Girl with a Pearl Earring
, IGN, December 11, 2003
An Interview with the Director and Stars of Girl with a Pearl Earring
Jeff Otto talks to Peter Webber, Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth about bringing the story behind one of the most mysterious and famous paintings to the big screen.
The life of legendary Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is shrouded in mystery. One of his most famous paintings, "Girl with a Pearl Earring," provides the basis for both the story of the film and the book on which it is based. The story is a piece of historical fiction, as very little is actually known about how the painting came to be or who the girl in the painting was. Was it a relative of Vermeer's or possibly his wife? The book and movie proposes that it was actually a servant of his household.
In director Peter Webber's feature debut, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Scarlett Johansson plays Griet, a servant to the Vermeer household with a keen interest in the art world and ultimately in Vermeer himself. Colin Firth plays the part of Vermeer, who becomes gradually fascinated with this curious, intelligent and enticing servant. They become friends of sorts as Vermeer uses her as a model in a few of his paintings. Their relationship is innocent at first, but is gradually laced with a sexual tension. Vermeer's wife, in particular, becomes vaguely aware of this situation and orders Griet out of the house. Vermeer fights for Griet to stay and ultimately uses her as the subject for one of his great masterpieces.
IGN got to speak with director Peter Webber and the film's two star's, Colin Firth (Vermeer) and Scarlett Johansson (Griet) to discuss the making of Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Peter Webber himself was an Art major in college, although he says he did not expect a film like this as his first film. He has actually been quoted as saying that he is not at all a fan of costume period pieces. As it turned out, there is a much deeper story in Girl with a Pearl Earring than is at first evident on the surface. Webber love of art comes across very clearly and vividly in the film thanks in no small part to the stunning camera work of Eduardo Serra. Thanks to Serra, nearly the entire film itself takes on the look of one of Vermeer's own paintings.
Webber did not seek out the project at first. It actually sought him, much to his surprise. "I didn't have this project in mind... I was known for making very different kinds of films and television in England. ... My most famous drama in England, which is quite controversial, [is] something called Men Only, and it's a rather kind of shocking exploration of male sexuality. [It] caused a bit of a stir in England. And, Andy [Tucker], the producer, I'll tell how it happened: ... I'd gone into the office to see someone there and there was a painting, the painting was on the wall, just a postcard or a poster, I don't remember now, and he heard me talking about it and I just felt this tap on my shoulder. And he said, 'Well, why don't you read the script?' I think he was as surprised as I was. When I started to read it, through all that, I had a passion for the painting of Vermeer for a long time. ... The first few pages I was thinking, 'You know, my first movie's not going to be this. It's a bit polite, it's a costume drama.' And, as I read through the script I was falling in love with it. But really the scene that did it to me was the piercing, the ear piercing. Because I thought, 'You know what? This is not the film I thought it was when I started to read it. This has got a fantastic dark undertone; it's got an obsessive romantic relation at this heart of it. This cruelty, this passion, and there's interesting stuff about the relationship with money and art. It's about power, it's about sex, it's about a whole bunch of stuff.' And I thought that was a film I could make. ...What I was scared of is ending up with something that was like Masterpiece Theatre, [that] very polite Sunday evening BBC kind of thing, and I [was] determined to make something quite different from that and the material was there to do it with."
With the recent acclaim Scarlett Johansson has received for her work in Lost in Translation, it's hard to imagine that casting her in this film was a tough sell at first for Webber. "Actually, it wasn't the case," says Johansson. "I actually had to audition for it. I went in for a reading and originally didn't have the part actually, which I was quite upset about. But you learn to deal with those things..."
Webber fought to cast Johansson: "Way back then, it's just [about] the script, a conversation between director and producer where a producer said to me, 'We can't raise the money from this actress.' Now I never saw anyone else apart from Scarlett who could do the role. Having seen her audition, I mean it was in a rather bland room like this, she completely blew me away. ...She's an astounding actress for her age. She's got such maturity. She looks like a real person as well. She's not like one of these ridiculous skinny anorexic waifs... And Scarlett is just passionate, committed, intense, clever and a great, great actress who can reveal what she's thinking on her face... Business intervenes sometimes, especially when you're a first time director, you're not in a position at all to try to get exactly what you want. So, to me, it was the happiest day of all when things changed, for a number of different circumstances, and we were able to get the financing, and we were able to do it with the cast that I wanted..."
Johansson has gained a reputation for playing characters older than her own age: "Griet was my age. I've always played maybe a few years older. When we did Horse Whisperer I was twelve playing fourteen, or Ghost World I was fifteen playing eighteen. It doesn't make so much of a difference. I think the relationships between the characters are so different. I mean, with Billy [Bob Thornton] and I it was kind of a purely innocent sort of thing. With Bill [Murray] and I, I think that my character needs the Bob Harris character to help her from having a total nervous breakdown. She needs his support. Colin and I, we have a different relationship. We don't need each other. We want each other. You think that my character could survive anything. She could survive another world war. She's so strong. Colin does not help her come unscathed out of the household. It's her inner strength that does. It's not a conscious decision."
