'Brimstone': The Disturbing, Sadomasochistic Western from 35 Financiers and 5 Countries
Dakota Fanning and Guy Pearce star in Martin Koolhoven's grim neo-Western, an effort that spanned many international borders.
At 149 minutes long, Dutch director Martin Koolhoven's (Winter in Wartime) first English-language film is a beast—and that's only where the Biblical references begin. The neo-Western stars Dakota Fanning as Liz, a woman on the run from her reverend stepfather (Guy Pearce), a self-described false prophet, or "wolf in sheep's clothing," on the American frontier. It's a world wrought with dour religiosity, where primal impulses bubble just beneath the surface, and God is evoked as an excuse to stoke the fire.
Divided into Biblical chapters titled "Revelation," "Exodus," "Genesis," and "Retribution," Brimstone takes us through Liz's journey in reverse, showing us the brutal abuse she endured at the hands of her Calvinist and chauvinistic stepfather and the twists and turns her life takes as she tries to elude him.
No Film School sat down with Koolhoven to discuss some of the film's nearly unwatchable scenes, his rigorous process of screenplay revisions, and his successful attempts to maintain creative control on a daring, provocative film.
"There were more than 35 different financiers on this movie, which is a hell for a producer."
No Film School: This is a very dark story told with an exacting vision. Why did you decide Brimstone was a story that needed to be told?
Martin Koolhoven: The last movie I did was quite successful, and it sold very well across the world, especially in Holland. Of course, Hollywood started calling. They sent scripts and nothing that they sent I found interesting. So at some point, somebody said, "You know, Martin, what would you want to do?" And I joked, I said, "You know, I would like to do a Western." This was before Tarantino had even announced Django Unchained. It was completely dead, Westerns. And, sort of jokingly, I said, "Westerns." And then I started thinking, "Why not?"
Koolhoven: So I decided to started writing one, and then I started thinking, What is it actually that I'm interested in here? Why is it such an interesting genre? There's this almost boyish quality to it, this adventure and artistic idea of freedom. But then, as I was thinking that, I thought, that's a very macho approach. It's only a half-truth because for women, Westerns are not actually about freedom all. I had just read a book called In the Rogue Blood by James Carlos Blake about two brothers, and at some point, the sister runs away and they say, "Okay, what are her options? Either she's going to marry someone or she's going to be a prostitute." And that sort of hit me. I realized that that side of the story is never really told. There's not a lot of movies about that. Actually, none at all. Then I thought there has to be a movie from that point of view.
"Do not accept mediocrity, even from yourself. You have to raise the bar. You have to be very tough on yourself."
I was intimidated by the fact that some of my favorite movies are Westerns. I said, "How am I going to do something that is original and has a place?" And I thought the only way was to make it personal and to use my culture and heritage. I come from Holland and, of course, a lot of the settlers were Dutch. The Calvinistic belief is something that has had a very strong impact on our culture. Some people at the time thought it wasn't strict enough anymore in Holland, so they went to America to start a purer form of Christianity. That's something I had never seen in movies. I was brought up Protestant, so that's something that I could relate to. It was like a hybrid between American culture and Dutch culture. The female angle of this whole religious thing is where Brimstone sprouted from.
NFS: It's a very strong script, especially in terms of intentionality; every piece of dialogue serves a function. Can you tell me about the writing process?
Koolhoven: I had never done an international movie; I had only done Dutch movies. The reason I got access to people like Dakota Fanning and Guy Pearce and Kit Harington was the script. The moment we put the script on the desks of all the agents, they started calling us. "Could he or she be in the movie?" If you have a strong script, that's where everything comes from.
When you're writing, don't be afraid of ambition; you have to be as ambitious as you can be. Making a good movie starts with really, really wanting to make a good movie. Do not accept mediocrity, even from yourself. You have to raise the bar. You have to be very tough on yourself.
"There are some scenes that are very uncomfortable, and that's what I was striving for."
