The Western Genre Feels Like Home: Dutch 'Brimstone' Director Martin Koolhoven

Dakota Fanning as Liz (IMDB)

"I can't deny the fact I am influenced by westerns... I was determined to do something that had not been done before."


Director: Martin Koolhoven
Cast: Kit Harington, Carice van Houten, Dakota Fanning
Year: 2016
"Realism itself is completely boring to me."
Brimstone (2016) is the first English language film by Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven, and one finds the filmmaker entering the landscape of the fabled American West. Told across four chapters is the story of Liz (Dakota Fanning), a young woman hunted by her nemesis, the religiously motivated extremist Preacher played by Guy Pierce.

At a glance, Brimstone’s central antagonist, known only by the name ‘Reverend’ or ‘Preacher’, echoes Pale Rider’s (1985) protagonist ‘Preacher’ hero (Clint Eastwood) -- two men defined by an impersonal identity forged through religious belief, scripture and mysticism. This is one of many connections underpinning the film, as Liz’s fearsome journey of survival sees the violent extremism of man become the incarnation of the unforgiving American West.

Meanwhile, through the presence of character and music, Koolhoven majestically imbues his western with an operatic breed of theatricality. In the director's hands, the film becomes a fusion of art forms that intertwine with ideas of religion, man’s relationship to not only one another but as a defining influence on the spatial.

Inescapable in any critical appraisal is the film's harrowing narrative of misogyny -- the violence we witness Liz and her mother Anna (Carice van Houten) suffer under the auspices of scripture forces one to recoil from the screen. Yes, Koolhoven celebrates feminine survivalism, but a dark underbelly lurks as the filmmaker illuminates the inherent intimacy between religion and misogyny. Liz’s struggle is not only against the dominion of men ordained by God, or those willing to put innocent young women and girls to work as prostitutes in saloons, or the harsh natural landscape, but religion and therein God himself. Here it becomes merely a hollow spectacle of violence -- verbal, physical, and sexual -- unless the plight of these female characters is discussed and engaged with serious thought by critics and audiences alike.

In conversation with PopMatters, Koolhoven reflected on his love for cinema, the western genre, and American history. He also discussed the relationship of the individual filmmaker to the cinematic language, the conscious and unconscious presence of creative influence, and how he does not wish to be defined by meaning or message.

Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

As long as I can remember I have always been a big fan of movies. When you are very young you don't think movies are made, or at least I didn't. You think the actors make up the story as they go along. The first moment that I started to feel that a movie was made was when I was 11 years old, and I saw Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). But I have to be honest and say that's in hindsight. I felt that was a movie that didn't just happen, someone thought of it.

Then a few years later were the glory days of Steven Spielberg, who in my time was what Alfred Hitchcock was before him. He was a filmmaker that was talked about more than his actors, and so that was the first time I realised that someone was actually making movies. So he was important, mainly because you could actually see that he was a director. But it still didn't really occur to me to do that myself, because I lived in a very small town in the south of Holland. It was only when I was about 18 and I met other guys that wanted to make movies, that I came out of the closet as someone who wanted to be a filmmaker.

Have your experiences as a filmmaker influenced the way you watch films as a spectator?

When you are going along with a film and you are enjoying yourself, then you can't help but know how things are done. I always compare it to eating in a very good restaurant -- you will truly enjoy the meal, and if a real chef goes there, then he will also enjoy the meal. But he might just happen to know what herb they used or how they prepared it. So you are not innocent in the sense that you are not completely oblivious as to how things work, but you just as much enjoy the meal.

Is it genre that influences the filmmaker or is it the filmmaker that shapes genre? Or is it fundamentally a collaboration between the two?

Most people that work in a genre like the western or science-fiction are aware of the fact that they are working in a genre. The western is a very specific one, and coming from Dutch cinema, it felt like coming home. I really liked that fact because if you go into making a movie where there is absolutely no code to define it, or there's no history, then it's very difficult to do something original.

It's nice to have a common ground with the audience, a genre-defining code where you are able to either use that or to go against it if you wish. As it was the first English language movie I have made, it helped me to work in a genre that I knew well, and I've always been interested in 19th century America, and the myth of the Old West. I've read a lot about it and I've seen many westerns. I love the genre and so it felt more comfortable writing about that than if I would have been setting a movie in contemporary New York, London or any other English speaking place.

But on the other hand, it was also a bit intimidating because there are very few genres that have led to, in my view, so many masterpieces. So it was both a blessing and a curse, but it meant that I felt comfortable enough to write it, and I didn't feel like I had to tiptoe. I gave it my best and thought about what I could I bring to this. What could I do that hasn't been done? The answer was that if I make it personal, if I do something about me and my cultural inheritance, if I bring that to the genre, then my doing this film is justified.

Picking up on your statement about the many masterpieces of the genre, how has the experience of writing and directing a western influenced your appreciation for the genre?

To be honest, I didn’t want to do an homage. I wanted to do something original, and when I began directing the film, I tried as much as possible to stay away from anything I knew of the genre. The thing is it's in my DNA and I can't deny the fact I am influenced by westerns. But I tried to find my influence from other things like paintings, novels and graphic novels, and if movies, then at least not westerns. So I was determined to do something that had not been done before.

