GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING - Q&A with producer Andy Paterson, director Peter Webber, Colin Firth & Scarlett Johansson
Movie Feature by Susan Hodgetts
Scarlett Johansson is being lauded as a future Hollywood megastar at the tender age of 18. She seems wise beyond her years as she breezes into the room all swept back bleach blonde hair and a black v-neck cross top. Witty and fresh yet already with a world-weary attitude, her maturity is surprising and she clearly has a sensible head on her shoulders. But it's producer Andy Paterson who speaks first.
Explaining what it was about (first time feature director) Peter Webber that made him believe that he could handle such a complex and subtle film he says, "It was something to do with the fact that he'd seen every movie ever made which is a good starting point! We'd worked together a very long time and he's a director who's learned his trade and practiced his craft and was clearly going to be a movie director. And the moment was just right."
Webber adds "I went in to pick up some German books that we'd been working with on another project and I saw this postcard of Girl of a Pearl Earring, it was stuck on the office wall. I was talking about the first time I saw that painting in the flesh. I studied history of art at University and we went on a college trip [there]. I was talking about this and Andy overheard me. And then the next thing was a tap on the shoulder and he gave me the script - I wasn't surprised at being given the script, I was surprised at being given the job though. He rang up and I thought yeah, yeah, yeah, and he said do you want to do it? I almost fell over."
With so little being known about Vermeer and his life, it must have been difficult for actor Colin Firth to create a convincing portrayal of this famous yet mysterious figure.
"I think the secret was in the mystery really. Basically what you have in terms of historical understanding is mystery, and what Tracy Chevalier [the original novelist] wrote [which was] what we really tried to be faithful to I suppose, and I was perpetuating that interpretation. It was very important that in some ways it was a balancing act of fleshing him out whilst not revealing too much about him. We weren't trying to do Amadeus with this character. I think that preserving the enigma of the figure was something that had to be handled quite delicately and I felt that ultimately I was the final frontier in keeping that going through the various stages of interpretation."
Johansson adds "I hadn't read the book, I made a conscious effort after I decided to do the film that I would just try not to peek at the book we had on set. It was very tempting. But I think what tuned me into the project was that a lot of young actors were excited about it, it was an incredible opportunity to play this amazing part. It's so rare you have such a beautifully crafted script with a young girl carrying the film, I think it was very desirable. I knew right after I read it that I could do it, and I just had to convince Peter and Andy that I could do it."
But the young actress wasn't prepared for the chilly European weather. "It was very cold."
"Just for the record," intercepts Webber, "It was minus 15 when we filming, we were out there for about 12 odd hours a day and whereas Andy and I would be dressed up in our performance fabric, tons of fleeces, boots and the rest of it, poor Scarlett had to wander around in period costume and clogs and she died out there."
"I wish they were clogs," laughs Johansson.
"All right, they weren't clogs," says Webber, "they were really thin. So I could see how much she was suffering as I sat there in my warm overcoat."
"It took a while to figure out the equation of duvet to hot chocolate and a couple of Tylenol," says Johansson.
Given Johansson's other recent role in Sophia Coppola's LOST IN TRANSLATION, which is also about silences, was the biggest challenge to use looks rather than dialogue?
"I think it actually made my job a lot easier. What could have filled those silences I can't imagine, what kind of dialogue, what kind of awful dialogue could have been written in there. Also our crew was so unbelievably respectful of the time it took to get where we needed to without having any dialogue, because obviously we had to work that all out. [Griet and Vermeer] wouldn't have said anything to each other, it wasn't my place to say anything so I took that for what it was really."
"The silence is important," adds Webber, "but it's only now that we're answering all these questions on "Oh how brave, how brave" that I look back and go "Oh God, maybe it was." At the time it just seemed these 2 great actors, they can say volumes, without having to use dialogue. There is plenty of dialogue in the film, and very skilfully written dialogue but when you can tell the story with pictures, when you can see the emotions on these people's faces, what I found myself doing was to create more moments to help them by slowing the scene down. Often when you are directing you're saying "do this quicker" and you want a certain energy, and we did the opposite a lot of the time. We just slowed it down so that stuff would happen between the two of them because it was all down to the chemistry. That's where the heart of the movie was. I think if anything the courage was in the cutting room in recognising that and trying to make a film that was singular. We live in a very, very noisy age. We're used to going to the cinema and there's car chases and gun fights and everything's served up and there's MTV style cutting. It's kind of fast food entertainment but it wasn't the kind of film we were making. We had to be true to the script, to the novel and to the spirit of Vermeer, if that doesn't sound too pretentious. Because those paintings are mysterious, quiet, transcendent, they're luminous and it would have been ridiculous to do it in any other way, and when you have actors of this calibre they don't need lines, you just need a close up and it says everything. And if it's well lit, which it was because we had the amazing Eduardo Serra, then it's only now people are going "Was that scary?" and you kind of realise maybe we were walking a tight rope. It could have gone horribly wrong [but] it didn't feel that way at the time."
