The international success of 'My Extraordinary Summer with Tess': “I am Sam”
It’s a typical Dutch spring day with a wishy-washy sun in a grey sky and streets shiny with rain when I cycle to the BIND office for our interview. Producer Joram Willink and director Steven Wouterlood greet me with hardly contained enthusiasm. They’ve just heard that they’ve won the Audience Award at the New York International Children’s Film Festival. They ask if we can start the interview a little bit later, so they can quickly tape a “Thank you so much” video message for the award ceremony. It’s barely seven weeks ago that My Extraordinary Summer with Tess premiered in Berlin, Germany, and in the meantime the youth film has already won three international prizes and a great and a great nomination.
The film is about 11-year-old Sam, who is afraid that as the youngest he will one day outlive his family and be left all alone. During a vacation, he starts on a “solitude training” he has devised for himself. On the first day he meets Tess, and learns that you should cherish your family instead of fleeing it. Tess doesn’t know her own father, never says sorry and sometimes behaves rather oddly. She has come up with a plan to get to know her father, and has one week to carry it out. She gets Sam to help her.
Director Steven Wouterlood and BIND have a successful history together, with many international awards including an Emmy for the short film Alles Mag (“everything goes”). When I ask how they came across Tess, Wouterlood and Willink answer in unison: “It was time to make a feature-length movie.” Given Wouterlood’s love for family films, they were looking for a suitable family film project. His aunt, writer Marjet van Cleeff, tipped them off about Anna Woltz’s book, which, however, already had several interested parties circling. But after a persuasive director’s vision and an amiable lunch meeting, the two were able to convince Anna Woltz and her publisher Querido that the book would be in good hands with BIND.
Laura van Dijk was asked to write the screenplay. She’d been visiting the island of Terschelling, the setting of the book, since she was a child and therefore was able to flawlessly craft the right atmosphere into the script. Dutch broadcaster VPRO, co-producer in previous collaborations, also came on board at an early stage. With the movie rights, a letter of intent from the broadcaster and the screenwriter on board, BIND then went to the Netherlands Film Fund.
In co-operation with Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung (MDM), the Netherlands Film Fund had just established a co-development fund for script development of original youth film proposals. For Tess to be eligible, there had to relevance for Central Germany. The book was already successfully published in Germany and the Wadden Islands are a very popular German tourist destination, so this made cooperation with Germany logical. Also, one character in the story could in theory come from another country, namely the father of Tess. During the film festival in Cannes, contact was made with the German co-producer Ostlicht, who immediately could see its potential.
“Thanks to the funding we received from Creative Europe MEDIA, we were able to start preproduction very early on,” says Willink. “In December 2017, after the Netherlands Film Fund selected us, we decided to do everything in our power to start shooting in the summer of 2018.” This is also the reason why casting focused on actors at least 13 years old (in the book Sam and Tess are 10 and 11). Because the legislation is slightly more flexible for child actors of that age, they had 24 shooting days with the young starring actors Sonny van Utteren (Sam) and Josephine Arendsen (Tess) at their disposal during the summer holidays.
“I love the open-mindedness of children,” says Wouterlood. “It brings out an enormous energy in me. I love to act silly on the set, but I also approach them in a mature way and create a safe environment for them. And I get the parents involved.” Wouterlood talks about the team’s solution-driven attitude and close-knit collaboration. The extremely hot summer, the click with the actors, the beautiful light and the island’s atmosphere all contributed to this.
“We felt quite emotional during the first editing stage,” says Willink, “when we realized how very beautiful it was going to be. You often have that feeling during the process, but because you’re so much in your own bubble you don’t always dare give it too much credit.”
The production was on a very tight schedule to be able to enter it for the Berlinale, Willink explains. They asked editor Christine Houbiers to start editing during the filming already. “That we ultimately succeeded in entering the Berlinale was of course fantastic,” says Wouterlood. “During the Terschelling Film Days in November, we were waiting for the ferry back to the mainland when we received the phone call from Berlin that we were selected for Generations. I can tell you that led to quite a few bottles of champagne being cracked open on the quay!”
Wouterlood: “The world premiere was fantastic. There was more laughter than during the test screening; you could feel a positive vibe fizzing throughout the room. When the audience (750 people!) gave the movie a standing ovation we knew: it worked!”
American entertainment magazines Variety and Screen gave the movie favourable reviews. Variety even proclaimed Steven Wouterlood one of the ten biggest European talents to make a definitive international breakthrough in 2019. My Extraordinary Summer with Tess has since been sold to several countries and the film is heading to cinemas in France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Taiwan.
So what are the reasons for its success? First, the story is very universal. But because the setting is quintessentially Dutch at the same time, the film has an exotic appeal for other countries, which gives it international allure and potential. The unexpected plot twists and humour also contribute to the success. In Berlin the jury praised the film with a Special Mention for being a unique story that very tactfully deals with mortality and loss. Wouterlood: “In Zagreb, at the Q&A after the film, a young boy raised his hand and said: ‘I just want to say that I feel just like Sam, I often feel alone, I am Sam’. This was met with a thunderous applause from the room. That’s when you really know what it’s all for. Those follow-up sessions with the audience are so valuable.”
Quite a few famous Dutch children’s books have been filmed with great success, such as Dikkertje Dap, which premiered at the Berlinale in 2017, and Abeltje, Minoes, Brief voor de Koning (Letter for the King) and Oorlogsgeheimen (War Secrets). The success is partly due to the love and care with which those films are made as well as the fact that taboos are addressed and difficult subjects are not avoided.
What’s more, there’s a lot going on in the Netherlands in the field of international film education. Eye’s Cinemini, for example, brings young children, two to six years old, into contact with European film through short films and interactive workshops in order to stimulate the development of creativity and critical thinking. There is also the Wrap! project where Cinekid and different European partners are working on a catalogue of European films for children, and developing educational materials to accompany them. Cinekid is one of the largest children’s media festivals in the world. In the Westergas in Amsterdam and almost 40 other locations in the Netherlands, children can watch new, special and eye-catching films and television productions during the autumn holiday and go on a discovery tour in the MediaLab.
• Winner Special Mention of the International Jury 2019, Berlinale, Berlin, Germany
• Nomination for GWFF Best First Feature Award 2019, Berlinale, Berlin, Germany
• Winner Audience Award 2019, KinoKino International Film Festival, Zagreb, Kroatia
• Winner Audience Award 2019, New York International Children’s Film Festival, New York, USA
• Winner Grand Prix Jury Award 2019, Kaliningrad International Film Festival, Kaliningrad, Russia
• Winner Audience Award 2019, Kaliningrad International Film Festival, Kaliningrad, Russia
• Winner Children Jury Award 2019, Kristiansand International Children’s Film Festival, Kristiansand, Norway
My Extraordinary Summer with Tess premiers in Dutch cinemas July 3 2019.
The film was partly supported by the Creative Europe MEDIA Program.