Peter Greenaway on Art, Cinema, Sex, and Religion (Q&A)

Peter Greenaway
Peter Greenaway
 Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

ROME -- For most moviegoers, Peter Greenaway’s films are an acquired taste. That’s again the case for Goltzius and the Pelican Company, Greenaway’s latest project, which screened Monday in the CinemaXXI sidebar at the International Rome Film Festival.

The film is an ambitious, erotic, and visually stimulating drama based on the life of Hendrik Goltzius. Goltzius, who died in 1617, was a Baroque-era Dutch engraver and painter who tried to persuade the Margrave of Alsace into providing financial backing for a major printing initiative created to produce erotic etchings based on stories from the Bible.

Like Greenaway’s 2007 film Nightwatching, based on the life of Rembrandt, Goltzius and the Pelican Company is a romp that shows Greenaway’s love of Flemish art and aesthetic sensibilities. Greenaway was born in Wales but he lives in Amsterdam and has strong ties to The Netherlands that date back to childhood. He talked to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Monday’s international launch -- not officially its world premiere after it screened five weeks ago at the Nederlands Film Festival in Utrecht – discussing the connection between art and cinema, religion and sex, and his second appearance at the seven-year-old Rome festival.

The Hollywood Reporter: Well, I know Goltzius and the Pelican Company is the second film in a trilogy that started with Nightwatching and will conclude with a film about Hieronymus Bosch --.

Peter Greenaway: No, actually, that’s not true. The idea of this trilogy is probably producer’s propaganda. I was trained as a painter, so I'll put it this way: if I can discuss both painting and cinema and their correspondences, it tends to make me a very happy man. I never look at these films as a trilogy, but for journalistic purposes, certainly, that could be a useful approach.

THR: I understand the attraction to art, but why specifically Baroque and Flemish art? In the art world, the era is a little out of fashion at the moment. But it seems to have a real hold on you and your work.

PG: To say it’s out of fashion at least from the point of view of the film world really depends on who your heroes are. If you’re a fan of Éric Rohmer, he’s very stripped back and economic, so then I'd agree. Or maybe you prefer Federico Fellini, who is very Baroque in his own way. But I am personally drawn to this era, let’s say between 1600 and 1700, because it is really the start of modern history. Before that is the Renaissance, where people started to recognize what is going on. But starting in about 1600 it is the first time we talk about democracy, atheism, or capitalism seriously, it’s the beginnings all of emancipation about things like slavery or colonialism. We’re still working things out, but it started in the 17th Century. I’m a great reader of history and these beginnings of beginnings are very important and need to be talked about.

THR: Your interest in history is evident. But I am curious to know more about your interest in art. How old were you when you started painting?

PG: I was around 13 or 14, very young to make a decision like that and most sensible parents would say no, no don’t go there. You’ll never make a living and it won’t make you happy. I come from a family of people who were fascinated by the English landscape. They weren’t farmers, but my father was an ornithologist, my grandfather was a rose grower, and his father was a woodcutter. They all had an association with the natural world. I remember a critic who, way back in the late 1970s, when I started making films, said, “Greenaway makes films like an entomologist collects butterflies. He collects beautiful extraordinary specimens and he kills them and sticks them down on paper with a drawing pin.” I guess there’s something to that.

THR: The influence of art on your films is also obvious.  But have films had an influence on your art? How do they impact each other?

PG: Yes, they do impact each other, very much so. But it’s also a cause of great anxiety because there are 8,000 years of European painting and 117 years of cinema. It’s an unfair comparison: there is a great deal more known about painting. Just think about how many more people have worked on painting to try to get it right.

THR: You have said you feel a connection to creators in history. But can you speak about your connection to Hendrik Goltzius? You are both men of multiple talents, with a taste for a certain aesthetic and for the erotic. And from a certain perspective, you are also both salesmen.

PG: Yes, yes, that’s true. We’re both practical and pragmatic. There’s no use making a painting or a film if nobody will see it. I have found Goltzius compelling for a long time. It’s been said that all culture is about sex and death, and I suppose we both recognize that.

THR: Was your connection to Goltzius something that made you put a lot of thought into the selection of who would play him in the film?

PG: You are referring to Ramsey Nasr, who played Goltzius. Did you know he is The Netherlands’ Poet Laureate? He is a great wordsmith, and I write very word conscious scripts. So maybe he was the ideal person to bring that to life.

THR: What has changed since Goltzius’ time?

PG: Well, a lot has changed. But a lot hasn’t. There is a still a debate between religion and humanism. Religion has always been anti-sex, but why? Religion should be about birth and passion and resurgence and procreation and hope, but it isn’t.

THR: It seems Goltzius was purposefully provocative and scandalous, and you could say the same thing about your work.

PG: You could say that about Holland as well. You can talk about homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia, even pedophilia now in Holland, whereas the rest of the world runs for the hills when you bring up these topics. They are terribly taboo, even now.

THR: The setting in the film was interesting: it was a Baroque setting, dialogue, and costumes. But it seemed to be taking place in a modern warehouse. How did you make that decision?

PG: Our budget was very small for a film with this kind of production value: the budget was around €2 million ($2.65 million) and one way we did that was my filming in Zagreb, Croatia, where we were sparred a tax bill and had help with some technical jobs and costumes. But when we were scouting for locations, I couldn’t find many 16th century palaces. Or if there were some, they were too clean or they were destroyed by the Soviets. But then we came across an abandoned railway yard and I said we would do it there and I thought that if we do it well enough people would accept it.

THR: You are known for doing many things at once, films and other projects. What’s coming up next?

PG: I like the juggling act: I have an art exhibition in Barcelona, and another project in Moscow, many things. And there’s a great 21st century phenomenon, that you can make a play and turn it into a web site, and then web site can become a book, and I enjoy that shifting around. But there are probably around five films in different states of development. There’s the one on Hieronymus Bosch and another project on a more contemporary artist, Oskar Kokoschka, and one on [Russian director] Sergei Eisenstein. I’m also excited about a film idea that is sort of a remake of Death in Venice, probably year after next, called Food of Love. The name is from a William Shakespeare quote: “If music be the food of love, play on.” I can’t say all these ideas are fully financed. But there are people working on them out there to build them up.

THR: Death in Venice was a wonderful film. Tell me more about that project.

PG: I suppose the film is not really a remake. You must remember in the Luchino Visconti film, the Dirk Bogarde character falls in love with a young boy on the beach [played by Björn Andresen]. Well, I have written that young boy later on, when he’s 50 years old. I’ll also replace the music of Gustav Mahler with Antonio Vivaldi, so it’ll be about Vivaldi and Venice.

THR:  Your bringing Goltzius and the Pelican Company to Rome continues your relationship with Marco Mueller, Rome’s artistic director who had been in Venice before coming to Rome. I know Nightwatching screened in competition in Venice. Might Goltzius and the Pelican Company have screened in competition in Rome if it had been a world premiere?

PG: We wanted the film to premiere at a small festival in The Netherlands because of its subject matter and because it was made with a lot of Dutch financing. I have known Marco Mueller for many years, from when he was artistic director of the Rotterdam Film Festival [in 1990-91]. He actually asked if we wanted to be in competition and I thought, well, I have been in competition in most of the film festivals in the world and have never really won a major prize. People said my films are too uncomfortable. Anyway, Marco actually advised us, because of the nature of the film, that this spot in the CinemaXXI sidebar [which focuses on experimental cinema] and my producer maybe even more than me thought it was probably a good fit. We’re happy with the choice.

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