Exclusive interview with director Martin Koolhoven
Sebastian chats with the acclaimed director of the 2016 European western Brimstone, starring Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Kit Harrington and Carice van Houten. We're big fans of the movie here at the SWDb - a real European western made like in the old days by the Italians, filmed in Europe, financed in Europe and with overseas actors in top billing. The Dutch filmmaker is a major fan of the Spaghetti Western, so we talked about his influences and favorites as well as his own films and future perspectives. Enjoy reading.
What got you into filmmaking?
Love for film. Simple as that. I will always remember the first time my parents took me to the movie theatre. I was about five years old, and they described it to me as a big television, so that was what I was expecting: A huge television with enormous buttons. The moment the curtain opened up was magical. It’s a shame we don’t have those curtains anymore, but I still get a special feeling when the screen widens from a flat image to scope.
At the age a lot of directors start to know they want to become filmmakers, I was living in a small village in the south of The Netherlands. It never crossed my mind that that was something I could do. Then, when I was 18, I got audio-visual lessons at school and slowly I realized this was something one could do for a living. Still not making movies, that just seemed too far away, but perhaps corporate or instruction movies…? So, when I was 20 I went to a school which was supposed to teach you just that. On that school I met Frank van den Eeden (now a very good cinematographer) who introduced himself to me with the words ‘Hi, I’m Frank and I’m going to be a filmmaker’. In a split second I decided that that was what I would be, too.
We were a group of five guys in that school that were absolutely mad about movies. We would eat, sleep, and drink cinema. We saw classics, traveled around the country to see movies in the theatre (back then the only way to see some older stuff) and instead of making corporate nonsense, we started making short films. After two years we tried to get into the Amsterdam Film Academy, but failed. We were all rejected, but managed to get into a film school in Brussels, Belgium. Then, a year later, I got accepted after all in Amsterdam and was the first to move back to Holland. Eventually they all came back and all work in the film industry now. Only Frank stayed in Belgium.
What are some of your most important influences - directors, genres, specific movies?
Different directors in different times, I guess. The first director I was aware of was Spielberg. He was very big in those days. There are not so many movie directors that are talked about as the ‘star’ of the movie and he was the first in my lifetime with whom that happened. I guess before him Hitchcock had the same thing and in the last decades it was Tarantino. A new Tarantino is a new Tarantino, even when it has Brad Pitt and Leonardo di Caprio in it. In my puberty that was Steven Spielberg, so he played a big part in my understanding that movies are actually made. Before that notion, people usually think that actors make shit up as they go along. The first movie that felt like it was made, that things didn’t just happen, was Once Upon a Time in the West which is so stylized, I noticed.
But Spielberg was the first director I sought after in the video stores. I had seen Raiders and ET and noticed there was something similar, so I looked for more. At that time, we didn’t have a VCR yet at home, but my aunt did, so I would spend my holidays there, so I could see movies. I would spend days in the video store trying to figure out what to see and I went to all the Spielberg movies that were available on tape. Close Encounters, Jaws, I loved it. Poltergeist also had his name on it, so I would watch that too. Spielberg was the first director I became a fan of. I still think that was his best period, by the way.
... on genres
The first actual genre I remember being consciously a fan of was – believe it or not – the spaghetti western. It was just a bit later on. The first Italian westerns I saw were when I was about seven or eight years old. I saw the two Trinity movies on 16 mm, sitting on the floor in a hall, with a bunch of other children. I became a huge fan of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill and saw all their movies when they came out in the cinema’s until deep in the 80s. And rented their older stuff. When I was eleven I saw Once Upon a Time in the West and that was almost a religious experience for me. I had liked movies up until then, I loved them from then on. Then a few years later I saw another western on VHS and I noticed there was something about it I had seen before. It wasn’t even one of the great ones, I think it might have been Ciakmull or Margheriti’s Vengeance and something reminded me of both Once Upon a Time in the West and the Trinity-films. So there was a type of western around that was different from the classic ones. Now, you have to remember this was far before the internet, so figuring out that sort of stuff was not that easy. I remember going through the video store and looking for a certain type of cover. That’s how I also saw movies like Run, Run Joe! which isn’t a western, but the cover looked like the type of film I was after.
