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A Conversation With Colin Firth by Tribute's Bonnie Laufer
This film is about the painter Vermier, whom you play. Were you a fan of his work or did you know anything about him before taking on the role?

CF: I am and I was, yeah. I knew more about Vermier than I knew about the book actually. I had not read the book when I got the script and it did seem somewhat consistent how I felt about him when I saw my first Vermier. I’m not a person who has a particularly sophisticated reaction to paintings and fine
art. It must have been about five or six years ago, when I was on a promotion for Shakespeare in Love,
and I was in the Met in New York and I saw the painting "Woman with a Water Jug" in the window and
that was the one that did for me. It was a very small painting in quite a small room full of other Dutch and Flemish art, and it just blew me away.

Was playing him a bit of a challenge for you, because here is a guy that really existed, but we really don’t know a lot about him. There isn’t a lot of information on his background. You were pretty well working with a blank canvas so to speak.

CF: It was easy in some ways and difficult in others when the character is an enigma like that, because it’s not like playing somebody totally familiar. If I were playing the British Prime Minister it would be an exercise in imitation as much as anything else and I’d have to work very hard to a specific model. With this, we had carte blanche. There is no portrait or physical description of him. But in another sense though, it was specific because that enigma didn’t just give me carte blanche to develop the character in any way I wanted to. The enigma was essential to the story so it was to some extent an exercise in preserving that.

You get to work very closely with Scarlett Johansson who is one of the brightest young up-and- coming stars to come around in a long time. What impressed you about her and how did you enjoy working with her?

CF: Just about everything really, I think she’s extraordinary. She was 17 years old when she started this job and she is one of my favorite actors that I have ever worked with. One of the things that throw you slightly when you are in your early forties is to work with someone who is that young and actually probably, as experienced as you are because she’s been doing it that long. So there was a lot of the ‘old soul’ in her and she offered unbelievable energy. She was able to keep up with the workload and she had just come off a really difficult schedule and came right into this. I think I’d realized with middle age coming on, my exhaustion threshold was much lower than hers. 

She was absolutely mesmerizing in this role I thought.

CF: She was utterly committed to the project and utterly enamored with it all, and when you’ve got something like this it tends to weave a spell on all of us and puts us all on the same page.  

You have worked with a lot of young actresses in the last few years. Amanda Bynes, Mena Suvari, Scarlett Johansson…

CF: It’s been a long time since I have done a film without an American actress interestingly enough. It’s very often that American actresses come to England to work and I tend to be there when they do.  

It’s interesting. How have you enjoyed working with these up-and-coming young women? Are they good sparring partners for you?

CF: Amazing. Oh yeah, absolutely. When someone is young and brilliant it does throw down the gauntlet. It stops you from becoming stagnant and complacent and jaded. It keeps you fresh to work with brilliant young people, definitely.  

You also just released Love Actually, which I have to say I truly loved your storyline. How much fun did you have working on that?

CF: That was a walk in the park and yes, it was a very different piece for me. Girl with a Pearl Earring was not a walk in the park; I felt it was treading a very narrow line of getting it right. With Love Actually I was very fortunate where we had the beautiful location. I was the only one who got to go to the south of France and my story is set apart so it was like a mini movie and I wasn’t sprinkled around the rest of the shoot like the other actors were. So it was mine and my part of the story kicked the film off, so we started with that and it was only three weeks. I wasn’t carrying the film and it was incredibly enjoyable and I was in very good hands with Richard Curtis the director and there was nothing to it. It was just fun really and when you’ve only got three weeks to do something, you might as well have fun.  

It’s funny, I have to admit that every time I told people that I would be interviewing you, every single person was just aflutter. I know that you have been dubbed the British sex symbol, how does that sit with you? I have to tell you, there isn’t a person in this world that wouldn’t want to meet you and be in my place right now.

CF: Oh, there’re some people in the world …  

Very few!

CF: There are probably quite a few people who do know me that probably wish they didn’t. I don’t know, I have no intelligent answer to that question, really.  

Fair enough! OK... Everyone wants to know what is happening with the sequel to Bridget Jones’ Diary. Can you tell us anything about that?

CF: It’s starting very soon now. It’s a very strange beast because it existed before it existed, if you understand what I mean! It existed as an idea and even as a production before it really existed as a script, and the script has been catching up with the rest of the machine. All along the rest of us have been standing by asking, "what are we actually going to make here?" I find that there is a tremendous paradox with sequels. In some ways people want a sequel because they love the first one, so that’s why they want it. So in some ways they are looking for the first one and then they get angry if that’s what they get. So it’s got to pay homage in some extent, and then it has to develop from that. I think it’s getting there now, it’s sort of where we are. It’s going to be a long shoot and I think it does take the story forward. 

Jeff Otto of IGN 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.

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....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 [Andy Tucker, the produer] 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..."

Talking Movies: Girl With a Pearl Earring by Laura Metzger

For Colin Firth, the opportunity to star as the famous 17th century painter was a welcome change of pace for the actor who’s lately been seen in a number of contemporary romantic comedies.