If you have a good first draft, get people in to read it who you think are very good. I got authors that I thought were very good and I got them to read the script. I put them [in a room] when I was not there, and I put somebody who I know I in with them so that they could be as tough as they wanted. They're always going to be polite if you're there. I let them discuss and see what interesting stuff [came] up. Then the person who was there reported to me. So if you have a new draft, get other people in and listen to them.
Of course, on the other end, you have to be stubborn enough to not listen to everything. But you have very honest. Very often, you [already] know what the problems are in a script.
NFS: Once you had the script, how did you cobble together financing?
Koolhoven: We didn't get any money from Hollywood. It was financed in Europe. I did get American talent, so we did have to deal with Hollywood agents and all that. But we chose to have financing in England, in Holland, in Germany, in France, in Sweden. It's a lot of countries combined. In the end, I think there were more than 35 different financiers on this movie, which is hell for a producer because you have to juggle all those balls in the air and have them all be happy.
I knew it was going to be a controversial movie. It has a lot of powerful stuff: it talks about religious fanaticism and combines it with violence and sex. So that's a very dangerous cocktail. We knew that this is something that you have to keep control of—you have to have the final cut. Otherwise, they'll take it out of your hands and you're not going to make the movie that you want.
NFS: Can you remember any specific instances where you were fighting for creative control?
Koolhoven: Well, I knew in advance that it was going to be a long movie. That's not something that a lot of distributors and money people like. I knew that if I had no control, they would want to make it shorter.
Koolhoven: The other thing is that, of course, there are controversial scenes in it. Nowadays Hollywood actually uses a lot of violence, but it is very often comical. I wanted it [to be real] because the movie is about the consequences of violence and the poisonous role that it has in the world and in life. So there are some scenes that are very uncomfortable, and that's what I was striving for. I wanted to portray violence not necessarily in a cool way.
People get scared of that. People are very often afraid of demanding things from their audience. And this is a movie that is, at some points, quite demanding. There are some tough scenes in there that need to be told for the story. If you only go to the movies to have a laugh, then you're not going to have a good time with this movie.
"It's often scenes you don't expect that are difficult from a technical point of view."
NFS: How did you approach shooting some of those uncomfortable and demanding scenes?
Koolhoven: There's a misconception nowadays, especially with the interpretation of method acting, that the toughest scenes to watch are also the toughest scenes to shoot. That's not necessarily so. If there's a very tough scene, everybody always comes in very prepared and knows that this is going to be a difficult scene. Somehow, these scenes are very often the ones that are not the hardest things to do. It's often scenes you don't expect that are difficult from a technical point of view.
NFS: The film's imagery is a bit different than what you might expect from a Western—it's more poetic, more like a painting. How did you communicate your vision?
Koolhoven: I knew I wanted it to be a very visual movie and I knew that I wanted strong images. It's something that's conscious and thought about.
I communicate that by any means necessary. I use music, I use paintings. I have a bible where I put everything. As you are writing, you do a lot of research. There's a lot of stuff that you go and check out, whether it's on the internet or in books, so I put that all into a document that I felt was relevant for my crew. It had a lot of imagery in it. By the time we went into production, it was a "bible."
NFS: What about the sets? I was impressed by how fully fleshed out the world was.
Koolhoven: All the sets were made. There was not a building in it the movie that existed before. Everything that you see was built, which is very nice, because you guide it completely the way that you want to be.
NFS: Can you remember any other specific challenges, in terms of production, and how you overcame those challenges?
Koolhoven: We shot this movie for... I think, in dollars, it would be about 15 million or so. If I had done this in America, it would be, I think, three or four times as much. I was extremely ambitious. I didn't want to give in. So there were so many challenges. Every day was a long day. We went overtime constantly. There was constant pressure. I felt very strongly about this movie and I wanted it to be exactly the way I had it in my head.
The toughest thing was getting everything that was on the paper to the screen. That was the toughest thing.