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Martin Koolhoven • Director

“If it’s too easy to watch, I’m doing something wrong”


- VENICE 2016: Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven discusses Brimstone, his European, female-focused spin on the western genre, presented in competition for the Golden Lion

Martin Koolhoven  • Director
(© la Biennale di Venezia - foto ASAC)

Eight years after his last film, Winter in Wartime [+see also:
film review
film profile
, Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven has presented Brimstone [+see also:
film review
Q&A: Martin Koolhoven
film profile
, his European attempt at the western genre and his first film in the English language, which is vying for the Golden Lion at the 73rd Venice Film Festival. He discussed his film during a press conference for the international press.

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Why were you set on making a western? It’s not a usual choice for a European filmmaker.
Martin Koolhoven:
I have always been a big fan of the genre, but I have always been intimidated by it. There are so many great movies in this vein; some of my favourite movies are westerns, and so many directors have done wonderful things. So when I thought I should make an English-language movie, it felt like a good idea to do a western, because I have read a lot about those times – and I preferred that to making a contemporary film. I found out that the only way to do it was to make it very personal, to make something that I felt belonged to me. I love spaghetti westerns, and what’s good about them is that even if they deal with a very American subject, they feel very Italian, in terms of their content and the way they were made. So I felt I needed to do something as Dutch as they were Italian; that’s how I came to this whole Calvinistic, religious story, which was typically Dutch.

What is also extremely subversive about this film is that it’s told from the point of view of a woman. How did you approach this other novelty that you brought to it?
I had decided to make it about a woman from a gut feeling. But as I was doing my research, I found out that actually, my whole idea about the Old West is based on 50% of the population: these ideas of free time, anarchy and a lawless land were only true for the male population. For the other half, it was completely different – that’s something I found as I was reading these books about men, where at some point someone’s sister runs away and has two options: marry somebody or become a whore. Our whole conception of the western myth is a completely macho idea. There are very few westerns with women as leads, but they still tell a very macho story – a woman who is an outlaw, etc. That is also fine, but this, I think, is more truthful to what being a woman was like in those days.

Why was the film structured into four parts?
It’s something that happened naturally. I started writing it in a linear way, but then I kept coming up with flashbacks, and I couldn’t get it to work. I felt that I needed to find a structure that made the story work best emotionally. At some point, I realised I had to just incorporate these flashbacks into the story because they are actually part of it. I think this is the most emotional way of telling the story. I didn’t start off by saying, "I want to include a strange structure;" it just came from the material.

With the film showing a kind of perversion of the word of God, do you think there is a connection to what we are experiencing today on this subject?
I think any movie that you make that is historical should have some sort of relevance now. Of course, this story is very much about religion and how it has control over people, especially women – and yes, that is happening today as well. It took me a few years to write the story, so it’s not like I started out having all my plans mapped out. But as I was writing it, I realised what I was writing. And yes, at some point, I became aware of what I was doing.

Was it very difficult for you to come around to showing such an outburst of violence on the screen, especially towards women?
You have to be truthful to the material. This is a story about what happened to a person whose life was ruined. I would have felt morally dubious if I had made that violence too comfortable. I think it should be uncomfortable. If it’s too easy to watch, I’m doing something wrong. And actually, you don’t see that much; a lot of the scenes don’t show the violence, but rather the character’s reaction on his or her face, or the result of it, because it’s about the consequence of violence. That’s what the story is about, so you have to address it.

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