a long talk

‘I Don’t Believe Cinema Needs to Tell You a Story’

Peter Greenaway on a career spent treasuring artificiality, avoiding Hollywood, and playing games.

Drowning By Numbers (1988). Photo: Severin Films
Drowning By Numbers (1988). Photo: Severin Films
Drowning By Numbers (1988). Photo: Severin Films

Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Peter Greenaway was more than just an acclaimed art-house filmmaker. With movies like The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), Drowning by Numbers (1988), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), and Prospero’s Books (1991), he seemed to represent the infinite possibilities of cinema. Here was an unabashedly intellectual director and writer who didn’t fuss with typical notions of narrative and character. He structured his films around games, numbers, and lists. But the pictures were majestic and hypnotic. You could lose yourself in Greenaway’s dense and layered compositions, precise camera moves, and savvy use of music. That’s probably why these films were often genuine hits. Among directors who came later, Wes Anderson and Ari Aster clearly owe a great debt to Greenaway. And Yorgos Lanthimos probably just plain wouldn’t exist without him.

Now, one of Greenaway’s greatest works, Drowning by Numbers — perhaps most easily described as a surreal comedy about three women who drown their husbands — is on 4K. A nice presentation is essential for this director, because his frames are so often filled with in-jokes and other fascinating odds and ends. The Drowning release arrives on the heels of a recent restoration of The Draughtsman’s Contract. One hopes this means that more Greenaway films will be rereleased and reappreciated after a period when they seemed to have gone out of fashion.

The director hasn’t stopped working, continuing to make movies in his distinct style. As we speak, he’s preparing to direct a new movie in Italy, starring Morgan Freeman. His most recent feature, Walking to Paris, was finished some years ago but has still not been released after it was, as he puts it, “virtually kidnapped” by a laboratory. In recent years, Greenaway has traveled the world giving multimedia presentations about famous artworks. When I last spoke with him, it was for the 2009 release of his film Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, which had the director closely analyzing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and decoding a murder mystery within it. (Of course, this being Greenaway, some of the facts he related were completely made up.) Today, looking back at his early films and the overall arc of his career, the director seems refreshingly candid and self-reflective.

It does seem like your films have been experiencing something of a renaissance. Both Drowning by Numbers and The Draughtsman’s Contract were recently restored and rereleased. I see more people rediscovering The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and A Zed & Two Noughts. Is there something in film culture that has changed, so that people are appreciating your films a bit more now?
There always was, I’m very happy to say, a hard-core audience. There were those people who were fascinated about the relationship of painting to cinema. There were those people who were interested in my embrace of new technology — not necessarily the same people. And, I suppose, there were people who were certainly interested in this rather eccentric English filmmaker who didn’t exactly play Hollywood games. So I think those people still stayed on. And I do get very, very encouraging correspondence: “Mr. Greenaway, you changed my life.” One has to be careful about that sort of approach. But it’s always nice to know that, maybe, you’ve had a little event in changing people’s appreciation of cinema. And of course, there are a lot of people who are actually in Hollywood now and have copied the “Greenaway aesthetic.” I will not name names.

At the time Drowning by Numbers was released, you said in an interview that two years might have to go by before you could describe the film. Now that several decades have gone by, and the film has come out on 4K, how would you describe it?
Well, I think it has a great sense of lyricism. Like a lot of my films, there’s very much — what’s the Italian expression? Genius loci, a sense of place. And that is still there, even though sometimes it’s raining or very misty or you can’t see very far. I enjoy that. I was self-conscious about making it, but retrospectively, some of the irritations, difficulties, and malpractice have disappeared, so I would now regard it positively.

On my big revisit of this film, after such a long gap of time, I was actually surprised at how beautiful some of those landscapes were. Let me be indulgent. There is a scene where Madgett and his son, Smut, are sitting up against an oak tree eating blackberries. There’s a beautiful and really artificial-looking landscape, sunset behind them, rather like copying Caravaggio. The sun is going down, and the light is green. That’s really rather strange. But for a weird quirk of landscape atmosphere in September and that part of the world, the sun did go down and the light was green, and we tried to capitalize on things like that.

We were blessed with a very good female cast with three interesting actresses. Joely Richardson is still around. I saw a photograph of her a couple of days ago escorting her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, at a film festival. The eldest of the three ladies, Joan Plowright, is still alive, but unfortunately she’s now blind. And I occasionally bump into the middle Cissie, Juliet Stevenson. It’s very difficult, isn’t it? I’ve created problems for myself — and, no doubt, for you — calling all the characters the same name, Cissie. But that was a deliberate sort of Chekhovian idea.

