Exclusive Interview with Hannibal Rising's Peter Webber
by Barry Wurst
February 8, 2007
Recently FirstShowing.net had a chance to talk with Peter Webber, the director of the upcoming Hannibal Rising as well as Girl with a Pearl Earring in 2003. Peter is a dedicated filmmaker who hails from Britain and is a fan of bizarre art house movies. In connection with the Director Spotlight we ran on the Hannibal Filmmakers, we present this interview you in it's full unabridged format!
You can also listen to the complete audio version of this interview in HypeCast Episode #25: Hannibalicious! Peter is also included in our Director Spotlight on Hannibal Filmmakers - which can be found here.
Dave (FirstShowing): It's interesting that you went from Girl With a Pearl Earring, which is essentially a minimalist period piece to this - how difficult was it to make that transition to what is essentially a gothic horror film?
Peter Webber: I don't think it was difficult. I think it was difficult to escape from stereotyping, because I found out from my last movie that everyone was sending me, well, either a script about dead painters - there were a lot of those, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Fran Di Polipi, I mean, you name it. If the painter was dead, I got the script. I got lots of films about repressed love affairs, where young women gazed mournfully at older guys they couldn't get together with and I just really wanted a change of pace. It took someone like Dino de Laurentiis to come along and give me the opportunity. So, it was more about getting the opportunity than it was about kind of facing anything in myself about the ability to do it. Because, as a filmmaker, you want to take on many different challenges and try to work in different worlds.
Barry (FirstShowing): Peter, my question for you is: your films are visually rich and exquisitely detailed, who are some of the directors who have influenced and inspired you?
Peter: A bunch of foreign art house people most people have never heard of. I love the films of Renoir - I mean, the first movies I really loved, to be honest with you, are by French, 60's New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and FranÃ§ois Truffaut. In terms of more mainstream cinema, I think there are groups of American directors who were working mostly in the 70's, when they did a lot of their best work, Coppola, Scorsese, those kind of people. But a lot of my favorite, favorite films are bizarre art house movies from bizarre parts of the world, you know, whether they be Chinese or Taiwanese or Argentinean or whatever. My tastes are singular and slightly artsy. I also like silent movies - a lot of silent movies. When it comes to contemporary cinema, there's a few good directors working out there, but I think the best work was done many years ago.
Barry: Absolutely. Godard is my all-time favorite director! What is your favorite Godard film?
Peter: I think my favorite is Pierrot le fou, simply because that was the one that made me decide to become a filmmaker. I went to see that film when I was 15 or 16 years old. I didn't really know anything about it, what I was letting myself in for - I came out of that movie determined to become a film director.
Barry: Your first two films have such interesting casting choices. I think one of my favorite things about Girl With a Pearl Earring - and I read the book and loved it - Colin Firth was such a terrific, yet, not an obvious choice for Vermeer. What led you to cast him in that part?
Peter: It's been a few years now. You know, with casting, for me, what you do - you meet a bunch of actors, you discuss the role with them, you study them when you meet them, and you just think about how they're going to fit in the vision you have in your head about the kind of movie you want to make. It's as much an emotional process as it as a rational or intellectual process. It's a gut feeling, really. I don't know that I can be that analytical about the qualities. It's only afterwards that you can really see what it is that works or doesn't work about it and you can also craft their performance. You have a number of takes to choose from, you've got a number of different shot sizes, so you can build a performance out of it as well and take characteristics you want. So often, it's just an emotional response until you decide to work with one actor or another.
Barry: Well, Hannibal Rising is full of interesting casting choices. Of all the young actors who wanted to play Dr. Lecter, and were rumored to be up for the role, what lead you to cast Gaspard Ulliel?
Peter: There was this film I'd seen of his called Les Ã‰garÃ©s by AndrÃ© TÃ©chinÃ©. "Strayed" is what it was called in English terms, which had a very particular quality, but its just when Gaspard walked through the door, he had the looks, he had the dark side to him, he had the charisma, he had the acting ability. There was just something very special about him and I could really imagine what it might be like to spend two hours watching him in a darkened cinema. He could really hold his own.
Barry: Well, Gong Li is a sensational choice for Lady Murasaki. What was it like working with her?
Peter: I worship at the alter of Gong Li [laughs]. That's all I can say! She's not only one of the most beautiful women in the world, she's not only one of the best actresses one could hope to work with, she's also incredibly smart. If you are a smart actor, then you are a challenging actor, because they never let you get away with anything as a director. They want to know their character inside and out. You have to be prepared to answer every query of theirs. They're tough to work with but it can be rewarding. She found depths in that character that really weren't on the page and she was able to come up with a very enigmatic, very stylized and fascinating performance. Its a tricky role, to tell you the truth, because its quite nebulous, in a way. We spent a lot of time working together. She was doing Miami Vice, so I flew over a few times to Miami, spent time going over the script with her in great, great detail, covering all these things: the ins-and-outs. When it came to shooting, she was relatively straight-forward. We'd have the big discussion. We'd had the big debates, it was just a matter of practicalities. It was a fantastic experience. I know everyone says that all the time, but in this case, it really - I'm English and we don't gush that much and, in this case, I'm prepared to gush.
