“Girl with a Pearl Earring”: Kate Hudson Walks, Vermeer Gawks, and Webber Talks
by Brandon Judell
So just who is that gal wearing the pearl earring in that famous painting by Jan van der Meer van Delft aka Vermeer? Griet, Vermeer’s young servant, that’s who.
Well, that’s what Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel, “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” proposes, and now it’s been made into a stunningly-shot biopic/romancer directed by Peter Webber. Webber, who’s Dutch like Vermeer, has previously garnered acclaim with numerous TV films such as “The Temptation of Franz Schubert” (1997).
Now the helmer, who’s already won a Golden Hitchcock at the Dinard British Film Festival for “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” plus a C.I.C.A.E. Award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, agreed to talk to indieWIRE from the home of an L.A. friend a day after his feature opened. Using a phone that sounded as if it had been around in the 1600s along with Vermeer, Webber politely held forth on his newly found big-screen fame.
indieWIRE: Word has it that “Girl with a Pearl Earring” sort of fell into your lap. It was as if the Muses were insisting that you, and you alone, must direct it.
Peter Webber: If I believed in destiny, I would agree with that.
iW: This project must be a dream come true for you after working in TV for so long.
Webber: Yes, I was completely surprised. I was shocked and surprised at the courage or the foolishness of those who put me in charge.
iW: Now Film Fund Luxembourg is involved with “Girl” and part of it was shot there. Why?
Webber: From the producers’ point of view, what’s good about Luxembourg is that there’s a 25 percent tax credit. For every dollar that we spent, we made 25 percent back. They also had a large back lot which it made it very cost effective.
iW: The original “Girl” was Kate Hudson, and one can not even imagine her in such a role. With Scarlett Johansson, you have the perfect actress. Her look is ideal, too. Did everything fall together as easily as it looks to have on the screen?
Webber: It never falls together. You have to push things, and then they come together. Kate Hudson was the Griet that Mike Newell had chosen. That was his choice. I don’t stand by that. I, of course, am gratified that Hudson did walk away from the role, because if she hadn’t walked away, the project wouldn’t have fallen apart, and I wouldn’t be on it. So I’m fond of her for that reason. I don’t really think anyone could have done it apart from Scarlett really.
iW: Just looks-wise, the choice is so magnificent. Very few actors can have the camera on them, and without dialogue, be able to emote intelligence plus feeling.
Webber: Exactly. You can read her emotions. You can read what she is thinking through her eyes which I think is quite incredible for someone her age.
iW: You were an art student for many years, and you first viewed this Vermeer painting when you were 18?
Webber: That’s right. I was studying the history of art in the university, and it was a school trip. I saw it in the Hague in the Mauritshuis.
iW: Was it just another painting on the wall or did it hit you on the head, and you said aloud, “Someday I’m going to do something with that painting”?
Webber: (Laughs) No, I couldn’t claim to have foresight that many years later about making a film about it. But it’s an extraordinarily powerful and affecting painting. When you’re in there, it’s one of those paintings that you look on from across the room, and it sends shivers down your spine.
iW: By the way, I’m not sure if you’re married or not, but does your wife look like the girl in the painting? Or will your future wife look like the girl in the painting?
Webber: (Laughs) No.
iW: So are you married?
iW: So we don’t have to get that psychological with the painting then?
Webber: No. No. No. Not at all.
iW: You’ve done documentaries on Schubert and who else?
Webber: I’ve done about 14 documentaries.
iW: On other artists?
Webber: No, they’re not all artists. Three or four are about classical musicians. A lot about popular science as well. Those are a few of the areas I’ve worked in.
iW: You really have nothing style-wise with Ken Russell, but I bring him up because historically he filmed all these TV biographies of artists and musicians.
Webber: It was an interesting period for British cinema, but this film is much more restrained I would say. Ken Russell was famous for letting it all hang out. People running around naked from the rooftops was Ken Russell’s style. I admire all of his early work, but it’s a very different beat.
iW: I was just noting that he went from his biographical TV films to “Women in Love,” and this is the film that seems to have established you. Offers must be arriving in your mailbox daily.
Webber: They are. Not this weekend though, but during the week. (Laughs) It’s very gratifying. You make a film that really no one did expect to catch fire like this in quite the same way because it’s a little film about an artist. You don’t expect to get this kind of attention. It’s all very gratifying. So I’ll also have a chance now to make another movie because you know what it’s like in this business.
iW: To prepare for this film because it’s so visual, you looked at the works of Dreyer and Ozu?
Webber: Amongst others. I looked at Peter Weir, “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” Also, “Rosemary’s Baby.”
iW: Rosemary’s Baby?
Webber: I’m interested in horror films in the way they create atmosphere. There was something, especially in kind of the last third of that film that I thought was quite important to understand: the visual language that Polanski uses. Also Jacques Rivette’s “La Belle Noiseuse.”
iW: That 3- or 4-hour film about painting?
Webber: Exactly. Also a great film by Yimou Zhang called “Ju Dou.”
iW: That’s the one with all the different colored sheets hanging out.
Webber: Exactly. Exactly. These films are important for me, especially since a “great” action sequence in “Girl with the Pearl Earring” is when Vermeer touches Griet with his finger.
iW: That monumental finger movement.
Webber: You have to really work on the visual scale to take something very small and make it have a large impact on the audience.
iW: Did you check out other films about artists such as Derek Jarman’s “Caravaggio” or John Maybury’s “Love is the Devil”?
Webber: I saw “Caravaggio” many years ago but I can’t really remember it. I missed Maybury’s “Love is the Devil,” but I heard good things about it. I didn’t see “Pollock.” I didn’t see any of the recent ones at all actually. I’m not sorry about that because, you know, as much as I enjoy studying old films, I’m careful about being influenced by the more recent ones.
iW: In one interview, you’ve said, “To tell you the truth, I’m more interested in sex than in painting.”
Webber: Isn’t everyone?
iW: I’ve sort of outgrown that. I don’t know why, but maybe it will come back.
Webber: (Laughs) But for most artists…
iW: So most artists are interested in sex.
iW: And most filmmakers?
Webber: I’ll take the fifth on that.