Peter Greenaway: “The film editor is the gatekeeper to what the audience gets to see”

Peter Greenaway’s latest film “Que Viva Eistenstein!” is very much a homage to Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948). “To me, he is the greatest film director that cinema in its 120-year existence has ever had the good fortune to be associated with. So it was not a flash in the pan desire to make this film about the greatest film director ever. When I was about seventeen, I was an art student in London—that was in the very late 1950s—and I discovered him completely by accident. Since then, I have been extremely fascinated by this extraordinary film director. I think I have read everything that he ever wrote—at least if it’s translated in English because I don’t speak or read Russian. He was also a brilliant lecturer, and an amazing teacher,” British film director Peter Greenaway says when I asked him why he chose to make a film about Eisenstein (1898-1948) over one of his American colleagues and contemporary silent film pioneers D.W. Griffith (1875-1948).

Another reason why Mr. Greenaway has such huge admiration for his hero Eisenstein is because the Russian film director, also a film theorist, is respectfully considered to be ‘the father of montage’ or the ‘pioneer of montage’ and one of cinema’s founding fathers. Mr. Greenaway, an editor himself and very familiar with the importance of editing a film properly, knows how to grab the attention of the audience at the right moment. “The film editor is the gatekeeper to what the audience gets to see,” says the visionary film lecturer, director-screenwriter and former editor, also a BAFTA winner whose screen credits as a filmmaker-screenwriter include “The Draughtman’s Contract” (1982), “A Zed and Two Noughts” (1985), “The Belly of an Architect” (1987) and “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), which launched the career of actress Helen Mirren. His later efforts include “Nightwatching” (2007), “Goltzius and the Pelican Company” (2012) and upcoming projects such as “Walking in Paris” (2015) and another film about Eisenteins life in motion pictures, to be shot later this year on the American East Coast.

So after “8 ½ Women” (1999), Mr. Greenaway’s tribute to Italian director Federico Fellini, he now celebrates another master of the European cinema.

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Film director and screenwriter Peter Greenaway

“Que Viva Eisenstein!” depicts the Russian film pioneer’s tempestuous ten-day love affair with a male guide in Mexico (both men played by Finnish actor Elmer Bäck and Mexican actor Luis Alberti) in the early 1930s and can be considered a semi-experimental film focusing on a crucial period in Eisenstein’s life while working there on “Que Viva Mexico!” which was later abandoned. With the typical Greenawayian ingredients, his followers may recognize his powerful visual style; the logical structure of his storytelling points out how his brilliant mind works and, as a highly intelligent philosopher of cinema—also due to the film’s content—“Que Viva Eisenstein!” aims at mature audiences in art houses.

Mr. Greenaway, your films are stylish, powerful, challenging, stunningly filmed, sometimes difficult to watch, but always worthwhile: would you agree with that?

I don’t try to make difficult films. Maybe it has to do with my cultural baggage and my interest in history, and I am also trained as a painter, so I think all these things come together and necessarily must create a subject, a content, and also the language of what I do. There are general ideas which I would always wish to be associated with, but I think they are very general on the part of European culture.

You’re an all-round and versatile artist in many areas. Where do you focus the most on?

If you were my tax collector, I would have to say that I am a filmmaker [laughs]. But, I don’t know, my publisher thinks I’m a writer, I was trained as a painter, and I have people who offer me painting exhibitions, but I think that’s got a lot to do where they come from rather than where I come from. I am seventy-three years old, and I am still waiting to decide what I should do when I grow up. But I think it’s quite nice to keep it all fluid, isn’t it? So many people should not necessarily be described by their job occupation. A man who’s a butcher all his life might be fascinated by safaris in Africa or something completely different. So the actual raison d’être, if you like, is not always necessarily related to what we publicly do. Would you agree with that?

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Finnish actor Elmer Bäck as Sergei Eisenstein in “Que Viva Eisenstein!”

Yes, but since you are creative, very productive, and so multitalented, is film for you the best way to express yourself?

No. Painting is far more important. You know, I believe cinema is dying very quickly now. Its democratization, the fact that we don’t do it on celluloid anymore, the fact that everybody has a laptop, a mobile phone, or a cam recorder… everybody can be a filmmaker now. So that elitism has disappeared, and that’s a really good thing. But it has also changed the nature of filmmaking. I think my great-grandchildren will say to their fathers, ‘Cinema, what was that?’ I think it will disappear in about three generations. But that’s not true about the major art forms invented by the Greeks, which include literature, painting, music, and architecture. These were invented thousands of years ago, and they’re still with us. The evidence of these major art forms is very simple: I can take a little grease from the side of my nose and wipe it out. I’ve made a painting. I can stand in a corner and laugh. I’ve made theater. All these things are very elemental and very simple to everybody in the world. But cinema is fantastically complicated. It requires a huge community of people to work with; it is often expensive—it doesn’t always have to be expensive, but it is. Also, when you have to relate to it, you have to go to dark spaces. Now, you and I are not nocturnal animals, so what are we doing in the dark anyway? There are so many artificial circumstances about cinema that it cannot last. Also, I can’t see a plug here… But if I were to pull the plug out of the wall: no more cinema, you know what I mean?