Although the book was an adaptation of the novel by Tracy Chevalier (who also wrote the script), both director and cast decided to stay away from the book so that the film may stand on its own. "I deliberately held off reading the book for a while as well," says Webber. ... There was one thing I was scared of: I had the script, I had done about eight months working on the script with the writer. ... I was worried that if I read the book too soon, I would have a whole load of knowledge, just there in my subconscious..."
"I didn't read it before and I didn't read it during because I didn't want the first person narrative I suppose," Johansson says. "I just didn't want anybody else's explanation of the way the character was feeling. I didn't want to have the pressure of that. Some actors may have studied it, but it just didn't seem right [for me]."
Playing the character of Vermeer, Colin Firth actually had the least information about his character because so little is known of the painter. Firth decided that reading the book could only help in his preparation: "I felt like I had been written from a distance. There's nothing wrong with that. Jane Austen does that with her male characters as well and if an actor's going to flesh that out it's up to them to turn an objective into the subjective and that's what I was doing. I just wanted to see if it was helpful. I wanted to see if it clarified things. I wanted to see if, where the script was silent, the book wasn't and what the subtext might have been. I wanted to see if certain bits of dialogue that I have questions about were from Tracy['s script] or were [in the book]..." ... I found the book actually extremely helpful on most of those fronts..."
Webber never set out to make a biopic of Vermeer. His hope was to use the few facts known as a stepping-stone for this story. "Nobody, as far I know, certainly not myself or Tracy Chevalier [is] trying to pretend that this is fact. Because so little is known about Vermeer, and that's a gift. ... Because if we were making a film about Rembrandt, we know loads of stuff about Rembrandt. And what happens is, you end up making a biopic. What Tracy was able to do was use the very few facts that are known, is true to those few facts, and then weave an imaginative tale around that. And I think in doing so, probably got closer to the heart of what Vermeer is about then if we had a bunch of historical facts that we knew..."
The sexual tension between the characters is one of the things that sets this film apart from the kind of Masterpiece Theatre tale Webber feared: "His painting, his art, is more important to him, actually, than his sex life. So, he's using all of that sexual energy to put into the painting. And if he had walked into that closet when she was taking the cap off, the painting would be over. ... It's the building up, it's the yearning that he was using as an artist. Knowing the way she was looking at him, he knew he'd get certain intensity in that portrait. ... I think that we wanted to paint a portrait of a man who cares about his art above all. ... It's about not getting what you want. We live in a world where you do get what you want all of the time..."
"Certainly she's a servant and she does serve Vermeer and the family," Johansson says of her Griet character. "She's a maid, she's taking care of the cooking, the cleaning, the rearing of the children. ... However, it became more apparent to me the more we filmed, how completely in love I was falling with Colin as the Vermeer character. It became more and more apparent to me that the Vermeer character was this sort of untouchable mysterious man, this genius... And my character was completely longing and obsessive and in love with this man. And it was actually physically heartbreaking. I mean, that's how apparent it became. When I saw the Vermeer and Catharina character together, caressing each other, I was, like, physically pained in my heart by that and so, you know, I definitely think that the love affair for me was the most apparent relation between the two characters. The maid and the model are things that come along with the circumstance, but the other is not physical."
Although it may be less apparent in the film, Firth believes that Vermeer did have a strong and loving relationship with his wife: "I think if we're commenting on the relationship with his wife in our story, I think that it's sexually alive. I think that he is devoted to his family. I think that he's very, very rooted in the social order of his day. I think there must have been very strong reasons for him wanting to marry her. He changed his religion, he converted, from Protestantism to Catholicism and even though Holland was relatively tolerant in those days, it wouldn't have been an entirely easy thing to do at all..."
Webber's love of art provided the initial basis for learning about this mysterious painter and his interest in the story: "Vermeer has always been one of my favorite artists. I find that there's a sense of mystery, of transcendence. There's a really fascinating view of femininity. There's a whole array of things that make him a very special artist and an artist that does transcend his times. It was a real challenge or opportunity to try and capture some of that in this film..."
"I tried to be someone who watches, who's engaged in the visual world," Firth says. "The benefit of having artists like Vermeer in the world is that, you know, he saw the world in a way that no one else did. ... The way he treated depth and texture was unique and, you know, because you've got these paintings, you can see like he sees..."
Along with the excellent cast and directing work of Webber, the third star of Pearl Earring is the look of the film. The lighting and camera work give the film a look almost as if Vermeer himself had been the director of photography. "We had Eduardo Serra and so I think possibly that's even better than having a dead Dutch painter. He also is an art history major as it happens. He did four years at the Sorbonne. So, we had an awful lot to talk about when we got together. ... I'd seen an English film he'd done, Wings of the Dove, and the great thing about talking to Eduardo, though, was that, although it was obvious that any D.O.P. is going to love to make a film about Vermeer, he is the Master of Light. He was also interested in story and character, and that was really important to me because, although it's set against a very beautiful backdrop, if the characters at the heart of it aren't living, then we'd have been in trouble. And it's getting that combination. Sometimes beauty can be a trap..."
Girl with a Pearl Earring opens this Friday, December 12th in New York and L.A.