That mission accomplished, I then had to get past security. What is this, you ask, some factory farm operation you're trying to infiltrate to prove cruelty to animals in Limburg?
Almost. It's the set of a Flemish film.
The first thing I see is a man covered in what appears to be manure and blood. That seems cruel, doesn't it? "It's creamed spinach and cookies," smiles Belgian actor Enrico Salamone. His cohort in the movie similarly has a bleeding gash on his forehead. But he's just sitting around drinking coffee.
Immediately after I had arrived with a handful of other reporters, we were led through a huge stable of bellowing cows, and the smell was, shall we say, pungent. Cows also tend to slobber and snort quite a lot. "It's not all glitter and glamour!" says the Kinepolis press contact jauntily. The reporter from Het Laatste Nieuws gives me a look like we have just entered the first circle of hell.
You want to know what it's like to be on a film set? A little surreal. The movie is Rundskop (or Beefhead, which doesn't sound quite so striking in English), and it is being shot in West Flanders and Limburg. It's the debut feature of Flemish director Michaël Roskam, whose handful of short films have won several prizes.
I make a remark to the lead actor, Matthias Schoenaerts, on the intensity of the scenes. "There's worse to come," he says. "This is child's play today."
Rundskop is a crime thriller focused on hormone trafficking - a hot topic in Belgium after the 1995 murder of a Flemish veterinary inspector by the hormone mafia. It is well known that Belgian cattle farmers have been coerced and threatened by the powerful syndicate of hormone traders, and the topic makes its way into popular culture, such as in last year's award-winning TV series Van vlees en bloed (Of Flesh and Blood).
But that aspect of Rundskop, both lead actor and director claim, is just the framework on which to hang a more important story - that of two friends, played by Schoenaerts and Flemish actor Jeroen Perceval, who share a terrible secret from their childhood. The characters "used to be friends when they were kids, and then went their separate ways," explains Schoenaerts. "But they run into each other 20 years later, and it's the start of a whole new story. There's a secret that I carry, and he knows about it; it changes my here and now and brings that story right up front."
Schoenaerts, one of Belgium's most popular actors after his roles in Linkeroever, De smaak van De Keyser and My Queen Karo, has himself beefed up for the part. He started a special diet and weight training last summer to prepare for the role. "He's a symbolic character," Schoenaerts explains.
"There are a lot of similarities with what he's doing in dealing with the cows; he has the same vulnerabilities and the same unpredictable behaviour. He's a metaphor for a lot of things."
The director drives this message home: "Rundskop isn't a film about the hormone mafia, just like Hamlet isn't a story about Danish royalty."
Roskam grew up in the region of Limburg we now find ourselves in, and he's shooting most of the film in the dialect of both this area and the French-speaking area of Wallonia right next door. Throw in a few actors from the Netherlands, and it's quite a coming together of languages and cultures here on the farm.
After a full day of filming, there are two scenes left to go - one with Salamone in quite a state over his filth-covered situation, and one in which Salamone and his friend storm off, and Schoenaerts and Perceval preen around each other like macho adversaries.
There is little dialogue in either scene. Everyone - film crew and journalists alike - are delighted by Salamone's appearance and cover their mouths to keep from laughing during one of his scenes. For the final shot, it's all quiet and serious. The crew is in fact
reacting the way it hopes the audience will react in early 2011 when the film releases.
In two hours, the same number of scenes have been shot. I ask Schoenaerts if he gets bored with the interminable time between filming. "No, never!" he insists. I think he's trying to be diplomatic, especially as I see him leaning on trucks, smoking cigarettes between shots. But I determine that he's not lying. He looks concentrated, like he's going over the next scene in his mind, pretty much all the time. When he's not talking to the director (or a pesky journalist), he's not talking at all. Interestingly, those who have less dramatic scenes to get through shoot the breeze like nothing.
But the best part of being on the set is watching the camera crew at work. When "actie!" is yelled, and the camera starts to move atop its dolly, wheeled down a track at the hands of two crew members, you see how a film is really made. Watching on a monitor the kind of effects achieved through simple, smooth movements is movie education at its finest. The director of photography is Nicolas Karakatsanis, responsible for a number of visually striking Flemish films, including Small Gods and Lost Person's Area. He's an expert at knowing how to make the simplest of Belgian landscapes appear menacing.
This is no Hollywood set out here in Velm - many Flemish filmmakers work with very low budgets, and it shows. There is little equipment, and images flicker on a monitor that appears dangerously close to giving up. But these are the conditions in which the best Flemish films of the last few years - Small Gods, De helaasheid der dingen, Aanrijding in Moscou - were made. When you have the talent, you don't need the frills.