Peter Greenaway


Interview by Joshua Cody, November 1994


This exclusive interview first appeared in the December 1994 Special Dutch Issue of the Paris New Music Review, an issue almost entirely devoted to contemporary opera in the Netherlands. This interview was conducted in Amsterdam, November 1994 by Joshua Cody, senior editor of the Paris New Music Review.

We were doubtlessly not the first to feel a bit intimidated by this celebrated filmmaker. His strongly theatrical physical presence was augmented by his impeccable solid black suit and large, intense eyes. But his most potentially formidable characteristic--his witty intelligence, his verbal virtuosity--was exactly what we ended up enjoying. His resonant, dramatic delivery will necessarily be missed by the reader of this transcription, but some of the director's love for language and for wordplay will emerge.

Greenaway's first short films, Intervals and H is for House, were produced in 1972. Since then he has created more than twenty short or full-length projects for film or television, among them A Zed and Two Noughts (1986), The Belly of an Architect (1987), Drowning by Numbers (1988), The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover (1989), and Prospero's Books (1991), a version of Shakespeare's The Tempest. His latest film, The Baby of Macon, has been released in Europe but still awaits distribution in America. Rosa, his 1994 collaboration with Louis Andriessen, is his first work in opera.

I read a statement that you made once. In comparing film and literature, you said that literature was interior," and was thus a purer art form than film. We were just talking with Mr. Audi [Director of the Netherlands Opera] about the imperfections of opera as an art form, as an attempt to bring together drama and music. Do you ever regret that you became a filmmaker, rejecting the " vocations of writer or painter?

I was trained as a painter. And although it often sounds very ,"I still consider myself a painter, but one who happens to be working in cinema. There are all sorts of contradictions going on there, of course. I also had a classic English literary education, and although many people consider me a visualist--someone capable of putting together a picture--I would like to think also that the dialogue and the soundtracks in my films are of eminent importance. Was it Truffaut who suggested that cinema" was a contradictory term? There is almost a way in which painting" is a contradiction in terms; I suppose our contribution to the world of painting is very, very small, compared, indeed, with this country, and certainly with France and Italy. The average painting which was hung in the Royal Academy in the seventeenth century was probably accompanied by about seventeen pages of text. Questions regarding text and the image are endemic to the English culture, and they are certainly my big concerns, as well. One of my great disappointments was to realize that 95% of all images are illustrations of text. And even after the revolutions in painting in the nineteenth century, you still have to use words to describe paintings. Paintings are still given titles, which are basically textural, and which entirely colour the way in which the painting is viewed. So if you want to be a visual creator," it's a great frustration.

“I can see why people don't do opera more frequently.”

I would say there has been no cinema yet. Nobody has yet made a film. I think the best we can manage is a version of illustrated literature or recorded theatre. Alain Resnais [the French filmmaker, creator of Hiroshima, mon amour and L'annee derniere a Marienbad], for me, has probably come the closest of any filmmaker to make a film which canot be manifested in any other art form. I also think that the dominant commercial cinema is extremely conventional, very orthodox, very non-investigative; Scorsese, basically, is still making the same movies as Griffith. But I'm not down-hearted about this, because just around the corner, after a hundred years of this prologue to cinema which we've had, is the possibility of at last being able to make pure cinema, with all the new technologies. Virtual reality, the IMAX screen, the whole digital revolution is going to allow us to make actual cinema. You might recall that occasion when Eisenstein, of all people, said to Walt Disney that Disney was the only man that really made films, because the entire filmic universe was created completely within his imagination, and not with reference to the real world.

Most of my cinema, I suppose, has been, again, agonizing about this difference that's existed in the West--this division between text and image, and the hopeful ability of cinema to unite them. Again, I don't think it ever has successfully. As an addendum to that, the next product which I hope will filmically extend this idea is a movie that we're about to make in Japan, which is essentially about calligraphy: how calligraphy, an Oriental tradition--possibly an Islamic tradition--has been able to avoid the divorce between text and image, and in a very unified way. Little essays in this direction were already made in Prospero's Books, with its concern for the art of calligraphy, for what it meant and stood for. Sadly, calligraphy no longer exists in the Western world, not to any appreciable extent, anyway.

