Sander Snoep - Never in charge, always a guest
Amsterdam, 2022-09-02 - Gerlinda Heywegen
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Director of Photography Sander Snoep has been a well-known player in the Dutch documentary scene for years and would never have expected to still be so passionate about his profession. He is still curious every single time he’s starting a project. How his films get made, in rain or shine, does not matter to him. As long as they come about.
This is, in short, a conversation about respect for the people he films, the collaborations with directors which often last for years, and the fact that ‘boring’ is no option. Snoep: never in charge, always a guest.
Sander Snoep (1959) starts talking right away on a sunny spring morning in his home in Amsterdam when he realises out loud that he does not have copies of or links to all the films he has made. But he does have a copy of Seaborne Opera (1994) about which he then immediately starts talking passionately. In fact, it is a 16mm copy which he feels he should finally get digitised. But, oh well, that might be a tad expensive.
Snoep: “It was the first film I shot for which I worked out the concept as well. The idea of a film about a giant cruise ship came from Ernst Gottlieb and I immediately felt it would be fantastic. 1200 passengers, 600 crew. I wanted to build up the story, if there even was a story, from details alone. A bit like Claude Lanzmann. He can show so well how a system works by taking all components apart and examining them closely. Just as if you were to show how a clockwork functions by revealing all its individual parts. That inspired me to expose the dream of the cruise. Observing how people move. They had bought a ticket, but what they had actually bought, of course, was a dream. There was entertainment; it was bizarre. I was a passenger myself as well, of course. There I was, after filming, lying on my bed with nothing for a view but the sea. One moment you’re a film maker enjoying what you see; the next you’re a passenger. It was a trip, an LSD trip.
I read about the safety measures on board in the brochure. They run through them before departure. All passengers have to come to the deck and they hear the instructions via the loudspeakers. It is explained to them what would happen if the ship were to sink. Three quarters of the passengers were elderly. The lifejackets were often way too big. I immediately thought: ‘I will make this a long dolly shot– not handheld’. I pulled it off by a hair’s breadth because I only had a tiny dolly and there were so many people. They looked scared, mainly due to those loudspeakers, I guess. That is actually what made it feel most like a concentration camp. It was a big ship, but on the ocean we were sometimes no more than just a tiny speck. I think those people stayed scared for the remainder of their holiday. I wasn’t scared, but then again, I was in that trip the entire time. It was so surreal. Every shot was a hit. But I didn’t want to overdo it. Just showing what happens was enough.”
Snoep then goes on to tell that those scenes that were exactly right, did not work out so well right away in the editing room: “With 16 mm you have to sync the footage with the sound first and that is when you ‘see’ the material for the first time.” After an entire day’s work Gys Zevenbergen, who is Snoep’s favourite editor no less, still had not said a word. Until he wondered out loud what he was supposed to do with all this, what it was about, what story Snoep wanted to tell. Snoep: “I thought: ‘Fuck, I have nothing’. But I still found the material beautiful! It was just that when such a big editor says it is worthless... I was afraid that my vision was all wrong.”
They talked an entire day about other kind of ‘storyless’ films. Like Shoah (Lanzmann, 1985) but also Mondo Cane (Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi, Paolo Cavara, 1962). Both built up visually. “All of a sudden Gys knew,” tells Snoep, who still looks relieved when reliving all this. “He worked on the entire night, had immersed himself in the subject and had discovered that if he approached the film as an opera, he could cut the conversations like music. So, everything you hear, gets the structure of a kind of waltz, or at least of music. He was sold. Gys did a truly exceptional job. These are the productions that do not have a lot riding on them, because there is not a lot of money at stake, and that means you have the freedom to try things out. And that is what we did.”
The New Deal, the NSC’s manifesto, echoes through in Snoep’s remark. More time for film makers and let’s ditch this whole multitude of rules. Snoep: “The higher the amount of money involved, the more concessions. That is really frustrating. But that is as old as the dawn of man and that puts it in perspective for me. When it comes to subsidised productions, it has been all about how much audience a production will generate (or in other words, how much money it will make) for such a long time now. But that should not be the intention behind subsidies. You grant them on the basis of content and not on return on investments.”
Risks and Diversity
Snoep talks about how he grew up with film in the time when ‘those’ numbers still did not matter. He soon started working for broadcast organisation VPRO on productions that were sometimes based on nothing more than half a piece of paper. “We got 100,000 guilders to work with and had to take care of everything ourselves. In short: we had total freedom. We went 100% with our intuition. Sometimes something failed, but that is part of a process like that. Nobody minded too much. That way you remained open for experiments. All that has been hollowed out now. The process has become so cast in stone. How you submit a script to the Filmfonds (Dutch Film Fund). All risk factors have been identified. The film already ‘sits’ on your desk. But it is not just the Film Fund – it is like that in the entire business. Things are being managed. It also happens in the arts.”
