like everyone else. The Evil - this Quintessence of Evil - who wiped out one third of my Jewish family, did not belong to some kind of privileged race of inhuman beings or monsters. Oh no, the Quintessence of Evil is latent in each and every one of us. Ethnocide is not perpetrated by superior or degenerated beings. Instead, as the movie "Shoah" clearly illustrates, it is orchestrated by everyday people. The Hutus that did not kill their Tutsi neighbors are a total exception. This genocide - like other genocides - was perpetrated by workaday world people who found themselves in a system that encouraged them to kill.
Man is, of course, capable of the best. He is also capable of the worst. Solidarity, creation and mutual aid are just as much a part of human nature as slaughter and concentration camps.
We must face the monstrosity that lies within us and our fellows, both in our everyday lives and through fiction. By looking the Quintessence of Evil in the eye, we see just how human it really is. Albeit risky, we must ride the wave of fascination in order to discover this Quintessence of Evil, through our very own fascination.
"Step By Step", just as "Richard III" is the eponym of that tiny, monstrous, intriguing, handicapped child-killer of a king. This Shakespearean play and the two movies that have been made of it over the last few years (one with Ian McKellen, the other starring Al Pacino) are my main sources of inspiration for "Step By Step", as they helped me understand the workings of the story.
Shakespeare's play is purely brilliant. Before he commits his various crimes, Richard III warns us, saying "Get ready! I'm about to commit a foul crime!" And he goes ahead and does just that! For example, he tells us that, despite his handicap and ugliness, he is going to seduce the widow of the enemy he has just killed, right in front of the enemy's grave! This is not enough for him: he then goes on to say "Did you see that? I did it!"
We feel the same thrill as we follow Verkamen, even if we find his actions reprehensible. We have always wanted to have an insight into a drug dealer's mind, and we need him to be humane and intelligent, close to us. We no longer believe in the Devil. We now know - to an increasing degree - that Evil is an integral part of a human being. We want this Evil in others to be tactile so that we can touch it in ourselves.
Let me explain myself: I have nothing against the drug trade per se. I have nothing against the fact that people sell drugs and, without wanting to strike up a debate, I do actually feel it should be traded legally, controlled medically, etc. But if drugs were no longer illegal, people like Verkamen would move on to something else, some other illegal activity that is uncontrolled by society, something illegal and immoral such as murder, extortion, etc.
What we are dealing here is Experts of Evil. They are smaller-scale than Eichmann and are not submitted to the same conditions, but they are all in the same line of business.
The three murderers
In the first part, we will start off with something very concrete, then move towards more and more abstraction.
This development is, naturally, inspired by and is a direct result of the action.
The focuses will be short to start with and will grow longer and longer. The wide angle shots will tighten gradually. The script will start with sequence shots, narrowing down to a series of inserts (the end of this first part is the heroin injection: quote from "Panic in Needle Park".). The lighting will be "soft" at the beginning, and will gradually become sharper and sharper, to include "back-lights": we will move from a typical Belgian overcast evening to a blue/orangey light which, in movie terms, abstractly signifies the night.
The soundtrack will develop in the same way. We will start out with an almost documentary soundtrack, characterized by a mixture of surround, voice and effects. We will end up with a continuous buzzing baseline (skyward city surround, buzzing of the hotel air-conditioning), upon which we will superimpose distinctive words and isolated sounds.
The questioning sequence will consist of a huge amount of angles-reverse angles. Most of the time, the characters are facing each other, arguing: classic angle-reverse angle situation.
It is necessary to assume this a priori arid situation, just as Marcel Ophuls assumes - and even claims - the "talking heads" aspect of his movies.
Most movies treat discussions between two characters in the same, very efficient, but highly repetitive, way: a wide angle shot and two sets of angles-reverse angles, that are more or less opposite, with two different focuses and shot widths (waist figures and close-ups, as a general rule).
This movie focuses too much on Verkamen's speech to allow for such simplistic syntax. We will need to think about this and determine our limitations. At this stage, I would like to develop two approaches:
Beyond the dialogs, sometimes even in contradiction with the dialogs, we must indicate that one character dominates another.
