Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Interview with Peter Webber

A period film made by someone who hates period films: Peter Webber on Girl with a Pearl Earring

interview by Neil Young

British director Peter Webber was best known for TV documentaries, and dramas including Men Only (2001) and The Stretford Wives (2002), before his debut feature, Girl with a Pearl Earring started earing acclaim and serious Oscar talk on the worldwide film-festival circuit. Based on the best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier and set in 1660s Holland, it’s the story of how Vermeer (Colin Firth) painted his masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring, and stars Scarlett Johansson as Vermeer’s housemaid-turned-model, Griet. I spoke with Webber at September 2003’s San Sebastian Film Festival, where the film was in the Official Competition.

NY : I write for a magazine in Manchester.

PW : Manchester! I know it, yeh, because I shot a drama for the BBC up in Manchester.

NY : First question was going to be, do you have any connection with Manchester

PW : Oh well! Here we go… I will give you a hook, OK I made a film for the BBC called Stretford Wives in Manchester which starred Fay Ripley. You can cut out the embarrassing pauses as I try to remember who else was in it. Amongst other people.

NY : Where in Manchester?

Ohhhh! All the best places! We filmed in Salford. To research it I had to go to a karaoke pub in Miles Platting. Not many people who’ve done that and lived to tell the tale! Not many soft southerners.

NY : Did you sing?

PW : Oh yes, I was forced to sing. I thought I would lose my life if I didn’t sing cause we turned up there, and they instantly knew Oh, yeah, who are these fuckers? I sang the only song which somebody like a terrible voice like mine can sing, which is Walk on the Wild Side by Lou Reed. But I was very very taken by the fact that you’ve got a bunch of some of the toughest guys I’ve ever seen in my life, all singing along do de-do de-do with me during the choruses.

NY : Intone rather than sing?

PW : Yes, of course. I’m not gonna do it now, but that’s the good thing about that song, its like a rap or something, you don’t have go “la la la.” But I had a great time in Manchester, I really enjoyed working there… great local crews.

NY : When?

PW : This was two years ago? Literally I went from being one week in hideous dogshit-strewn back-alley in Salford (the art department would have to turn up in the morning and scrape up all the mess before you could go in there), you spend the day shooting with your hand over your face. A slightly – erm – grotty location, let’s say. From there and two weeks later I found myself in the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles on Sunset Strip casting for this [Pearl Earring]. So I was like, “Oh my god, what happened?” Some fairy godmother came down. Having said that, listen, the last thing I’m saying is that Manchester is a dirty grimy shitty city, because we also filmed in the glistening modern heart of it, had a great time, worked with a really really good bunch of local actors as well apart from the main actors so, I love it, actually, had a great time, stayed in this kind of apartment block thing by the station. What’s that great Chinese restaurant I would go in and eat every other day? Yang Sing… one of my favourite restaurants ever.

NY : That was your last project before this. And of course Karaoke… Bill Murray, Lost in Translation… Scarlett Johansson!

PW : Very good… there you go, you’ve got the whole article almost written for you! And when I was there, I would indeed buy City Life, and look to see what was on at the pictures over the weekends.

NY : Next time you can read the hatchet-job on Girl with a Pearl Earring. No, actually, Im reviewing the movie, so it’ll be positive.

PW : Make sure you do then, sir!

NY : I must admit, I looked at the synopsis, read the reviews, and I was thinking “This may not be my cup of tea.” But by the end I was clapping along with everybody else last night

PW : Good, good, good. It’s funny because a lot of guys have said that to me. The hinterland of our audience, I think, is women. But if you stay with it, I really think it repays watching because… Well, I made it, I’m a guy I think, especially in that last half-hour it really builds to something… there’s a lot of sexual tension there. And I think certain scenes like the lick your lips scene, and the ear-piercing scene

NY : I’d heard about the ear-piercing scene, but the lick your lips was the one that made the biggest impact I think.

PW : What I hope is that we manage, that Pathe manage, to find a way to market the film because, I agree with you! I don’t know that I’d rush out to see this film, personally, just from reading a little synopsis. You’d think, its a boring period film about a painter

NY : Colin Firth dressed up in some sort of outfit, lusting after some girl

PW : But the thing is, you’re in good hands here, because its a period film made by someone who hates period films. And that’s why I think the film’s been as successful as it has, it’s because I was very rigorous, very strict with what I would allow us to do, and what I wouldn’t allow us to do. Because I didn’t want to make some kind of poncey, phoney, Sunday-evening-BBC drama.

NY : Is this why you got the job, do you think, because you werent going to deliver some chocolate-box movie.