Firth adds "I think dialogue is very limiting, particularly if it is anything other than excellent. Mediocre dialogue is utterly crippling to the process and brilliant dialogue is a free ride, but no dialogue is a very liberating and inspiring thing to do as long as you've got the confidence, and you've got a director who's going to go with what you do. There's nothing more dispiriting than having a whole lot of ideas about what your tacit performance is going to be if no one's on the other end of it with the camera. I've got this complex view of this woman and I'm going to have to do it all with my eyes. Unless it's being photographed, unless somebody's playing the game, it's entirely mutually dependent, entirely symbiotic. So we wouldn't have been able to do any of it if we hadn't known that was the convention that we were working in. And there were times when there were two words being said and the camera was going to be here for a very long time. You were going to have to fill that, and so it gave us all a kind of added sense of responsibility. Somebody said earlier today that they seemed to imply from that that it had reduced the role somehow of the scriptwriter, that less dialogue meant less responsibility by the scriptwriter. In fact it's almost the contrary. Something [Peter Webber] said when we were in Toronto was the confidence and the skill to be able to use silence in your writing is unusual and requires great maturity.
"It's called cinema!" cuts in Webber.
But one hears of actors counting lines to measure the quality of the part?
"I think you learn that one quite quickly though, I really do," replies Firth. "There are old adages around about actors with no lines killing scenes. I think past the first year of drama school you're not counting your lines."
"I used to count my lines," says Johansson.
"She's only young," laughs Firth.
The producers decided to shoot in Luxembourg, "On a very mundane level just [so] you could drive to the studio in 10 minutes, walk in your hotel and get some decent food," explains producer Andy Patterson. "Life is very easy in Luxembourg. The hardest thing to do with movies like this is creating a world that really doesn't exist, [we had to recreate] 1665. You can build a certain amount but what we couldn't do was build canals, so finding a backlot set that had canals on it was a very big surprise and really the key to be able to make the film. We scoured Holland and everywhere to try and find the locations. No disrespect to the Dutch but they like their gloss paint, so we'd have spent our entire art department budget turning the little tiny bits of street into shootable areas and we never would have been able to pull it off. To have our own backlot Delft was really great."
The whole Hollywood coupling thing was mooted, but Firth says that would never have been acceptable. "I promised Tracy we wouldn't change that - the power of the story was in the restraint."
"You want them to get together really badly," adds Johansson, "And it's funny because when you do this press thing you start to make connections between all sorts of stuff. I think that comes like in between exhaustion and lunch. I was talking to someone and they're saying "What's the difference?" They're saying LOST IN TRANSLATION is a relationship with an older man, and this, obviously a relationship with an older man. ("Sorry Colin," she grins at Firth). And I was saying in LOST IN TRANSLATION you don't want them to get together, it would be terrible, but in this you really do. You want something [to happen] and you don't get that, just these little moments of touching and glancing. It's very erotic in a tactile sort of way. There was a lot of pressure to have Vermeer standing over the courtyard watching Griet washing her breasts in a basin..."
"That pressure was from me!" cuts in Firth.
"And that about sums it up!" laughs Johansson. "We weren't really selling it, I just figured that if I owned the cleaning and Cinderella thing and pretended I knew what I was doing then it would just kind of seem that way, it's always fun to do period film like that if it's executed properly."
They must have researched the real Vermeers to help them?
"Yeah, we have a few Vermeers in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, so I'd seen those. So I'd been in the presence of a Vermeer painting, and after we'd worked for a month and had a holiday we came back and took a skeleton crew out and just shot some establishing stuff in Delft and Bruges for the day and we decided it would be a really good idea to go see the painting while we were there. And I was really excited as the museum is so beautiful, and you feel totally comfortable there, it's like a house. But there was such a pressure placed on me! There was some guy sitting behind me, the curator, saying things like "delicate brush strokes that Vermeer used to paint this absolutely beautiful portrait" and you know he's saying things like "look at the glisten on her lips, what do you see in her eyes?" There was a camera photographing me and it was just an absolute nightmare," says Johansson.
