Thursday, February 24, 2022


A salute to everyone reading this interview.I was fortunate to talk with an expertise, talented and ingenious filmmaker, and I discovered theses traits from him was by the simple fact of watching his latest horror-thriller movie MARIONETTE and yes! I am talking about ELBERT VAN STRIEN; from Rotterdam, The Netherlands, at the age of 12, he already knew what he wanted to do when grow up: Filmmaker. Wonderful, ah. 

After goes and backs, years of learnings and gaining experience filming works like: Two Eyes Staring and Uncle Hank regarding feature format, he comes now with MARIONETTE, a well-made movie and I mean, the script, photo, locations, actors, everything. The story is engaging, thought-provoking, philosophical, it blows your mind out, you know, you are watching it and you ah ok, it  goes for this way and then boom! no, it's not! it yells out of your face, It's great, you people should go and watch it, really, won't regret it. The movie tells the story of child psychiatrist, Marianne Winter, who begins treating a disturbed 10-year-old boy who draws pictures of horrific events that later all come true. That's a raw description of the plot. The movie was released last year on October 22 via theaters and Digital and it had a VOD release on November 3, last year too by Scatena & Rosner Films in the USA

As a curious fact is for the development of this movie a huge hollywood actor was close to get involved (You'll know it reading the interview), but Elbert sacrificed that in exchange to have his vision untouched, that is the thing, to tell the story you really want to tell. Friends, as always we asked about general things from him to specific questions related to pre-production, principal photography, post production, the reasons to shoot this movie, how it was born, what is his creative process and the usual ups and downs when making a movie, no matter the budget, Ah! and lots of helpful advice for all the newbie filmmakers out there, so, come on! Scroll down and read this blow mind interview.

EFF: I'm really grateful for letting me chat with you. Let me start with  two simple questions. Where are you from and how did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

EVS: I’m from Rotterdam, the Netherlands. I think when I was twelve I already told my family that I wanted to make sci-fi movies. They told me it was very hard to get into filmschool, so I sort of forgot about the idea. Then a friend of mine showed me a comic book he had drawn. It was like a flash of lightning in my head. This is what I should do! I started drawing like a maniac, although I couldn’t draw at all! But I slowly improved my skills and my passion for stories and film came to live again.  

EFF:  The movie is based on a short film you made in 1993, right? What drove you to shoot it as a feature-length?

EVS: Actually the first idea was for a new comic book story, all the way back in 1987. When I was accepted at filmschool I decided to turn it into my graduation film. Due to budget cuts, there was a time limit set to the short films, only 25min instead of 45min in previous years. I was stubborn and still made the short. It won best short and it was nominated for a student Oscar, but I immediately knew I had to turn it into a feature length film one day, as the short felt rushed and the themes were too complex for a short.
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EFF:  The movie is co-written by you and Ben Hopkins. Tell us how the script crafting process was tackled? I mean, how many drafts were written before got the definitive one, the cooperation between you two, etc.

EVS: Our collaboration was very interesting, because Ben lives in Berlin (and at the time partly in Istanbul) and we never saw each other, so the whole process was done through email (this means all discussions on the script still exist on paper). We only saw each other at the Berlin Film Festival to drink a cup of coffee, but then we never talked about the script.

When Ben came on board in 2004, he wrote the first two drafts with my input. Then I did three drafts, and then both of us another one. The biggest chunk of the film came together quite quickly in these drafts but then we got stuck, mainly because of the ending. Ben wanted to go back to the second draft but that ending never worked for me. This because of a difference in Weltanschauung (world view). There were also issues with the inner logic in Ben’s ending. The question was how to get to an emotionally satisfying ending. The project was shelved for a few years because of a rights issue, but when I got the rights back I started writing again and wrote a couple of endings that Ben all called crap endings. Hahaha! 

Then I reconnected with a friend from high school who had become a psychiatrist (and also studied some philosophy). I asked him to read the script as part of the research, to check if the psychiatrist was credible. I drove to the south to meet him, but to my disappointment he confessed he had only read like ten pages. Maybe you can talk me through, he suggested. This turned out to be fantastic, because he not only responded as a psychiatrist, but also as the audience, and immediately commented on all the philosophy. He was guessing where it would go, and suddenly near the end he said, now it will probably turn out that… and I went… oh my God, that’s it! Immediately there was such a freedom in my head - all the pieces of the puzzle came together. I wrote Ben an email, but he dismissed the idea. No, that won’t work, he wrote. The American producer involved at the time felt the same. I thought, I'll write it anyhow. When they read it both were stunned: it worked! It was only a few years later during the editing that Ben told me he was so moved, that he had actually cried reading it.