… on De Palma
As I became a bit more interested in film, my next crush was Brian De Palma. Man, I loved his thrillers. I met him later, when my company was involved in producing Domino (actually, my business partner and producer Els Vandevorst saved that movie. Boy, that was a mess). When I did Winter in Wartime, I got to work with Pino Donaggio, Brian’s favorite composer, and that was a blast. Ultimately, where I am now as a filmmaker, I think De Palma is one of the greatest influences on me. The funny thing is of course that you don’t really get to pick your influences. Directors always mention the filmmakers they adore but influences work in mysterious ways. But I definitely know that when I shot the father dying in Winter in Wartime, I was influenced by the finale of Blow Out. I didn’t ask the same composer for nothing. I just finished writing a noir epic historic thriller and damn, I hope De Palma influenced me.
… other directors
The first director I became a huge fan of, after I had decided I wanted to be a filmmaker, was Orson Welles. In those first years I was sure Hollywood was to blame for his demise, but later I understood he had a hand in that himself a bit as well. But I still love his movies. What a talent. Touch of Evil is one of the best movies ever made.
Other favorites? The Coen Brothers, Billy Wilder, Jean-Pierre Melville, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa and the best director of all time: Sergio Leone.
What is your personal and professional relationship to the genre of the western in general and that of the European Western in particular?
There are definitely classical westerns that I like, but to me things started to become more interesting in the 60s, starting with The Magnificent Seven, which in a way was a predecessor to the spaghetti-westerns. In the first place it was the first Kurosawa samurai movie remade as a western, just like A Fistful of Dollars. Secondly, it starred at least four actors that appeared in Italian produced westerns later on. And thirdly, the movie deals with Mexicans and Mexico in a way that reminds you more of spaghetti westerns than of traditional Hollywood westerns.
When I was a small boy, I thought I didn’t like westerns until I saw the Italian ones; so spaghetti westerns was my way into the genre. It’s like some foods. Sometimes you think you don’t like something, but all you have to have is the right dish. After that you suddenly start to like much more. As I said, I like some of the old stuff, but I’m less fond of the romanticized idea of the pioneer than I am of what became known as the revisionist westerns.
I love movies like McCabe & Mrs Miller, all Peckinpah westerns and all the westerns Eastwood directed. I also like how the spaghetti western turned the whole idea around of good and bad, how Sergio Corbucci blends what is considered heroic and what as villainous, how Enzo Castellari was playful with the form and especially how Leone made a completely new type of myth, while standing on the shoulders of giants.
I still consider Once Upon a Time in the West to be the best movie ever made (not just best western), but all his other ones are great as well. His movies are so iconic, in the most literal sense possible. Nobody could introduce characters like him. When Sight and Sound asked me to give my top ten movies of all time, I’ve put Duck You Sucker in it as well. That’s the most underrated movie of all time. I love it.
I also like a bunch of the westerns made in this century. Naturally, the Tarantino ones, but also the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and bastard westerns like No Country for Old Men. Man, there is so much good stuff.
When and where did the idea for Brimstone come up? Was there a deliberate attempt at making a western that looked and felt "European" or was that a natural development?
Get Brimstone on Bluray (or UHD):
Winter in Wartime was such a big hit that Hollywood noticed. In Holland it had beaten The Dark Knight and Twilight, so they started calling their Dutch distributors, asking ‘Who is that guy that made the movie topping the box office at Christmas?!’ The movie then did reasonably well in America, too, even very good in the home theatres, so they started to call me. They just never offered anything that I found interesting. Then I was eating with an English producer that wanted me to read some romantic comedy and I said no without even reading it. He told me it really was time to do an English language film and asked me what I would read. I jokingly said ‘a western’ since that is my favorite genre.
Now, you have to realize that this was when the western was considered dead, even before Tarantino had said he was going to do one. His reaction however was ‘Why not?’. It had never crossed my mind that I could actually do one. Everybody is always in a hurry to make the next movie when you have what they call heat, so he said he would call some agents to see if there were any good western scripts lying around in desks. I figured that since the western had been such an unpopular genre for quite a while, it might actually be possible there was some golden nugget somewhere that nobody had seen. So I spend a few months reading unproduced westerns, but I liked none of them until I read this funny script that had something nice about it. I said I’d do it, if I got to rewrite it.