Snoep takes a recent project with Sarah Vos, with whom he works a lot, as an example. “We have just shot a film about the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam Municipal Art Museum) which is quite occupied with diversity and inclusion and that casts its influence over everything so much that it grants you a wonderful insight into how our society struggles with that right now. The director gave us ample room, but the newly appointed young staff, whose job it was to introduce diversity and inclusion to the museum, was anxious and they kept their doors firmly shut. They were hesitant and afraid of cancel culture. If you say one word wrong, you are out. I was shocked. Mainly because modern art is the last stronghold which you shouldn’t put a label on. Shouldn’t an artist be given endless room? How can you limit someone like that? ‘You should make your art within that framework’. No-one buys a ticket for an exhibition to be taught by the director how they should regard things. That just isn’t their task, right? The film will probably be called White Balls on Walls (after Guerilla Girls, GH). I don’t know whether it will be shown during the Nederlands Filmfestival (Dutch National Film Festival) but is definitely meant for film theatres and cinemas.”
Together with Vos, Snoep also made Curaçao in 2010, a still urgent documentary about the neo-colonial behaviour of white inhabitants and visitors of the island. Ulrich Seidl mentions Snoep as a source of inspiration. “It felt like I was visiting the fifties. Modern slavery, I have no other words for it. We filmed supermarket Albert Heijn’s staff trainings for instance. Appalling. One of those managers came to the premiere, which I found quite courageous. In the film he had said that it was about time that ‘all these’ conversations about slavery should stop, because ‘it was such a long time ago’. Afterwards he told me that the film held up a mirror to him and that he was ashamed. He said he understood what it was we wanted to show. But most people were livid; the island exploded and it is still a big taboo.”
Snoep and Vos were aided in their research by writer Miriam Sluis. She lives on Curaçao and found them archive material on slavery. Snoep: “She found texts that were so extreme. That’s what we wanted in the film. Actor Jeroen Willems did the voiceover. The film was criticised for being one sided. And it is. That is exactly what we wanted. We didn’t want to paint a nuanced picture. Everyone in the film knew why they were being filmed. We are always open about that, whatever we make. The arrogance of those people was incredible. I was ashamed. ‘I am also a white human being, I belong to that’, is what I thought.”
So, Vos and Snoep work together a lot. They complement each other. Snoep finds it hard to do camera and direction at the same time: “If you make a documentary, you are often someone’s guest. It is so profoundly different from fiction; you have different arrangements with the person you film. I find it important to behave like a guest and that also means that when I enter, I make contact with someone. But when I unpack the camera and have to prepare everything, I can’t do so, because I’m occupied with all the technical demands. I want to get that thing on its tripod as fast as possible so that they can get used to it. But while I’m doing all that, Sara can focus on the people. That is very important for the film.”
Snoep owes the fact that he became a cameraman, DoP, to his stepdad, in a way. Snoep: “Going to college did not suit me. I had no patience for it. But just learning a trade and only doing menial tasks was not for me either. One day, my stepdad advised me to become a cameraman. I like photography and the mystery that comes with it, but this had never occurred to me. He had seen it. And that is the way it began. I didn’t follow any formal training. No Filmacademie (Film Academy) for me; I wasn’t allowed in. They didn’t want me,” Snoep laughs. It does not seem to bother him in the least. Indeed, he continues: “I am an autodidact by necessity and, in hindsight, that may have been my salvation.
Connections I had, landed me internships in two films in Paris. Fiction, big sets in factories. All the dillydallying with scenes, the endless takes and all the waiting did not appeal to me at all. And then I interned in commercials in the Netherlands. I saw an assistant who did something wrong; he didn’t have to come in the next day. Not my world either. I learned how to assist at the Filmacademie by the way. Yeah, somehow, when I came in as free labour, all of a sudden, I was good enough after all.
I was an adequate assistant. But I had little patience and I was scared of focus pulling. I was good at inserting the magazines and keeping the camera nice and clean. Luckily, I could join Jochem van Dijk at broadcasting organisation VPRO at an early stage. The cinema verité style, only then in the Netherlands. Camera on his shoulder, light conditions couldn’t faze him. He could do anything. I still think sometimes ‘How would Jochem do this’. His intuition was so good. I was in Egypt with him once and he took the camera off the tripod, put it on his shoulder, started rolling and only then a caravan appeared at the horizon. On 16 mm, which you have to be super careful with! He was already rolling before he even saw it. Unbelievable. Now, we shoot everything that moves. Of course, it is a coincidence, but you can anticipate on coincidences. You have to develop a radar for it and learn how to feel it. Just like you have to learn when a scene is over and you must turn the camera of. Of course, you can always keep on going, but then you damage something. As a cameraman you are part of the situation. You’re involved, as they say.”