Here again, in this opera, we have the divisions between various forms of representation, using the four hundred-year-old suspension of disbelief which is part and parcel of opera, in association with the suspension of disbelief which is part of the cinematic tradition. So there's a way in which I'd like to describe this project not as an ," but as a. . . There's a searching, a groping, for new words here--not just by me, but by all of us, I think, as a community--for notions of -cinema," the complete artwork, which of course has potentially been on the scene for perhaps thirty or forty years, but which still hasn't reached any useful synthesis. Wagner's notion as opera as being a complete artwork has long been a hovering image of what might, possibly, be possible. Cinema, at the beginnings, certainly with the French in the 1920s, was supposed to be the total artwork: but it's failed, dismally, to produce the goods.

So, here, maybe, within this view of music theatre in association with the other ways of manufacturing images, might, possibly, be the beginnings of an association which might flower into something and strange," to quote Caliban [sic.]. Having seen a hundred years of cinema--and a hundred years is far long enough for a prologue--it must get out of its diapers now and do something really interesting.

I find it difficult to place you within the film history textbook that I read as a child. It's clear from your technique that you value a certain artificiality in your films. Your filmmaking style seems to have been hardly influenced at all by either Germanic expressionism, which largely decided Western cinema's principles of cinematography and decor, or the Russian school, which largely decided film grammar in the combining of successive images. Yet there are some filmmakers who use some of the same techniques you favor--the stationary camera, a consciousness of the frame, and long takes. I am thinking, for example, of three very different filmmakers: Kubrick, Ozu, and Tarkovskij. When you made the transition into film, were you influenced by any of these filmmakers, or any others?

Probably not. I was much more influenced by the aesthetics of painting than by direct associations with filmmaking products. I think that's probably manifested in most of my movies. All the early movies were very, very static. In The Draughtman's Contract, I think the camera moves once, in the dining table sequence--and that in a deliberately -movement" fashion, because it takes no cognizance at all of the activity around it, almost ignores it; the camera is moved almost just for the sake of moving the camera, to say, I can move the camera! It can be moved!" It doesn't necessarily have to be in total synchronous accord with the drama. My camera has, of course, moved much more in the recent films. I've become interested in notions of a choreographed, almost balletic sense of space, although the camera still retains a diffidence. It doesn't swoop across the floor and go up Robert Redford's nose, it doesn't follow the actor into the lavatory in that peculiar, St. Vitus' dance of contemporary cinema. If the camera moves, it must do so for a very good reason indeed.

And when my camera does move, it moves with a static frame. So it literally is a tracking shot, as seen through a very apparent, self-reflective frame. Prospero's Books is full of that notion of drawing your attention to the edges of the phenemenon. Of course some people feel that I'm stuck in the seventeenth century. But the concern for the frame is very much a twentieth-century concern: the whole notion--I suppose a post-cubist notion--of acknowledging where the painting stops and starts, its physicality, its relationship to the edges. The nineteenth-century illusion of the painting as a window on the world is not, I think, operating in my cinema. It's a cinema which does concern itself with the edges, all the time.

Here we are in a theatre. The theatre uses a proscenium; but there are attempts, literally, to break the hymen, through the looking-glass, that way [gestures forward from the stage to the audience]; and also, peripherally, attempts to acknowledge the apron [gestures towards the wings]. I've been fascinated by this breakage of the frame because I think, again, after a hundred years--or should we say, after four hundred years--of the dominance of the frame, we're about to see it exploded. As a filmmaker, I have a choice of maybe six or seven different aspect ratios (if we forget, for the moment, high defintion television coming up from Japan). The way most people see reconstructed drama right now is in a box with a ratio of 1 to 1.33. In a sense, all the freedoms of a chosen ratio have been denied the artist: he's fixed in this little, tiny straightjacket. And, I suppose, it's indicative of the way nature works that there would be a suppression, and then an explosion. I think it's happening already. Ever since American Expressionism, post-American expressionism, the frame has begun to disappear in painting. And I suppose with virtual reality you don't need a frame anymore; with IMAX and Omnimax, the edge is beyond the periphery of vision. So after a hundred years of cinema, it's about time that those explosions, those resurrections, those reorganizations of filmic space in terms of the frame, are going to have to disappear. There's every evidence that other people, too, are concerned about that.