After almost a year I realized: I was not doing what I actually wanted to do. If I finally was going to make a western, it should be something more personal. I had to think deep. What was it that made the Italian westerns so good? They made a completely Italian interpretation of an American genre. I figured that I should make something that was extremely Dutch and to me Calvinism is at the heart of Dutch culture. I was raised protestant and I knew there had been quite a lot of Dutch people that migrated to America. People like Harm Drenth, who was the inspiration for the evil preacher in The Night of the Hunter. I started reading about the period and found out that at some point in time whole communities had moved to America, because they felt The Netherlands was getting too soft on religion. I started to like the idea of blending the typical American City upon a Hill-myth (which comes from the Bible) with Dutch religious fanaticism in America.
In the meantime I was trying to figure out what it was that is so appealing about westerns to me in the first place. I understood that it had something to do with the idea of freedom. The west was wild precisely because what they called civilization hadn’t caught up yet. There is something romantic about that, even. There is something boyish about it, too. It’s a bit like playing in the woods without your parents there to tell you what you can and cannot do. At the same I was reading "In the Rogue Blood" by James Carlos Blake (set in 19th century Texas) in which at some point two brothers are looking for their sister. In it, someone then says something like ‘Well, where would she be? Either she married somebody, or she became a whore’. It dawned to me that for most women those were the two options at the time, and that my whole sense of freedom was a very male privileged way of looking at it (not least from today’s European perspective!). So I decided to do a western that would look at life from a female point of view. Not by having a female hero that would conventionally be played by a man, but really from the point of view of someone having those two options. If you combine that idea with the ideas I had about the stifling Dutch religion, you have the basis of the story of Brimstone.
When you asked whether it was a deliberate attempt at making a western that looked and felt "European", I first thought ‘Does it?’, because we tried hard to make it look like America, even though it was shot in Europe! But of course the filming location isn’t the point of the question, maybe its character more so. It was a conscious decision not to get American money and to securing final cut. We knew with this material it would never be possible to make it the way I wanted it, if we got money from Hollywood. So all the money came from Europe, which dictated that we had to shoot it all in Europe. Then, all heads of department are Dutch and the rest of the crew European. The content was deliberately a blend between American and Dutch history and I wanted to reflect the melting pot America was back then, by getting in European actors like Carice van Houten, Carla Juri and Vera Vitali and not hiding their accents. I guess all those decisions make the movie feel European, because it actually is.
Do you have any plans to do work in the Western genre again in the near future?
I’m currently working on a modern take on film noir, but at some point, I would love to do another western. One of the best things happening to me after Brimstone was that my favorite writer James Carlos Blake contact me. He had seen Brimstone and mailed ‘We obviously have something in common’ which is the biggest compliment I ever received. Personally, that meant even more than being selected in the main competition of the Venice Film Festival. We talked about turning one of his books into a movie, which would be a dream come true. But you never know what will materialize, or where your ideas will bring you.
What are your three most dear US-westerns?
That is a difficult question. How can one choose between Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid? Just to be original I pick the second one, but only in the 1988 TNT cut. Next up, I will opt for The Magnificent Seven which is one of those few remakes of a masterpiece that managed to be a masterpiece in itself.
Then how to choose between Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josey Wales? My choice falls on Unforgiven because it is such a comment on the genre itself. It is highly original in the way the story goes, because it has a character arch which is completely the opposite of a typical Hollywood one. A typical Hollywood arch would have a character being a jerk in the beginning of the movie, then by the end of the movie he will make the right decisions and turn out to be made out of the right material after all. A bit like Han Solo, who is a selfish bastard in the beginning of Star Wars, but turns out to have a heart at the end, when he returns to help Luke destroy the Death Star. In Unforgiven, that point is where the story starts: William Munny (played by Eastwood) was an evil motherfucker killing people when he met his wife, who turned him into a loving father. In the beginning of the movie, his wife had died, and the aging Munny tries to be a good man. Circumstances then force him to take up arms once more, and by the end of the movie William Munny hasn’t only taken up guns again, but also the bottle. He returns to his past true self. And that self is ugly. This is almost like the Scorpion and the Frog story in Welles’ Mr Arkadin, he can’t help himself. It is in his nature. The best scene Eastwood ever directed is when Munny shoots Gene Hackman’s Little Bill. Lying on the ground at gunpoint, Sheriff Little Bill says he doesn’t deserve this, to which William Munny replies ‘Deserve has nothing to do with it’. And then it comes.
