Director Hans Herbots discusses ‘The Treatment’


The Jack Caffrey thrillers from British crime writer Mo Hayder, originally set in the gritty streets of East London, gets its first adaptation into the realm of Euro Noir with The Treatment, released through Eyeworks Film and Peccadillo Pictures. Belgian director Hans Herbots brings an unsettling cinematic vision to Hayder’s world in a new psychological thriller. With the story re-imagined by detective “Nick Cafmeyer” investigating a spate of child kidnappings in Belgium, we found out how The Treatment translated well to the world cinema screen.

Can you tell us a little bit about The Treatment and what audiences can expect from your film?

Hans Herbots: The Treatment is a dark thriller with a very entertaining story. It is about a man who has encountered something very terrible in his past and he can’t find any peace in that. He has become a policeman in order to keep searching for his younger brother who disappeared. At the beginning of the film, there is a certain case where an eight-year-old child has disappeared. This causes him to mingle together what has happened to him in the past with what is happening in the present and he kind of loses himself. The film is about how he tries to solve the case to find himself a way out of his own past and get on with his life. It’s about closure in a way but it also touches upon some dark themes. Without talking too much about it, we shot two different endings as we didn’t think the ending in the book would really work on film for intuitive reasons. More and more during the drafting of the film – writing the screenplay and editing – it became clear that this process of closure was only possible in the theatrical version. That happened to be the ending that proved to be the better one during the editing stage.

What were the other significant variations from the book to the screen?

What happens many times when you make a film adaptation is that three or four characters in the book become one sole character. For example, in the book Nick Cafmeyer’s character has a girlfriend and she has problems of her own. We took a lot of the girlfriend from the book and incorporated them into Danni Petit, his police chief.  You always bring certain things together in order to tell the story; different characters are merged so you have enough characters for the film but fewer characters than in the book. We kept the essentials, like if you compare the size of the bottles and concentration between pure perfume and eau de toilette. That’s a good comparison, I think! The book is more the eau de toilette and the film is a concentration of that.


After reading the script, what was it that attracted you to The Treatment? Did you want to make a shocking and controversial film?

When I started reading the script I couldn’t stop. I really wanted to know who did it and how it would end. As well as that, the themes of closure and leaving the past behind but also about how abuse creates new abusers and how it doesn’t just stop. These were interesting elements I wanted to spend time and investigate them whilst making the film.

Making a shocking film was not the intention in the beginning. It is funny how in filmmaking it is said that you write the film three times: once with the script, a second time while you’re shooting, and the third time in the editing. I think that really happened here. Of course, we thought about it and asked ourselves, “Should we show the found-footage?” I knew with those scenes it would provoke something in the viewer. While shooting and editing it, we were surprised by how intense and shocking the film had become. The footage we had created on the first shooting day was put in a different context when we added the soundtrack. Of course, we knew what story we were telling but we didn’t really want or expect it to be a shocking film. People were talking and laughing behind the camera so it was very light. However, when we took away the sound and put in new sounds with breathing and made the image grainier it became something even more shocking than we could have imagined it to be! While we were making it, the found-footage didn’t feel like a home video: it was very light. When you put things in their context and add sound – as what happens in cinema – it is surprising how fascinating it can be.

I think, if we wanted to make a film that was shocking we would have made some very different choices. The sound and acting style would have been different. I would have used recognisable actors. Apart from Geert Van Rampelberg [Ensor award-winner for Best Actor in 2013] who plays Nick Cafmeyer, most the other actors come from a theatre background in Belgium. I wanted to work with Geert for a long time because he has a certain darkness in him but he also has a very gentle side. I really wanted somebody who has this combination so, as an audience, you wanted to go along with him on this dark trip. If he would have been some sort of macho guy you would want to stop watching him and you wouldn’t feel connected to him.


What were some of your favourite scenes in the film?

I liked the scenes with the swimming teacher a lot because his character has gone through so many horrible things; he is somebody to have pity with. You feel like what has happened will haunt him forever; he will never be able to lead a normal life. Those sequences stayed with me for a long time. Also, the scene with Cindy Simons (Brit Van Hoof) when she tells us for the first time what happened to her. Brit is also not a very well-known actress but since that scene, she has been cast in more productions because of her amazing performance. There was some kind of magical atmosphere in that room when we were shooting. Another favourite scene of mine, although it is mainly because of the dialogue, is the scene with the mother Steffi Vankerkhove (Laura Verlinden), who has is tied up during a two-day shoot, which had a psychological impact on her. After filming, her ankles started to hurt because of the restraints and as soon as someone touched her she started to scream. At certain moments she went into some kind of trance. We re-shot all of the scenes from the day before, one after the other, and she was in a type of shock, almost. That was very intense! They’re quite opposite because the first example was very physical with running outside and using a lot of cranes. Then this was so intense with one person, it was intriguing. Strange! It was a very bizarre atmosphere.

The combination of the sound, lighting and cinematography is very striking which befits the mood of the film. Were there any special methods to achieve this feel?

