Martin Koolhoven’s excellent feminist revenge western Brimstone is out on Blu-Ray in the UK now. He very kindly agreed to answer some questions about his film and his love of the western.
What was the biggest challenge for you in making a Western?
Trying to do something that didn’t resemble the movies I love. Some of my favourite movies are westerns and it would have been very easy to do an homage, but I wanted to do a movie that was its own thing. A movie that was personal and not completely derivative from other movies.
What do you think the Western genre can say about now?
Anything you want it to say. Movies are always mostly about the present, even historical ones. If they’re any good, that is.
What’s your favourite Western personally?
Once Upon a Time in the West
Why do you think there was such a big difference in the critical reception for Brimstone between the US and UK and Europe?
It has always happened to European made westerns. Spaghetti westerns were never much liked when they came out first, not even Once Upon a Time in the West. American critics called it too long, sadistic and misogynistic. Same happened to me, so I’m in good company. I don’t know whether they don’t like outsiders to look at their history or that they just have different expectations from movies. When they see a woman being beaten up in a movie, they are faster to think that the movie tells you that it’s an okay thing, forgetting the actual emotion they got when they saw it. They feel much more comfortable watching violence that is cool to watch. I think they see movies purely as entertainment, which is fine in itself, but some go as far as to think that a movie should never be disturbing or give you any negative emotions, I guess. I always knew it would be controversial; the movie deals with religiously motivated sex and violence which is a dangerous cocktail. But I did not expect the European consensus would be that different from the US. While many Americans call the movie misogynistic in Europe it is mostly seen as feminist (which makes more sense to me). I don’t want to speak too bad about the Americans though, some of my favourite analysis of the film came from America.
What were the biggest surprises you got from your lead actors on the film?
Emilia Jones was 13 years old when we were shooting and she amazed me so many times. Dakota and Guy have been acting for years and I knew how good they could be. But this young British actress surprised me every day. Also, in all those very, very emotional scenes she was so easy to direct, it baffled me. Before we started shooting I had conversations with her mother about the challenging scenes and how to approach them. She just basically told me I should direct her like I would a grown up and she was absolutely right. It was never a problem; she understood everything and could play any scene.
How hard was it to get the right balance in the film—was there ever a point where you felt it has gone past the line for violence and had to rein it in?
I did rein it in. You actually see far less violence than you think. You mostly see the result of it, or somebody watching the violent act. In the screenplay, I hadn’t made that decision everywhere yet, so some things were much more explicit in the script. But I understood that being graphic wasn’t going to have the biggest emotional impact.
You brought along a lot of your Dutch collaborators—what challenges did this introduce for your first English-language directing effort?
All of them had worked internationally – some even in Hollywood – so actually it was me who was the least experienced on that level. The biggest challenge was speaking English to each other… Very often we just automatically spoke Dutch.
What films have you seen recently that really caught your attention?
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was amazing. Sometimes you see a movie that you completely admire and that makes you a little bit jealous, because it is something you feel that, in a perfect world, might have been inside you if you just had worked harder. Like when I saw The Square I had a good time, but that’s it. I have no need to make something that is anywhere near it. Three Billboards on the other hand, I would have loved to make. In a way that is a good thing, because I hadn’t had that in a while with a new movie. I started to feel out of date.
What do you think the Dutch film industry offers that working in Britain or the US really doesn’t?
I don’t know about Britain so much, but I think I wouldn’t mind doing a movie there. The biggest chunk of money for Brimstone came from the UK and so did some of the executive and co-producers. Hollywood is a different beast. I’m not saying I would never work there, there just has to be a script I really love and I must have the feeling I have a chance making the movie I want to make. Brimstone wasn’t a movie strict in the Dutch industry, btw. It was a Dutch, German, Swedish, French, British and Belgian co-production; shot in Germany, Hungary, Spain and Austria. And even though the money came from Europe, we had actors from other continents as well, so we dealt with agents, lawyers and managers from Hollywood as well.
What do you think is the best way to recoup your costs in this all-digital age for filmmakers?
Most of the money is still being made in the theatres even more so than a few years ago when the home market was serious business. Streaming video has taken off, but the figures are still nowhere near they used to be in the heyday of DVD. But it’s tough, there are more movies being made than ever and due to digital distribution, there are more films than ever before being released. There is so much money involved the movies don’t really get the chance to find their audience anymore. The cinemas are a much more conservative place because you have to perform the first weekend or you’re kicked out. Brimstone did not get a wide theatrical release everywhere, so the Blu-Ray, DVD and VOD release are very important. Not just commercially, I am proud of this film and I want people to see it.
What projects are you working on now or next?
At the moment I am writing a thriller. A sort of noir, set in Asia just after the Second World War. But there are also a bunch of books I am seriously thinking about.