In Housewitz (2021) it also worked like that, states Snoep. He had already worked with director Oeke Hoogendijk before (Het Nieuwe Rijksmuseum, Schatten van de Krim, Mijn Rembrandt), which is why they know each other well. But this time, they filmed her mother, who has not left her home for a long time, is traumatised by World War Two and who turned out to be quite a difficult character. Snoep: “In a case like that, we as makers are, for the viewers, noticeably and palpably very much involved.
It was tough, because the mother basically tolerated no one in her environment and at a certain point I was dismissed. I could not conform enough to her will. She wanted to helm the film and I didn’t want that. I backed up Oeke; she is the film maker. I was allowed to come close to her mother physically, but it was hard. I could also talk to her; I did manage to make contact. I didn’t want to hide behind the glass of a lens, I had to open up.”
Rain or Shine
Ineke Houtman calls halfway through the conversation. Snoep shoots much more documentary than fiction, but her films are the exception. Snoep: “I have never presented myself on that market and never went on the lookout for it. I don’t think I am capable of this whole networking thing. I have never put any effort in it either to make a showreel or website to enter that circuit. But I love working with Ineke. I do film a lot of kids then, but I’m not sure whether that makes a big difference. You do have to be flexible with kids and I’m used to that because of my documentary work. I have to follow what is interesting for the film. How that happens, in rain or shine, is of no matter to me.”
Snoep tells that he and Houtman have a strong connection. They share the same taste and know what they are looking for in a story, in a script. Every scene is discussed to the core. “And that includes content, not just the technical stuff,” Snoep adds. “I dive right into that. Ineke also wants me to be involved.”
Stille Nacht (2004) is one of Houtman’s very few films with adult actors and aimed at an adult audience. It is about a serial rapist on a campus. How do you film the ‘hard’ scenes? Would they still pass muster today? Snoep says he can clearly remember how difficult it was: “We talked about it for the longest time. We didn’t want to show the rapes, only what was needed for the audience to know what was going on. It is not like ‘if only it is extreme enough, it will work’ or ‘if you get in real close, it will come across’. Sometimes distance is more important. Let the audience fill things in in their head. Your own fantasy is much stronger than whatever films people make. Roman Polanski has nailed that art to perfection. The art of not showing things.”
So, Houtman’s films are the opposite of Snoep’s other work: “There is no real connection between all the work. When I read a script - fiction – it leaves behind an impression. I read it again, read it more closely. What is it that affects me and why does it do that? I question the essence of things and why they are in the script per scene, up to a highly detailed level. Is it necessary or can you leave it out? I already try and edit and view it in my mind. And I have to remember: what was it that touched me the first time that I read it? I have the same thing when I get to a location for the first time. How the light falls in, for instance. You can also remove everything on set immediately and be blind for what is already there. I don’t want that and that is definitely due to my documentary background. Those are the kind of eyes I learned to view things with. What is beautiful, what is exciting? I have to be alert on that and store it all somewhere in my head. Sometimes I only return after weeks or months and then I still have to know it. With Ineke it works the same way.
It is not like I don’t like shooting fiction. To me, it’s all about the story - be it fiction or documentary. I Also think that the stories in the Netherlands keep getting better and I also think that the crews here are very strong. But the conformism which translates into not taking too many risks because they might cost you your audience or ticket sales, is a big obstacle for me.”
Although Snoep is mainly sought out for documentaries, he thoroughly enjoyed making fiction films Het diner (2013) en De reünie (2015) with director Menno Meyjes. Another exception and one of the big reasons for that was his free approach. “He’s actually from Hollywood. He’s used to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. He only saw a trailer of a documentary I had shot for Jessica Gorter, 900 dagen (2011).” Snoep is amused when he talks about how Meyjes gets bored easily. “All those pretty DoP websites… He called them boring. He wanted material that was way more rough.
We took a big risk with Het diner. It was hard to keep it exciting. We had too few shooting days; only 24. I wanted to shoot on film. I felt that the story was so much like a newspaper article that it should be grainy – rugged and rough around the edges. ‘Fine’, Menno said. We went for 35mm, 16 was too much. The executive producer went along with it as well, but due to the budget, it cost us three days right away. Meyjes told me: ‘I will take care of that’. We had gotten a room to prep at production company EyeWorks. We talked about all kinds of things, even life itself; everything but the film. ‘When will we start decoupage’, I asked. ‘Yeah, you use that word’, he said, ‘what exactly do you mean by that? It’s boring, right? We’ll figure it out on location’. And I thought: ‘what the fuck is this’?”
