Amsterdam, 2021-11-15 - Gerlinda Heywegen
An interview with Dutch Director of Photography Myrthe Mosterman
A Gouden Kalf Award (Dutch film award) for her first feature film; that is what happened to DP Myrthe Mosterman in October 2020. In a Zoom interview, she talks about her style and how she prefers to work. NSC manifest New Deal pops up once again in this interviews series and it seems inevitable to address ‘being a woman’ within this ‘male profession’. But so far, she does not yet have to use a nom de plume.
In 2020, Myrthe Mosterman won her first Gouden Kalf for her camera work on Goud by Rogier Hesp. Her relatively young career is gaining momentum fast now.
Mosterman studied Film Science at one point but had no real idea what she wanted to use it for. It had never entered her thoughts to do practical work in the film business. But she discovered that a vocational education - learning a profession - fit her much better.
“I do see a visual style in my own work,” Mosterman says when asked whether she is developing her own signature as DP. “But I also know this because in treatments my work is often described the same way by different directors. I really enjoy the process of finding the right visual means of expression. Each film demands its own style in the end. It does not necessarily have anything to do with my own taste and I do not always necessarily shoot the films that I would like to go to myself. I have done many comical shorts with a slightly absurd touch, whilst I myself actually prefer more naturalistic films.”
She refers to films like The Walking Fish (2019) and De dag dat mijn huis viel (2017) which she made with director Thessa Meijer. “Goud is closer to my own taste. But I value alternating between highly different projects. Working with Thessa always challenges me; she tries to innovate and I find that important. I think that Richard (van Oosterhout, GH) tries to touch upon that in the New Deal: the ‘ongoing search’.”
How can we describe Mosterman’s visual style then? “It is often said that my light has a natural feel about it and that is likely because I use set locations as a prime motivation. I am quite averse to unmotivated light and unmotivated movements; I do love a well-balanced composition. I love shooting handheld, I prefer following the character and let myself be led by that rather than just placing them in a space and start filming. I find it hard to come up with a shot out of thin air. That is why I sometimes find studio work harder to do than documentary work.”
So, what was it like to work on a film like De dag dat mijn huis viel then? In this quite absurd and quietly funny film by Thessa Meijer three grown men - they are rather shabby - just hang out in and around a house that gradually starts to lean over more and more. And all that happens in the middle of nowhere whilst they are still under mother’s wings. Until she leaves. She’s had enough. Not only the house is askew, but the brothers are also as well.
The Walking Fish
The house was designed especially for the film and built on an empty plain. Mosterman: “I could decide where the windows should be, which way the house should face and how the light would fall, all beforehand. It is such a luxury that everything is possible, but at the same time, I freeze up a little when that is the case. Out of nowhere, you are faced with a thousand possibilities. I prefer improving on something to initiating something. I find it easier to work from restrictions. That is something I also noticed when shooting second camera on Waterboys (2016) by Robert-Jan Westdijk. I had to shoot an exterior shot and did it in countless ways because I had no idea what they wanted. I don’t think second camera is for me. I could not build on my feeling of continuity. And I need that to perform.”
Mosterman worked with Urszula Antoniak on her latest film Splendid Isolation (2021) over the past year. A corona film that was written ultra-fast and probably shot even faster with the aid of Filmfonds (Dutch Film Fund) covid support. Mosterman speaks highly of Antoniak’s prowess and her approach. “Urszula does not like to prepare, as in doing a decoupage. But I do make a shadow shot list for myself and production. On the first day, she asked me where I wanted my actors, but I prefer to see the rehearsal first and then come up with how to film them. It resulted in an entirely different dynamic than I was used to and it greatly stimulated me to take control myself and work from my own vision. But at the same time, I found it quite hard.”
Mosterman is, just like in the entire interview, exceptionally honest about what she finds challenging in her work and that she still has things to learn, but she is also honest about what she knows for sure. “I need interaction and synergy with the director. I really like knowing what someone wants and being able to improve on that. But some directors say: ‘do whatever you like'. That is fine, but I prefer a clear opinion. And Urszula certainly has one. That activates me. It makes me think: ‘Now, we are going to start.’ Finding that synergy together is one of the most satisfying things about my work.”
That brings the conversation once again to the New Deal, the NSC’s 2018 manifesto which states that DPs are sometimes in a better position to protect a film than directors because they already have enough on their plates. Mosterman agrees: “I can recognize it in my films when I have been unable to protect the style ostensibly. During a shoot, it is your responsibility as a DP to provide the editor with material that is as clear as possible. It can be really important to stand for and fight for something. That results in quality, visual language, authorship.