Was this what attracted you to John Cage? It was your interest in Cage that led you to meet Pierre Audi, the director of the Netherlands Opera, a meeting that eventually led to your four short television documentaries on American composers [Four American Composers, 1983].

Well amongst many, many other things, yes. His personal aesthetic; an artistic guru, not necessarily because of what he actually made in terms of music, much of which is deeply unlistenable to, but as a man who had thousands of ideas, who was interested in the cross-referencing, all the time, between the visual world and the aural world.

Do you watch a lot of movies now?

No, hardly ever. I find cinema extremely boring. The exciting, investigative things are not happening in cinema, although they continue to be happening in painting. Certainly in literature, and in still photography, too; but it's very, very rare indeed to find an exciting film.

Getting back to Cage, for just a moment: for Cage, the disappearance of the frame meant nothing less than the disappearance of art itself, art being predicated upon the tension between an inside and an outside of a frame. That tension is exactly analogous to the tension between the artist and the audience, or, more generally, between subject and object. That tension is necessary for there to be a communication, a transference of a substance, from one form to another. Cage isolated and showed us that structure of transference, without the process of a transfer. He went past the need, or the desire, for such a process. In doing that he was revolutionary. In this respect it would seem impossible to follow in Cage's footsteps as a significant artist. To call oneself an artist and yet not produce would hardly, after Cage, have a revolutionary impact.

I want to link this problem with the use of technology, as you already have. Technology as a force that is continually driving to communication and the covering of distance would obviously appear to be moving towards the infinite limit of abolishing the frame, which here is understood, again, as the tension between subject and object.

Well there is post-Cageian music. Music goes on; the inventive spirit is still alive. You need not be frightened by endings. All this talk of the end of the novel, for example, or the end of painting. . .

Chronologically, it's true that there exist composers after Cage; but artistically I'm not sure if that's true.

Oh, I'm sure that it is. I'm sure that that's not so much a full stop as much as a comma, a very important comma. But the continuation of the desire for musical excitement in whatever sphere, for whatever simulus, is, I'm sure, going to be able to create new forms, new approaches.

You seem, by your question, to have a certain pessimism about technology. Why? The cinema it self is deeply pessimistic about technology. If you take Jurassic Park, for example. Why is it that every film that deals in technology is always so negative? You know, all aesthetic pursuits are deeply associated with technology. We should not delude ourselves that aesthetics comes narrowly out of the air, or purely out of the imagination of some great thinker; they're deeply associated with the current technology. With the cinema this is especially true, we can see that time after time after time. In the new technology, I'm sure that the words we're becoming very familiar with are at this very moment creating new aesthetics. Just a small example: I attended a symposium in Munich about six months ago which was talking about perspective in virtual reality. Perspective as an art form, or as a way, an approach, of seeing, of manifesting the world--I suppose might be a suitable word for people like Della Francesca--had really crystallized by about 1680, something like that, with the Dutch drawings of De Vries. So in a sense, by a point about halfway through the eighteenth century, there was nothing else to be said about the spectator. Perspective had been formulated, organized.

Now up comes virtual reality, which concerns itself with a multiple viewpoint, unlike the traditional Renaissance sense of perspective. Virtual reality, both on the part of its manufacturers and of the people who watch it, necessitates an understanding of how my eye is related to that point there, this pont here, not seen from a static position, as painting would organize it, but from a moving position. Suddenly all these new possibilities of considering the art of perspective are opened up. Perspective has got to be reutilized. The aesthetic that was associated with so much formalistic painting over the last three hundred years can be revitalized, reexamined. This is one example of how the technology of virtual reality is going to affect our aesthetic thinking all over again. I think the malaise that exists in cinema today stems from the fact that the technological fascinations with film technology have disappeared; they've moved on to the electronic television area. In some senses, the technologies associated with a hundred years of cinema have either become sterile or have run themselves out into the ground. From the financial perspective, who's putting new money into filmic technology? Nobody.