Once you know the ending, you can go through all your notes to see what else fits with that ending. When I read my very first brainstorm document, the ending turned out to be at the bottom of the page! Hahaha! But I guess I had to go through the entire process to understand what the ending means emotionally.  

EFF: Many collaborators don't cross words during the process as you two did, if the fact to craft a script is demanding now to do it on remote with your partner and don't have feedback immediately, makes it a double. The movie has a philosophical burden in it, from the very beginning it states about that, the free will or if we just run over a path made for us and how our decisions stay with us forever. Having said that, what were those creative-blocks you had while crafting the script?

EVS: Beside the ending this was the other real complexity of the script, because you dig into such deep and complex discussions, age old debates around free will and religion. There were several problems we had to solve:

If Manny can make things happen, Marianne becomes a victim. The audience would know where it goes after 30 minutes and there would be no real tension anymore and no real possibility for a tragic ending either. The boy draws another incident and then it happens, that’s why I discovered that the idea of Schrödinger’s Cat (that was already in the short, but implicitly) was crucial for the film. The idea that it makes a difference whether you have a look or not. Like Manny says: there’s a gun is in your drawer, but only if you have a look. This means Marianne’s decisions will influence the outcome of events. Suddenly she wasn’t a victim anymore, there was tension and ambiguity, a possible tragic outcome.

Schrödinger’s Cat is hidden in all decisions of Marianne throughout the story, like when she pushes off the boat. I think it also works well as a metaphor: we are at crossroads of universes many times in our lives. With each decisions universes die, you make the decision, but what is there, awaiting for you, is up to fate or God. It also centered the story around the question what the role of perception and thinking is our fate and ultimately what becomes real.

The other issue had to do with the resolution, because the story is about a woman fighting with God, trying to prove she has a will of her own, the question and danger was that it would somehow end with a conversion. This was what we needed to avoid at all times as it would have been a false note. At the same time I couldn’t end the story with Manny just being evil as this would undermine the complexity of the theme as well and was not at all my world view. So how to create a catharsis when the antagonist is God? This was the other nut we had to crack. 

EFF: Many films lack of the deep you just have told me in their stories, and yes, you touched an aged philosophical question. How was the project timeline? How did that idea get to become a funded movie? Did you have to pitch the story, how did the producers get involved?

EVS: The first idea for the feature was picked up in 2004 by a producer in London. They like the short and saw the potential. Ben and I wrote a couple of drafts, the option expired and the script was stuck. I had to negotiate with the rights holders for three years to get the script back (I had the underlying rights of the short). When I had the rights again, all doors at the Dutch Film Fund turned out to be closed for an English language film, even for development. Because my film Two Eyes Staring was picked up by Charlize Theron for a remake, we (my partner producer Claudia Brandt and me – we have our own production company) had new contacts in Hollywood. An American producer got involved and he sent it to a couple of financiers. The first one was immediately hooked. In one hour there was $9M on the table, we were stunned. In the weeks after, cast lists with insane big names were shared. On top was Matt Damon (at the time the script had a male lead), i thought, this is never going to happen, but told them: sure, if you want to go out to him, go ahead. To everyone’s surprise Matt wanted to meet me. They flew me to New York, I sat down with him for an hour, the first thing he said was: I've read this script three times and I want to do it. After an hour I left with the idea he was in. Everyone in the clouds, but in the next weeks Matt didn’t say yes, but also didn’t say no. 

After a month we had to move on, there was an insane heat around the project. I wrote Ben: we are hot in Hollywood! He wrote back: for three weeks, he'd experienced the same thing with Angelina Jolie being interested in one of his films. We went out to a couple of other A-list stars, but soon I discovered that in the hands of the American producer this film would costs $12M. So, I went: how are we going to fill the gap? Slowly I discovered there was only one solution: ripping out pages of the script. The financier also didn’t like Schrödinger’s Cat and thought it was too complicated for an American audience. I didn’t have final cut, I was facing a tough decision, but realized my story was in danger. Are you making the film you really believe in, or some version of Marionette that you know will probably fail because the underlying logic is gone? We decided to go back to Europe and make the film for less money and keep control.

In 2015, after I flipped the gender, we had a British star attached. We partnered up with another producer and a well-known sales agent. Buyers jumped on the project and finance looked promising. But the star's manager didn’t want us to announce her name in the magazines in Cannes, so buyers went: do you have her? Finance fell through again. At the end of 2015 I was thinking that the film would maybe never get made. 