Colin Firth: I’ve been doing much lighter stuff and it was such a radical change of tone in terms of what I was reading that it was very noticeable to me for that reason. It also felt like a piece of literature, not in terms of its loftiness but just in terms of the fact that sounds and colors and smells seemed to ooze off the page, and that doesn’t happen every day when you read a script.

Firth’s co-star Scarlett Johannson was also looking to test her skills with a period piece. At the age of 19, she’s been a working actress for almost a decade. As the fictional maid named Griet who becomes Vermeer's muse, Johansson shows she’s as comfortable in the 17th century as the 21st. Although the novel was written in first person from Griet’s perspective, in the film we are not privy to her thoughts. 

Scarlett Johannson: I hadn’t read the book, and I didn’t read the book while we were shooting because I didn’t want this sort of first person perspective. I just didn’t need it or want it, and the script was so visually stimulating, that I read it and immediately went in and did a reading, with the attitude that I’m right for this part and you have to cast me.  

Tell me a little bit about the chemistry between your character, Griet, and Colin Firth’s character, Vermeer, because there seems to be quite a bit of tension, whether it’s sexual or intellectual, but there’s never any consummation is there?

Scarlett: Right. I think that Vermeer sees in the Griet character not only her physical attraction but foremost I think he’s attracted to her mind and she’s certainly the first woman he’s ever encountered that shares this artistic eye. And she’s this simple girl, this simple housemaid, and somebody who’s curious about his work and his process.  

How important is the look of the film, because it felt like you used light and space much in the same way Vermeer did in his paintings.

Peter Webber: Completely. You know it’s also intimidating, I mean it’s not just any artist, it’s Vermeer and there’s a very singular look and feel to those paintings. I think one of the first things I decided was that not everything should look like a Vermeer, because we wanted the things that happened in the studio and upstairs in the attic to have a very special and singular feeling. So there’s other artists in there, Breughel, Rembrandt, I shan’t bore you with the whole list, but we just passed the reproductions of these paintings around as a way of communicating.  

It’s a bittersweet ending in a way, because this relationship is never  consummated in the traditional sense. Were you ever pressured, was there ever any temptation to Hollywoodize it in any way?

Webber: I think there’s always temptation but a lot of people have said to me, it’s the sexiest film I’ve ever seen, but it’s also the most clothed film I’ve ever seen, and to be able to do that, I think, is quite tricky, because we’re used to a world in which sexuality means Christina and Britney wriggling around with no clothes on. Everything is really in your face. And to be able to escape into that kind of world, that is deeply sexual, deeply erotic, but very restrained and very passionate, it’s much more romantic, and that’s a rarity in this day and age.

BBCi Films Interview by Alana Lee

Colin Firth hasn't been able to escape the 'thinking woman's crumpet' tag since donning the britches to play Fitzwilliam Darcy in TV's Pride And Prejudice. He's subsequently made the transition to movies, starring in Brit romantic comedies Bridget Jones's Diary and Love Actually. 2004 sees him star opposite Scarlett Johannson in Girl With A Pearl Earring and Renée Zellweger (again) for Bridget Jones 2: The Edge Of Reason.  

One of the interesting things about Girl With A Pearl Earring is how there's very little dialogue...

It's good not to speak. I think it gives you the opportunity to own it, in a way. When you've got other people's words, you have to go full circle, making their words yours. Doing it in this way, it's much more of a direct line from the source material to whatever it is you're doing in front of the camera. Words can be an enormous asset. They can really catapult you into something wonderful if they're brilliant. If they're not, then they are a gigantic obstacle. If they're not there, then suddenly it's you! You're on! You have to sing and dance, and that's it.   

The centrepiece of the film is the evolving relationship between Griet, the servant girl, and your character,  Johannes Vermeer, who wants to paint her. How did you  make that relationship real on screen?

It all got quite easy once it was between myself and Scarlett [Johansson]. It was a strange job for me because I wasn't present for a lot of it. I mean, I was and I wasn't. I had to be there physically most days so I could walk down a flight of stairs or something. It meant I wasn't really able to establish anything for a long time, but once we got into the meat of it, in that artist's studio, between the two of us... I found that once we hit a certain tone, those elements just actually sort of dictated it. That's when collaboration actually starts to display its benefits—we start to inspire each other. I found that once we were at the proper work, it didn't require great leaps of the imagination. And it was also easy because Scarlett really is so believable.  

Why did you take a chance on working with Peter Webber, a first time director?

It didn't seem like such a terrible risk. He's not wet behind the  ears. He's very experienced behind a camera. He's made drama. I think we make a rather artificial divide between the small screen and the big screen because the work is very much the same. It depends what sensibilities you bring to it. He knows the world of cinema. He's one of these people whose knowledge is encyclopaedic, but he's also watched and studied things. I felt he was more equipped than a lot of more experienced directors I've worked with. I didn't have the feeling of a man on his first feature film job at all.  

How does it feel to be in a movie that a lot of people wouldn't associate you with?

I think it's great. I'm quite happy for those things to co-exist. This film wouldn't be possible without Bridget Jones for me. I enjoy doing Bridget Jones. I don't think films are less substantial because they're more popular or because they're lighter. I certainly know that if you're any more bankable because of the success of one film, then one of the privileges it buys you is to make you credible for a film like this. They then consider me as part of what helps to get the film made. It's a combination of elements that I'm prepared to make use of as long as I can.

