B R I E F   S Y N O P S I S
Set in 17th century Holland, director Peter Webber tells the imagined story behind one of Vermeer's greatest and most enigmatic paintings. Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation, Ghost World) stars as Griet, a tilemaker's daughter who is forced to become a maid for the master painter (Colin Firth). Fascinated by his craft, she shows an aptitude for helping in the studio. Their growing intimacy spreads disruption and jealousy within his ordered household and beyond, fuelling a scandal that threatens to ruin them all. Tom Wilkinson co-stars. Based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier.
  First Night at the Electric

Peter Webber remembers the cinema where
he fell in love with the movies.

* * *

I was almost sixteen when I first discovered the Electric Cinema. A run down old fleapit in the middle of a bustling street market on the Portobello Road in London, it was a repertory cinema screening old, classic, rare or cult films.

I can't remember who I was with the first time I went there, or why we decided to go. But I do remember the film we saw—Pierrot Le Fou by Jean-Luc Godard. I fell in love with the star of the film, Anna Karina, a teenage crush that endures to this day.

The director teasingly flouted the conventions of established film grammar within a hugely entertaining tale of two lovers on the run in a magical world of guns and French poetry. A party guest in an early scene described what cinema was: "… a film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word… emotion." (It was only later I discovered the party guest was played by Samuel Fuller, the maverick director of Shock Corridor). I had seen nothing like Pierrot before and my tiny teenage mind exploded.

Sitting there in the decaying old cinema I realised that there was someone behind the camera, a controlling intelligence. And I was gripped by a sickness that has endured to this day. The desire to make movies. To be a director.

So the Electric became my home away from home and a partial substitute for education. I would sneak away from school to watch double bills of Ozu and Kurosawa, Herzog and Fassbinder, Welles and Ford. And Truffaut of course. I suffered agonies of internal teenage debate as to whom I preferred. Truffaut or Godard? I held on to the dream of making my own films, a seemingly hopeless wish in a country where the film industry lurched from crisis to slump to crisis.

Meanwhile, the Electric decayed still further. There were a couple of failed attempts to restore its fortunes but it seemed that no one went to rep cinemas anymore, or at least not this one. It fell into disrepair and crumbling decay. Boarded up. Dark and silent.

My desire to make movies was still there and I began the long haul towards achieving it. I went to film school, became a film editor, and then a director of documentaries and drama for television. But to cut a long story short, one day shortly after Christmas two years ago a talented English producer called Andy Paterson called me and asked me if I wanted to direct a movie for him. Stupid question!

For the first time in years I found myself thinking about my days at the Electric. Nervous and superstitious in the weeks before the shoot started, I contrived a trip to Paris and paid homage to the grave of François Truffaut up in the Pigalle cemetery. I figured it might bring me luck. I also hired the great French cinematographer Eduardo Serra to shoot the movie. There is superstition and there is good sense.

Then I started the casting process for Girl with a Pearl Earring. I asked my casting director where in West London we might meet the actors we had called in. And to my joy and delight she suggested the Electric Cinema.

The cinema was no longer a boarded up shell. Re-furbished and re-launched after years of dereliction, the upper floors now housed a fashionable bar and restaurant, and had rooms for hire. So there in a small room above the projector booth, only yards from where my passion for film making had been conceived, I began the process of choosing actors for my very own movie. It felt like coming home.

As I prepared to make the film I found my head flooded with images of the movies I had seen in those formative years. I remembered the intensity of Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. The dramatic sweep of Ophüls' Madame De…. The creepiness of Hitchcock's Rebecca.

And I realised that I had been gifted with a script full of rich cinematic possibilities, a script that would become a film about love and longing, about desire and repression, about art and inspiration. It is also a film that contrasts innocence and experience, the issue I had been contemplating as I went to my first casting session. The circle was completed as the adult film maker remembered the teenager cinephile and that first night at the Electric Cinema.

–London 2003


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