Van Gogh: American Remakes

Theo van Gogh was not known in the U.S. until his murder made the director a cause celebre. Now Hollywood is remaking his films, beginning with Steve Buscemis’ Interview

For a few moments in Interview, the new film starring Sienna Miller and Steve Buscemi, the camera rests on a vase of tulips, and a black-and-white photograph of a double-chinned Dutch man chewing on a cigarette. This is a picture of the late film-maker Theo van Gogh, and it’s also a signal from Buscemi, who happens to be the director, to the audience that the movie is a remake of Van Gogh’s 2003 film of the same name.

The project, the first of three American Van Gogh remakes, feels a bit like an exercise in ghost-raising. Everyone has a story of how Theo, who had always wanted to work in New York, made his presence felt during the shoot.

One evening, while producer Bruce Weiss was driving Buscemi home over Brooklyn bridge, the wind whipped up a copy of the New York Post, which opened on a picture of Van Gogh. Another time, the crew stumbled across a lorry bearing the logo of Van Gogh Movers, which was incorporated into one of the scenes.

Like most people outside the Netherlands, Buscemi had never even heard of the director or his films until he was shot and stabbed to death by an Islamist on an Amsterdam street 3 years ago. Death gave Van Gogh the international exposure he did not have in life; the outrage sparked by the incident catapulted him into the ranks of the most famous film-makers in the world.

Van Gogh is best known for his controversial short Submission, made with the Somalian-Dutch feminist and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who went into hiding in the U.S. following the director’s murder. The film depicted semi-naked women speaking to Allah about the Koranic verses that are unfavourable to women.

After it was shown on Dutch TV in August 2004, Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali received death threats, to which he responded: “Who would want to kill the village idiot” No one took the threats seriously. Two months later, Van Gogh was murdered by 26-year-old Mohammed Bouyeri while he was cycling to work.

Apart from his 1981 film Lger, in which a pistol is shoved into a woman’s vagina and two kittens are spun in a washing machine, Van Gogh’s films are two-hander domestic dramas, reminiscent in their intensity of Pinter, Ibsen or Mamet. They typically center on the “battle of the trenches” between men and women, and are summed up by the characters themselves, who make declarations such as: “We don’t believe in relationships” or “There is always a winner and a loser” or “We couldn’t live with or without each other”.

Theodor Holman was the scriptwriter who worked most closely with Van Gogh. “Because of his provocative nature,” he says, “people find it hard to believe that he was actually a champion of harmony. And actors loved him because he brought them into another gear.” Buscemi says: “I would have liked to have met him. I would like to have done this film with him directing me.”

The irony is by no means lost on Van Gogh’s friends and colleagues that it is only because of his death that his films are being remade in America. A new version of his 1996 film Blind Date is being directed by Stanley Tucci, and his fictionalisation of the assassination of Pim Fortuyn, called 06/05, is being remade by John Turturro with the title 1-900.

The remakes project began at the Toronto film fest in 2003, where Van de Westelaken and Van Gogh were approached by several producers interested in making US versions of Interview, which had been shot over five nights and cost a mere 150,000 (104,000).

Out of pure necessity Van Gogh developed the method of running three handheld cameras simultaneously. Official bodies were reluctant to fund his often-controversial projects, and the Van Gogh family fortune – their collection of paintings by his great-great-uncle, Vincent – had been given to the state, much to Theo’s fury. With his three-camera set-up, in which one focused on each actor and another provided a master shot, Van Gogh could shoot single takes that lasted as long as 20 minutes. These became a vital vehicle for the fast-paced verbal battles that are central to almost all of his films.

For Buscemi, this style of filming was completely new. “I had to teach him how it worked,” says Doesjka van Hoogdalem, the creative consultant who started working with Van Gogh in 2000. “It also kept the acting fresh and lively. Because we were shooting with three cameras, the actors could improvise and move about as they liked. So, for instance, Sienna would spontaneously decide to dive on to the couch, much to everyone’s delight.”

However, maintaining the authenticity of the Van Gogh style was only possible because producers Weiss and Van de Westelaken were able to bring Van Gogh’s Dutch crew to the US. “We had a good lawyer who managed to persuade the US authorities that only the Dutch team could make this film,” says Van Hoogdalem.

They had a stiff battle with the unions, who refused to accept the Dutch side’s insistence that only a few people were needed – or desired – on set. Van Hoogdalem herself acted as both director’s assistant and script adviser until the unions protested that she was doing someone out of a job, at which point the role of “creative consultant” was invented for her.

Van Hoogdalem, who was also a close friend of Van Gogh’s, is convinced that though the director had a childlike love of America, which he idolised for its democratic principles and freedom of expression (a point of view many of his compatriots found hard to share), the experience of filming there would have driven him to despair. “I don’t know whether he would have survived,” she says. “As someone who was so spontaneous and flexible, and spent his life trying to escape the rules, he would have found it hugely restricting. Being told there was a penalty if you didn’t stop for lunch might well have caused him to explode.”

Van Gogh was famous for speaking his mind. So it was surely quite convenient that cautious Hollywood types didn’t have to deal with him in person. This, after all, was the man who had called hardline Islamists “goat fuckers”. He had worked on a screenplay entitled Anne Frank in the Hamptons, about the “Holocaust industry”, and had further insulted Jews with his comments about diabetics going to the gas chamber. He called a TV network chief a “cokehead who specialised in throwing secretaries over the balcony”. On top of that, he was a heavy drinker, a chain-smoker and an erstwhile drug user.