The Telegraph interviews Peter Webber by Marisol Grandón

What was Johansson and Firth's relationship like on set? Did he, being the veteran of romantic films that he is, offer her any guidance?

I don't think for one second that Scarlett would take any guidance from Colin. They had, in a joyful way, a very combative relationship. They obviously had strong feelings for each other. It really clicked between them. And they used those feelings in the scenes. That's what chemistry is. You can't fake chemistry, it's a real thing.

Great actors do a lot of their own work. On set, they would go for each other hammer and tongs. Scarlett would tear strips off Colin. Sometimes you would think they were being serious but it was just a game they played. When the cameras turned on there was this wonderful atmosphere. They created a barrier to the warmth they felt for each other. As a director, you nip and tuck and maybe encourage them in one direction or another. They were two great actors.

I think Colin offered Scarlett a few tips but if anything it was the other way round. She's been doing this probably as long as Colin.

One of the most powerful moments in the film is when we see Griet's hair through Vermeer's eyes. We share his gaze. How crucial is editing to the sense of voyeurism you created in the film?

A very simple editing problem is when to cut from one face to another. We recut that scene again and again. How long do we stay on Scarlett? How long do we stay on Colin? You can't be on them at the same time unless you do some intrusive split-screen technique.

Editing obsesses me. I was an editor for five years which probably accounts for the shape of this film, which is quite lean and spare. Once I get the scissors out I can't seem to restrain myself. I'm reading a book by Walter Murch called In the Blink of an Eye to find some answers myself. As film-makers, we can tell you exactly where to look, exactly what's important at that time. That's what editing is really. It's deciding where you want the audience to be looking at that particular point in time.

In one scene, shot in a single take, Griet is setting the table. She is watched by Vermeer who is in turn watched by his wife, daughter and mother-in-law. The complex relationships and power struggles make gripping cinema. What was the most difficult aspect of achieving that scene?

Shot-wise that was quite a simple scene. There were boring, technical and tricky continuity issues with her laying the table: she had to make sure she didn't make too much noise putting the plates down and so on. But in the end, there was a wide shot, two or three close-ups and that's it.

What is complex are the emotions and undercurrents going on. People who love the film divine those undercurrents. No doubt there will be some people who won't engage with it who'll find it slow. But people who do find it quite thrilling. You can achieve complex things through simple means, like Vermeer. He pared things back so they're as simple as possible. That's what we tried to do in shooting and through the editing.  

Music adds a tremendous dramatic dimension to the story.

Alexander [Desplat] has done a fantastic job. He's quite rightly been nominated for a Golden Globe. Music is a difficult trick to pull off, because the wrong score could have dragged this film down. Alexander did the opposite.  

As an English-language film set in 17th-century Holland, how did you decide to which accent to use in the film?

You have to make a decision. That's all. I think the thing to avoid is American actors speaking in American accents, Australians speaking in Australian accents. When it's a mix-up like that, it confuses the audience. I chose the most neutral accent to my ear—a standard received pronunciation, but a bit less English. We could have done it all in Dutch accents but it would have been a bit ridiculous. In America I think it works because it sounds oldy-worldy. It probably irritated a few Dutch people but there we go. I'm sorry because we love the Dutch.

The Telegraph interviews Olivia Hetreed by Marisol Grandón
How do you think the film would have turned out had it gone to Miramax or one of the other Hollywood studios?

The book is written in the first person. So the single biggest challenge of the adaptation was to find a way of bringing Griet's inner voice to the screen.

Miramax wanted it with voice-over. But voice-over seemed to me to be completely wrong for this film, partly because it would make it very literary, but also because Griet is a character who is not analytical. She is not able to work out what her situation is. She's simply in the moment. In order to have that, you need to be as involved in the situation as she is. Voice-over immediately puts a distance on it and a kind of detachment. 

I was very lucky that that pressure never came on me because of the way the film was made. The film was protected. Both Pathe and Lion's Gate who were the principal producers were even pulling in the opposite direction. They would say: "Oh, I don't think we need to be as obvious as that." They were really sympathetic to the nature of the film. It's not an ordinary film in that respect. It does ask quite a lot of the viewer and it's quite ambiguous, particularly the ending. 

How did you and producer Andy Paterson convince the author, Tracy Chevalier, to sell the film rights?

We were very fortunate. I got a copy of the book before it came out because I share an agent with her. I read it prepublication. And although there were people interested, it wasn't a best-seller at that point. I read it and just completely fell in love with it. I thought it was utterly thrilling. When I read it, I 'saw' the movie immediately. 

Andy and co-producer Anand Tucker met Tracy and they pitched her their version of the story. They told her they didn't want to change it. She believed that they wouldn't make it Hollywood, they wouldn't have them sleep together, or have the "Griet discovers her sexuality in front of the mirror" scene. So she went with it.

Chevalier thought for a second about writing it herself. But with really impressive self-control and restraint she thought: "No actually, that's not what I do." She has written two more novels since and has been incredibly trusting and generous. 

