Nightwatching: Interview with Peter Greenaway

Peter Greenaway (Photo by NOTV.COM)

Photo by: NOTV.COM

Nightwatching screened at the 16th Raindance Film Festival

Date: 2 October 2008

Venue: Cineworld

More info on the Raindance website

This year’s Raindance film festival included the premiere of Peter Greenaway’s new film Nightwatching, a dramatisation of the theory that Rembrandt included clues to a murder mystery within the imagery of his masterpiece, The Nightwatch. Prior to the Raindance screening, the director had created a ‘son et lumií¨re’ projection on the actual painting in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. After the film, Alex Fitch caught up with the director and asked him about his two projects associated with the painting.

Alex Fitch: I first heard you give a talk about your Nightwatch project at the BFI a year and a half ago. You said it was initiated by a conference about the growing lack of art tourism that you’d attended; the Rijksmuseum were interested in having you project a film onto the painting of The Nightwatch and eventually that metamorphosed into this feature film.

Peter Greenaway: Well, some of this is true, but I think we have to rearrange that to be absolutely historically accurate. The year 2006 was the celebration of Rembrandt’s 400th birthday – he was born in 1606 – and Amsterdam, where I live, is Rembrandt’s town. It’s a bit like Woody Allen’s Manhattan, or Godard’s suburban Paris! They say that The Nightwatch, painted by Rembrandt in 1642, is the fourth most famous painting in the world – number one is the Mona Lisa, number two is probably The Last Supper, both by Da Vinci, number three is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and number four is The Nightwatch. So, it’s a very important painting and it means an awful lot to the Dutch themselves.

In the 17th century, Holland was an incipient republic democracy surrounded by powerful monarchies who wanted to destroy it. It was the centre of the economic and political nexus for three generations, not just of Europe but of the whole world. They were at the very end of the Silk Road, so they were attached to China, and the country was the real, total depot of all the world’s goodies; and into all this came these amazing painters. There are supposed to be over 2,000 painters living in Amsterdam from about 1590 to the death of Vermeer, which was around 1673, and in that period there must have been over a million paintings painted. It’s extraordinary – never before or since have there been so many paintings painted in this little, tiny country – and it’s obviously the result of a burgeoning financial entity where it means there is a lot of spare money sloshing around…

AF: Like the Hollywood of its time?

PG: Exactly, including in the way in which a lot of those paintings were no good and a lot of them have disappeared… I think top of the pile would be two painters, Vermeer – who, personally, I actually prefer – and Rembrandt. But there’s no point in making a historical film unless you refer it to ‘now’ and there are many references – even to the death of Theo Van Gogh – in this film. We misuse the Voltaire quotation saying: ‘Democracy is ideal, as long as it is tempered by assassination’! You could say that about America in the Kennedy / Martin Luther King period – and it was certainly true here: when they got sick of democratically elected leaders, they used to kill them! And now in contemporary Holland, Pim Fortuyn, a very charismatic politician, was murdered, and a couple of years later, Van Gogh’s grand-nephew, a filmmaker who was associated with fundamental Islamic politics, also got killed. So, maybe again, it’s this notion of when democratic free speech reaches an edge, people can’t stand it anymore, and the only way to change that is by some violent act. If you listen very carefully to the soundtrack, all these things are built into the film. On a personal level, we’ve tried to play the game that Rembrandt is a proto-filmmaker; ‘Get in the light! Get out of the frame! Go over there and you won’t be properly colour coded!’ So in a sense, what a contemporary filmmaker does has been already preceded by many, many painters, and of course, by Rembrandt!

AF:When you originally projected your film onto the painting of The Nightwatch at the Rijksmuseum did you feel that you were kind of gilding the lily or was it something necessary to attract people to come and see the painting?

PG: I’ve always complained about the fact that we’ve got a text-based cinema, not an image-based cinema. In every film you can see everything is constructed around text. I’m trained as a painter and I believe that text has so many other media to play with – novels, theatre – that surely the extraordinary medium of cinema should be image-dominated. All my career, I think, has been pushing for a medium that speaks its meaning through images rather than text. I think that’s ironic because a lot of my movies are very wordy and full of all sorts of ideas that are text-based, but I think nobody could deny – whatever they think of my ideas – that there’s an incredibly imagistic imagination behind these movies!