This is done, first and foremost, by actor arrangements and movements and the direction of their eyes. This is not subjected to rules: a dominant character can remain motionless while he/she dominates; his/her domination may also come from the way he/she moves in relation to the dominated character. A dominated character may be squashed and motionless or, on the other hand, move about through nervousness. Evasive looks indicate one character's weakness in relation to another. But the dominant party can also sometimes dominate by avoiding the other's eyes.
We will need to discuss with the actors/actresses the most natural and efficient solutions for each individual situation.
The idea is to never "mask" the domination, but to strengthen this impression with every shot.
Flash-backs are interjected in Verkamen's questioning. These flash-backs are often themselves conversations. The script of these flash-backs (the "past") should be treated completely differently from the script of the questioning (the "present").
When treating the past, we will use long focuses as, I feel, they give the impression that the characters are "floating" on the set. The wide angle shots will, of course, be filmed with slightly shorter focuses, but the least short possible. We must use these long focus lenses to literally drive these scenes into the past.
Also, during the conversations, we will always film the angles-reverse angles from the outside. In other words, when filming one character, the camera will always be placed beyond the other character, regardless of whether or not reference is made to this other character.
In the present, on the other hand, we will be using short focus lenses and will be filming the angles-reverse angles internally. In other words, the camera will always be placed (will give the impression it is placed) between the two characters.
A question comes up repeatedly during the reading of the script: how does Chevalier's ghost appear? The answer is: as simply as possible, that is, via a cut, preferably a match cut (almost invisible). We will only realize the ghost has appeared once the cut has been made.
In Cronenberg's movie "eXistenZ", we switch from one world to another. Where others would have resorted to morphings or other impressive effects, Cronenberg simply intercuts the two worlds as if they were both part of the same scene. This is what makes it all the more impressive.
We will use the same method.
Verkamen sees himself as a merchant, nothing more. He sees nothing wrong with the fact that he deals in drugs, an illegal activity, and that he sometimes employs illegal methods: after all, he's just doing a job!
His manipulative tendencies come from his days in the IRS. He is very good at wheedling information out of people and influencing them without them knowing. Above all, he knows when other people are trying to do the same to him.
He has a depressive streak and relationship problems with women. If it were not for these factors, he would probably have gone straight. But these psychological characteristics and a certain series of coincidences primed him for becoming a drug dealer.
Mr. Louis Chevalier
This Frenchman is an old drug "wholesaler". Although it is not suggested in the script, he would have had something to do with the French Connection.
He is from a more humble background than Verkamen. He is a self-made man. He becomes Verkamen's mentor, teaching him the tricks of the trade, even influencing the way he dresses and teaching him to drive. He also pushes him very gradually into crime.
The only thing that has allowed Mr. Chevalier to stay "in the business" is his realism: when he wants something, he'll do anything to get it, no matter how ruthless. Nothing stands in his way, be it morals, a sense of legality or affection for some person or other.
He would have enjoyed Lu-Tzun's "Art of War".
Jean Denoote is a police officer of about fifty. He enjoys his work. He is smart, hardworking and pleasant. But he does not have the necessary political connections to get promoted. To top it all, he is from a left- wing working-class family and a trade union representative.
There is, of course, a certain shadiness to his character. It is nothing shameful, just something he would rather not talk about.
He is an upright man, sometimes a little naive and modest. He is a typical Belgian.
Mercier is a good policeman, although totally different from Denoote. He loves tracking down, questioning and intimidating suspects. He does not think twice about employing some pretty shady means. Because of his fiery character, he can become extremely violent, in the wink of an eye.
When he teams up with Denoote, he, of course, plays the "bad cop".
Bex is a psychology graduate. After entering the police force, she was rapidly promoted to captain of the CID drug squad.
Like any woman working in a macho environment, she has to be tougher, more efficient and more pro. It is doubtful that she is really cut out for this line of work, but she goes about it conscientiously all the same.
In the movie, we will rarely see behind this hard exterior, the person behind the steadfast captain's mask.
There are three of them. They are French.
They look like doctors or sales reps and are hard to detect.
One of them does not talk much.