Was it tempting to add a kiss or any more contact between Griet and Vermeer?

No, I don't think so. The 'almostness' of the story and the incredible tension was more thrilling. There's a moment where Vermeer and Griet are outside the house. He says "Tomorrow" and she says "I can't". It's like an affair. They're moving past each other and they're barely acknowledging each other. To me, those moments of tension are more thrilling than getting on with it. Indeed, our instincts were always to play it down. Colin and Scarlett agreed. 

Colin and Scarlett's relationship on set was very interesting. I was there just before they started shooting all the studio scenes and just after. The difference in the two actors' relationship before and after those scenes was amazing. I returned six days later and they were completely different with each other. It had been such an intense experience for them.  

Reports suggest Chevalier received just £10,000 for the film rights. Is that true?

That wasn't for the rights, that was for the options. She was paid a lot more when the film was made. 

How much extra research did you have to put into the screenplay?

The book is very clever because it's carefully placed on the few known facts about Vermeer. They're like little pillars sticking up out of the dust of history, which tell us about his family and some of his business transactions. But it's pretty sparse information. 

However, there is a wealth of information about 17th-century Dutch society. I did the research again and I covered a lot of the same ground as Tracy. As I was going through, I'd suddenly find something and think: "Ah! That's where she got that from!" But in the process of adaptation, you need to do the research, put it to one side and just write. Otherwise you can get very clogged up. 

I talked to people like Nicola Costaras at the Victoria & Albert Museum who restored the painting. It was really fascinating to talk to somebody who had been that close and really had her paintbrush all over it. We discussed painting technique and what she felt about it. 

I also spent a lot of time talking to figurative painter friends of mine about being a painter. The least clear character in the book is Vermeer. He's obscured because Griet is looking at him, so we see him completely through her eyes. I was intrigued as to what it is a painter does apart from actually splodging paint onto canvas. What are the mental processes going on? Vermeer's paintings are so much about what he leaves out, the choices he makes and the very careful framing and placing. 

I even sat for a friend as he worked. While I was sitting, we talked about looking. It seems to come down to that—looking and looking and really trying to understand what you're seeing. At various points while writing the script, I was influenced by the theories of the time and I read some of the material that would have been available to Vermeer and so on. That all fell away compared with the importance of having a clear gaze; really seeing what's in front of you and understanding how that effect is achieved. I'd recommend it to anyone, it's almost like therapy. 

How did you decide what to omit? How many versions did you have to produce until it was just right?

It's a gradual process. The first draft was much closer to the book than the final film is. Then, through the drafts it developed its own character. It started to grow up and stop being simply the child of the book. I think it has to go through that process in order to become effective in its own right. 

An imitation of the book isn't effective, however nice the book is. That's a very necessary process. I was incredibly fortunate in that I worked with Anand Tucker who is a director and with Peter Webber. Working with them on drafts helped me to concentrate on what the film would be, rather than how beautifully I could make a line work. About a third of the story came out in editing. So quite a lot of the decision- making about leaving things out was post-script. Editing streamlined the story. We were all clear that the story was Vermeer and Griet and their relationship. It was just a question of what would actually play into that and make it work, and what was distracting and had to be jettisoned. Before editing, there was great stuff there, but Peter was fantastically ruthless.

Transcript of London Press Conference (see Multimedia section links to video)

Colin, how did you start to create a convincing portrayal of this famous yet mysterious figure, Johannes Vermeer?

Colin Firth: The secret was in the mystery. What you have in terms of historical understanding is mystery and what Tracy Chevalier wrote was also mystery and I was perpetuating that interpretation. It was a balancing act: fleshing him out without revealing too much. We weren‘t trying to do "Amadeus." Preserving the enigma of the figure had to be handled delicately and ultimately I was the final frontier of keeping that going. 

Scarlett, what grabbed you about this script?

Scarlett Johanson: I hadn‘t read the book; I made a conscious effort not to peek at it. We had it on set; it was pretty tempting. What drew me—and a lot of young actresses were excited—was that it was an incredible opportunity to play such an amazing part. It‘s so rare that you have such a beautifully crafted script with a young girl carrying the film. It was very desirable and I knew right after I read it I could do it. I just had to convince Peter and Andy.  

It looks very cold?

SJ: (giggling) It was very cold!

Peter Webber: It was minus 15, we were out 12 hours a day and poor Scarlet had to wander around in period costume and clogs!

SJ: I wish they were clogs!

PW: You‘re right, they weren‘t clogs. I could see how much she was suffering.  

Your character is nearly silent throughout the movie. Was it a big challenge to convey emotion through looks rather than dialogue?

SJ: No, actually it made my job a lot easier. What could really have solved those silences? I can‘t imagine what kind of awful dialogue could have been written in there. Our crew was so respectful of the time it took to get where we needed to without having any dialogue. 

