A director of "Character"

An interview with Academy Award-winning director Mike van Diem.

By Cynthia Joyce
Published April 3, 1998 8:56PM (EST)

Last Monday night, when Sharon Stone announced the Academy Award winner
for best foreign language film, Mike van Diem, the Dutch director of
"Character," did a little victory dance in the aisle before charging
the stage to make his acceptance speech, a breathless promise to American audiences that "the subtitles are great."

Three days later, van Diem is seated proudly next to the award in a San Francisco hotel room, and although he is visibly tired, his excitement has barely subsided. Based on the classic Dutch novel of the same name about a young man's lifelong struggle with his tyrannical father, "Character" is van Diem's feature film debut. Prior to this, he was the director of a popular Dutch television drama, something he describes as a cross between "L.A. Law" and "thirtysomething" ("thirtysomething lawyers with a lot of personal problems," he says with a laugh). From television drama to award-winning epic film may seem to some like a great leap, but van Diem says it was a natural one. "Directing the series was like making mini features -- the writers and cast were so great. Working with them for two years definitely gave me the confidence to direct a film of this scale."

Van Diem spoke with Salon about "Character," overdoing it at the Oscars
and becoming your parents.

What does it mean to you to have won an Academy Award?

You mean, apart from this physical sensation that I am glowing in the
dark, and the buzzing in my head, and I am floating, beaming, shining and I have a perpetual smile on my face -- apart from that? I don't know, the future will tell. I have to tell you that the moment when I got up there on stage, looking at Sharon Stone waiting for me there with that thing, it was like 400 kilos dropped off my back. It was utterly liberating.

I am a romantic person, so the whole romantic aspect of the Oscars was
appealing to me. As I was sitting there, watching the show, I was very,
very nervous. I was sitting there in row 14, watching people getting so
emotional onstage, and I thought, "Aren't they overdoing this a little
bit?" Then it turned out that the moment I got onstage myself, I went all
out, jumping up and down -- it took me by surprise.

One aspect of winning an Oscar is that presumably people throw an
enormous amount of projects at you. Have you thought about what you'd like
to do next?

Nope, I'm still looking for something. I would like to do an all-out,
great historical drama, a real classic film. A costume drama, maybe,
something like "Dangerous Liaisons." That's one of my favorite films.
Michelle Pfeiffer makes you believe that there is such a thing as death by
heartbreak. That, to me, was amazing.

To what extent have other American films influenced your work?

It must have been, on a subconscious level, a really big influence on my work, because I started out as an avid film-goer as a kid. I am a kind of nerd -- the nerd on the movie quiz-show, that was me. I was actually on one of those shows, in 1978.

If someone put a gun to my head and told me I had to assemble my top 100 favorite films, the top 25 would probably be dominated by European films, but the top 100 would probably be an overwhelming victory for American films. I am more of a storytelling filmmaker, and that has been the tradition in American cinema from very early on. If you compare great Russian films with early American films, from say the 1920s, Russian films have stunning, poetic visuals, but the story isn't really gripping you. The American films, from the very start, know how to suck you into the story.

Is there a distinctly Dutch filmmaking style that you admire?

There have been some great Dutch films around. I still think that the
1979 film by Paul Verhoeven, "Soldier of Orange," which starred Rutger
Hauer, was his best work. The original "The Vanishing" -- I thought that
was a great film.

But the Dutch film that won the Oscar two years ago, "Antonia's Line,"
is not a very popular one back home. The Oscar came as a shock to us. We
thought it was a good film, but nobody thought it was that good.
There was a cultural difference that made the English-language audience
appreciate that film so much more than we did.

Probably the reason why "Character" is so incredibly big is
because, this time, the film already had a good reputation at home. Right after the nominations, Variety had put the front-runner stamp on it, and the people at home smelled victory -- they went all out. Now the media craze in Holland is unimaginable. There are journalists tracking down people I went to film school with, to interview them about me.
I am like Monica Lewinsky (laughs). At home, I am bigger than
Monica Lewinsky.

How loose was your interpretation of the novel "Character"?