I thought the cinematography was very important for this film. I like when a film feels very authentic but looks very cinematic at the same time. We watched the Scandinavian horror film Let the Right One In (2008) and we liked how everything was very well thought of. Everything was toned down; the imagery was never too much and I like that style. We took some stills of that film to start with and looked at our own colours that we wanted to use. One of my big examples is Michael Mann who has always been able to combine a certain amount of cinematography with the story, like in Heat (1995). It feels like a very authentic story but every angle choice is well thought of. We wanted our film to be very dark and to film a lot during the hours between day and night, so we shot the film during the summer when the evenings are longer. The sound is also very important to help tell the story. We spent a lot of time working on this to make you feel uncomfortable. The good thing with sound is that you don’t always notice that it is there, such as wind and rain to help you feel the atmosphere.


Were you ever anxious at how the story would be received by a Belgian audience, what with the book being written by a British crime writer and originally set in East London?

We had a very specific case of paedophilia in Belgium with the Marc Dutroux scandal in the 1990s which was really traumatic for the whole country. It also provoked a lot of change in the police; the way the police was structured and how justice prevailed in Belgium. A lot of these things changed after that famous case. The good thing was that there was enough time that had passed between that case and our film being released. It has been more than fifteen years so it wouldn’t feel like we were exploiting it. On the other hand, we felt like by translating the story to Belgium there would be enough things people could relate to it. The story would resonate with w hat happened in the 1990s and provide an extra link with the audience. From the first time we see the character Ivan Plettinckx, the Belgian audience would believe he could exist because they know these people really do exist. I think this laid a good ground-work for the film to be able to grow. First, we wanted to tell the story as it was in the book and set it in London because the parks are so huge there and we don’t have big parks in Belgium, but that was just a small detail. I think it was a good choice to bring it to Belgium, I hope! I think the rights to Mo Hayder’s books were sold before to an American production company, but after a few years they gave them back because, as it was an American company, considered too dark perhaps?

Had you read any of Mo Hayder’s books beforehand or did you start reading her collection of ‘Jack Caffery thrillers’?

No, I hadn’t read them actually. At the time, I was always in airports and flying a lot when we were making the TV series Spiral (2005- ) and I saw her novels in airport bookshops. The first thing I ever read was the script and then, of course, I read the books with that main character Jack Caffrey. I’ve become a fan because she is also very authentic in her descriptions and she does a lot of research. What she describes feels very real, unfortunately! That adds to the intensity of the story so I like her books a lot now.


Did you encounter any problems with the distribution of your film due to the dark subject material?

We did have problems here in Britain with the BBFC rating. They watched it and said we had to take some things out. We really wanted this film to be shown in the UK because of Mo Hayder so we argued and explained how we shot certain scenes. We spent time explaining and reasoning until finally, we were all OK with it. That is a good example of how edgy the film is for certain people. In France, we encountered the same thing from a big distributor. It’s always “these four or five seconds”! In a way, I understand it but it’s a pity that when you make a film about abuse and things that hurt it’s not a bad thing that it hurts the viewer a little bit. Sometimes it is easier than not to show it and just suggest it with sound; it is something to discuss. Although, I have my opinion about it, I’m not saying you should show everything always and imagination is a good thing. We’ll see.

What are your thoughts on Nordic Noir and Euro Noir in terms of modernising the crime genre? Do you feel The Treatment adds something different to Euro Noir that hasn’t been seen before?

I think The Treatment certainly adds a lot of darkness to it! I think, on a level of darkness and intensity, this film might be something new or raising the bar one level up. The film combines a lot of the good elements of Nordic and Euro Noir: the strong voice of the creators; the strong characters; and the uncompromising story and, at the same time, trying to tell something about society to give the story a place in a larger context.

As you have directed episodes of Spiral (2005- ) prior to this film – do you prefer working on a movie or the television format? Which process is more challenging for you?

I think a bit of both really: a film is much more condensed, as with adapting a film from a book; a film is much more condensed than a TV series. In TV, you can have approximately 400-600 minutes to investigate a story and to investigate the meaning of the character. I think, in these days, characters are much more developed and interesting to watch in a miniseries than in films. It’s nice to do both, actually. The good thing is that on the Continent or in Belgium, at least, it takes three years to finance and develop a film: I think in the past there was a real difference between television and film. They have almost become the same because television screens have become bigger and better; you don’t need to be so close to watch it anymore! TV used to be very close all of the time but it’s not like that anymore. Visually it has become much more interesting as well.

Would you have been as interested in The Treatment if it had been pitched as a miniseries?

That’s a good question. I don’t think so. I think The Treatment needs the darkness of the cinema in a way. It’s a good question because if you had told this story in a miniseries we would have used other visual language. When you make a film, you have more freedom. Whereas with TV, even with how good it is, is still formatted by people from the network. But, as opposed to the US I believe, in Belgium, you have more freedom as a filmmaker. You can be more intense, experiment, try things out, and be darker. I don’t think this could have been a miniseries with the same level of intensity. In a way, TV is still more mainstream. We all watch these HBO series but Nordic and Euro Noir are still very niche in comparison.

Could you see a continuation of the story from The Treatment as a television series or a sequel in any format?

I would love to. There is a great potential for a TV series in Mo Hayder’s work but, as I say, the storytelling should be different. Nick is a very intriguing character and there is a lot of material you could work with. I think it could be very interesting.

Can you share with us what you will be working on next?

I’m working on three things at the moment: I’m finishing a television series for Eyeworks in Belgium and I am preparing for a miniseries which we will be shooting over the next month. We are also working on a British project set in London, which is starting to grow now as a result of The Treatment. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it all goes well!

Words and interview by Antony Smith

The Treatment is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray from 14th September 2015