In 2016 doors at the Dutch Film Fund were now open for English language films, so we turned the film into a coproduction between The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Scotland. It was still a tough road because it was quite a big budget film for Europe (we shot the film for $6M). We finally got it together and shot the film in 2018. The upside was that I had full control and final cut. Once we were ready to release the film, the pandemic started.
EFF: Wow, quite a road, but you have described the journeys a filmmaker must to endure to get his or her vision feasible and watch it done. But, you were so close to direct Matt Damon, but you let prevailed the vision from your movie, very admirable from your side. Now, let's talk about the shooting phase? Firstly, how long did take you to shoot the movie and what dates?

EVS: The film is shot in 42 days. 22 days in Luxembourg, 20 days in Scotland. This was October/November 2018. I needed leafs on trees and blue skies in Luxembourg and bare trees and rain and clouds in Scotland. We were actually lucky the weather was quite mild in Scotland. There are years where there is snow in Scotland in November and we shot Luxembourg first. Which meant that, if there would have been snow, the car chase would start in Scotland with snow and continue in Luxembourg without! We made the decision that it would probably rain in Scotland so we did a wet down for all the streets in Luxembourg. It worked perfectly.

EFF: What were those hurdles you faced off during the shooting and how did you beat them out?

EVS: The harbor and sailing were a real challenge logistically. The tide difference was six meters, so a big part of the day the harbor was completely dry! And we had only 4 days for all the harbor scenes, incl. beautiful sailing weather and the storm where I needed boats bobbing like in a bath tub.  We decided to have another boat going in circles making waves just before action. It worked out perfectly – a fellow filmmaker who is sailing himself was swearing when he saw the scene in the editing: you pay for such harbors for your boat to be safe, look at that! He was stunned to hear we created it ourselves. 

The weather can be quite tricky in Scotland, there was a storm, but then for safety you cannot shoot because crew will be blown off of the quay. One night we had on and off rain for one hour, we ended up with shots with and without rain and added VFX rain afterwords.

EFF: All the ups and downs found at a filming set. Without giving any spoiler, the movie sets over a tricky scenario that is unmasked at the end, how did you plan the setup of the story of the movie, speaking in cinematography and visual storytelling terms?

EVS: When you have a twist ending, the trick is to prepare it without giving it away. If you analyse the film carefully you will hear lines that indicate the ending, or where Manny tells the truth. 

Visually you prepare the ending in a different way. This is why the film starts with a lot of slow motion. You prepare that you play with reality or the decision to create two worlds in the story, the Scottish and the American world. Scotland as the world of suffering where nature is in control, with gothic architecture and dark weather, and a dark color palette. In contrast was America, with modern architecture and pastel colors, beautiful weather, here, Man is in control and nature is friendly or just a beautiful poster on the wall. In a certain way this design prepares the ending in terms of the decisions you make in life.
Elbert Van Strien

EFF: Color palette and scenography conveying feeling and enclosing subtle hints from the movie. Elbert, What was the hardest scene to shoot and why?

EVS: Working with children is always tricky. Casting is crucial here and I was lucky with Elijah. He brought a great performance. But during casting sessions there were some other boys who were also talented, but when I told them the ending, it spoiled their performance completely. They started acting from that knowledge which meant that all tension was gone. So I decided to show Elijah the script only up until the end of the second act. Luckily the shooting schedule was in my advantage (apart from one scene where I had to trick him to get the right performance) and Elijah performed the whole thing without knowing where it was going. But Elijah is very smart, so he started guessing where the story would go and this became more and more tricky for me. He went like: OK, and after this point it turns out to be a dream and we're all disappointed. Hahaha! But it worked in the end. Once we had shot the last scene from second act I told him the rest of the story and his eyes went big and he went like: oh, but that’s a cool story! 

EFF: Was the movie shot on location entirely? What could you tell us about location scouting? Did you have any setbacks while looking for the locations? Do you have any advice regarding this topic?

EVS: Yes, it was all shot on location. The location scouting was an interesting process. When the American financier was involved we did a recce in both Scotland and Ireland. For me, it was immediately clear it had to be Scotland. Ireland is too friendly with all the pastel colored houses, architecture in Ireland was also too catholic for me. It would bend the theme in a certain way, so it just didn’t fit with the design I had in mind. You can get more money from the tax incentive in Ireland, so this was a bit of a struggle, once we took the European copro route we went for Scotland, we scouted in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Key was the hero location - the clinic where Marianne starts to work, it turned out there were a lot of mental institutions in Scotland because of the Great War - World War I, however most of them are run down. We had found one really stunning location somewhere between Edinburgh and Aberdeen, unbelievable architecture, but when we came back a year later it became clear we couldn’t make it work anymore, it turned out to be too run down because of the weather conditions. When we found the hero location near Aberdeen we decide to set the entire film there.