I have just finished a, to my standards, big-budget film (Zee van Tijd, Theu Boermans) and it immediately resulted in extra opinions, discussions, and many more concessions and that is detrimental to the quality. It is a fantastically beautiful script and it was great fun to shoot. Theu is a real actor’s director who says that he mainly wants to be able to see the actors well. I liked that, at times, but in hindsight, I see that, visually, I shot it too neatly. I think it could have been done better, but it is also hard to determine what is the cause of that. Still, it seems that the bigger a film gets, the more sluggish working on it becomes. Maybe it becomes too safe because the stakes are too high. If there are too many opinions, the film does not get a language of its own.”
Close to the skin
Mosterman made a short of her own once: Classical Comeback, on Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. With typical self-deprecation, she likes to brush it under the table. She made it with two friends and it was just ‘a weekend getaway with some additional filming’ but you can definitely recognize her signature in it: filming close to the skin. That often comes back in her work. Physical closeness. Huidhonger (Lieza Röben, 2019) shows that really well. In 2020, the film even got an entirely different meaning. The word ‘huidhonger’ was used a lot at the beginning of the corona period. We missed touching each other; we hungered for contact, for physicality. We are made to touch each other. In the documentary we see several people longing for touches, no matter how hard it sometimes could get for them for several reasons. So filming goosebumps, hairs on arms; making small things like that so visibly tangible was really important for the film. Jean Counet filmed one part of Röben’s film, Mosterman took care of the other part and did so meticulously. She says she prefers to work with the actors in a kind of dance – to let herself be led by their movements and actions. To be swept away. “I think that is the way I look at them; I prefer to huddle up close to them and have them take me along.”
Zee van Tijd
While shooting Thessa Meijer’s The Walking Fish there was no other option for Mosterman but to let herself be led by the actors’ body language. The film was shot in Japan, with Japanese actors. “Of course I knew roughly what was going to happen, but I could not understand a thing that was said so I had to watch closely. I find it very inspiring to shoot in other countries. We had quite a ‘documentary’ approach with a cast that consisted partly of unprofessional actors, existing locations, and few means.
Thessa’s style is hard to describe. Her stories tend to lean towards allegorical and teem with fairytale-like symbolism. On the one hand human and on the other hand caricatural. That also reflects on my camera work in De dag dat mijn huis viel. It encompasses two styles. On the one hand, there are humoristic tableau shots; on the other many tracking handheld shots as well. A mix between placing characters in their surroundings and showing the surroundings via the characters.
I admire Thessa for her ability to think outside set frameworks so well. It is really great to travel along in her head. I am quite down to earth and maybe a little ‘safer’. I sometimes think: ‘Shouldn’t she have a much crazier camera person on her side?’ But maybe our balance is really good. After all, The Walking Fish was a huge success. Maybe that is also since the film had Wildcard funding (Dutch Film fund) and was therefore totally free in its form and its length. And we didn’t have the restriction of a tight deadline.”
The New Deal addresses that as well and Mosterman confirms: “There are so many impediments, not just deadlines but time slots as well. You get a set number of shooting days, for editing, for color correction. Work is done from models. Even before the preparatory process has started, the number of days, the crew set-up, and budget have been determined. Example: with Urszula, we shot on 16 mm in the end; we both wanted to. And the producer (Family Affairs) was open to that. So, we looked into it together how we could manage that financially. In the end, we had 18 shooting days, lots of natural light, just a gaffer with best boy, and no exterior night scenes. Every department had to compromise. It is so important to be able to contribute to the way the budget is handled.
What happens a lot is that the production department tells you exactly how the grip budget is allocated, while we haven’t even discussed a shooting style yet. It is not just weird that it is communicated that way, but think the other way around: I can help and think of ways to save money. A day without lighting for instance, or less crew. I recently had an experience where almost the entire art department had been let go due to cutbacks. So I said that I would gladly do some cutbacks in my department because my images depend on art. If, for instance, a location is good of itself, I can work with it with very little means. It was considered weird that I stated that. After all, the cutbacks had not affected my department, right? But it is obviously not about individual departments, but about making a good film together.
When I started, I had no clue about costs whatsoever. Now I ask for the camera and lighting quotations to be forwarded to me, to gain insight into costs and agreements. That enables me to think along with the productional side of things.