‘I’ll see you in Hell, William Munny.’
Thunder in the background coming from outside, Munny slowly cocks his rifle and says:
‘Yeah’ - And shoots.
He knows. The bastard knows.
What are the three most favorite spaghetti westerns, and what would this short list look like if you had to leave out the "obvious" ones, like Leone, Corbucci and so on?
I already mentioned two Leone movies as being in my Top 10 of all movies, so if you add The Good, the Bad & the Ugly I would be fine to call those the three best westerns, spaghetti or not. I guess Corbucci’s The Great Silence is an obvious other one, but is his Sonny & Jed? I love that film, I even considered doing a remake.
Then I will put in a movie by Sergio #3. Sergio Sollima made a bunch of really good movies, most of which are westerns. I’m going to choose Face to Face.
Finally, I will pick Damiani’s Quién Sabe? (I don’t like the English title). It is a bold anti-American imperialism-movie with a fantastic part by the great Gian Maria Volonté. Together with a friend I have a monthly show at the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam and it was great to show that movie in a double bill with The Big Gundown.
I love spaghetti westerns so much that I made it the subject of the first episode when I got my own TV-show about movies. I actually feel sorry for all the movies I haven’t mentioned in this interview yet. Movies like Ace High, Keoma, ¡Mátalo!.... oh man, I can go on and on. And by only talking about Italian and American westerns we have left out great movies like El Topo, by Jodorowsky, and The Proposition, the Australian western by John Hillcoat, which also stars Guy Pierce (of Brimstone).
What is it that fascinates audiences with the western to this day - and where do you see differences in audiences' perception of the genre on both sides of the Atlantic?
Everybody loves a good western. When I talked to Hollywood producer Mark Johnson and told him I was going to go against the stream and do a western, he said ‘There is always room for a good one’. I think the western is the favorite genre of most directors, because it is such a cinematic one. You can be very stylized, without it becoming too theatrical. It stays organic, so therefore you don’t alienate the audience. Actors love it, too. I have never been approached as much by actors as straight after it was announced I would do a western. Every actor wants to be on a horse and shoot a gun, I guess.
I don’t know whether there is a huge difference between American audiences and European ones, but I do know spaghetti westerns were way more popular outside the United States at the time they were made. The only successful ones were Leone’s Man with No Name-trilogy, none of his movies after that did well. Most Italian westerns weren’t even released there. It took years before they admitted Once Upon a Time in the West was actually a good movie. Same with the critics who claimed it was too violent, too slow, too long and misogynist, which was exactly the things American critics (of the major magazines) said about Brimstone: Too violent, too slow, too long and misogynist. At the same time it was praised as being a feminist movie over here. I guess Americans don’t like to be made uncomfortable watching a movie. They see movies as entertainment and I often applaud them for that, but blaming a movie for making violence not entertaining but ugly -sounds moronic to me.
Do you have thoughts as to a resurgence of the genre, and where renewed interest in the spaghetti western may come from?
They are just fucking great movies, using the form in a unique, almost theatrical way. To me it is seems natural that true movie buffs love them and it was only a question of time before they were rediscovered. The fact that they were hardly released in the US didn’t help, but at some point they became available in beautiful transfers for the home theatre and that’s when things exploded.
There is some debate as to the upsides and downsides of what the streaming market means for the theatrical experience. Often cited is the much welcomed cash and creative freedom that comes (or came) with these new players like Apple or Netflix. At the same time the film-going experience (and hence theaters) is even further under pressure, and the market is being saturated by a flood of sub-par direct-to-streaming movies. What is your perspective on the state of the industry and what do you think should fans of classic movies keep in mind?
I think the best way to see a movie is in the theatre, so I was never that thrilled about the influence of the streaming services. Also, I never believed that the business model was sustainable. Now you see more and more, that due to the tough competition streaming services are behaving just like the big Hollywood movie studios. I don’t think they are giving 159 million dollars any time soon to make a movie like The Irishman and I have heard they interfere more and more. I haven’t worked with any of the streamers, so I can’t really say anything about it. They have approached me for doing a series, but I just like feature films more. I love the fact that, due to the streaming services, Brimstone and Winter in Wartime can still be seen in a lot of countries, so I see the good sides as well.
What is the last classic western and last spaghetti western you remember seeing somewhere? Are there any home video re-releases that you are aware of that you are looking forward to or that you intend to purchase?
