Peter Webber Interview

A love of art brought them together. In Peter Webber’s debut feature film, Girl With A Pearl Earring, a passionate, yet unconsummated love develops between the Seventeenth century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer and a beautiful maid in the service of his household. Founded on a mutual interest in the creative process that lies behind painting, and energised by a deeply personal exchange between artist and sitter, object and observer, the film delves deeply into what it means to look closely and to see.

So, a love of art brought them together? This statement goes some way to describing Webber’s own involvement in the project; which sees Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel adapted for the screen. After working in television for the past decade compiling an impressive list of documentary and drama credits, Webber had to call upon knowledge gleaned from a degree in art history to set about stylistically recreating the period in a way that recalls the work of Vermeer and his contemporaries. Girl With A Pearl Earring achieves the look of the old masters, whilst retaining a distinctly contemporary approach to the story. Indulging his own fascination of the visual arts seemingly turned a potentially stuffy period drama into something that feels much more vital.

Future Movies caught up with Peter Webber, jet-lagged but still full of enthusiasm, and found out some of the secrets that emerged from the dark, smoky interiors that he and his team worked so meticulously to construct.

Future Movies: What drew you towards the project initially?

Peter Webber: The ear-piercing scene. I had been reading the script thinking this is a nice, polite little period piece that I will never make in a million years and then I read the piercing scene and I suddenly realised that this is not the movie that I thought it was. There was suddenly something rather dark, slightly perverse and obsessive about that scene. It really unlocked something in the film that I hadn’t seen before and changed my mind entirely about what it could be. At that precise moment it turned into something that I wanted to make… so that was it: Perversity!

Having said that, the film is set in a very beautiful world and I love Vermeers’ painting. I wasn’t desperate to make a film about Vermeer from the outset, in a way I was scared about that side of things, but I saw that it was a fascinating tale about power, about sex, about the relationship between money and art and it was all interesting stuff.

FM: So when you read that scene it all fitted into place?

PW: Yes, I saw the kind of film I could make and it proceeded from there. I told the producer the kind of film that I wanted to make and I was very surprised when he offered me the gig.

FM: Did you have knowledge of 17th Century Holland before you embarked upon the project?

PW: As it happens I did. I had studied history of art at university so I had done my prerequisite study of the 17th century Dutch genre painters; I knew my Rubens from my Rembrandt, I knew my Vermeers and I also knew my Hobberma’s and my Terborchs and all the rest of them so I was adequately prepared. I certainly had the basis, the period wasn’t a mystery. It was great to be able to get back to that, and to be able to say to the producer: “I need to go and look at some paintings”, so he writes the cheque for the air tickets and the hotel. There are worse ways to earn a living.

FM: Did you draw on Vermeer’s work to help create the film’s visual style?

PW: Yeah completely, but we also tried to be aware that not everything should look like a Vermeer, which is why we looked at a bunch of other painters as well. We kept a specifically Vermeer like look for the studio and the attic but the rest of the world is culled from a variety of different Dutch genre painters, some of whom I have just mentioned.

FM: It’s funny because many people have noted the obvious associations with Vermeer, but I think the overall look of the film is more reminiscent of Rembrandt because you’ve used chiaroscuro lighting so heavily.

PW: Yes, that’s true mostly because it’s a very dramatic way to tell a story. You look at Rembrandt and you think that the work could almost be stills from a 17th century film noir, and that’s the sensibility that Eduardo Serra (Cinematographer) and I share. We like darkness and that’s the kind of things European filmmakers do. In America they tend to light from the top down; start with everything being lit and bring it down from there, but in Europe I think we go the other way. There’s a lot of darkness in this film, in fact there was almost too much to begin with. When the first graded prints were produced we realised we had gone a little bit too far, so we pulled it back. If it had been up to me and Eduardo I think we would have left it that way but we had to let the audience in a little bit to see what’s happening.

FM: It is a period drama and you touched on your reticence to do it in the first place.

PW: Yeah, well there are some good ones out there, but a lot of them are rather dull and tedious concentrating mostly on the frocks and the carriages. I hated a lot of period dramas and frankly I was slightly surprised to find myself directing one, which is maybe why it turned out as well as it did.

FM: So were you mindful of trying to create a more contemporary style for the film?

PW: Yes, very much so. We could have got bound up in the frills and the ruffles and the lace and the bowing and all the rest of it, but we made a lot of deliberate decisions to strip it back and make it as minimal as possible and that I think makes the film feel much more modern. Also with the score we could have done a baroque period score; I experimented with this type of music when I was cutting it, which really dragged it down and made it this museum piece again, so we chose a more modern score eventually. I was making the kind of film that I wanted to see, that’s the good thing about my job. So at least I would be happy even if other people didn’t like it.

FM: That’s all you can do really, I suppose.