PW : I hope so, I hope so. I tell you how it happened… funnily enough the films I’d made just before this were Stretford Wives — pretty grim and grimy, and at the end of that you’ve got Fay Ripley stabbing her husband to death, very gruesome scene. The one I did before that was Men Only for Channel 4, which was a rather brutal, nasty film about male sexuality. Andy [Paterson, producer] didn’t really know my more sensitive side. But I’d worked with him, he was involved with a documentary company I made films for, we had another film, a very tough political thriller, which we couldn’t get off the ground. One day I popped into his office to pick some stuff up, or meet someone, I can’t remember, and there was a reproduction of this painting (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and I was just talking about the first time I’d seen it, because I studied History of Art at university and talking about that school trip. Unbeknownst to me, he came out of his office, because he’d heard me talking about it, and then he went back into his office to get the script, tapped me on the shoulder and said “Have a look at this.”

NY : It had already gone from the novel into a script form?

PW : It had. I then, as all directors do, worked with the writer (Olivia Hetreed) in developing the script, to get it to do what I wanted it to do but, yeah, it was very much a commission, and he’d seen all sorts of completely unsuitable stuff, in a way, that people would never dream I think what he was doing was hiring someone with a sensibility which would not, as you say, deliver a chocolate box movie and it’s very important to me that people understand that. That’s why these kinds of interviews are really important, that people understand that its not necessarily what you think it is from whats on the tin — it’s not what it says on the tin at all.

NY : It’s got a bit of pace to it as well.

PW : Yeah, I worked really hard to do that I shot a lot more, I was very very ruthless in the edit suite.

NY : I checked before seeing it, saw it wasn’t long because if its a period film, the shorter ones are the better ones. Once they get to three hours, youre like ‘Oh God…’

PW : Yes well see I suspect, though, that Cold Mountain might be worth it at three hours when youre working at that epic scale.

NY : It’s a big book. How big is this book?

PW : Its a thin book so, thin book : short film. Also, I get really pissed off I think a lot of directors are really self-indulgent bunch of fuckers! Because, the amount of time I leave the cinema with a sore arse and slightly bored, you think “If that film had been twenty minutes shorter, it would have been great.” But how many people do it?! And I just didn’t believe with this kind of story that the film couldn’t detain the audience for too long. You know, so, I was really tough some of my favourite scenes and sequences, you have to wait until the DVD comes out

NY : These were things that were in the book, and you cut out?

PW : There’s some stuff that was in the book, that was cut in the script, and there’s some stuff that we filmed, and which I cut before the film hit the screen, so to speak.

NY : What does Tracy Chevalier [author of the novel] think of all these cuts?

PW : Well she, actually she saw the film for the first time three weeks ago and she said that she loved it, and she’s got no reason to lie, you know, because she could just be very quiet and hide her head and not tell anyone. Its a difficult thing, that “Can you satisfy the author?” We’ve been very true to the spirit of the book, not to the letter of the book, but to the spirit.

NY : Its also about light, and painting with light and images, the camera obscura, things like that. To what extent How am I going to ask this without sounding daft? Eduardo Serra got a separate round of applause last night.

PW : Yes! Quite right too! Cause he’s a fucking genius! He should get that.

NY : Did you say I want Serra or did they select him?

PW : Yes, I did. I wrote a list, my top-five favourite cinematographers. He was number one.

NY : Which of his films in particular?

PW : My favourite are the Patrice Leconte films that he’s done like Hairdresser’s Husband but I also know his work with Claude Chabrol. He knows how to use colour, he knows how to light – he’s quick as well, that’s the other thing. I tell you, for a director I tell you, I’m a first-time feature director, and you’ve got a lot of people looking over your shoulder making sure you stick to schedule, and he lights quickly and that gave me time to work with the actors. There’s a lot of good cinematographers out there, not that many great ones, but a lot of them eat up all your time and you can’t work with that

NY : And your background is in TV and documentary where you don’t have time to spend hours

PW : You have no time! You have absolutely no time, and I think that’s been good training. At the time, you think Jesus Christ, you expect me to work in these conditions. But if you can shoot a British TV drama with the schedules they give you these days, its kind of like… You know, there’s a whole bunch of American directors who learnt through Roger Corman, that school of film-making, it’s that kind of equivalent.

NY : Stephen Frears also came from TV, he works fast.

PW : Exactly. Exactly. We had to take particular care, because you’re dealing with one of the great portrayers of light in painting. But, its important for me, to keep a sense of energy on the set and also, I’ve got a very short attention-span, I don’t like doing too many takes, I don’t like waiting too long either, so…

NY : The key part also is the casting, I thought the casting-director should have got a separate round of applause.

PW : (laughs)

NY : The eyes of the people in this film — I can’t remember a film like it, you’ve got Cillian Murphy, Judy Parfitt, Essie Davis…

PW : Essie is great.