Maybe cinema has not been around long enough, compared to the other art forms? It can still grow?

Yes, maybe it’s too soon; it’s only been going for 120 years, compared to painting that’s been going on for thousands of years. So, maybe cinema hasn’t been going long enough, but I certainly believe it’s not the seventh art. You know, [French painter] Bazaine once said, ‘Cinema is a combination of theater, literature and, if you’re very lucky, a little painting.’ We don’t really have an imagistic cinema; we have a text-based cinema, and not only does it perpetuate itself in narratives and storytelling—which is a literary pursuit and not a visual pursuit—but all the paintings are certainly non-narrative. The very best paintings stand on their own. They don’t have to tell a story; why should cinema have to tell a story? So I think cinema has slaved storytelling, there are far too many writers who are turning cinema into a form of an illustrated literature, which is not cinema. I feel very pessimistic about the notion of the cinema that we have ended up with. Cinema now is bedtime stories for adults. That’s why I tried to make a film like “Que Viva Eisenstein!” as a film about film and images.

As a filmmaker, you can be compared with Pedro Almodóvar or Lars von Trier. You all have a very personal approach, you succeed in making your own films, and you’re able to reach your audience. Is it difficult to do that, getting your projects financed, have final cut…?

It’s a struggle. Always a big struggle. It’s very difficult to get the film industry to really understand what cinema is really about. They go for the easy option: they essentially make films for the audiences rather than for the inventor. It is the same with a lot of film critics: they write for the lobby, for the audience, and not for the maker, because they need to be loved, they need to make a communication with their audience. Which seems to be a shortsighted way of doing it because if you’re going to continue to write about cinema, you’ve got to make cinema long-lasting and healthy. There are so many films that we’ve seen over and over again; it’s not interesting anymore. When you see a film, it happens so often that after five minutes, you know what’s going to happen. Yyou know who the bad guys are, and you know the sense of irony. Maybe we have seen too many films; maybe we got tired of what they represent. So I believe that, like the filmmakers you mentioned, Almodóvar and Lars von Trier, you have to keep reinventing all the time. Cinema, like any art form, has to keep reinventing itself, otherwise, it becomes boring and dull.

Adobe Photoshop PDFThat’s always an enormous challenge.

You know, there’s an anecdote in “Viva Que Eisenstein!” where these journalists were waiting for Eisenstein at Rotterdam airport, and they didn’t even know who he was. They thought they were waiting for Einstein, so you got these barriers of ignorance. I think we’re all highly educated across all the language barriers, and we’re all very sophisticated at handling notions of text because we read a lot, but most people are visually illiterate. At one point, when we’re nine or ten, we’ve all been told to put away the crowns, put away the paint, and get serious now. You have to learn to pay the grocery bill, you have to be able to afford the mortgage, and the only way to do that is by text text text. Most of us live now till we’re eighty now—I’m seventy-three—so between the ages of ten and eighty, nobody pays any attention to the notion of image. We don’t think about it, we don’t contemplate it, and we certainly don’t make it. But all children are natural and absolute artists, they’re automatically always drawing. Our education systems eradicate that desire to be able to communicate through image, and I think that’s an enormous tragedy. And then you’d think that cinema would be the ideal place to be able to teach people to see, but we had to be taught to tell first. Our mothers were our first teachers: they taught us how to speak, so we can communicate. Rembrandt said, ‘Just because you got eyes, doesn’t mean that you can see. Your eyes have to be trained.’

That explains your interest in painting?

Yes, painting is more valuable to me. You could define cinema as a medium of artificial light, but the first four painters who painted artificial light all lived around the year 1600: Caravaggio [1571-1660], Pieter Paul Rubens [1577-1640], Diego Velázquez [1599-1660], and Rembrandt [1606-1669]. Which means they may also be the first great filmmakers. I studied artistry all my life; there are many other painters that I really admire, like Picasso, who also reinvented himself constantly, or the Belgian surrealists, who were very profound, I think. I am more interested in classical painters and their use of the grid, and my films are very symmetrical and rigid; they’re related very much to the grid. You can see that also in “Que Viva Eisenstein!”: there’s a great use of architecture, the architectonic organization of the space is very important.

The visual impact of your films is always a major asset. I suppose that’s why you always collaborate with the same cinematographers: first Sacha Vierny of “Hiroshima mon amour” [1959] and Luis Buñuel’s “Belle de Jour” [1967], and after he passed away in 2001, you started collaborating with Reinier van Brummelen. To what extent is that an advantage to you?