The Dutch know I’m interested in light – I’ve been working in Holland for 25 years and living there for 12. They can see in my films that I have almost an academic interest in art history and they made it an invitation: ‘Mr Greenaway, would you like to come along and play with The Nightwatch, to make it more open, to make it more receptive, to explain to the media of the year 2006 what this painting’s all about? And I did! What was I doing? I was trying to put 8,000 years of painting into 113 years of cinema! Godard tried to do the same thing in Passion, but we got much, much closer because we were able to use the painting itself. We didn’t make a film and we didn’t animate it, but we looked incredibly scrupulously at how Rembrandt had created it, with its five light sources, with its characters and its colour coding, and through modern computer technology we were able to mask it and remask it. I’d like to show you what we did, but I could only show you a DVD, which isn’t the same as playing with the real iconic masterpiece. We manipulated the shadows, so in a sense we repainted the painting! It was so successful that we were invited to go to Milan to tackle Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and we’re about to start, in one month’s time, on Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana. Then we have Velázquez’s Las Meninas, Picasso’s Guernica, a Jackson Pollock in The Museum of Modern Art, New York, a famous Seurat in Chicago, Monet’s Water Lilies in Paris… We might get more invitations, but I said: ‘Look, enough’s enough or I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life! We’ll do nine paintings – we’ll call it “Nine classic paintings revisited”.’

Now, in relation to your question: in the world at large there is a falling off of cultural tourism. 18% of Italians are no longer looking at their paintings! So this creates a new sort of excitement vis-í -vis art history. There are people around who are prepared to invite us to come along in order to get people to look at cultural heritage again.

AF: But of course you’ve taken this project one step further by making a film about the creation of the painting, that perhaps again will create new audiences for the painting itself…

PG: Cinema’s only been going for 113 years while this extraordinary heritage of amazing painting has been going on for much, much longer. I was trained as a painter and I often think, ‘what the hell am I doing in cinema?’ It was a series of accidents and mistakes, but it was music that interested me in cinema. I wanted to find a media where I could put music to image. I still do a lot of painting – I have a painting exhibition in Ghent, another one in Budapest coming up very shortly, another one in Amsterdam – but it’s that particular combination of image and music that brought me initially into cinema. In my films there are long relationships with people like Philip Glass, John Cage, Meredith Monk and Michael Nyman, recently Brian Eno, Vim Mertens, Louis Andriessen. So I’ve collaborated… Is ‘collaborate’ too strong a word? Let’s say I’ve worked in association with some extraordinary mid-20th-century composers.

AF: You said that editing was very important in your training as a filmmaker and editing with music can very much dictate the pace of a scene.

PG: Sure. The music on this particular production is quite lush and romantic, but it comes out of minimalist tradition. I think often that music or the art forms that are very important in your formative years tend to stay with you. I think we’re now in the fourth or fifth generation of minimalist composers, but I still have an emotional affiliation to that sort of music.

AF: You’ve spoken before about breaking the cinema screen because you find it very restrictive, and in that sense, The Last Judgment is your ideal subject matter, because it’s painted on a curved roof, in a place we’re not used to looking at for entertainment. Is that a first step for you towards making films projected on a screen that isn’t dictated by the history of widescreen cinema?

PG: Well, we do a lot of that stuff now; it was mentioned casually, that for my sins, we perform in a VJ context. I don’t think to call me ‘a VJ’ is very satisfactory. What I’m interested in is present tense, non-narrative cinema on multiple screens, to break away from the restrictions in the way we go to the cinema. I’m looking for 360-degree phenomena and I want to get rid of this notion of the single parallelogram, which is very archaic and old-fashioned. We’re pushing and pulling and we’re seeing a new phenomenon, which is the democratisation of cinema. YouTube is an amazing, positive event! We break though all those restrictive, elitist barriers of distribution – you can now distribute yourself! The balance in the equation between the maker and the receiver is becoming much more equivalent. The ideal situation is that every maker is everybody’s receiver and vice versa…

Interview by Alex Fitch