How did the idea for writing this script come to you?
At the time I had an antique shop, I often ate at a Chinese restaurant located in the neighborhood of my companion's house, in the eastern part of Amsterdam. We chose that restaurant because it was so close and very quiet. Most people came in for a take-away meal, so we knew we always had a seat. Besides that, it had quick service, good quality for the money and a peaceful atmosphere.
At one point, we started to talk about the old lady who was always eating there. We found out that she ate at that restaurant nearly every evening. I was intrigued by her strange face, which showed no emotion. She was always observing the other guests without any expression on her face. We were puzzled, trying to guess what she was thinking. Why did she eat out every night alone in a Chinese restaurant, which is the height of loneliness in my view. I decided to give her a story and wrote the script of The Chinese Wall in a few days.
The strangest thing of all is she must have died in the same period that The Chinese Wall was written and produced. I never found out what her name was. Nor did I ever speak with her. But together with the film she is still in my mind.
I know, from an earlier conversation, that you had some concerns as to whether this story would work as a film. Could I ask you to describe those concerns once again?
I was concerned that the script was not very visual. When my story was finished, I had the feeling it was more a short theatrical play rather than a short film script because the main character in the story just sits and thinks. The basic situation is in that respect very static. What I wanted was for the viewer to be drawn into main character's thoughts and to recognize himself or herself in the mind of the old lady, and until the film was finished, I did not know if it would work. But then - aren't we all "Peeping Toms"?
You mentioned earlier than you were not especially worried about the fact that an inner monologue carries most of the story. But isn't that a very bold departure from the kind of storytelling generally found in the short fiction film?
No because, an inner monologue can work very well. In Holland a lot of short films have an inner monologue or an off-screen voice. In fact, at last year's big Dutch film contest (the Utrecht Film Festival, 2002), the three short film nominees (among them The Chinese Wall) all had an inner monologue. It is just away of telling a story and is one of the many dramatic choices that can be made: it depends on the story if it works or not. To tell my story, I had the feeling I had no choice in the matter. The inner monologue consists of the old woman's thoughts, but I hoped in my case it would work differently than the usual inner monologues. I hoped it would work like a spoken monologue and that the viewer would listen to her as though she were talking to herself.
Do you think of the short film as an art form in itself, distinct from longer narratives, or as using essentially the same kind of storytelling found in feature films?
Both. For me there is one holy mission: never bore the public. Whether my story runs 10 minutes, one hour or is feature length, I want to keep the viewers busy! Of course as a writer you always think of a well-structured story. You think about your character, plot point(s) and dialogues, just as in the case of a feature film. But for me there is one big difference: with a short film, I dare more to experiment with the way I tell my story. I use my mind the same way as I write theatre. I allow the more creative left side of my brain to make the dramatic choices in the story.
Is there any advice you would give student production groups about to write their own first short film scripts?
There is so much to say about a first (short) film, but it is always difficult to say something if you aren't commenting on a specific script you have read.
Here is some advice:
Find the rhythm or the flow in your script. Ask yourself: "what do I want to tell" and perhaps even more importantly: "why?" and stick to that. Scriptwriting is like drawing a horse; try to get the horse on the paper the way it is in your mind. Do the same with your story. Do not be satisfied with anything less. It's a delicate balance to try not to explain or tell too much and yet not to explain or tell too little. Talk it over with friends and people you trust. Find your inspiration wherever you can.
I always try to formulate the premise of my film in one sentence and see if I can build up tension in that one sentence. Not like this: A newly wed woman goes to the butcher and buys a nice pound of beef for her sweet husband. There is no dramatic action in that. But: A newly wed woman goes to the butcher and finds out that a woman's body is hanging in the cold storage. In that there is tension and a story. Now you've got to try to find a turning-point for the end. What if it is not the butcher's wife she thought she had seen, but the first wife of her own husband. This is just the way the men get rid of their nagging women in this town. This could be a short story in the tradition of Guy de Maupassant or Roald Dahl, two of my favorite writers.
Is there anything else you would like to add about The Chinese Wall or storytelling in general?
The Chinese Wall was written out of my need to tell a story. In the first place, I wrote the story just for myself. No dramaturge or producer was looking over my shoulder. It was filmed as I had written it and Sytske Kok (the director) made the story work without changing the script. She made it visual. For me it was the first time things happened this way. And I'm glad people liked it.
I see myself and my fellow writers as the modern minstrels of this world. I love to tell stories. We enter people's houses and minds and tell them stories and amuse them, and somewhere along the way, the amusement bears a hidden message.
25 December 2003
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