They second-guess you. You get to know one another so well. When I made “Nightwatching” [2007], I started experimenting, trying something different, and cinematographer Reinier van Brummelen—who, like me, was a pupil of Sacha Vierny—said to me, ‘You can’t do that.’ So there’s a way that they understand what you do, and they know what your vocabulary is. When you slightly change, they may feel a little bit uneasy.

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Elmar Bäck (right), portraying Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein when he’s on location in Guanajuato, Mexico, in a scene of Peter Greenaway’s “Que Viva Eisenstein!”

Next to the amazing photography of “Que Viva Eisenstein!” there’s also the stunning performance of Eisenstein by Finnish actor Elmer Bäck. Where and how did you find him?

It took us a very long time to find him. I also wanted to use a lot of his footage, drawings, and photographs of Eisenstein, and if I wanted someone to play that part, I also needed him to look a little bit like Eisenstein. I looked all over the world, and we had several casting directors: on the American West Coast, the East Coast, in Rome, Moscow, St Petersburg, London, Amsterdam. On top of that, it was very difficult to find the right actor who had the ability to handle the language. In Moscow, I had several people at the casting studio who said, ‘Please, cast me as Eisenstein.’ But most Russian actors don’t speak very good English and they would say, ‘Give me six months, and I will learn English if you give me the part.’ Now, I wanted to find an actor who would temporarily give me his heart, soul, brain, and body in the services of the depiction of a very human, very emotionally and anatomically naked—an Einstein who was vomiting, weeping, sweating, howling, and making love—this was never going to be a hagiography. I wanted a recognizable cinematic portrait of ten days in the life of a very great filmmaker, but there was to be no worshipful genuflection. So it had to be a male actor aged thirty-three, the same age as Eisenstein was in 1931. But then I found Elmer Bäck, a Finnish actor, who really does understand the language and you can really believe him. The script is very English, full of rhyming and chiming, alliteration, game playing, and so on: the text is very Anglophile, very much using the language, so we needed someone who spoke English very well. Elmer Bäck was a very good mimic with a Finnish accent which is a little exotic to us in Western Europe, and he adopted this Russian accent. I’m not sure the people in Vladivostok will agree with me, but I think the people in Western Europe and probably California will be convinced. He also had to gain some weight in order to become this rather plump, massively haired Russian. So finding the right actor is very important. I once made a film “Prospero’s Books” [1991] with John Gielgud. I remember he said to me, ‘If you tell me what shoes I should wear to play the part, then I’ll find the character.’ So for him, the shoes were very important. I suppose all actors have a sort of a trick to try and help them to understand what they think they’re trying to do.

Brussels (Belgium)
July 6, 2015

“Que Viva Eistenstein!” (2015, trailer)


THE FALLS (1980) DIR – SCR – ED Peter Greenaway SCR CAM Mike Coles, John Rosenberg MUS Michael Nyman CAST Peter Westley, Aad Wirtz, Michael Murray, Peter Greenaway

THE DRAUGHTMAN’S CONTRACT (1982) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD David Payne CAM Curtis Clark ED John Wilson MUS Michael Nyman CAST Anthony Higgins, Janet Suzman, Anne Louise Lambert, Hugh Fraser, Neil Cunningham, Dave Hill

A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Kees Kasander, Peter Kasander CAM Sacha Vierny ED John Wilson MUS Michael Nyman CAST Andrea Ferréol, Brian Deacon, Eric Deacon, Francis Barber, Joss Ackland, Jim Davidson, Gerard Thoolen, David Attenborough (voice only)

THE BELLY OF AN ARCHITECT (1987) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Colin Callender, Walter Donohue SCR CAM Sacha Vierny ED John Wilson MUS Wim Mertens CAST Brian Dennehy, Chloe Webb, Lambert Wilson, Sergio Fantoni, Stephania Cassini, Vanni Corbellini

DROWNING BY NUMBERS (1988) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Kees Kasander, Denis Wigman CAM Sacha Vierny ED John Wilson MUS Michael Nyman CAST Joan Plowright, Bernard Hill, Juliet Stephenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill, Jason Edwards

THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER (1989) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Kees Kasander CAM Sacha Vierny ED John Wilson MUS Michael Nyman CAST Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Tim Roth, Richard Bohringer, Alan Howard

PROSPERO’S BOOKS (1991) DIR Peter Greenaway PROD Kees Kasander SCR Peter Greenaway (play ‘The Tempest’ [ca 1610] by William Shakespeare) CAM Sacha Vierny ED Marina Bodbijl MUS Michael Nyman CAST John Gielgud, Michael Clark, Michel Blanc, Erland Josephson, Isabelle Pasco, Tom Bell