Snoep positively glows when he talks about how exciting and lovely it was to chuck all the rules overboard. He and Meyjes approached the actors in exactly the same way: “On set, à la Spielberg, making scenes with the actors alone. Just him, me and the floor manager. Going through the scene and then shooting it. He wanted it as pure as possible. Nothing orchestrated. I love that. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1997, Robbie Müller on camera) was, to me, the example of how things should be done. Such a relief that you can also make fiction in that way. Stripping everything away and only keeping the essence. Throw the actor into the set and let yourself go. 360 degrees is allowed, no tripod. I have never seen Jacob Derwig (as one of the parents) play so well. Our approach was not easy for the editor. But for him (Michiel Reichwein, GH) it was a thrill ride as well. He could do what he wanted. And that was where gold was to be found, not in an ABC editing but in the rhythm of things.”
Snoep’s work approach entails that he often works with earpieces and characters that have transmitters. “If something spontaneous were to happen, I can react on it quickly. The characters don’t know that I can hear them and because they feel like they are not being filmed, I get a spontaneous reality that way. That is undoable with a fiction crew, by the way. I tried, because it appealed so much to me. But there’s always someone who walks right in the shot, or a tripod is in the way. The set is just too big. It doesn’t work.”
Following up on what characterises him as a film maker/DoP, he thinks out loud: “I find this whole fly on the wall thing really weird. I am sitting next to the director, right across from someone. I have contact with them, I look them in the eye. I don’t hide behind the camera. That seems a very hard way of working to me. I also think it is awful for the characters. I like making eye contact. I look people in the eyes. With one eye, but sometimes, when it is necessary and possible, I go out of it and keep on filming. I make sure the framing is right and look someone in the eye with both my eyes. It is a way of showing respect. It is especially right when a story is extremely hard. People often tell you something for the first time. Probably because you are anonymous and interested.”
In Mijn Rembrandt, Snoep and director Oeke Hoogendijk came really close to their main characters. Hoogendijk films several owners of Rembrandts and their love for the old master’s work. The Six family, an old merchant clan, who have an ancestor who was actually portrayed by Rembrandt himself back in the days, might be the most intriguing, mainly because the youngest descendant has something to prove. Snoep and Hoogendijk were there and captured the highly complex relationship of father and son Six.
Snoep: “Oeke invests years in these things, so there is a lot at stake. You cannot be uninterested or ask a stupid question, because then you have immediately fucked it up.”
Hoogendijk’s films are so exciting that you might think she has a nose for it. But Snoep thinks it’s not like that: “The film about the Rijksmuseum felt like it might become very boring. In the beginning, when we were already involved, no one knew that we were going to be in for a ten-year suspense-filled ride. But slowly, all kinds of plots started developing. I truly believe it’s a coincidence, but when Oeke comes along, things start happening.”
“I would never have thought that I would be this passionate in my job,” says Snoep when the conversation is almost over. “It’s a new adventure every time. I stay curious. Along the way, while you are filming, the film gets its limbs; it starts branching out. That is such a precious process to me. And that is why I don’t want it all to be finished during preparation, and I don’t want the film to be on the desk already before you start shooting. Luckily, I have developed an eye for things that do not excite me as well, and I keep getting better at recognising them. But at least everyone in every film I made, is interesting to me. Some are so as human beings but not as characters; they have to be filmable. I think I am fast at spotting that. It’s something really weird. Why is someone filmable or not? I see it. Someone has to capture you. Like a performance. Take Het Nieuwe Rijksmuseum, for instance. Pijbes, who succeeded director Ronald de Leeuw, was something else. He claims the screen right away; he captures you. De Leeuw was not a boring person, but on screen he all of a sudden turned into one.”
Just the image
At the last minute, Snoep wants to add something. He wants to talk about the absolute freedom he experiences as DoP when he works on visual artist Marijke van Warmerdam’s films. “She makes loop films which have no subject whatsoever. That’s an entirely different experience. If you are talking about ballast, about throwing away, if the story, however small it may be, disappears entirely, what do you have left? Just the image. That is so bare and empty and it has to be strong enough to entice the audience. That is wonderful to work on. Marijke is intuitive, impulsive and finds it hard to tell how she wants something. There is one image that she sees and that has to be it. It brings you to the place where you go ‘how did you view things when you were a kid’, associative. The detail as the thing of most importance, more important than everything surrounding it. It is interesting to me anyway when details are assigned a role instead of the main story. Often, it is even more exciting.
And it is never boring. On occasion, we use very simple means, but we also sometimes use cranes and a highly complicated crew. It could be anything. That was a real revelation to me when I started working with her about twenty years ago.”
Talking about passion. And having an eye for details and especially the people in front of your lens. Snoep started out on ‘his’ cruise ship some time ago and it is still his anchor. Never in charge, at most just of the images and always a guest on a fiction set or in the home of the director’s mother.
translation by Sonja Barentsen
Dutch version of this article