NY : I’d never seen her before.

PW : Id seen her on the stage. I agree with you, Leo [Davis] is a great great casting director, but what they do is they bring hundreds of people… I think if I’ve done nothing else on this film, I’ve hired right. I mean, that’s really, if there’s a secret, to what makes a good director — the difference between a good director and a bad director is the good director knows who to hire. Because if you hire right, then most of the job is done. But its not only down to ability, it’s down to personality as well you need to hire people who can work together. As a first-time director, I could have hired a DoP (Director of Photography) who hijacked it and that’s been known to happen beforehand. But Eduardo was a dream to work with. And my actors as well I tried to cast people with faces that would tell the story, because then we don’t have to do it with words, and in telly you just get sick of words after a while.

NY : Judy Parfitt comes in, looking the way she looks, and you get the point very quickly!

PW : Exactly that’s good cinematic storytelling, because you should do it with pictures.

NY : Weve got to talk about Scarlett Johansson

PW : How can you not!

NY : which I think is gonna be like, the big thing from this movie

PW : Have you seen Lost in Translation yet?

NY : Not yet.

PW : Rush out and see it!

NY : She’s going to get a Supporting Actress nomination for that, and Lead Actress nomination for this

PW : I hope so. Nominations are good enough, so far as I’m concerned she is very young but she has its just out of the box this performance. It’s absolutely incredible.

NY : And she was only 17!?

PW : Yeh, yeh. She had her eighteenth birthday on the set. At the end of the first weeks filming, because you think, my God, already, what a body of work. I didn’t know The Horse Whisperer until after I’d made this film with her. But even, you know, the Coen brothers film Man Who Wasn’t There. Ghost World In fact, shall I tell you what the first time I saw Scarlett Johansson [hard J] was in a cinema in Manchester — there’s another connection!

NY : Which one? Cornerhouse?

PW : No. I tell you. Whats the one that’s got the Henry J Beans in it?

NY : The new one, UCI.

PW : Exactly. That’s where I went. Oh no actually, I tell a lie. It was the other way around. I went to see Harry Potter and I so didn’t enjoy it that it put a bad taste in month, and so I had to go out either that night or another night and see another film, so I went to see Ghost World, so you check in the listings and see where it was on. I think it was in one of the newer multiplexes. And so I went to see that…

NY : You didn’t know you were doing this film?

PW : No, no no no. But this was the first time Id come into contact with Scarlett’s work. I didn’t see the Coen brothers film until later. So I went on a day off to see Ghost World and my first encounter with her was on a wet and rainy Manchester afternoon, and that’s when I first became aware of Scarlett Johansson: “She’s great, I don’t know her.”

NY : Youve said she’s an instinctive actress. I call it the Julianne Moore approach: just give me the text, doesn’t agonise

PW : Colin [Firth] is the opposite, does tons of research, he’s a southern middle-class boy, parents are academics: “Get out the books!” We trawled him round galleries, gave him painting lessons and all sorts of stuff. Scarlett, nothing she doesn’t need any of that.

NY : Shes from California?

PW : New York, originally. Her parentage is: mum’s side, Jewish family from outta the Bronx. Her dad is from Denmark. So interesting!

NY : She gets the pale blonde colouring from the dad’s side

PW : Exactly. Shes incredible because once she gets it then that’s it — you really don’t have to do anything! You just we had a couple of long conversations at the beginning, just about, who this girl was, what she wanted, where she was going, what was what. But once Scarlett’s internalised that stuff I thought, “Oh, she’ll have to spend days learning how to scrub, do this, do the other” but not at all.

NY : Film in sequence, build up to the big moments?

PW : We did it as much as possible in sequence, which is not that much, if you see what I mean. We had to do all the exteriors at the end, so they’re dotted all over in the film. We did all of the stuff in the house where she comes from originally, then we did downstairs in the Vermeer house so we worked up we did the studio later in the schedule, so it gave them some chance, but you can’t, unfortunately, film entirely in sequence.

NY : Unless you’re Terrence Malick.

PW : Exactly, unless you have shit-loads of money, as well! And so we did do the piercing scene and the lick-your-lips scene as late in the schedule as it was possible to do.

NY : And did you have to keep her out of the sun? Because she couldnt get much paler without being transparent…

PW : The thing is that most of the studio was done inside a studio, so you don’t get much sun in there, and the rest of the stuff was on a back-lot in Luxembourg in the middle of winter, so you don’t get much sun there either. It was minus fifteen most days, so keeping her out of the sun was not a problem!

NY : Its a nightmarishly difficult role, I think, because she has to react… I don’t know how many lines she’s got –

PW : Very few and even fewer by the time I’d finished with her!

NY : You said you didn’t have to tell her a great deal but did you have to do a lot of takes, was there a particular look you were looking for?

