Tuesday 26 September 2017

Interview with Martin Koolhoven - Director of Brimstone

Martin Koolhoven graduated from the Amsterdam Film Academy as a writer/director. His breakthrough in The Netherlands came in 1999 with Suzy Q, which was also the debut of Brimstone-actress Carice van Houten. His first movies received good reviews and won awards, but it wasn’t until 2005 that Martin started making movies that also did well at the box office. Schnitzel Paradise was his first hit (biggest box receipts of all Dutch movies in 2005); it won awards and did well at festivals (including the Berlin Film Festival and the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where it was part of the Variety Critics’ choice.).

His biggest success, however, was Oorlogswinter/Winter in Wartime (his fourth hit movie in a row). It was a phenomenal box office hit in Holland (it outgrossed Twilight and The Dark Knight at Dutch theatres) and was sold to many countries abroad. It made the shortlist of 9 movies at the Oscars (Best Foreign Language Film) and was successfully released by Sony Classics in the USA in 2011. Despite “Hollywood calling”, Koolhoven decided to form N279 Entertainment together with his producer Els Vandevorst. Brimstone is his first international film. Koolhoven’s work has won awards in the Netherlands, France, England, Lithuania, Egypt, Suriname, Japan, Uruguay, Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic.

When did you come up with the idea for Brimstone?

Somewhere in the course of 2010. After the success of Winter in Wartime, I told people that I wanted to make a Western. I started off re-writing a script we bought, but after a few months of slogging away at it I realized that it wasn’t working out. I had to stop and ask myself why I wanted to make a Western so badly, and how I could do something original and personal within that genre. That ultimately resulted in Brimstone, a movie some people say can barely even be called a Western.

Why is that, do you think?

For a number of reasons, like the thriller element and the unique narrative structure, but at the end of the day I think it’s the feminine perspective that stands out most of all. Westerns are usually pretty macho, and there aren’t many examples of female leads. In the cases where that has happened, the films were usually the same kind of story, but then with a female gunslinger, like in The Quick and the Dead. Brimstone actually has a female point of view, not only literally, but in terms of actual content too. That’s fairly unique for a movie set in the Old West.

Writing from a feminine perspective, was that hard for you?

I think there are more similarities than differences between the sexes; somehow, people tend to forget that. Among all the things I am, a man is only one facet. I think I probably have more in common with female filmmakers than with, for example, a preacher, even if he and I share our gender. It’s striking that no one asks me whether it was hard to write The Reverend (played by Guy Pearce), even though that role is more remote to me than the character of Liz (played by Dakota Fanning).

Religion plays a major role in the film. Was there some account you needed to settle?

Not particularly, but I do come from a Calvinistic country and I was brought up a Protestant, so that made the story more personal. Besides, misogyny and religion are still a solid duo in the 21st century, so the subject hasn’t lost any relevance.

Brimstone is your first movie with international stars. What differences did you notice?

Not all that many, really. Working with Guy Pearce is not essentially different from working with Fedja van HuĂȘt. Okay, when you’re in a Spanish bar with Kit Harington, you notice that you’re in the company of a star, but Kit himself is simply a very normal, hardworking actor. The big difference is in the way those stars are approached by other people, not the way they are themselves. Okay, there was one other difference. I’m a film buff, and so I love to talk about movies and directors. On the set I sometimes allude to other filmmakers in order to explain something to the cast or the crew. So one time I was saying something about Spielberg to someone, and Dakota came along and complemented me. The only thing was, she was doing that on the basis of first-hand experience. That was new for me, yeah.

It took you a long time to put Brimstone together. Why was that?

There are any number of reasons. I hadn’t written for a long time, and it was a complicated screenplay, so it took a few years before there was a script that my producer and business partner Els Vandevorst, could show around. When we got to that point, Els did some truly heroic work, because it wasn’t easy to get the film off the ground. That took a while too. And the shooting lasted a long time as well. The film is set in a number of places, and in different seasons. When you add it all up, Els and I worked on the movie for a good six years. Seven, counting that false start.

How should we view Brimstone? Is it a Dutch, a European or an American film?

Oh, man. There’s something to be said for all three. The writer, director, producer, director of photography, editor, make-up, production designer, costume designer, sound designer, composer and a number of the actors are all Dutch. What’s more, Guy plays a Dutchman, so the film is undeniably Dutch. On the other hand, the financing came from a number of European countries and we shot in a number of European locations, with a European crew and actors. I don’t really think the movie could had been made in America: it’s too forthright for that. On the other hand, though, the film is part of a largely American cinematic tradition, the lead and a number of supporting roles are played by Americans and the story is set there too. In fact, the film is of course about our shared history. So you tell me...

Are you proud of the way it turned out?

Absolutely. When Els and I set up the N279 production company in 2010, this is what we were aiming for. To make international films that matter. It feels as though I’ve touched home, in terms of both content and style. I’m raring to get started on the next movie.