In Holland I do four shows a year in ten movie theatres. I pick a certain director, actor, theme or anything and the first hour I show scenes and talk about them. After that I show a movie. A different one in each theatre and I always choose a movie I want to re-watch or haven’t seen yet. So together with my evenings in Eye, I do more than fifty shows a year where I pick a movie. Some very good westerns have come past, like recently the Italian dubbed version (on 35 mm) of Once Upon a Time in the West, which is a bit longer cut (and doesn’t exist in English). The last western I showed was Two Mules for Sister Sarah, because I hadn’t seen that one. I think it is a rather odd movie.
You have also made a war movie. Another popular genre that gained some success after the spaghetti western was on its way out was "macaroni combat", cheap Italian war movies that rode on the successes of The Dirty Dozen. Does that genre hold a place in your heart, or are you possibly down with some other Italian genres of that era such as the Poliziotteschi or Gialli?
I am a huge fan of the Italian genre films of 60s, 70s and 80s, many of which I talked about in my television show, and I’ve shown a bunch of them in theatres. I have a huge affection for Enzo G. Castellari. When he heard I had named my second son after him, I received a very nice note from Enzo. Later, I interviewed him when we did a Castellari double bill (in Eye Amsterdam). I had dinner with him, and he asked me if I would act in his next western, which they have been trying to get financed for years. Enzo is great, I have been showing movies on the big screen now for more than twelve years and the first night I ever did was a Castellari double bill: Inglorious Bastards (the original) and Street Law, which is my favorite of his. Since then, I’ve shown much of his stuff on the big screen.
Another hero I met in that way was Dario Argento, who we brought to Amsterdam for a screening of Suspiria and Opera. Talking to him about his movies was such a privilege.
One of the other great perks of doing those evenings in the Eye Film Museum is that as research I can go through the thousands of 35 mm prints they have and see one in the morning, before their regular program starts. I very often pick some obscure Italian genre film, to see whether I like it and whether the colors are still any good. A month ago I saw Fransesco Rosi’s Lucky Luciano like that and in two weeks I’m watching Copkiller, starring Harvey Keitel and Johnny Rotten. Never seen it, so I look forward.
Lastly, where do you see Dutch filmmaking evolving to? There is some great talent, including yourself, continuously making a name for themselves internationally, are Europeans too humble in positioning themselves?
It's a shame about Europe nowadays that it seems as though every country only watches two kinds of movies: those from Hollywood and their own. So besides the huge blockbusters that suck all the air out of the room, in Spain they watch Spanish movies, in France they watch French movies and in Holland they watch Dutch ones. Only a handful of movies travel across the border and when they do they are consigned to smaller arthouse theaters. It was the same with Brimstone. In Holland I have a bit of a name, so it received a lot of attention and it played in all the big theatres, making it a box office hit. Outside Holland however, it played only in small theatres. Luckily, it did very well on VOD, which is nice – but I think Brimstone should be seen as big as possible.
It used to be different. Back in the 70s the top 10 box office in The Netherlands had French and Italian movies in it. Directors like Fellini or Bergman really were huge names, unlike any European director working today. There were even European stars like Jean Paul Belmondo or Alain Delon. When I was young, Bud Spencer and Terence Hill were huge. Louis de Funes was one of the most beloved comedians in cinema. That’s all gone. European actors can make it big in their own country, but if they want to become really big worldwide, they have to go to Hollywood, like Antonio Banderas, Alicia Vikander or Javier Bardem to name a few examples.
In Holland, the two directors I admire most are Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Soldier of Orange, Black Book) and Alex van Warmerdam (Borgman), who are both a generation older than me. It’s funny that both of them started to work with the same editor (Job ter Burg), as I already do since film school. It’s fun to pop by as he is working with them. I had met both Alex and Paul before, but I feel we became a little closer since then. I thought it was a huge honor when Paul asked me to write an introduction to his biography (the updated Dutch edition). He is now 84 and still working. When I grow up, I want to be just like him.
Martin Koolhoven is a Dutch movie director, scholar and speaker. He has directed such film as Schnitzelparadies (2005), Winter in Wartime (2008) and Brimstone (2016). He also hosts film screenings and TV specials and is a sought-after voice on European cinema.
Many thanks to Martin Koolhoven for taking the time for our questions.
Interview by Seb