‘The Antique Tea Set Was Worth Our Entire Budget’: How Peter Greenaway and Janet Suzman Made The Draughtsman’s Contract | Films

Peter Greenaway, writer/director

One summer, more than 40 years ago, my family and I stayed in a house near Hay-on-Wye. I always had a pen in my hand, I was always drawing. Intrigued by how the look of a piece of architecture changed depending on where the sun was, I decided to draw the house from different perspectives. I set up maybe five vantage points in the garden that offer different views of the building as the shadows move and the light changes. And I thought here’s an idea for a movie. At the same time, I was fascinated by the great country houses of England: we lived near the Fonthill Estateand on previous vacations he had painted the splendid Holkham Hall in Norfolk. I began to think about the genre of country drama, so crucial to English cinema. And, being of a certain clerical disposition, he was thinking of number counts, alphabetic structures, and color codes.

I needed to roll all this up. To make it dramatic, I developed the whodunit at the heart of the film. Set in 1694, the film is about money, property, sex, power and art, but its original premise was: should an artist draw what he sees or draw what he knows? See and believe. Just because you have eyes doesn’t mean you can see.

We spent several months looking for the location. groombridge place, a moated manor house in Kent built in 1662, is grand but not extravagant, which was exactly what we wanted. It was very well cared for, although we had to titivate the garden a bit: introduce statues, flower beds, orange trees and others. We all moved in for the long, hot weeks of summer filming; the man who owned it was, if memory serves, a retiree who had made a huge fortune in insurance. He moved into the attic and stayed out of our way, but on quiet evenings, if you listened carefully, we could hear the sound of the cricket on a radio upstairs. The tea set for the tea drinking ceremony scene, which was very fashionable at the time, was his and was very expensive. People joked that the total budget of the film did not equal the value of the old tea set. They were probably right!

The sheep belonged to the farm next door. I had forgotten about them until I rewatched the movie recently. There is one shot that I especially liked that is completely devoid of human beings: you just look, through the framing device that the cartoonist uses, at the sheep that come towards you. They stayed beautifully within the frame. The cartoonist was brilliantly played by Anthony Higgins. He loved the way he swayed his hips as he walked around the property and the style and swagger with which he delivered his lines. Everything is deliberately highly stylized: the costumes, the wigs, and the dialogue: people use 50 words to say something when 20 would have. If someone went off script, they got their fingers slapped: artificiality was a feature of the film.

He had fixed ideas of who he wanted to cast and how they would act. I like to use actors with theater experience, as some of my takes are extremely long. Most of the cinema is “Cut. Cut. Cut” that leaves many, shall we say, less experienced actors out of harm’s way. An American reviewer said that The Draftsman’s Contract wasn’t really a movie because there are only about 60 cuts. He believed that “proper” Hollywood movies had to have at least 300.

The curse of all cinema is the desire to tell stories. I have always refused to allow composers to read scripts; I don’t want you to try to illustrate it. Michael Nyman and I had worked together before and I knew he was brilliant. I told him when the movie was set and told him about the country houses that had inspired me, but I don’t think I gave him any more clues. I said go and write whatever music you want, and I felt safe enough knowing its music to be able to fix, in editing, which bit went where.

The movie was a huge success and still, 40 years later, I get a small fee every three months. Art films weren’t supposed to make money, what an absurd idea!

And the drawings? They were made by me, that’s my hand, you see. I still have them, all 13 of them, in an attic somewhere. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure where, but the BFI is quite interested in getting their hands on them, so I’ve got to find them one of these days.

Elaborate... Anne-Louise Lambert and Janet Suzman in The Artist's Contract.
Elaborate… Anne-Louise Lambert and Janet Suzman in The Artist’s Contract. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

Dame Janet Suzman (played Virginia Herbert)

The script they sent me was enormously thick. So many words, full of post-restoration stanzas, obfuscations and presumptions. It was ridiculously impossible to undo, but that intrigued me. Peter was doing something that no one had ever done before and the sheer originality and audacity of him was appealing. Once we started filming I realized that he was building a labyrinth on film.

Peter has the eye of an artist. He loves paintings, he placed everything perfectly, every detail mattered. He filmed solely with natural light and candles. Kubrick was the only person who had done that before, in Barry Lyndon, and he had a very expensive special lens that could pick up dim light. Instead, Peter placed a small torch bulb behind each candle to increase the wattage.

The complexity of the costumes and our elaborate wigs were extraordinary. We had to get up at six in the morning to get dressed. Mind you, I’ve worn worse: I had to wear an authentic Elizabeth dress with a 19-inch waist for an RSC production. It wasn’t until one of the other actors passed out in rehearsal that the director relented.

It was filmed in long, sustained takes. I remember one scene in particular that was eight minutes long, an interior scene with a lot of dialogue. We had to speak very quickly and clearly during the entire individual take. That was stressful. He was a very inventive and intuitive director. Filming another scene on a hillside, the sun hid behind the clouds, and instead of saying “cut,” as most directors would, he said “no, keep rolling!” so during that scene you see the faces go dark and then when the sun comes up they go back to light.

The budget was so low that there was this wonderful concord throughout and there was an ease between the various disciplines on the set that was very productive: a costume girl could move a prop without getting arrested, the makeup or lighting crews could make suggestions. a warm and collaborative environment.

When I saw it finished with the music of Michael Nyman, I just thought: “Yes!” It propels the film forward in the most magnificent way, giving it a perfect boost. Whenever you’re filming or rehearsing, you want something to go right but you have no idea if it is or not. But with this I felt there was a quality to the work that was very unusual. We knew it was going to be special.

The Cartoonist’s Contract is available now in select theaters and on Blu-ray. A Season Retrospective, States of Mind: The Films of Peter Greenaway is at BFI Southbank, London, until December 30.

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