I always see influences in other peoples movies and now when I watch this movie, I can still see influences I had not thought of when I made it. But it's always difficult, and when I directed this, I wanted to be truthful to the story and to the characters. To do anything just because it is a western or because I love Peckinpah, or any other great director that worked in the genre would have felt fake or unjust to the characters.

Still, there's a shot in the movie that is reminiscent of The Night of the Hunter (1955), and that just came about. It felt stupid to just change it and so I just shot it, and that’s the one moment when there is almost a literal quotation from another movie.

Cinema is a shared language that has been developed throughout film history. It's inevitable that there will be crossover moments, so would you agree that it's about finding that sense individuality within the structure of an established language?

What it all boils down to at the end of the day is that you want to tell the story, and to be truthful to the characters. You go into a scene and you think of a shot, and that's basically telling the story, showing what the characters are going through. Now the way I think I have to do those shots, and the way I have to emphasise whatever the character is feeling when I track in, when I do a dolly shot, a crane shot, whatever shot it may be, is influenced by the movies that I have seen. The language itself is something that has been developed by those directors that came before me and has influenced my view on how you should shoot a scene.

But that's something you take in subconsciously, and when you go into that scene you think: Okay, what is it that I want to get across? What is it that I have to tell in terms of the story? And you just do what you think tells the story best, or at least that's what I do. I am not going to just do a shot because the language or the genre asks for it. It's the story and the characters, that's all.

Guy Pearce as The Reverend (IMDB)

You mentioned looking away from cinema for guidance and from early on the score of the film asserts its presence. There's seemingly an operatic dimension to the music and one that comes to fruition in the climax of the confrontation between protagonist and antagonist. It could be seen to tap into religion as fictitious dramatics, but it equally suggests that your intention is one of evoking feeling over achieving realism.

Realism itself is completely boring to me. You have to strive for believability, but that's something else. That’s what you define in a movie as the space that you have as a storyteller, and in the case of Brimstone, there is definitely a heightened reality. It's not about being realistic, and so we use the form in a very expressionistic way to express ourselves to the fullest through light and camerawork, sound and music. So there is a certain type of theatricality to it, and I can fully understand you would compare that to opera.

Of all classical music, opera is the form that I love the most because it is a very emotional form, and before composer Tom Holkenborg wrote anything, we were talking about what the influences were. A lot of it came from Bach and classical music, that has a lot to do with religion.

The acknowledgment of music as a tool to express yourself is something that is now almost lost in modern movies. Many have almost made music a slave to film, like they’re afraid of having big and noticeable melodies, where everything now has to be completely sub-conscious. Well, I'm from the old school. I like Morricone, Donaggio, the great Bernard Herrmann, people that had a strong melody and could help a movie not just in a scene, but over the course of a whole movie by bringing a dramatic layer to it. So I pushed Tom to go much further than he's normally allowed to, and he really loved that, and I think he did a marvellous job.

One of the themes of Brimstone is the exploitation of religion by man, and the idea that just as violence emanates from man, so too does God and religion emerge from within humanity?

With the religion aspect, some people ask me: “Did you have a beef to settle?” I was brought up religious and now I'm not religious at all. If I really wanted to do something I'd call anti-religious, if that was my main purpose for this movie, I don't think I would have had it stick to one character. It should be more oppressive and at the end of the day, this is one guy whose sexual and violent actions are religiously motivated.

Writing the character I had to read part of the Bible and I noticed I was looking for stuff to motivate his inner needs. You think: I could use this, and by doing that I realised this is what a lot of religious fanatics do, and it's still happening. They have a certain idea and they’ll go to the Bible to motivate their actions. I felt this gave the movie a certain weight that I thought was good because it meant I was writing something that was still relevant. When you are making a historical movie, it still has to have one foot in the present.

By limiting it to this one character, it forges him as a source of suffering for his community and the wider world. Therein, the character remains a potent exploration of the vulnerability of religion to exploitation.

I think you're right that it does that, but to me, if you want to truly understand the way most filmmakers work, and at least I do, it is not dictating. I don't think I'm defined by meaning, or even worse by message. I don't go in thinking I’m going to write and say something about this or that, and it should go there, because if you do, then you will have limited yourself.

I said about the directing of the movie that you have to be truthful to the story and the characters, and that's also the case with the writing. If you are truthful to the characters, then at some point they will bring you to those certain places. And if you are truly a believer in bringing a message, then I don't think you're truthful to them because the characters take you to the place where you want them to go.

Now that said, of course, I have opinions and ideas about certain things, and those ideas creep into it no matter what because that's who I am. So whatever I think is good for the character, whatever I think is good for the story is through a very complex process that is going on inside of me. It will never go to a place that I feel morally uncomfortable with. But it's just a different way of approaching it.

Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl, he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?

I think life changes you constantly. If you live life without being affected by it, then you are a poor human being. If you have a child it affects you. If you make a movie that is important to you, then professionally, intellectually and cinematically, I think it will affect you. But it's very difficult to pinpoint what it is that has changed. I know that I have learned a lot from this film and I have had a wonderful experience. This movie has been a huge rollercoaster in that it was a very difficult movie to make, and so it wasn't always fun. Yet I look back on it as gratifying, and I'm happy that I did it. So yeah, I think it changes you, but please don't ask me how it did [laughs], because I don't know how to answer that.

Brimstone is released theatrically in the UK on Friday 29 September 2017 by Thunderbird Releasing.

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