You‘ve really got to have courage as a filmmaker to include so many silences…

PW: Well, it‘s only now that people keep saying how brave that I think it was. These two great actors—they can say volumes without having to use dialogue. There is plenty of skilfully written dialogue in the film but when you can tell the story with pictures, see the emotions, and to create more moments I slowed the scene down so stuff would happen between them—the chemistry. That‘s where the heart of the movie is. If anything, the courage was in the cutting room and trying to make a film that was singular. We live in a very noisy age, we‘re used to car chases, gun fights, MTV style cutting, fast food entertainment but that wasn‘t the kind of film we were making. We had to be true to the script, novel and the spirit of Vermeer—f that doesn‘t sound too pretentious—because those paintings are mysterious, quiet, transcendent and luminous and it would been ridiculous to do it in any other way. 

Colin, did you ever feel that you were underplaying it?

CF: I think I can speak for a lot of actors when I say that dialogue is often very limiting, particularly if it‘s anything other than excellent. Mediocre dialogue is utterly crippling to the process and brilliant dialogue a free ride but no dialogue is a very liberating and inspiring thing to do, as long as you‘ve got the confidence of a great director. There‘s nothing more dispiriting than having a lot of ideas of what your performance is going to be if there‘s no one at of the other end of the camera.

Did you ever count your lines in your career?

CF: (laughing) You learn that quite quickly. There are adages around about actors with no lines stealing scenes. I think past the first year of drama school you‘re not counting your lines.

SJ: (quietly) I used to count my lines!

CF: (smiling) But she‘s only young!

PW: (joining in) She hasn‘t been to drama school yet!  

Did you get the sense of the quality of film you were making? 

PW: Rushes are always great, if the performances and lighting are good, that‘s exciting. The difficult thing is once you start putting it together and trying to tell a story. You then have to take the script, a literary thing, that‘s on paper and have to tell a story on screen that is very different. You watch the first cut and have a nervous breakdown; you hate it, rip it apart, put it back together and do whatever violence is necessary to tell the story. You can‘t be complacent, you love your rushes but you have to get to the point where you hate the cut so much that you forget all your high faluting ambitious and concentrate on telling the story and finding what is good in the material you‘ve shot, not what you hoped you had but what you actually have. It helps having a crew and script of this calibre. At the end of the day you‘ve got a bunch of film and it‘s a wing and a prayer.
And what can tell us about that wig, Colin?!

SJ: (interrupting) I can say a few things about the Vermeer wig.

CF: She nearly pulled out because of my wig. The wig was… (sighing) Ah, it was a lovely script and you know if you accept this part a wig awaits you, it‘s an alarming prospect, and had it been anyone other than Jenny Shirkor (the movie‘s production designer) who is well known for being brilliant, it would have been the kiss of death. My fear was that the rest of the world would react to my wig the way Scarlett did.

SJ: (giggling) It was only the first few days—it was very much a sort of Fabio wig!

CF: I‘m doing what I think is a sexy, smouldering look and she‘s giving me, "I can‘t believe it‘s not butter!"

Interview with Peter Webber by aboutfilm.com's Carlo Cavagna
So, you're an art history major, is that correct?

PW: Yeah, that's correct.
Did you always have a project like this in mind?

PW: No, no. I was known for making very different kinds of films on television in England, and the films that the producer knew I'd made wouldn't have led him to believe that I'd be the best candidate for this. My most famous drama in England is quite controversial. It's something called Men Only, and it's a rather shocking—what would you say?—it's rather a shocking exploration of male sexuality. It caused a bit of a stir in England. I'll tell you how it happened. I've worked with [producers] Andy [Paterson] and [Anand] Tucker over a period of years on documentaries and so forth. I got into the office to see someone there, and there was a painting on the wall. It was a postcard or a poster; I can't remember now. And he heard me talking about it. 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. For all that, I'd had a passion for painting, Vermeer in particular, for a long time. I started [to read it]. The first few pages, I was thinking, “You know, my first movie is not going to be this. It's a bit polite. It's a costume drama.” [But] as I read through the script, I was falling in love with it. Really, the scene that did it for me was the piercing. The ear piercing. I said, “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 relationship at the heart of it. There's cruelty. There's passion. There's interesting stuff about the relationship of money and art. It's about a whole bunch of stuff. I thought, “Right. This is a film I can make.” It's not what I was scared of—ending up with something like Masterpiece Theatre, a very polite, Sunday evening, BBC kind of a thing. I was determined to make something a bit different to that, and the material was there to do it with. 
Did you study baroque art?

PW: I did three years at university, so I studied everything from early icon painters to surrealism in the twentieth century. I specialized in my last year in Dutch and Flemish art, as it happens.
The film looks as if Rembrandt was your lighting director. Talk about creating that look.

PW: [laughs] We had Eduardo Serra, so I think that's possibly 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. He's worked with Patrice Leconte [the] French director, who's great. I'd seen an English film he had done, Wings of the Dove. And, the great thing about talking to Eduardo was that, although it was obvious that a DOP is going to love making a film about Vermeer, who is the master of light, he was as interested in story and character. 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 would have been in trouble. Sometimes beauty can be a trap. The other thing about Eduardo is that he works very quickly, which is a good thing for both director and actors. If he was in [this room], he'd put all his lights outside of that window [indicates hotel room window]. They'd be blasting through. You wouldn't see a light inside, and it would mean, if I was directing this table [indicates roundtable of reporters], that I could put you where I wanted to. A lot of DOPs that you work with, it's like, “No, they have to hit that spot exactly, and have their head turned like that.” He just works in a much more fluid, organic way, and it's a dream for both director and actors.
What was your interest in Vermeer before this film started, and how did his work specifically inform the look of the film?