PW : There were particular things I was looking for, but you know, that’s part of the working-through: you’ve had conversations beforehand, you’ve had some kind of rehearsal, and then on the day, you spend, whatever it is, twenty minutes, half an hour, maybe an hour for some scenes, working with the actors, working out the movements… You’re in there, and you’re very very hands-on. But she would understand, in her gut, the emotion of the scene, or get it very quickly, after very few words. So I didn’t have to beat the performance out of her, or anything. She is that talented. They both are… it’s like I said about the hiring, you don’t act for them, you help people do their job. You’re like a conductor: you don’t play the instruments, but you help them understand what they’re playing.

NY : You see the bad notes, but you can’t yourself produce the good notes

PW : Exactly I can’t play the violin, I can’t act. But I know what I like and I know what I want and I know to try and get it. Theres different ways to skin a cat some people you have to tell very clearly, very intellectually. Other people you just suggest… Some people you don’t say anything to. Directing is about getting what you want, and as you know, in everyday life, you don’t always get what you want, grabbing them by the shirt, pulling them up, and saying Oi! Sometimes you have to do it through manipulation, sometimes I’m not going to say too much, because it would give it all away. Different ways to skin a cat…

NY : “Don’t let daylight in on the magic” as someone said about the royal family.

PW : No, no. I don’t know how much magic there really is. The magic happens, I believe, when the film goes through the projector, and the light comes on behind it, and its up on the screen, that’s when the magic happens. The rest of it, its a lot of hard work and you have get up too fucking early in the morning for my liking, as well I started as an editor used to get into the edit suite at ten o’clock. These days I have to get up at five o’clock to go to work, and that’s no fun at all.

NY : It must be difficult to make a film about a great artist, because people may say, Hey, kid, you’re no Vermeer! But on this film Eduardo Serra kind of is the Vermeer and I was going to say you’re more like [Vermeers lecherous patron] Van Ruijven. Maybe not!

PW : I like to think I’m more of the Vermeer, and the studio are like Van Ruijven. It’s a collaboration… it’s very very difficult to make a film about an artist, there are so many pitfalls, so many cliches. I hope and believe that we have avoided those.

NY : Watch any others, like La Belle Noiseuse?

PW : That’s exactly what I watched – you got it in one. I watched a whole lot of other stuff Dreyer, Ozu, I went back to the classics, always do. Watched Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir. But the one film that really informed me about the artist-and-model relationship was La Belle Noiseuse.

NY : I thought for a second you were going to say The Rebel with Tony Hancock!

PW : No, no thankfully not! I gave Belle Noiseuse to Colin to look at.

NY : Its four hours long, of course

PW : Oh yeah, much longer than four hours. But Jacques Rivette who, funnily enough –

NY : He’s here [in San Sebastian]!

PW : He’s here and I can’t wait to meet him. I love La Belle Noiseuse, and I really love Celine and Julie Go Boating, that was one of my favourite films as a teenager, so I can’t believe that my film is in competition against his! It’s like Oh my God! I feel like some young kid who’s suddenly joined Manchester United, you know.

NY : Everybody here loves Jacques Rivette, but everybody I’ve spoken to here reckons yours is the better novie

PW : Ahhh, well, that’s very nice. But, hey, listen, we should all have such a long and wonderful career as Jacques Rivette.

NY : You must be over the moon with the way the film’s being received.

PW : Of course!

NY : When you were making it, did you think, this’ll get a little release, and might turn up on telly…

PW : Exactly that, and also towards the end, when I was finishing it in the cutting room, I thought “Oh my God, this might be an absolute disaster… what if no-one gets it? What if no-one likes what I like?” You can’t tell how things are going to go down… It’s quite singular this film, it does its own thing… I know the other films it’s like, because I’ve studied other films, but I don’t know that it’s that like a lot of other contemporary period movies.

NY : Are you getting flooded with scripts now about artists and models

PW : I am going to do a film next about a teenage pickpocket in south London.

NY : With Scarlett?

PW : Not with Scarlett, no. She could do it, but no a complete cast of unknowns, and it’ll be no-budget, back to basics, and I’ll really love it, it’ll be noisy and violent and everything that this film isn’t. And every film that comes through my door about a painter immediately goes into the bin because until I’ve made another film why, why would I do it? Ive already done it.

NY : Remake The Rebel. Steve Coogan…

PW : Its funny you should say that, because a friend of mine, who wrote Men Only, is trying to write a film about Tony Hancock at the moment.

NY : And Steve Coogan will get the job, so therell be more Manchester connections!

PW : (laughs).

transcript : Sunderland, 6th January, 2004

For the review of Girl With a Pearl Earring click here

by Neil Young