"I Leapt Into the Puddle": An Interview with Peter Greenaway

To mark a new restoration of "The Draughtsman's Contract," a career-spanning, medium-hopping chat with the Welsh experimentalist.
Dan Schindel

Peter Greenaway in The Greenaway Alphabet (Saskia Boddeke, 2017).

On the occasion of its 40th anniversary, Peter Greenaway’s second feature The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) has received a handsome 4K restoration courtesy of the British Film Institute. The film established the Welsh filmmaker’s penchants for carefully staged tableaus, fearless eroticism, baroque violence, and a devilish sense of humor. All of these preoccupations would carry his work over the subsequent decades, evinced in films like A Zed and Two Noughts (1985), The Pillow Book (1996), and his best-known title The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). In more recent years, he’s embraced the infinite canvas of digital filmmaking with more vivaciousness than most filmmakers a fraction of his age. In works like Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015) and Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2012), he thrusts his characters into gleeful unreality—impossibly deep backdrops and overlaid projections, pictures within pictures, surreal montage, and much more.

The Draughtsman’s Contract is a “murder mystery” only in the most oblique sense. There is a murder at a stately country manor in 1694, but the plot is driven by the push and pull between the pompous titular draughtsman and his client, the lady of the house. He’s demanded a sexual favor from her for each of his twelve drawings of the grounds, and their encounters circumscribe the film’s wider psychogeographic exploration of class expectations and mores within this cloistered, upper-class world.

I spoke with Greenaway over the phone about the film, though the subject quickly veered more generally to the arc of his career and his philosophy on cinema. Trained as a painter and muralist at the Walthamstow College of Art, he has never let go of his affection for that first, older art form, and often wonders how cinema can (but usually fails to) measure up to it.

The Draughtsman's Contract (Peter Greenaway, 1982).

NOTEBOOK: How involved were you with this restoration?

PETER GREENAWAY: Well, the film was made, what, 40 years ago? I haven't seen it for years and years and years. I don't think you'll find many filmmakers that interested in seeing what they were doing 40 years ago. It depends on your narcissism, I suppose. I was certainly asked, and they prepared a copy, which I rejected. It was all a bit red, a bit sort of hot. And I reported this, and they readjusted everything. Second print they made I was very happy with. I think there's not a single shot in the film I would feel unhappy with. There are one or two shots of a misty afternoon which would tend inevitably to be somewhat grainy. It was shot on Super 16, and when I was told by the British Film Institute, who were responsible for half of the money, that this reconsideration was being made, I said they should be wary. But everything worked out extremely well. 

NOTEBOOK: And this was your second feature, after The Falls, and you’d made many shorts before then. What was it about making those that led up to this one, do you think?

GREENAWAY: I had made about 20 films, but they were all experimental, very low budgets, most of them shot on 16mm, most of them black and white. I was trained as a painter, and I still think that painting is vastly superior to cinema. We've only had cinema for about, what, 130 years? But we've had painting for at least 45,000 years. So an awful lot of people have been practicing painting; very few people, comparatively, have been practicing filmmaking. You might find that a strange comment, but I believe that to be the truth, and it informs a lot of my filmmaking. The experiments that I was doing—like Hollis Frampton, Jonas Mekas, Michael Snow—were with the medium, and seeing what they could do with it. And a lot of them had had experience as painters, or should we say installation makers. 

At the end of that experimental period came The Falls, which is incredibly long and often extremely boring. The original copy was much longer, but enough is enough and I don't think I could have persuaded people to sit for longer in the cinema. But it was intended to be what I would call an ambulatory film. It's rather like the way you would listen to music; you take it in a bit and then go and feed the cat, come back again, look at a bit more. We had a couple of performances in London and I think in Edinburgh, where you bought your ticket and went to the cinema, and if you felt like leaving and having a cup of coffee, that was perfectly legitimate. Not the standard way to watch movies, but that again was part of the experimental practice. 

The Falls (Peter Greenaway, 1980).

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned installation art, and you’ve done projects in that vein as well, such as Stairs 1 Geneva. What do you think you’re looking for as you branch out with mediums?

GREENAWAY: I think cinema's pretty limited, isn't it? Traditionally—though not so true now in 2022—you have to go to a space that’s dark and completely useless unless you're showing a film in it. You have to sit still and look in one direction, and you are forced to associate yourself with narrative. And I think narrative is really a literary phenomenon, not particularly a visual one. If you go back to the Renaissance or the Romans, the best painting is always non-narrative. We have ended up with this process of making films based essentially on text. I could not go to a producer with four paintings, three lithographs, and a book of drawings and say, “Give me money.” They won't know what the fuck I’m talking about, because most producers are visually illiterate and need a text. 