"It was really funny because Scarlett was wearing this woollen hat," adds Webber, "and as this guy was talking to her the hat crept lower and lower like she was trying to escape!"
"It was great to go and look at it but then I said "Oh! Look there's the view of Delft! Why don't we go and check out this painting and not that one!" I know Colin sat there for, like, hours...and hours...and hours while I plagued him."
"Yes it was very meaningful to me...!" deadpans Firth.
"But the curator wasn't there though so it was fine," adds Webber.
Firth won't be pressed to reveal his worst ever line of dialogue in a movie, but reveals
"I insisted that someone else's line was cut because I refused to be in the same room with the line. It will sound a bit odd out of context but the line was "You played me Ross, you played me and I'm not a piano."
"Oh my god!" gasps Johansson in horror.
"I said, I will no longer be in this film if you don't mind....." continues Firth, laughing.
Is Scarlett's version of GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING hanging up at home?
"No. But I have quite a good doodle collection from Colin depicting me as a peeled egg," adds the actress thoughtfully.
"It's not a slight on the costume design or anything about the look," Firth adds.
"When you wear the under bonnet and you take the whole bonnet off you can end up looking a little bit like a boiled egg," explains Webber.
Explaining the brushstrokes in Vermeer's paintings in the film, Firth says, "I'd played around but anything I could do with a paintbrush would be utterly irrelevant to anything that would be useful in this film. In the end as long as you can point the paintbrush in a straight line and they're not looking too closely at what you're doing I think that's perfectly adequate. Besides even if I had considerable skills I don't know how long it would take me to be able to apply those in the creating of a Vermeer!"
"It's ok because Vermeer's not very good at acting," reassures Webber.
Do you get a sense of the sort of film you're making as you're making it?
"The difficult thing is when you start chopping the rushes up trying to tell a story," says Webber. There's a lot of judgement, and there's also an amount of luck and chemistry and everything. And you then have to take the script which is a literary thing, something that is on paper and you have to tell a story on screen which is very different. That's why us filmmakers spend months and months in the cutting room! [When] we put something together, they always say it's never as good as rushes, [but] it's never as bad as your first cut. You watch the first cut and you have a nervous breakdown! You get to the point where you hate it and then you start to rip it apart and put it back together and do whatever violence is necessary to tell the story. David Puttnam used to say this thing that he would go into a cutting room and he'd say to a director "what's your favourite shot?" And the director would say "well this, the light's marvellous...." and Puttnam would literally take the shot and go out, and say "Forget the shot just tell the story," and that's what you have to do. So you can't be complacent. You love your rushes, but you have to get to the point where you hate the cut so much that you just forget all of your high faluting ambitions and just concentrate on telling the story. You have to find what is good in the material you shot, not what you think is good, not what you hoped you had, but what you actually have. It helps when you have talent of this calibre. I thought everyone was really going to be on my shoulder as a first time director but Andy put a wall up around me so I could do my thing. [And at the end of the day] you've got a bunch of strips of film and you're just trying to put it together and tell a story - you know, wing and a prayer."
The talk turns to headgear, to Johansson's "peeled egg" and Firth's Iron Maiden-style wig.
"[Scarlett] nearly pulled out because of my wig," jokes Firth.
"Coming off of LOST IN TRANSLATION, which wrapped 10 days before we started shooting," explains Johansson, "I was so like vulnerable and exhausted that when I got there I only hoped that everything was all set and ready to go, so that everybody could just say "Welcome to the 17 th century Scarlett, step in to your bonnet and apron." I just wanted someone to care for me really so I decided to let our costume designer figure all that out because what the hell do I know about 17 th century bonnets? You know, I just hoped they'd be more forgiving than they appeared to be. And it's hard to have a white thing around your head all the time but you get used to it I suppose - and it kept me sort of warm."
"The wig was er... It was a lovely script...." starts Firth. "I have to say when you read something like this and you know if you accept this part a wig awaits you, it's an alarming prospect and you know had it been anyone other than Jenny Shircore who's fairly well known for being brilliant....
"And has the Oscar to prove it," says Webber.
"It would have been the kiss of death," continues Firth. "See, my fear was [that] the rest of the world would react to my wig the way that Scarlett did....
"It was only the first few days until it fell properly," explains Johansson.
"Ah, is that what it was," muses Firth. "I'm doing what I think is my best sexy smouldering look and she's giving me I can't believe it's not butter..."