Maybe because the cinema has reaped its benefits from a technological base in the first place, it is extremely conservative: it holds tightly to its technology and is afraid to let it go, at the risk of its very identity. It was reluctant to move from silent film to sound; it is now reluctant to use video technology, even though the use of film equipment has by now been rendered outdated.

Yes, it has to do with cultural snobbery, don't you think? Goddard suggested that we look up at cinema, but we look down at television. We have to get over those resistances. When I made Prospero's Books, a lot of my American critics said "just Shakespeare on MTV"--which is underselling both Shakespeare and MTV.

I wanted to ask you about music: the title of your opera series is The Death of Webern. When I learned of this title I was surprised; I wouldn't have associated you with a Romantic, expressionist, Germanic composer. I know you are fascinated with the story of Webern's death; how do you feel abou the music?

Berg interests me more, musically. But Webern is incredibly fascinating as a man who had managed to through," despite all the Jewish, anti-Semetic problems; despite the fact of being so ignored as a composer. His life history is one of coming through the thirties into a time when he was beginning to earn money, to gain a reputation as a composer and as a teacher, and then having the whole Austrian situation cut him off. . . And then there is way he became involved in local politics; he became Christianized; there was the anti-Zionist phenomenon and his involvement in Israel, and so on; all this background was fascinating. But the core of it is simply this man, who was essentially just on the point of making the essential breakthrough for himself, and maybe for music too, was apparently just cut off, chopped off, clipped off, as if with a pair of scissors: a life thrown away so motivelessly. I couldn't believe the official reports: the idea, which sometimes rings so strange, of a man called Bell--a sonorous name, of course, for the assassin of a composer--who happened to be, one drunken, trigger-happy night, catching the end of Webern's lit cigar, which was breaking the curfew. . . . Three shots. The hat, the spectacles, and all the other clues which are part and parcel with this. I wasn't convinced. Still not convinced. That's not the truth. Can't be. There must be other things.

I had been thinking, and worrying, about this project for a long time; and suddenly, with the death of John Lennon, it all began to crystallize. And thus developed this deeply preposterous notion of there being a conspiracy (which, of course, not one of us for a moment ever believes) behind the deaths of composers. It's an ironic opportunity to examine all these sorts of phenomenologies; but again, it's an excuse, like all the other projects I get myself involved in, to play with the language. The language is, in the end, so much more interesting than the content. Content atrophies so very rapidly, and all we're left with is the language--but that's more than enough. By far, more than enough.

This opera, Rosa, is subtitled, Horse Drama." Did the opera spring from an earlier project I read you were preparing which was to concern itself with many aspects of the horse as symbol?

I think the project was called 55 Men on Horseback. I wanted to celebrate the horse. The horse, with language, is what is supposed to have made us civilized, both the horse and language coming together across the spaces of central Europe, eons ago. The project is still there, on the back burner. When I finished the script, it turned out to be eight hours long. Nobody's going to give me the money to make an eight hour film. There was some talk about making it for television, but that's not the way I want to do it. I want to concern myself with big screen," as a size phenomenon; I want to involve technologies which can utilize the film language as well as the television language. And, rather like the 92 stories that exist in The Falls, I want to demonstrate 55 ways of making films. We will make it, sometime, I am convinced.

If you think that Rosa: A Horse Drama is part of that project, I suppose it might be, although I think it probably came from a different direction. I'm a phony in a certain respect: I know nothing about horses. I rode a horse when I was about eight, I think, and never afterwards. I know very little about Westerns; I don't even like Westerns, but again, these are clothespegs, clotheshangers, upon which to hang clothing of different sorts, to talk about opera; to talk about cinema; to talk about possibilities of breaking the frame; to talk about the relationships that could be possible between the wide shot and the closeup; to talk about attitudes towards the classic operatic heroine who is normally always subjugated to all forms of humiliation, but always manages to be so sanitized and deoderized in conventional opera. The sexual-political activity of the humiliated central female figure, which is part of the operatic tradition, is reexamined here.

