In 2003, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh made his excellent film Interview, a searing two-character piece starring brilliantly gifted actors Katja
Schuurman and Pierre Bokma. The film deftly exploits the tumultuous
relationship of a cynical political journalist and a beautiful B-movie
actress over the course of one evening, although a lifetime of pain,
insecurity, mistrust and passion flows between them.
It was Theo's wish to remake this film, and two of his others, in the
U.S. He especially loved New York and dreamed of someday working there.
But in 2004, Theo was tragically murdered on the streets of Amsterdam
by a Dutch-born Islamic extremist, allegedly in reaction to the short
film he made with Ayaan Hirsi Ali called Submission, which dealt with
violence against women in Islamic societies.
Theo had a forceful and sometimes polarizing personality, and was not
always tactful or sensitive to those he had a quarrel with. But he
also viewed himself as "the village idiot" and couldn't imagine
he would pay with his life for his views, offensive as they may have
seemed to some.
I didn't know Theo, but I was curious to learn about him and the way
he worked as preparation for the American remake of Interview that
I was asked to direct by his producing partners.
The idea was to use Theo's cinematographer Thomas Kist, and his Dutch
camera crew, and employ the method he devised of shooting—three
digital cameras, mostly hand-held, giving priority to the actors needs
by allowing long uninterrupted takes without having to hit marks or
give off-camera performances.
This also piqued my interest as an actor, and I decided (with my wife's
urging) to cast myself as the journalist, and Sienna Miller as the
rising tabloid star he mistakenly underestimates.
We rehearsed for two weeks with the help of Doesjka van Hoogdalem,
Theo's trusted assistant, and we tailored the story to our needs, changing
some of the key details and plot points, but keeping as closely as
we could to the spirit and energy of the original.
For the most part, Sienna and I found this way of shooting liberating,
closer to the feel of acting in a play. One of Theo's methods that
we found a bit daunting was his practice of shooting the close shots
first, followed by the medium and wide shots later. In other words,
the opposite of how it's usually done here, where the actors are well
rehearsed by the time they get to their close-ups. Theo did this to
preserve the spontaneity of the performances in tight shots, and it
certainly kept us off balance in a good way.
Journalists have asked me if I cast Sienna because of her own tabloid
persona. My first and foremost priority was finding the best actress
for this very funny, complicated and demanding role. Ironically, it
was her behind-the-scenes interview for the film Layer Cake that helped
convince me she was perfect for the part of a smart, talented actress
determined to challenge herself in her work.
I've also been asked if remaking such a strong film in the shadow of
a respected, deceased director was uncomfortable. I can honestly say
that although I enjoyed incredible support from my new Dutch friends,
I couldn't help but wonder if Theo was somehow looking over my shoulder.
During a break on our second day of shooting, I was thumbing through
the New York Post and I came upon Theo's picture, cigarette
dangling from his mouth, in an article about Islamic extremism in the
Netherlands. Later that night, while driving home with producer Bruce
Weiss, I asked him if he had read the article. No sooner had we finished
talking about it, I glanced out of my passenger side window and saw
resting on the street the one page from the Post with Theo's dour expression
looking right at me. The headline read "Scared Speechless."
Bizarre. But the headline was wrong, at least when it came to Theo van
Gogh. He was definitely not afraid to speak his mind.