I’m 80 now. My God, I’m 80 now. So it’s a hell of a long time since we made this film. But I’ve just been on the telephone about casting our new film, which has got Morgan Freeman playing the major role and will be shot in the city of Lucca in Tuscany, we hope, probably about halfway through May. Still lots and lots of problems. It’s my first real brush with Hollywood, and I’m beginning to understand why people try and avoid that particular connection.

Helen Mirren in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). Photo: Mary Evans/Everett Collection

It’s your first brush with Hollywood? Did they not try to get you back in the ’80s after The Cook, the Thief?
Yes, I had an agent after the success of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. There were people knocking on my door all the time. And looking back, do you remember a film called Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I was the first director asked to actually film that. Would you believe that? I found that absolutely extraordinary. I think that was because of a Hollywood agent who didn’t really understand my cinema at all. God bless him. But I was the name to conjure with for six months. So he threw me in there, and I managed to be one of the first directors to actually read the script.

Did you ever see Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Yes, I did. I always admired that actor, Bob Hoskins. I remember seeing him on British children’s television a long, long time before he became even remotely a name. I like the prospect of combining notions of animation with live action, which became very fashionable after that film, I believe.

Rewatching Drowning by Numbers, I was struck by how personal it feels now, which was not something I’d have said when I first saw it. 
There’s a lot of stuff in Drowning by Numbers which is very, very personal. The little boy, Smut, is really me at age 10 or 11. (Not that I would remotely think of circumcising myself, of course — that has to be fictionalized.) And the circumstances of the geographical location I knew very well. My father had a very small cottage in a place called Walberswick. It was an area where “Sunday-afternoon painters” used to spend a lot of their time.

Tell me about structuring Drowning by Numbers around games and numbers.
Well, I’m a game player and, should we say, very cavalier about notions of reality. I mean, look at us now. We’re playing a sort of game, aren’t we? The interviewer-interviewee sort of phenomenon. I’m a full believer in: Why let the truth get in the way of a good story? Game playing obviously involves elements of cheating, too, and that sort of cheating is somehow curiously “legitimate.”

I’ve always been interested in something we could call a nonnarrative cinema. I don’t really believe that cinema needs to tell you a story. I’m trained as a painter, and the very best paintings, I sincerely believe, are nonnarrative. They are about statements, about ideas. And I took this particular viewpoint into the manufacture of cinema. The idea of narrative concerns, I’m sure, is very much essential to all conventional filmgoers and filmmakers. But I wanted to continue my fascination with painting landscapes. The European sort — not just Turner and the famous English landscape painters but very much related to my fascination with Dutch landscapes. There are extraordinarily moody landscapes of late Rembrandt, for example.

You note that you were influenced by landscape painters, but you demonstrate such control over the frame — it almost feels like you created all those trees and meadows specifically for the purposes of each shot. Was it a challenge to maintain the natural beauty of the landscape while trying to impose your own aesthetic?
I was very much a stickler for getting the compositions that I wanted. This sounds a rather strange thing, but we deliberately used artificial light in God-given light. There was sort of a game between God and our artificial lights. I tried very hard to do as much filming as we could at magic hour. Those are very brief periods. It was meant to be a summer film. But we were filming in late summer — so September, October — and the leaves had already begun to fall off the trees. So we got a little army of art students who came along and glued the leaves back on the trees, which creates a certain artificiality about the thing. And the elements of artificiality are, for me, to be treasured.

You say you’re not the biggest fan of narrative structure, but film is a temporal medium. You have, say, two hours. And you have to keep holding an audience’s attention. So when —
Wait a minute, I can see where you’re going! You don’t have to go that way, of course. You must have seen The Draughtsman’s Contract. Absolute static frame. It’s like a series of turning pages in a book or going to a picture gallery. There’s this image, there’s this image and this image. And there’s not always a determined urgency to tell you a story. I want to show you this picture, and it shows you this and this and this, and I want to show you this picture, and it shows you this and this and this.

But with a nonnarrative cinema, how do you work with actors? Actors are often looking for motivation or emotional through lines. When you’re working in this very different structure, what’s that conversation like?
There are only, I think, about three actors who ever refused to work with me. So it couldn’t have been too uncomfortable for them. One of those people was Alec Guinness, because we wanted to use him in a very early film. But I think he discovered I was an atheist, and he’s a very profound Roman Catholic. (Or was — the gentleman is now dead, of course.) So maybe there were reasons which have nothing necessarily to do with civics but with beliefs. There are one or two other actors who refused to work with me for reasons along the lines that you’ve determined: “How do I get, Mr. Greenaway, from A to B to C to D?” Well, you don’t. You just have to listen to me, and I’ll tell you what to do.