And to talk, again, about representation. A terribly fashionable word, but still one that holds a deep fascination for us all, I think: the business about introducing a real horse on stage to begin with, saying, this is what a real horse looks like." Now we take it on a journey. We make mechanical horses, we make fake horses. We play the phony game of mechanical representation. We do extraordinary things with, and to, this horse. We investigate taboo areas, possibly, like bestiality. We examine the sexual implications of the image of the horse in the Western world, et cetera, et cetera. So all these associations are, I hope, synthesized in some way, to produce dramatic entertainment, which not only passes one hour and forty-six minutes, but also stimulates debate, which is the prime, exciting function of most art.

I've never found a lot of surrealism in your work, but here I found traces of associations, particularly with surrealistic film: dead carcasses; detached images of acts of violence; familiar objects found out of their usual context; an exaggerated, perverse eroticism. Does this reflect a new interest in surrealism?

It's not a word I feel very happy with. If is the free association of apparently unrelated objects, to me it is too vague a notion, too ephemeral, too ambiguous. I do think that most of my cinema is very rational, highly unmystical, highly unsurreal. Why should we allow surrealism to have tyranny over the imagination? There has, after all, been an awful lot of surrealism before surrealism. It has now become a convenient tag word, which doesn't help us very much.

The production is quite extreme. Certainly the Netherlands Opera is one of the most radical opera houses in the world; you would never be able to do this in America. Do you have plans to tour with the opera?

I'm concerned about being able to find an opera house that can handle all this technology. Just the very fact that we have this contradictory notion of two very large projectors firing at one another. We're interested in the maximum amount of relfexivity of these screens; they've got to act as jewels, as panes of glass, as solid walls. It will be difficult to find an equivocation for that. Cinema starts with darkness, after all, and works outwards; you've got to have darkness to produce good cinema, just in terms of technology. I suppose you could say the opposite applies to the stage; you've got to light it, in three-dimensional form. So we have these contradictions, these oppositions, which we've been trying to solve. I'm not convinced that we've solved them completely. I want people to enter the opera house and imagine that they're going to a big, professional cinema: we can't do that. There's no way that you can make an opera house into a professional cinema; but we're trying to find a way of synthesizing the two.

I can see, now, why a lot more people don't do this more frequently. You know the experiments in the 1920s and 1930s, in which Rene Clair did a lot of experiments combining theatre and the cinema?


Well, I'm thinking also of various other products which had a very short life history in Paris. There was a product that Rene Clair did in about 1925, which is really doing exactly what I'm doing--or trying to do--which is trying to get people to walk off dead film, and appear on live stage. But the problems of synchronicity are immense! We're not just synchronizing the film with the stage; we have the orchestra to consider, and the singers. In a funny way, they're all moving at different times; although at times, the singers are supposed to be disciplined by the conductor. A good conductor, if the singer is slow, will change the pace of the orchestra, to fit the requirements. But the tyranny of film insists upon twenty-four frames a second, with no leeway and no tolerance.

One finds the same problem in electronic music of the fifties and sixties, in which live musicians must adhere to the fixed time of a prerecorded electronic tape.

Does one? The next opera I'm doing, in Strasbourg on May 1, will use a lot of taped music, and I'm going to feel a little more relaxed about it, because I know that taped music will be the same every night. This fifty-seven member orchestra can never guarantee the same performance every night. If the conductor is tired, for instance, he might lose a second every minute, which would make the end seriously out of synch. This problem is perhaps one of the reasons that associations between the cinema and the theatre have not been more seriously pursued. I think that it's extremely fertile and fascinating ground; maybe now, because the technology is improving. . . . I came back from Japan about six months ago hoping that we might be able to abandon the boring, old, sprocket-holed celluloid movie film and use video instead; but again, it proved to be incredibly expensive. We would like to continue to pursue that, however, because you can obviously change the speed of the video in a way which is very satisfactory.

I would have thought that video would be cheaper, because celluloid itself is more expensive than video.