PW: Vermeer has always been one of my favorite artists. I find that there's a sense of mystery, a transcendence. There's a really fascinating view of femininity. There's a whole array of things that make him a very, very special artist, and an artist who does transcend his times. It was a real challenge to capture some of that in this film. It meant we had to approach things in a certain way. It meant I had to be incredibly restrained. It meant I had to hide myself as a director, and resist the temptation to swirl the camera around and do showy things, and all the rest of it. I think that's all to the good, because what I should be doing is telling a story, rather than showing off and jumping up and down and going, “Hey!” There is a temptation, as a first-time director. You want to go, “A-ah! Look at me! I'm great!” I had the Vermeer paintings there just to remind me, all the time. You can't make a noisy film about Vermeer. You can't make a fast film about Vermeer. It imposed a fairly rigorous artistic discipline, because if we're going to be true to him, and his world, and the world that Tracy [Chevalier] had evoked for us in her novel, then you have to somehow capture his spirit. And then you begin to understand, as a filmmaker, that there are different ways of approaching things. Everything doesn't have to be quick cut, like MTV. I understand this film won't be for everyone, but I do believe that people who take the time and allow themselves to sink into this world will be taken to a very different and a very special place. That's what makes it distinctive.
Scarlett [Johansson] told us that at first she lost the role, and then she got the role back again. Could you tell us a little about that, and why an eighteen-year-old actress who is really becoming quite the flavor of the year—

PW: Well now she is. She wasn't beforehand. Way back then, it was just a straightforward conversation between director and producer, where our 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, she completely blew me away. Business intervenes, sometimes. Especially when you're a first-time director, you're not in a position to get exactly what you want. So it was the happiest day of all when things changed, for a number of different circumstances. We were able to get the financing, and we were able to do it with the cast that I wanted. And so that was it. I went over to Vancouver, and said, “All right. Can we do this now?” Scarlett, obviously, [said], “Right. Well, do you really want me, or what?” But I laid siege to her. I stayed in Vancouver for a week, waiting. I think that she realized after that, that I was serious. So, from my point of view, there's only ever been one Girl with a Pearl Earring. It's the shitty side to the business. It's like Van Ruijven in this film. Money comes with an attitude. You can't always do exactly what you want, and often compromises have to be made. I'm happy to say that we pushed through that period. We got the right money. We ended up with not Van Ruijven, but with people who understood exactly what we were doing. It was one of the reasons making the film was so interesting, because I could really identify with Vermeer. So that's it. That's the story.
What does Scarlett bring?

PW: Well, listen. She is 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. To me, anyway, because I saw an awful lot of actresses, and some of them, you thought should be hospitalized. [They] should certainly eat a hamburger, for godsake. And Scarlett is just passionate, committed, intense, clever, and a great, great actress who can reveal what she's thinking on her face. That's what we needed for the role. She has got this incredible engine. I just felt, if I'm going to take a girl and repress her, put her in a situation where she's not allowed to be herself, you want somebody's who's going to have the energy that will leak out. I don't know anyone else who can do the amount of storytelling she can in her close-up. Her thoughts just run across her eyes. That's really important, in a film where there's precious little dialogue.
Particularly given the painting involved. You're building to that exact moment when she poses and the painting comes to life.

PW: Yeah, true. The thing is, actually, it's a bit of a trick of the light, I would say, because if you look at Scarlett's face—if you really examine Scarlett's face—she's not the girl. Her eyes are a different color, all sorts of things. But, there is a moment where she transforms herself into the painting, and I just think it's a superb acting moment. And also, you haven't got the two of them side by side. But, she's similar enough. The thing is, it wasn't about doing a look-alike competition. It was finding someone who is a great actor who is close enough. Scarlett just bewitches you, [so] that you buy she's that girl, I think. 
Scarlett told us that she didn't read the book at all before or during shooting. You've said you hadn't read the book either. Why is that? 

PW: Not when I first started, no. I deliberately held off reading the book for awhile as well. There's one thing I was scared of. I had the script. I did about eight months work on the script with the writer, to push it—as any director would do. You tend to get a script and you push it toward being the kind of film you want to make. I was worried that if I read the book too soon, I would have a whole load of [extra] knowledge in my subconscious. I had to be sure that the script was doing its work [without that]. Do you know what I mean? So I came to the book afterwards, once we had—I felt—nailed the script. Then I went to the book for the first time and read it, and then we made some final adjustments to the script. It was really holding off until I needed to read the book.
Both the characters are an enigma. Vermeer is a mystery to this day. We haven't even seen all his works; some are lost. Who is this girl in the painting? Nobody knows.