As an advice I would say it is best to start scouting yourself together with your production designer. Be as open as you can, if you see certain locations that are special in some way, try to rethink your story and make it work. Those will be the diamonds in your film. But this only works when you scout yourself, because a scout will look for what you ask him.
Elbert Van Strien - BTS Marionette

EFF: What camera did you use and why?

EVS: It was shot on Alexa. Shooting digitally is fine and an advantage especially when you’re working with children., and nowadays there is no real difference anymore with 35mm. Shooting digitally means there is no producer looking over your shoulder telling you’re using too much footage, it is a big advantage in the editing to have more material. 

We used two types of lenses: spheric and anamorphic. Spheric for Scotland and anamorphic for the American part, the spheric lenses create a slightly tougher reality, where anamorphic has a sense of the romantic. Again, the two worlds I needed to create.

EFF: How has been the audience's response so far?
EVS: Really great so far. The reviews are also very good. It is great to see that what you intended, indeed worked out that way, it is great share the film after such a long process. 

EFF: How did you set up your day-to-day shooting? Do you like to make storyboards, do you take many shots or only a few? I don't know…

EVS: I only make shot lists. I don’t use storyboards (apart from maybe a VFX or stunt scene). Storyboards limit your creativity on set, there, depending on what the actors do, you should be able to throw away what you had in mind. In Europe we don’t have huge budgets so you can only shoot what you really really need. So, we are very trained to think what you really need and how it will work. In Marionette there are hardly any unused shots. I did cut a few scenes for pacing.

EFF: What advice based on your experience in this movie would you give to newbie filmmakers out there hesitating about making their first movie because of money, equipment, etc?

EVS: Don’t wait for the money! Just go ahead and shoot your first films low budget. There are so many tools available nowadays, the resolution of digital cameras is great – Unsane was shot on a mobile phone! 

But…. and this is crucial: Make sure you have a really great script, because without a great script you can never make a great film. Also because decision makers will always look at previous work, and if (some of) those films are not good enough they always assume the worst outcome for your next project, so, it better be good.

EFF: What advice on pre, shooting or post production could give us based on what you learned from this production?

EVS: There are loads of things I could say, but here are a few ideas:

Prep is everything. You make this film only once, make sure you know your film inside out. Why it works this way, what it is really about, all motivations, why all parts are necessary and you cannot do without any of them. If you know all the answers you have a stronger position towards the producer when something needs to be cut or you know what you can lose and what not, it can be cunning to have a scene or two on your list that you know you can lose. The producer will think you’re flexible, but don’t give it away too soon, make sure you put those scenes late in the schedule.

EFF: What are your inspiration; directors or films?

EVS: I love the American cinema from the 70'ies. When genre and artistic voice were combined. Films like Parallax View, Taxidriver, Chinatown, i think I'm also influenced by Kubrick, Polanski (The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby), Hitchcock and Nicholas Roeg.

EFF: Are you a horror fan? What movies do you like most?

EVS: I don’t think I'm a die hard horror fan. I like the ones that are more complex. I’m not into slashers and find a lot of horror films a bit boring. But I do like The Ring (2002), Don’t Look Now, Hereditary, The Shining of course, Mulholland Drive… Rosemary’s Baby is my all time favorite. The directing of that film is flawless. 

EFF:  What new projects are you working on now, anything you can anticipate us now?

EVS: I’m working on a neo-noir crime thriller and a political paranoia thriller. Both are in financing. I have a few more projects in an advanced stage of development, a black comedy and a futuristic thriller. 

EFF: If a producer gives you a chance to direct a horror film remake, what would it be and why?

EVS: Oooh, tough question. I love films with a really high tension where the audience get pushed back into their seats, but I think I’m on my best with a more complex horror film. Something that makes your head spin.

EFF: How have you lived this pandemic? Personally, Professionally…

EVS: I was lucky that I was only writing and financing during the pandemic. No only real victim was Marionette, it premiered during a lockdown with only 30 people allowed in the cinema, after three weeks the country went into full lockdown and theaters closed. But I’m happy that the film found its way internationally, It is sold now to 73 countries.

EFF : Would you like to say anything else?

EVS: Well, I was thinking, if readers liked the interview, I just wanted to make them aware I've started to write a book on directing, with also stuff about how to develop and finance a project, so I was wondering if you could maybe add a link once published, (hopefully) somewhere next year? 

EFF : Sure, would be a honor. Thanks Elbert for everything.


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