THE BABY OF MÂCON (1993) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Kees Kasander CAM Sacha Vierny ED Chris Wyatt CAST Julia Ormond, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Stone, Jonathan Lacey, Don Henderson, Celia Gregory, Jeff Nutall

THE PILLOW BOOK (1996) DIR Peter Greenaway PROD Kees Kasander SCR Peter Greenaway, Sei Shonagon (book by Sei Shonagon completed in the year 1002) CAM Sacha Vierny ED Peter Greenaway, Chris Wyatt MUS CAST Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor, Yoshi Oida, Ken Ogata, Hideko Yoshida, Judy Ongg, Ken Mitsuishi

8 ½ WOMEN (1999) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Kees Kasander CAM Sacha Vierny, Reinier van Brummelen ED Elmer Leupen CAST John Standing, Matthew Delamere, Vivian Wu, Shizuka Inoh, Barbara Sarafian, Kirina Mano, Toni Colette, Amanda Plummer, Natcha Amal, Manna Fujiwara, Polly Walker

THE TULSE LUPER SUITCASES, PART 1: THE MOAB STORY (2003) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Kees Kasander CAM Reinier van Brummelen ED Elmer Leupen, Chris Wyatt MUS Borut Krszisnik, Eduardo Polonio CAST JJ Field, Raymond J. Barry, Michèle Bernier, Enrique Alcides, Valentina Cervi, Caroline Dhavernas, Anna Galiena, Deborah Harry, Isabella Rosselini

THE TULSE LUPER SUITCASES: ANTWERP (2003) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Kees Kasander CAM Reinier van Brummelen ED Elmer Leupen CAST JJ Field, Raymond J. Barry, Michèle Bernier, Enrique Alcides, Valentina Cervi, Caroline Dhavernas, Anna Galiena, Deborah Harry, Nigel Terry

THE TULSE LUPER SUITCASES, PART 2: VAUX TO THE SEA (2004) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Eva Baró, Antoni Solé, Sánder Söth CAM Reinier van Brummelen ED Elmer Leupen, Jaap Praamstra MUS Architorti, Borut Krzisnik, Eduardo Polonio CAST JJ Field, Raymond J. Barry, Valentina Cervi, Marcel Iures, Steven Mackintosh, Ornella Muti, Isabella Rossellini

THE TULSE LUPER SUITCASES, PART 3: FROM SARK TO THE FINISH (2004) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Kees Kasander CAM Reinier van Brummelen ED Elmer Leupen, Chris Wyatt MUS Sandra Chechik CAST Roger Rees, Stephen Billington, Jordi Mollà, Ana Torrent, Ornella Muti, Iori Hugues, Anna Galiena, Valentina Cervi

A LIFE IN SUITCASES (2005) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Kees Kasander CAM Reinier van Brummelen ED Elmer Leupen, Jaap Praamstra, Job Te Veldhuis, Chris Wyatt MUS Borut Krzisnik CAST Stephen Billington, Raymond J. Barry, JJ Field, Caroline Dhavernas, Deborah Harry, Isabella Rossellini, Ornella Muti

NIGHTWATCHING (2007) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Kees Kasander CAM Reinier van Brummelen ED Karen Porter MUS Wlodzimierz Pawlik CAST Martin Freeman, Emily Holmes, Eva Birthistle, Jodhi May, Toby Jones, Jonathan Holmes, Kevin McNulty

PEOPLING THE PALACES AT VENARIA REALE (2007) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Domenico De Gaetano CAM Ruzbeh Babol ED Irma De Vries, Joris Fabel MUS Marco Robino CAST Ornella Muti, Ennio Fantastichini, Remo Girone, Martina Stella, Piero Chiambretti, Giuseppe Battiston, Valentina Cervi

GOLTZIUS AND THE PELICAN COMPANY (2012) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Kees Kasander CAM Reinier van Brummelen ED Elmer Leupen CAST F. Murray Abraham, Giulio Berruti, Halina Reijn, Vincent Riotta, Flavio Parenti, Anne Louise Hassing, Lars Eidinger

QUE VIVA EISENSTEIN!, a.k.a. EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO (2015) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Bruno Felix, San Fu Maltha, Femke Wolting, Cristina Velasco CAM Reinier van Brummelen ED Elmer Leupen CAST Elmer Bäck, Luis Alberti, Maya Zapata, Lisa Owen, Stelio Savante, Rasmus Slätis, Jakob Öhrman

WALKING TO PARIS (2015) DIR – SCR Peter Greenaway PROD Kees Kasander, Julia Ton, Emanuele Moretti, Andrea De Liberato CAM Reinier van Brummelen MUS Alexander Balanescu CAST Carla Juri, Gianni Capaldi