PW: Nobody, as far as I know, certainly not myself or Tracy Chevalier, are trying to pretend that this is fact. So little is known is about Vermeer, and that's a gift. If you're a storyteller, that is an absolute gift. Because if we were making a film about Rembrandt, we know loads of stuff about Rembrandt, and what ends up happening is you make a biopic. What Tracy was able to do was to use the very few facts that are known. It's true to those few facts. And then weave an imaginative tale around that, and I think in doing so, get closer to the heart of what Vermeer is about than if we had a whole bunch of historical facts. So from my point of view it's a gift. I think there's a real problem if you're making a film—some people have done whether it be about Jackson Pollock or about Picasso—it's difficult for actors, because they have to impersonate a person whose image is very strong in our memories or in our consciousness. It's something that's very tricky, I think. So I for one, am immensely grateful that we know as little as we do. Also it means you can create a certain kind of a film that has a mystery to it, has a certain kind of mood to it, which was the kind of film I wanted to make.
You talked a little bit about money, the financing struggles. If you had unlimited funds, what would you have done differently?

PW: I wouldn't have done it any differently, actually. I would have paid myself more. [laughs] Because I didn't get paid very much, as a first-time director, in England. If you come out of British TV, they're kind of saying, “Here's the keys to the kingdom. You are now going to go off and become a moviemaker. If you do really well, then the world is your oyster. But for now, here's ten dollars and just be thankful.” But joking aside, it's one of those questions that's really difficult to ask. I hired all the people I wanted to. I got the actors I wanted to. For me actually, it was the opposite. I felt like we had a ton of money. I know it's a fairly tight budget by American standards, but you have no idea of how tight the budgets I've worked on TV are. You've got no idea how tight the schedules I've worked are. So this was just the most amazing experience. It was fantastic. I really don't know what I would have done. I would have paid Scarlett more, because she deserved it.
When Griet goes to the butcher's boy [played by Cillian Murphy], do you think that she has any real interest in him, or is it just a means of satisfying the sexual desire she has for Vermeer? I had that impression, but the person I saw it with had the opposite impression.

PW: Well, let me make a general statement of intent here. What I think and feel about the characters is now irrelevant, I would say. Okay, it's all about me when I'm making it, but then I hand it over, and then it's about the audience. It doesn't matter what my intention is. It's when you're sitting in the cinema seat, and you're watching it, it's what you get. So I could tell you my opinion, but I would say it's only as valid as anyone's. Your friend's opinion is just as valid, I think, now, as my opinion. I think that she likes the butcher's boy. I think the butcher's boy is the person that, if she hadn't had her horizons raised by going into this strange household, she might have felt happy with. But she's a changed person, through going in there, through meeting this amazing, compulsive, fascinating older man. It has changed her. It has changed her outlook on life. It's changed what she wants. So in a way, it's like you can't go home again. So, I think that he's a good looking guy; she has a feeling of companionship toward him, but the reason that she's running off to see him is because she can't consummate with Vermeer. In a sense, there's been a—these are two long words together, I apologize—a metaphorical defloration. She has lost her virginity to Vermeer, in a symbolic way. She's been [worked up] beyond belief. It's reached a such a peak of intensity—I hope we captured that in the film—that it needs an outlet. It needs to come out somewhere. Also, that scene, I think, it's an acknowledgement of how she's trapped within her world. In this day and age, let's be honest, the artist and the model would probably run away together. But, it's a different time, a different place, and what makes this drama interesting is that it's about not getting what you want. We live in a world where you do get what you want all the time—or at least it's easier to get what you want. So, I would say that I agree with you rather than your friend, but I think she's perfectly entitled to her opinion. Once a movie goes out into the world, it belongs to anyone who goes to see it.
But Vermeer had consummated with his subjects in the past?

PW: Uh— Van Ruijven had, I think. I think Van Ruijven is the person that we intended to hint at having had some dodgy business. We wanted Vermeer to be completely—You know, he's tempted—he's almost tempted beyond endurance. Actually, what I think that he's doing is that the painting—his art—is more important to him, actually, than his sex life. He's using all that sexual energy to put into the painting. If he had walked into that closet when she's taking her cap off, the painting would be over. It's the building up, the yearning that he was using as an artist. Also, knowing the way she was looking at him, he knew that he'd get a certain intensity in the portrait. We wanted to paint a picture of a man who cares about his art above all.
We must have a word about Colin Firth. Women love him, but for anguish and torment—why did you go with him?

PW: Because he's a great actor. Listen, I didn't really know that he was such a heartthrob until afterwards, to tell you the truth. I have discovered [that] because every time I go to a Q&A, I stand up, and I get two questions for me, and then the third question is [in a high-pitched voice], “Where's Colin? Where's Colin?” So, I understand that people want to see him rather than me, and I don't blame them. He's a great actor. He understands reserve. He's very good to work with. He's not got movie star [attitude] at all. He's very straight up. He brings a tenderness to the role. That's an important thing, because it's important that Vermeer sees something special in this girl, and falls for her because of that. Rather than he just sees her, and thinks, “Schwing!” and that's it. I think Colin's one of the few actors who is convincing in that way. I think that's one of the reasons that women like him so much. He's not just this incredibly hunky character—it seems like he cares. He seems like he understands. I think that's what it's about. 
He's introspective, and it comes through on the screen. 

PW: I think he can do mystery as well. He's not scared about doing less. That's a good thing.
Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?