Another discussion is the number of shooting days. I shot an extra half-day for Urszula’s film. Just me and a camera assistant. I have a fixed fee anyway. We needed some extra nature shots that we definitely needed. It is nice to be able to take ample time for that and not have to fit it into a ‘real’ shooting day. The result is so much better. I have had numerous conversations like these with the production department and usually, it is not possible after all.”
Almost 10 years ago, Mosterman shot Sletvrees (Sunny Bergman), a documentary that handles the subject of whether western women are as sexually liberated as people think. Sadly, it is still very much a current topic: “Sunny is such an unsurpassed frontrunner when it comes to current issues (Mosterman refers to #metoo but also BLM). I greatly admire her. We have been all over the world together.”
What is it like for a female DP to film women who tell you about how they are treated with sexism? “I talked to Sunny about this extensively, but I myself have never really struggled with me being a woman in a man’s world. But in the current climate, there is quite some focus on the fact that I am one of the very few female Dutch DPs and what that says about our society. Even though it doesn’t bother me greatly, I do get asked about it a lot and therefore I have to speak out about it. I have changed in that respect. I can sense that it is an important subject for our society. Whether it makes a difference that I am a woman; I guess it does because I am, after all, a woman. But that is just one factor. Everyone incorporates their own personality into their work. And that, more than anything, determines who asks for me and the reason they ask for me. I think I am often asked for ‘sensitive’ subjects. Or sometimes to bring more balance to a crew. In fact, it is oftentimes others that give me a certain label.
I have fantasized about what it would be like to work under a nom de plume, to see whether it would make a difference. I also notice that it is mainly women on set that sometimes have trouble with my tone because I can be quite direct. Maybe you could call that manly, but what is that exactly? I should not even get started on descriptions like that. I don’t think that camera work is a male profession, but the way the work is done, does require certain characteristics and that may be easier for men.
I found big and crowded sets hard in the beginning too. Lots of on-set yelling; everyone has an opinion. I really had to get used to that, but the sets get much quieter when there is more experience. I often have young female interns and each and every one of them prefers working in small sets with a tiny crew. I recognize that. The degree to which women are successful currently often depends on how well they can adapt to a man’s world. Should you change said world, work methods, the way things are handled? I have also adapted. I have learned a form. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done differently. Perhaps I should ask my crew whether they feel it is different with me than with a male DP.”
What she definitely also wants to share is this: “One of the first questions I got during my intake at the Filmacademie was ‘You are our first Bachelor who wants to go for Camera. Do you realize that you have to carry cables while walking through the mud at six a.m.?’ That really made me laugh. I get asked whether this is a tough profession every week. And you have to realize that I am quite big and strong. I guess I am thé camera person that has been asked to get a coffee most often on set, or where the sandwiches should go. Because people think I belong to the production department.”
Of course, the conversation cannot end without talking extensively about Goud which won Mosterman a Gouden Kalf Award. It is Rogier Hesp’s debut feature and yes, she must admit that some concessions had to be made. “It is quite a difficult story to tell, about a gymnast’s inner world. Despite it being a sports film, you have to get inside his head rather than look at his accomplishments. In the original script, he would perform on the horizontal bar. In the end, he performed in floor events. That was quite a big difference. For his horizontal bar exercises we had come up with shots we could use symbolically. Holding on, letting go, flying through the air, damaging the hands, etcetera. The floor exercise is much more about choreography.
During the de decoupage, we ran into some bumps in the script and it soon became clear: ‘we are in a bit of trouble – how did that happen?’ During editing, many scenes were cut and I think that might have been tackled at a very early preparatory stage, but due to lack of time, that wasn’t always an option.”
Goud was shot on cinemascope and that gives the film an imposing feel. Mosterman: “I love anamorphic lenses and I think that goes for Rogier as well. But we also went for that because the gymnast often moves horizontally through the space and it is about his relation to his environment: many different characters in the background in the gymnasium and big empty spaces for the loneliness he experiences at home. The choice to shoot the final competition at the end of the film with Steadicam was made at an early stage: “We actually wanted that scene to be a long take in slow motion. That way, connoisseurs would be able to see that it is really good what the gymnast does and the entire film builds up to the success or failure of this exercise. But in the end, that shot lasted way too long in the edit. A big shame, because it could have been really beautiful. And we only had two shots at that take because we were allowed to film in the gymnasium for a quarter of an hour during a break in the (real) European Championship. I found it hard because I could do nothing but watch; it was frustrating at times as well. But on the other hand, it was also beautiful to let go and just hope that the boy would finish his exercise successfully. Film and reality came really close together there.”
Interview: Gerlinda Heywegen
Vertaling: Sonja Barentsen