"A woman with personal demons"
by Boyd van Hoeij
- The former editor constructs his directorial debut around a powerhouse performance by Danish veteran actress Paprika Steen as a magisterial performer whose private life is a mess
Cineuropa: Was the role of Thea written with Paprika Steen and her role, onstage, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in mind?
Martin Pieter Zandvliet: I wanted to make a film about a woman with personal demons who is not able to cope with her normal life plus stage life. But her stage life wasn’t defined yet. I just wanted her to be a performer, an actress or a stand-up comedian. Then casting started, and I immediately thought about Paprika Steen, who appeared in a play at the time. So I asked her, and though she initially said no, after about three months she came round and thought it was a good idea. When we played with the idea of giving her the role, we had lots of meetings and dinners with her to get to know her. And we spoke about what kind of movies and characters we liked. Her husband, who produced the film, also helped, and gradually it was written more in her direction. She read several drafts of the screenplay and gave comments. I was a bit scared to work with her at first, because she’s so famous in Denmark. But I’m happy it worked out and she trusted us.
How do you direct an actress of her stature, especially since there is no vanity in her performance and you use so many extreme close-ups that completely expose her?
We talked a lot about what we generally think about what it means being a female actor over 40. Directors when they cast, they take women who are in their 20s or 30s, who are good-looking but not so interested in life or whether it is a good character to play. For me, it’s about the life experience and grittiness and it’s OK to show these faults, these scars that show that you have lived. It makes character more interesting. There is always fine line in how far you can go. So I made the film very much using her face, always being close to her, feeling her, searching for things in her face.
What was most important thing you learnt in your former job as a film editor that was useful for you as a director? And how was collaboration with Applause [+see also:
interview: Martin Pieter Zandvliet
film profile]’s editor Per Sandholt?
I didn’t have any tools as a director, so if anything went wrong, I had to rely on my own pocket-book psychology. I wasn’t really afraid I wouldn’t get coverage; the two-shots, establishing shots, etc. On set, everything was always about the feeling of the scene, and I tried to focus on the acting and the character. With Per, we talked for a couple of days about things such as pacing and how long to hold the shots. He then went off and five weeks later showed me the first cut. My idea is to give the people you work with a lot of trust, and the more you believe in them, the more that they feel you believe in them, they will try to understand you and where you want the film to go. I did the same with the DoP, with the actors and the rest of the crew. Per was very good editor and we will work together again.
Applause has been called a post-Dogma film. What was their influence on your style?
It had no influence at all. I think I was more inspired by US films from the ‘60s, particularly Cassavetes, and French films from ‘60s, because they focus on story and the feelings of the characters instead of focusing on the aesthetic, like Dogma. We worked a lot on the significance of the locations, which is not very Dogma. For example, her apartment and the bar are very dark, just like her feelings, whereas outside and onstage everything is very bright.