In melancholy moments, I often feel that neither you, nor me, nor anybody else has truly seen a film yet. All we've seen are questions of illustrated text, and illustrated text is, for God's sake, certainly not cinema. That was some of the energy that supported my experimentation in the ’70s and ’80s. But then there came a time that it was becoming all a bit déjà vu, and I wanted to try something else. I was interested in European art cinema, the Nouvelle Vague, that great splurge battalion of cinema from La Dolce Vita to The Last Emperor—alas, alas, alas, all gone now. These were my inspirations. So I thought I’d borrow the vocabulary of all this exciting new cinema and get characters in a more conventional mode to talk to one another.

And I was ably encouraged by a lot of my mentors. You can see what you could do with ambition and a keen team of people who were interested in not doing the orthodox. We made The Draughtsman's Contract on a small budget which would now seem ridiculous; I think it was about 60,000 pounds, which is pocket money for most American filmmakers.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve continued to work in a relatively lower-budget mode, too. Do you prefer that, or do you ever wish for more resources?

GREENAWAY: There is a certain amount of freedom. I've made 60 films, and I always insist on getting director's cut. I think the huge curse on cinema is that films are made by committees and not individuals. Hundreds of people with different disciplines put their oars in to justify their commitments. And if you are using the classic French term of an auteur—which is really a rather pompous way of simply saying film author—and you want to make something personal, well, you try to keep all ideas, imagery, strategies, and concepts within your own hands. So I prize having the final cut, which in the commercial world of course is extremely rare. I mean, Hollywood's basically a producer's game, isn't it? Putting all the right things together to make money and not art. It's quite a problematical experience.

A Zed and Two Noughts (Peter Greenaway, 1985).

NOTEBOOK: Have digital and new media opened cinema at all, to you?

GREENAWAY: The films we make now in 2022 are not that dissimilar from the films that Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplin were making way back in the early 1900s. What is the difference, for God's sake? We're not cursed anymore by having to use celluloid, thank God, we don't see films now with scratches and jumping projection. The technology is certainly better, but the actual instigation, organization, purpose of cinema have not really changed at all. I think the supreme example of that is the great flurry of 3D films. Go back to the extraordinary multi-screen cinemas of the 1920s and 1930s. There was a famous French film about Napoleon, I can't remember the director's name now…

NOTEBOOK: Abel Gance.

GREENAWAY: Yes. He made this extraordinary film on three cameras and therefore three projectors. Had enormous technical difficulties getting everything in perfect sync, of course. But you can have a wide shot, a medium shot and a close-up, you can talk about the past, the present, and the future all at one time. That’s a better understanding of the notion of three-dimensionality than the limited excitements of the technology which is supposed to give you 3D. And you also have to wear a pair of glasses, so with the new technologies come new encumbrances. Be careful about the idea of believing that any of these new gizmos did something for cinema as a philosophical phenomenon. 

I mean, I leapt into the puddle as soon as digital cinema came along. I thought that at last filmmakers can become painters again. We can manipulate the actual pixels of the frame to create things we never could before. But I think it was rather boring in the end, because it's just like human nature—something amazing comes along and we get excited about it, but before long our comfort zone comes rushing in and we end up making films just like the pre-digital movies. Most of these … what do you call them, this Marvel Comic material? The organization, strategies, concepts were working for people like Méliès and Lumière a hell of a long time ago, and things really haven't changed. And you think about what's happened in music since 1895, you think of Strauss to Stockhausen. If you think about what's happening in painting since 1895, you're thinking about early Picasso all the way to Andy Warhol. With literature, it’s all the way from James Joyce to Borges. Huge differences in strategy and concept. What the hell is equivalent in terms of cinema?

NOTEBOOK: But you do think digital holds promise? You did enter it more enthusiastically than a lot of filmmakers. There are still some who resist it.

GREENAWAY: I think most people wholeheartedly accepted the vagaries of the post-digital revolution. There are one or two film snobs, people like Tarantino, who still want to be a cameraman, the hairy-chested guy with the light meter around his neck, organizing large teams of people, which are all completely unnecessary now. Anything you can do on celluloid, you can certainly reproduce on tape, so it seems to me a wasted effort.

