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.
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: 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: 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: Do you think that the relationship between Vermeer and Griet 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.
These are only a few extracts of the whole interview with Peter Webber. Should you want to read the complete interview, take a look at this link: http://www.futuremovies.co.uk/filmmaking.asp?ID=63