Yes, but don't forget the contradiction: we have a screen, which also must be a pane of glass. You can't do that with a video tube, in the same way.

Are there aesthetic considerations as well as technological ones when deciding between film and video hardware?

Well again, to use that old analogy, I probably had lots of cultural snobbisms about cinema; cinema had a vocabulary which had all the letters of the alphabet, all the vowels and all the consonants, and I used to have this feeling that television had only the vowels. But it was a poor analogy, because I think that television has its own alphabet, albeit of a different nature.

My disappointments with the medium of televsision occurred when I first saw The Draughtman's Contract on TV. There's really no point in me moaning about this, because obviously most of my audience is a television audience. This is ironic, since I want to make cinema," for the big silver screen, which is bigger and noisier than you are. Inevitably, my movies are going to be seen by more people on television than they ever would be in the cinema, which I think is the fate of any filmmaker now. So I had to come to terms with that; I had to determine to find for myself a television language. I was happy that Channel 4 Television in England started up just at that time; television was then an enormous mouth that needed to be filled, and, in taking all sorts of enormous risks, it decided to employ me. So I began to learn by myself, I hope, certain ways of learning television's language. But there always remains that frustration of everything being down in that little box, the question of scale.

Did you ever see our version--and I say ," because I worked with an English painter caled Tom Phillips--of A TV Dante, a version of Dante's Inferno? Again, an incredibly complex investigation into that original and very ancient text; but seen on a small screen, there was a visual frustration in not being able to see the images clearly. So I think that out of those frustrations grew the desire to make Prospero's Books using television languages, or particularly post-production television languages, and to see them on a larger scale. We can't imagine a Jackson Pollock that small, or a Rothko; scale is important to the image. For the technology, we had to turn to Japan, and most of the technology there is high defintion. The quality of transference between the high defintion image and the cinematic image was much closer there than is possible in the West or in America. Japan is undoubtedly far ahead in the field; I think they're now broadcasting five hours of high defintion television a day, publicly; there's nobody anywhere in the rest of the world that's doing that, even remotely, at the moment. I'm not so sure if our work was entirely successful, but again, that's not really of prime importance; it's the investigation and the process which is of prime importance in that respect. I certainly hope to pursue it further. My next film, which we're making in Japan very shortly, will again use some of those technologies.

“I have no contribution to make, you know, to the seven-hundred-and-twelve-thousandth version of Madame Butterfly

An important frustration I always have with cinema is that it is hopeless with simultaneity, whereas the theatre and the opera can handle simultaneity very well. The business of finding a vocabulary to layer, as it were, scenes, one upon another, is an attempt to create a sense of simultaneity. It's common parlance in the drama of theatre and opera to do that.

It's very rare in film.

You see the corny examples, I suppose, of the split screen of the 1930s: two people on a phone. . .

Or in different bathtubs! Do you ever want to direct adaptations of other operas?

No. Absolutely not. I've been asked, many times. I think ever since The Cook ,the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover, the offers have been flooding in from all over the place, and I've always resisted. I have no contribution to make, you know, to the seven-hundred-and-twelve-thousandth version of Madame Butterfly, I have nothing to say at all. I don't want to become involved in that sort of thing; a lot of it is to do with out-house and not in-house, it has to do with what happens in the opera interval; it has to do with the opera establishment, with all those people. . . who are probably very useful, to keep this elitist bubble afloat; how else could it be patronized? But still, I suppose, something like 80% of opera house audiences around the world are well-heeled, self-confident bourgeoisie who have notions of " which perhaps have got nothing at all to do with contemporary life.

We've got to be careful here. I don't want to become an ivory tower filmmaker. That sounds peculiar, but I want to be a mainstream filmmaker. I want the largest possible audience that I can find--but, of course, on my terms.

Rosa photos by Deen van Meer, courtesy of The Netherlands Opera. Greenaway photo by Ralf Emmerich, also courtesy of The Netherlands Opera. Interview copyright 1994, 1996 by the Paris New Music Review. See also our related interview with Pierre Audi, director of the Netherlands Opera; and for more on Greenaway's latest projects, read 42 points by Dan Warburton.