I changed it a lot. I have always been an original screenplay writer, so
that probably gave me the tools to go so freely with it. This book was
obligatory reading for every high school student throughout the '40s, '50s,
up through the '70s. It became a classic because it had these great
characters -- these monumental, silent, characters. But it had virtually no
story. So I had to come up with the whole superstructure of the murder
mystery -- that wasn't there. What makes it, perhaps, into an interesting
film is something that was very much between the lines, but we tried very
hard to visualize: the darker side of the father's character, his whole
death-defying demeanor, his flirtation with the darkest stuff imaginable.

Even as I hear myself talking about them in this interview, I realize I
cannot verbalize those things. I visualize them -- those are all visual
scenes in the film, and they were not there in the book. They are, in fact,
my favorite part of the film.


That emphasis on the visual allowed you to paint the father as a very
cryptic character. There's one scene in particular, in which he goes after a boy hiding out in one of his buildings -- presumably to kill him -- and even though he's getting shot at, he keeps after the boy, as if he himself would rather die. And the whole time, the son is watching with a horrified expression on his face --

You know, reactions to this film have been virtually the same all over the planet. But it's funny -- in the States, that scene is brought up more often than any other. Is it because it's about guns, or ... what is it?

Maybe it's because that's the first time that he is shown to be a
morally ambiguous character, not just an evil tyrant.

That is actually right, it's the first time that I tried to introduce to the audience what drives him, and suggest where he will eventually end up.

But it's also a classic parent-hating moment -- Katadreuffe realizes that he can't hate his father completely without denying a part of himself.

Which is actually an everyday horror for most of us (laughs). And you
don't really need terrible parents for that to be true.

What this film needs to tell you -- well, first of all, film doesn't
need to tell you anything. I'm not that kind of a filmmaker. But at the
core of the film, it's about how our characters are built, how we become
what we are through our parents, by our upbringing, how we first try to
escape from that. Everybody wants that. We all want to escape our parents. And there comes a moment in life that we start to realize that we can't quite escape them. We have to find a way to come to terms with them, and with the fact that, oh my God, we are becoming like them. That is what the film is really about.

In a way, it's a film about people I know -- I know a lot of people who
are not very well-equipped to deal with emotions or feelings, or do not
have great communicative skills. In this film, we have only repressed
characters that suffer from that. And it leads to their downfall, one way
or another. Both on and off the screen, I have the tendency to defend those
kinds of people -- in a lot of cases those people cannot help themselves,
and what I'm sort of showing in this film is how these people re-create
themselves from one generation to another.

Does the novel share the same moral?

No. The book ends where the film starts. The young man goes up to his
father -- he once was a working-class boy and now he's a high-class lawyer
-- and says, "I'm just here to tell you that I've reached my goals, and
I'll never see you again." And the father says, "Look, son, I've never
worked against you, I've only worked for you -- I've only done this to
make a man out of you." Whatever that means.

And his son takes a look at his father, and walks off into the horizon,
and that's the end of the book. And I thought, Wait wait wait a
minute! These are the '90s. That sort of educational philosophy may have
gone over well in the '40s and '50s, but now, even the guy that sweeps the
street has a basic concept of psychology and knows that this kind of
one-sided education is ultimately very destructive. So what I did was have
the guy walk out -- then literally turn around and go back in. I wanted to
sort of surprise the connoisseurs of the novel right in the first minute by
showing the famous last scene and then turning things around. I thought
that would be kind of funny.

But what drives the characters is basically true to the book. It's only
the father's character that we enhanced with this dark shadow.

How were you able to infuse a contemporary sensibility into such an
epic tale?

All I did was try not to be very intimidated by the huge sets, and
costumes. I talked my producer into giving me a steady-cam, so I could move
freely around the set. I wanted to keep the camera moving to sort of
counterpoint the photography, which is sometimes really breathtaking, but
I didn't want to create a perfect picture-book. I wanted a "motion"
picture, in the true meaning of the word.

And I went for atmosphere. I actually had some fights with the costume
director about historical accuracy. Sometimes I would want things that
weren't very historically accurate, but to me they felt exactly right for the scene. I convinced them to let me use that stuff. Because in a really good film, you do not tend to take notice of the collars.

Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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