In the ’90s, I worked with a whole series of bright young technicians who introduced me to the whole digital phenomenon. I could see, as a painter, the potential of being able to work directly within the frame. That was extraordinary. I certainly pounced on that and began to explore the possibilities. The first thing I made was a television version of Dante's Inferno. We adapted the first twelve cantos of that extraordinary work, which absolutely everybody else copied, from Shakespeare to you name it. Of course, it had a limited audience and was played very late at night, but it was a beginning, and I became excited about the potentiality.

One of the characteristics of my early work was this whole business about frames within frames. Again, Abel Gance played with that, and some other filmmakers—Truffaut's Jules et Jim and such. The idea was avant-garde, but in a way that was easy to obtain. That turned out to be another one-off phenomenon, and it wasn't really developed. But I still think the idea of frames within frames—which is common enough if you've looked at 20th-century painting—became exciting for me again with digital. 

A TV Dante (1990).

NOTEBOOK: That idea of a 3D effect without any need for 3D projection, it’s a frequent element in your films, with their meticulously staged tableaus. This too comes from your interest in painting? 

GREENAWAY: I think that's true. I’ve certainly never been regarded as an actor's filmmaker. I'm very much concerned with the image, and what it can do and how it could be organized. When we make a film, I spend most of my time with the cinematographer, the camera operator, looking through the frame all the time, making sure that things could be as perfect as I would like to imagine them. The organization of the frame is very important for me, like it would be indeed for a painter. The painter, whether for good or bad, failure or success, is his own person. He can't blame anybody else. And I would like to try and get that relationship into the filmmaking aegis. But in a highly industrialized and often extremely expensive business, that's difficult to arrange. There are obviously huge limitations—money, time, imagination, being obliged (with great excitement, of course) to work with many collaborators.

NOTEBOOK: Do you see yourself more as a painter still, just using film as your medium?

GREENAWAY: If you go back 45,000 years, there were painters working in caves in the south of France. There's been an awful lot of time, an awful lot of people to practice this art, and we have made many changes, all of which have changed how paintings look. So I'm very much aware of that. And there is a way my paintings often do look more like fresco painting rather than perhaps oil painting, for maybe, again, good reasons, bad reasons. But it's a fluid excitement, isn't it? 

I've often said, every art form, and certainly cinema, has to keep reinventing itself even to stay in the same place. Painters have known that for years, and look how incredibly exciting 20th-century painting was. There are a lot of people who said with the advent of photography, that was the end of painting. But in fact it was the best possible thing that could ever happen to painting. For many long years, there were nothing but millions and millions and millions of paintings about the Bible, for example. And, again, that's only a way of illustrating text. If you think about all the classics of the ancient world and the theater we've been having for so long—illustrational, illustrational. But then painting took on the responsibility of illustration, archiving, recording. And thanks to photography, we're not particularly interested in painting as illustration anymore—at least, I certainly hope we aren't. And cinema ought to be part and parcel of that idea. 

You mention new media, but unfortunately I would answer that the new media has proved to be rather disappointing. I hoped the digital revolution would be equivalent for cinema to what photography did for painting. But then, when do you think the digital revolution started? I think it was September 1983, wasn't it? So we haven't seen that revolution, I'm afraid.

NOTEBOOK: Well, as you said, cinema is still relatively very young. All these tools are new. So we might only be seeing the beginning of the potential they have.

GREENAWAY: I know. I'm often accused of being quite churlish. “Cinema, Mr. Greenaway, is still an infant, it's still wearing diapers. Why are you going on about this?” Maybe I should be more patient. But I passed my 80th birthday three months ago, and one of the reasons I'm talking to you is they're now bringing out my old movies. So I'm limited. But I do have I think 20 film scripts all raring to go. You got any money?

NOTEBOOK: I haven't, sorry.

GREENAWAY: Okay, well, we'll persevere. It's difficult enough to make a film of any sort, but my God, if you're trying to pursue this particular arcane excitement, it's even more difficult. But I'm not going to complain because I've already experienced a lot of cinematic excitements on my own grounds.

NOTEBOOK: Do you feel you've succeeded in doing anything that would help expand the idea of cinema, to push its boundaries?

GREENAWAY: In my Eisenstein film—I’m paraphrasing him—he says that most film directors will be completely forgotten. And cinema itself may be forgotten as well. I don't know how long a timespan we have, but I have an idea that my great-great-grandchildren will say, “Cinema, what was that?”

NOTEBOOK: Given how everything is progressing, trying to imagine what might come next is intimidating.

GREENAWAY: Is there even anything to come next? We live in such a dystopian world. One shudders to think what the future holds.

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