PW: Well, you’ve got to try. Often there are a lot of people getting in your way, but not in this instance I have to say, and it’s not because we’re sitting here in the Pathe building (Pathe co-financed the film and are distributing it), I know a lot of people who have had a far harder time of it. They were really in tune with the kind of film that we wanted to make and weren’t ever trying to make us too “Hollywood”.

FM: That’s refreshing to hear. How did you set about recreating 17th Century Holland? You have mentioned the influence of the genre painters…

PW: You look at the painters of course. Hire a great bunch of people, a great cameraman, production designer and costume designer and set to work. Look at each scene decide the mood you want to convey, decide the story points you’re going to tell and decide how you’re going to use each of those tools, those different areas to tell the tale. It’s step by step, that’s what Oliver Stone said… well what he actually said was “Inch by motherfucking Inch”, but I am not sure that I’m allowed to say that to you! But it’s true: lots of preparation and then when you’re shooting it it’s just shot by shot. Sometimes you have blinding flashes of inspiration but mostly its just strong, slow and steady processes as you gather everything you need to create the world.

FM: In a way it’s like applying layers and layers of fine oil paint?

PW: Completely. There are a lot of very practical decisions to be made in filmmaking; people talk about all the thematic stuff and the highfaluting stuff, but at some point you have to decide how big do I want this room, because as soon as you put a 35mm camera in there it’s only half the size with the amount of people that are required to be in there. A room shoots a different size to the way it looks, so you have to consider a whole heap of technical and logistical problems that you have to overcome and fit living characters inside.

FM: what led you to cast Scarlett Johansson in the role of Griet?

PW: She’s amazing! I spoke to 150 girls and she was the most amazing amongst them. I met a lot of good actresses along the way but there was only one who could really do the kind of job that I needed them to do to make the film that I wanted to make. It’s a tricky thing because when we made the film she wasn’t the Scarlett Johansson as she is now; it was “who?” “Oh, the girl in Ghost World”. Now everyone knows who she is and it will be much easier to get Scarlett Johansson movies made in future, as it should be. When you’re casting you look around, you try and cast someone going on your gut instinct, it’s not a precise science and God knows we can all get it wrong on occasion, but we lucked out this time round.

FM: So you were familiar with her work before?

PW: Oh yeah. I knew “Ghost World”, which I love and “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, I am a long time fan of the Coen brothers, and “Manny and Lo” which is a great film that she did, well worth searching out. But meeting her really sold it. She has boundless energy and enthusiasm; intelligence and a certain kind of sexuality. The thing I was worried about was would she transpose to the 17th century, and we had no problems.

FM: Do you think that the relationship between Vermeer and Greitt is more about companionship than love?

PW: In a way that’s one of the questions that the film is trying to answer: What is love? What different kinds of love are there? Companionship is part of it, but only a small part of it. There’s the recognition that they see the world in the same way, that they see the world through the same eyes; it’s the kind of feeling you get when you meet a kindred spirit. After that comes a swelling obsessive feeling for each other, that is made all the more intense by the fact that it can’t be consummated.

FM: There’s a prolonged sense of anticipation that exists throughout the all the scenes that Greitt and Vermeer share, did you find it difficult to maintain that tension for as long as seemed necessary?

PW: No, I think they difficulty lay in charting the path through that tension that had to start at a certain level and end at a certain level. This meant that in the editing room we had to make a lot of hard decisions about reorganise scenes which we had originally intended a different way. The emotional through line had changed simply by the fact that the relationship was now being filmed. It’s part of my job as director to keep hold of the emotional tone of the piece, sometimes some scenes take on their own life and become something different from what you expect and this can be a very good thing as well. It was something that we were aware of, but what you can’t control is the chemistry, is the chemistry going to work or not; that’s down to what the actors bring to the table.

FM: To me the film is really about the balance between people and objects that are desired and those that desire them, do you think this is the main push and pull that drives the narrative?

PW: I think it’s one of the threads without a doubt. I think that it’s a film in which no one really gets what they want and that’s an interesting thing in an age when we seem increasingly obsessed with self-gratification. Vermeer and Griet don’t get each other; Vermeer kind of gets what he wants because he produces this masterpiece, and although he’s restrained by the morality and the ethos of his time would have done it any differently because everything is done in the service of his art at the end of the day. I think he takes their relationship and uses it to create a kind of frisson between the artist and the sitter, so he gets the most out of the film but in a way that is psychologically damaging to him. That’s the price he pays: more tears are shed over answered prayers than over unanswered ones. The patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) gets what he paid for but he doesn’t get what he wants because the girl will never look at him in the way that she looks at Vermeer. He can own the painting but he can’t take it into his soul, he is forever exiled from the emotions that went into its creation. No one gets what they want but it makes for more interesting drama.

FM: You’re lucky that you had the kind of backing that allowed you to do that; you may have been forced to tack on a happy ending?

PW: well yes, and there were certain actresses in discussion who did talk about wanting an ending that shows Griet painting, so there we go.

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