PW: Do I have a favorite scene? The ear piercing scene. It was the one that first attracted me to the film, because it has for me all the elements—and also because it worked. I was really worried about whether it would work or not. There's a strange mixture of tenderness and cruelty—I find it interesting and complex, on a number of levels. And I think Scarlett's performance is magnificent. Especially that moment—which was the fourth take—of the close-up where the tear rolls down her cheek. Every time I see it, I'm just blown away.
Can you talk about the last scene when the camera pans Vermeer's actual painting of the girl?

PW: Yes. It's self-explanatory. I wanted to actually make people look at a painting. We don't look at paintings that much. We glance at them. There are some of us who do, who go to galleries and stuff. And I thought, “Right. I've got the audience there. I've had them for an hour and half. Now is an opportunity to really make them look. Look at that painting!” Also, I hoped and believed that people would look at it in a very different way. What would have been an interesting experiment, is to show the painting at the beginning of the film, and then at the end of film. But it would have been too much like a pretentious formal experiment. I hope that when people look at it, it's as if—if they know it, they're seeing it with fresh eyes, and if they don't know it, they're getting an amazing artistic experience, because they're carrying with them the emotion of the film. They've understood the girl's journey; they've understood all the different elements that go to create the painting; they understand the role of the patron, the role of money. They understand the intensity of the emotional traffic that might happen between a painter and a sitter. It just seemed to me the only real, true, proper fulfilling ending of the film. And it kind of tickled my fancy I suppose. I did ring up my art history tutor and say, “There's a good few thousand people who I forced to sit and stare at a painting for a minute and half.” That kind of tickled my fancy.
They actually allowed you to come in and shoot the painting?

PW: No. The gallery made a high resolution still, and we then shot it on a rostrum camera. Because there's also practical problems. It would have been an absolute nightmare. It wouldn't have been as good an image, to tell you the truth. To do that properly, we would have had to get a motion control rig in there, all sorts of practical problems. So we went the easy route, but it's just as effective I think. That's a very good rendering of the painting, the one that we used.

Virgin.net interview with Colin Firth by Neil Smith

Last time we saw Colin Firth he was falling for his Portuguese maid in Love Actually. His latest film, Girl With A Pearl Earring, finds him playing the dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer, who claims he was inspired to paint by a forbidden desire for his naive young housemaid (Scarlett Johansson). We quizzed the British actor on art, life and wigs...  

What attracted you to the film in the first place?

CF: It was refreshing. It takes itself seriously, which is not a popular position in most films—it is safer to have your tongue in cheek these days. Not a lot big happens on the surface; it's a minimal, finely focused drama that must be made interesting by the characters. It's an exploration of how powerful a relationship can be...  

Not much is known about Vermeer. Was it hard putting flesh on his bones?

CF: The secret was in the mystery. Basically what you have in terms of historical understanding is mystery, and what Tracy Chevalier wrote in the original novel was also mystery. I was perpetuating that interpretation; in some ways it was a balancing act between fleshing him out and not revealing too much. We weren't trying to do Amadeus with this character, and I think preserving the enigma of the figure was something that had to be handled quite delicately. I felt that ultimately I was the final frontier in keeping that going, through all the various stages of interpretation.  

So much of your love for Scarlett's character is left unsaid. Did you ever feel you might be doing too little?
CF: I think I speak for a lot of actors when I say I love doing less. Dialogue is often very limiting, particularly if it's anything other than excellent. Mediocre dialogue is utterly crippling; brilliant dialogue is a free ride; but no dialogue is a very liberating and inspiring thing to do, as long as you've got the confidence that your director will look at what you're doing. There's nothing more dispiriting than having a lot of ideas about what your fantastic performance is going to be when no one's at the other end of the camera.
So it was vital you had an understanding with your director, Peter Webber...

CF: I've got this complex view of this woman and I'm going to have to do it all with my eyes; it is entirely mutually dependent and symbiotic. We wouldn't have been able to do any of it if we hadn't known Peter was going after that. There were times when there were only two words being said but the camera would be turning for a very long time, and you were going to have to fill that. It gave us all an added responsibility.  

It sounds like quite an intense collaboration.

CF: Working with a crew is a huge collaborative effort. Everyone arrives on set in the morning and the challenge of the day is to give life to the written word. But you have to be prepared to change the ideas you brought with you that morning, in order to keep the energy and carry the room. If you are in tune, you can feel that moment—it's palpable. 

Did you learn to paint for the film?

CF: I've played around, but anything I could do with a paintbrush would be utterly irrelevant to anything that would be useful to Peter or the film. In the end, as long as you can point your paintbrush in a straight line and not look too closely at what you're doing, I think it's perfectly adequate. And besides, even if I had considerable skills, I don't know how long it would take me to apply them towards creating a Vermeer.  

You have a splendid mane of hair in the film. How did that come about?

CF: When you read a script like this and accept the part, you know a wig awaits you. It was an alarming prospect, and had it been anyone other than [make-up designer] Jenny Shircore, who is fairly well known for being brilliant, it would have been the kiss of death. My fear was that the rest of the world would react to my wig the way that Scarlett did. There I am doing what I think is my best sexy, smouldering look and she's standing there sniggering!

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