Do the actors know what they’re in for when they sign up?
Well, they have a script. I write a very fulsome script. And lo and behold, I don’t want the actors to move too far away. I won’t be so obstinate to say, “You cannot actually offer me some of your own ideas.” Don’t be stupid. That’s what actors are there for. But there is a way. “I don’t want you to change the words, or if you do, it’s only an and and a but and a because you are allowed to change.” One or two people did, as it were, object to the so-called straitjackets they thought they were in. But look, I am not a realistic filmmaker. I believe cinema is imminently, and indeed eminently, artificial. Let’s preserve that artificiality.

Brian Dennehy in The Belly of an Architect (1987). Photo: Hemdale Films/Everett Collection

There have, indeed, been a number of great performances in your films — sometimes from actors who later became stars. I think Julia Ormond and Ralph Fiennes in The Baby of Mâcon are incredible. I was watching Prospero’s Books the other day, and there’s young Mark Rylance!
It was said, once upon a time, “Make sure you get into a Greenaway film. You won’t necessarily become famous or celebrated by being in a Greenaway film. But you watch — the film you’re in next will make you a celebrity.” And curiously, although we’re game playing again, a lot of that was true. Helen Mirren had very much a theatrical reputation, but there was a way — and I think she would even agree — that The Cook, the Thief gave her a push forward in Grand Guignol notions of cinema. Julia Ormond, I think, was virtually unknown before she appeared in The Baby of Mâcon. Not that she would, I think, wish to repeat the experience. It was a torturous and difficult role for her to play. She’d often come to me in tears at the end of the day, saying, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do this anymore.” But there she was — first woman on the set the following morning. I think it’s probably part of the mythology of being an actor. They really want to be challenged, don’t they? “Do the worst, Mr. Greenaway. Do the worst, and I’ll come and present myself.”

I was really struck by Brian Dennehy’s performance in The Belly of an Architect.
Me too. Retrospectively, toward the end, when he’s contemplating his death by cancer, he gives us an extraordinarily moving performance. I know a lot of other people have thought the same thing. I’ve met his daughter a couple of times since then, and she has always said that that was Brian’s favorite movie, and I’m happy about that.

I want to ask about your collaboration with Michael Nyman. You didn’t work together again after Prospero’s Books, but for a while, your work was very closely associated, and his music was critical, I’d say, to many of these early films.
Yeah, I would agree with that wholeheartedly. He had a sense of irony. It’s quite difficult, isn’t it, for music to be ironic? I mean, we can name people, Saint-Saëns, for example, and a lot of people round about the turn of the century who were beginning to, in fact, come up against cinema. And cinema had a great change in its uses of music in all sorts of different ways. It was a continuity there.

What’s the current situation with Walking to Paris, your film about Constantin Brâncuși? As I understand, you’ve been done with that film for some time, but it hasn’t been released.
As far as I’m concerned, we created a cutting copy, which I was certainly satisfied with. But there was an enormous quarrel between producers. We had three co-producers, and getting co-producers to all be at the same place at the same time and agree was problematical. I believe there was some financial chicanery going on, and it’s very difficult to put my finger on it. But the Italians ran out of money and that became a bone of great contention. Unbeknownst to me, the film rights were sold to an Italian laboratory in Rome, and they managed to grab hold of the original material. The cutting copy was a comparatively 4K standard, and I was quite happy with it. But we still had to refine the details and grade it properly. There were lots of tricks of fire and water and so on, which had to be engineered. So they have now virtually kidnapped the film, and it’s stuck in a Roman laboratory. I can’t access it, they won’t sell it back to me, and I can’t get the rights. And the original producer, Kees Kasander, has proven to be a very difficult character to deal with. I’m about to do a small retrospective in Turin, where I have various projects, and I’m going to show it there. But the credo has to be that I cannot really show it to a paying audience, because who knows what litigation might come flying in my direction? You must know this: Avoid attorneys.

What’s the new film you’re working on?
It’s called Lucca Mortis. Lucca is the name of the city. Lucca Mortis is chiming, rhyming with rigor mortis. And it’s very much about death, but it’s not a zombie movie. We spent, what, maybe the last three decades arguing ourselves into the ground about sex. Now it’s about time we put death really under the examination.

I made a film in Mexico about Eisenstein, Eisenstein in Guanajuato. Many Mexicans encourage you to treat death as a friend and not as a stranger or an enemy. So it embraces the idea that, okay, we all know certainly and absolutely we’re going to die, but let’s be civilized about it. Let’s embrace notions of euthanasia, questions of personal suicide. It’s very much in the news now across all the media. Let’s make a serious film that has, I’d like to think, a lot of irony and humor in it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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‘I Don’t Believe Cinema Needs to Tell You a Story’