Barry: Another great and completely unexpected casting choice was of Rhys Ifans, in the pivotal role of Vladis Grutas. How did that come about, casting him in such a brutal part?
Peter: Well, that's a surprise to me as much as anyone else. I was looking at some more obvious choices when it comes to "bad guys". We've got a range of people in Britain who do bad guys very well and, with Rhys, he's a great actor, but he's more known for his comic roles than he is for anything else. I've been quite intrigued with the idea that I might cast someone against type, but really, what convinced me was that he came and he didn't audition. He just blew my socks off. I was really just seeing him because I had met him beforehand, you know, to keep tabs on him, because he might be interesting, but no one else could hold a candle to him, really. He just managed to reach in and find a very dark part of himself and have fun with it as well. He's a great actor, he's a great guy. It was a delight for me to cast him.
Peter Webber and Dino de Laurentiis on the set of Hannibal Rising.
Barry: Do you read the books your films are based on before production?
Peter: To tell you the truth, I didn't, because I don't think it ["Hannibal Rising"] existed before production.
Peter: I didn't with Girl With a Pearl Earring, but I only read it towards the end, after we'd worked on the script for awhile, because I felt that my first responsibility was to the script rather than to the novel, and then I went to the novel after. Its a tricky thing with adaptations, because the movie is always going to be a very different beast than the novel.
And I think you can only ever be true to the spirit of the novel, not to the letter of it. The process of translating the work from one medium to another. Its an interesting question. It depends on the circumstances. You've got to get that script right, though, that's what its about.
Barry: Have you seen the other films based on the Thomas Harris books?
Peter: Yes. All of them.
Barry: Do you have a favorite?
Peter: The Silence of the Lambs. For me, that's the one that towers over all the others. I think that Manhunter is fascinating, maybe a little dated now, but that has to do with the score more than anything else. But I think The Silence of the Lambs is the real fun. It's a real masterpiece.
Barry: I've heard of at least four other titles for Hannibal Rising. Were you happy with the choice to go with Hannibal Rising?
Peter: You know what, that's not my department [laughs]. The thing is, you have to remember as a director coming on board something like this, this is not like me going and making my little indie, arty movie. This is a - and I hate this word - a franchise. It makes it sound like a McDonalds or a KFC, but its a franchise that… there are other interests at stake here. There are major characters like Dino [de Laurentiis]. My job is to get as good a movie as can be got for this material onto the screen. Outside of that, people will talk to me about other choices like titles and all the rest of it, but, at the end of the day, we were always going to follow the title of the novel, and it's Tom's choice what the title of the novel is. It's completely in his department.
Barry: What was it like working with the legendary Dino de Laurentiis?
Peter: It's fascinating to be able to sit next to a guy who has produced everyone from [Federico] Fellini to David Lynch, who has fired Robert Altman and Nicolas Roeg from various projects over the years. He's fired great directors, let alone worked with great directors. So it's very daunting, fascinating, and great to be able to sit there first thing in the morning talking about how Fellini shot this shot or that shot. I'm a big movie buff. I'm a big fan of that. It helped - it plugged me into film history. I felt like it was one of the last movies Dino makes and it was great to be at the helm of it, really a big pleasure.
Barry: Did you run into any trouble with the ratings board concerning the violence in the film?
Peter: No, because we actually cut a bunch of stuff before we sent it to the ratings board, because we had a look at it and just thought that it was a little bit too strong. I think that stuff will probably be revealed for the world in a Director's Cut later on, when you see how quite sadistic we've been [laughs]. Given some of the movies that are out there, I mean, I know we're pretty tough, but I think also the violence is contextualized in a way that might not be in some slasher movies.
Barry: What's next for you after this?
Peter: Ask me in two weeks time [laughs]. The thing is, Hollywood is a harsh mistress and if this movie comes out and does really well, then the phone will ring the next day with all sorts of things that I've not dreamt about. If it does badly, no one's ever going to talk to me again, so ask me in two weeks.
Barry: Do you have a dream project you've been wanting to do?
Peter: Yeah, but it will never be made! I'd like to be the first person to bring a Thomas Pynchon novel to the screen, say "Gravity's Rainbow", but he refuses to sell the film rights to his novels and even if he did, I think it's such a bizarre film from a bizarre novel, that no one would ever let me do it.
Barry: That's all the questions I have.
Peter: Lovely talking to you guys.
Thanks to Peter Webber and The Weinstein Company for this wonderful opportunity! Make sure to go out and see Hannibal Rising when it opens this weekend - February 9th!