The Oscar nominee talks about her career during the Binger-Screen International interview in Utrecht.
An Oscar nominee and Golden Calf winner, Paula van der Oest is one of the most prolific - and popular - directors of her generation in the Netherlands. She has worked in many different genres and has made epics as well as chamber pieces. Locals call her the Netherlands’ answer to Susanne Bier. She is equally comfortable writing her own screenplays and directing other writers’ scripts. Van der Oest is renowned for her subtle and sensitive direction of actors, her humour and her foregrounding of strong, independent women in her work. She spoke to Geoffrey Macnab during the annual Screen International-Binger interview in Utrecht.
You are one of the only Oscar nominees I’ve met who has been arrested at the Academy Awards. Could you explain just how that happened?
It was after the Governors Ball. I had two chocolate Oscars for my (two) children but one’s head broke off and I thought, oh, there is going to be trouble at home. A film journalist, Rene Mioch, was with me. He said ‘I’ll get you a new one.’ I waited. The producer had already gone down the elevator with the actresses. She had all the tickets in her purse. Suddenly, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘can I see your ticket?’ I said that the producer had just left. He said, no, no, ‘you should have your ticket with you.’ Rene came back. We were suddenly surrounded by four bodyguards, led through some stairs and ended up in a room. Someone was in handcuffs next to us. Mugshots were taken. I was so angry. I had a gorgeous dress. I said ‘don’t you have a list! I was a nominee.’ After an hour, a lawyer hurried in and said he was so sorry. This was all because the Iraq war had started. I am a bit tanned, my skin is dark and my hair is like this. I was, I think, a suspect!
Did the children get the chocolate Oscars in the end?
Yes, they did.
Did you have the chance to work in LA after your Oscar nomination for Zus And Zo in 2001? Do you have the desire to work in the US?
I had and I still have (the desire). I have an American agent. She saw the film and was very taken with it. By that time, there was interest in (an English language) remake. I read a lot of scripts. I can’t tell exactly why things didn’t have a follow-up. My children were small. When I shopped around in Hollywood and then came home, I was standing outside the school and waiting for the children, developing Dutch scripts again but I more or less forgot about it. Now, my children are quite big. They say ‘please go to America.’ They love the idea I could make films there. I still have the agent. You never know!
You have a reputation for working very well with strong actresses, for example, Carice van Houten as poet Ingrid Jonker in Black Butterflies.
I like working with actors. I like the process of making a part very layered and detailed. More than anything, it is sitting down and analysing not only the script but also the character: where he or she comes from, where they go to. I think it helps a lot that I was in a theatre group (with ex husband Theu Boermans). After all the years that I’ve worked with actors, I think I have a high sensitivity and I can very well read what they feel inside. When there is a dialogue, the actor has an internal process of how to go from one line to another. By listening and watching, I can see if it’s correct and it it’s organic. In my last film (Lucia de B), my actress said “you’re a psychic!” I am not. It’s just concentration. You know what is going on inside (the actors). Then you can be very detailed and subtle in trying to get things better and approach the truth of a character.
What are you like on a set? Are you loud and domineering?
I strongly believe that everybody contributes to what is the final movie. If people come with ideas and get enthusiastic (I like it.) I like quiet sets. I don’t like people joking or telling anecdotes. The first AD is very important. With my DoP Guido van Gennep, we can give people the impression we are making something special. I like it so much, directing. It makes me so happy.
Your film The Domino Effect is wildly ambitious. It’s shot in several different countries and dramatises events in the wake of the 2008 economic crash. How did you conceive the project?
In 2008, September, Lehman Brothers failed. I started writing in early 2009. I had the idea of making the film very quickly and its not being a huge movie that would take four years to finance. I got the script ready in six months. I did screen tests by Skype. It was like a guerilla style of movie making. it I had fantastic actors everywhere.
The film struggled to find proper distribution. Why was that?
It was a complicated post-production. Maybe, I’ve started thinking, when you’re in a crisis, you don’t want to see a film about a crisis.
How have you reacted to the savage cuts in arts and film funding from the Dutch government?
The government said that artists were standing with their wallets open and their backs to the audience. I think that is very insulting and disrespectful.
What is your background? Were your parents in the arts?
Not at all. They had an industrial laundry business. My first love was literature so I read and when I started reading, I never stopped.
You had an inspirational teacher who suggested you enroll in film school.
Yes, that was my art teacher in high school. I grew up in a very small village. I liked writing, I loved music and I was in an art class and I liked images but it was very undefined. They (the film school) said I was too young and sent me away, telling me to go and live a while. I don’t know why they didn’t want me. Maybe I was too young, too vague. When they sent me away, I went to an art school in the Hague. The basic thing you did there was grab a camera and start filming. I started living on my own. I had never lived in a city and so everything was new. I made some short films and then I applied again to the Film Academy. I told them I wanted to edit because someone had said they don’t have enough people who want to be editors. I said, yes, I wanted to be an editor. They said wouldn’t you mind being in a dark room half of your life. I said no, no. Basically, I lied…and they took me as a student.
So how did you start directing?
You have to start somewhere. If you want to get money from a film fund, it’s best to have something to show them. I was at the Film Academy where I did directing, writing and editing. The thing about filmmaking is you have to do it. I did a lot of assistant director jobs because I felt I needed some more time.
How did you get your first break?
The VPRO had a series called Lolamoviola, now called One Night Stand, where you make a short film for no money. It gives (new) filmmakers the opportunity to make a film and to train themselves. I had a short I could show them. I made Coma (for the VPRO.) Then it goes easier. I could show one film and then I made another.
You’ve worked with many different producers.
Yes, I have worked with several producers. There was Frans vans Gestel who now runs Topkapi. He started with Motel Films. They were producing for the VPRO. They produced Coma. I did a lot with Jacqueline de Goeij, who did Zus & Zo and Hidden Flaws. I did Moonlight with Staccato Films. At a certain moment, people come to you. In the beginning I went to producers with my script but by my fourth feature, Emjay Rechsteiner (of Staccato) came to me with Moonlight. That’s why I started working with him.
You’ve made films in almost every kind of genre. Do you see common themes that run through all your work?
When I became guest of the year (in Utrecht), I had to think about my films. Normally, I prefer just to make movies. Of course, when I make the movie itself, I am completely aware of the themes and what it is about. But thinking about my own career and the choices I have made is difficult. Other people tell me what the themes are that link my films. I read in the paper that very often my films are about women who struggle. And they’re not completely sympathetic or understandable. They are people who struggle against institutions or family members. When I write myself, I like to get the comedy out of the things that go wrong with life. Moonlight, Black Butterflies, Hidden Flaws, and Madame Jeanette are written by other people. When I feel connected to the theme, then I say yes (to other people’s scripts).
On your film Tiramisu, you show an odd couple coming together: a dry, repressed bookeeper and a diva-like actress with financial problems. As a director do you share some of both of their qualities?
I am definitely not a bookeeper! This film was based on my own bookeeper. I think when I write, I am always a bit in all the characters. I wrote the script for the actress Anneke Blok.
What can you say about your new film, Lucia de B, about the nurse wrongfully accused of murder and imprisoned for 10 years?
It’s an extraordinary case, very dramatic and sad - one of the biggest legal scandals the Netherlands has seen. She (Lucia) was accused of murdering several babies. She was convicted. She thought it was a nightmare and that people would soon see it was a mistake. They didn’t.
You’ve met the real Lucia. Is she a bitter woman?
No, she’s an intelligent person with a very good sense of humour and very practical.