It’s a fantastic love story .. and at the heart of it, it’s a metaphor about love, lust and passion.
Fifteen years after Producer Alison Owen bought the rights to Deborah Moggach’s novel Tulip Fever, and sending the option to A-list producers, her tenacity and vision paid off and the film went into production in May 2014 under direction of Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), from a screenplay by Sir Tom Stoppard (Anna Karrenina, Shakespeare in Love, Empire Of The Sun), and the thrilling romance can now be experienced on the Big Screen.
The Story: In 17th Century Amsterdam, an orphaned girl (Alicia Vikander) is forcibly married to a rich and powerful merchant (Christoph Waltz) – an unhappy “arrangement” that saves her from poverty. After her husband commissions a portrait, she begins a passionate affair with the painter (Dane DeHaan), a struggling young artist. Seeking to escape the merchant’s ever-reaching grasp, the lovers risk everything and enter the frenzied tulip bulb market, with the hope that the right bulb will make a fortune and buy their freedom.
Owen read the book before it was even published and instantly bought the option. Having read a review of a factual book about the tulip fever of 1630s Amsterdam, she was fascinated by the concept of this mania and how “it was the first example of the futures market and it was the first time that money was represented in metaphorical terms, in certificates, and tulip bulbs. I thought it sounded really fascinating, and as a producer you’re always looking out for interesting backdrops for a story.”
She continues: “A few months later I read a round up of what was being published in the New Year, and it mentioned that Deborah Moggach’s novel Tulip Fever was coming out in May – a love story set in Amsterdam. I thought, I wonder if somebody’s done the job for me, of finding a story to set against this backdrop…When I read the manuscript, I felt, in story terms, that I’d discovered ‘The Beatles’, because it’s such a great story…it’s engineered to perfection, it’s got great characters and was obviously of the time.”
Owen had offers from Stephen Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Harvey Weinstein, but due to a series of obstacles, however, Owen took another fifteen years finally to go into production on the film, which she now sees as a positive setback: “I was devastated when the film fell through the first time, because I’d felt that it was very much of the zeitgeist. Little did I know that it was actually becoming more and more zeitgeisty, if that’s possible! The recession that we were experiencing when I first optioned this book was only the start of a bunch of financial consequences that we’ve been suffering globally ever since. If anything, it’s a lot more relevant now then it was then.”
From Book to Script to Screen
For Alison Owen, Deborah Moggach’s novel was a fascinating read: “It’s got so many layers it’s hard to condense them, but that’s the challenge, trying to fit everything into the script. It’s a fantastic love story set against this amazing backdrop, and at the heart of it, it’s a metaphor about love, lust and passion. The most highly valued tulips were the ones that broke into colors and stripes and were called breakers. At the time, they had no idea why that happened, but in actuality it was because of a virus. Ironically, the most valuable bulbs were the ones that were diseased, carrying the seeds of their own destruction, ultimately rotting. Of course that’s a wonderful metaphor for the adulterous love that takes place in the novel. It is this wonderful love, this great passion, but because it’s an elicit love, it also carries the seeds of its own destruction.”
She continues: “Another thing I loved about Deborah’s novel is the way that you love everyone in it. That’s really hard to pull off and that was the hardest thing to pull off in its transition to script form. You love all these people, yet none of them at the expense of each other. That’s much easier to do in a book where you can have an internal narrative as Deborah does, telling the story from each character’s point of view. In an adaptation it’s much harder to do that. We got there in the end, but it’s so delicate, it’s like a house of cards.
Alicia Vikander, who plays Sophia had heard about the project and was keen to be a part of it. She explains: “I knew it was a Tom Stoppard script and I’d worked with him on ‘Anna Karenina’. I got hold of the script because I’d heard such good things about it and I just fell in love with it. It’s a costume drama, but it’s the wit and the pace and thrill that made me cry and laugh. It could have been a farce, but instead it’s so intelligent. It’s very difficult to find great female roles and in this both the female lead roles are very complex and diverse characters.” She continues: “Tom’s script has so much subtext and nuance – it’s just quite brilliant.”
For Dane DeHaan who plays Jan Van Loos, it was the way the script resonated with our contemporary world that initially drew him in: “It was the first stock market crash; the first time that people got really obsessed with buying things that weren’t technically worth anything, giving them extreme value to the point that they became completely invaluable.”
Alison Owen and Director Justin Chadwick previously collaborated on his first feature film, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. He explains that whilst shooting ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ in South Africa, his Producer Harvey Weinstein had shown him the script and he loved it, saying: “I loved the ride of it. I went back to the book, I love the book too. It’s a real page turner, and I defy anybody to pick up that book and not read it in one sitting.”
He continues: “I wasn’t particularly looking to go back and do a period movie, as I wanted to make something that was modern, but this felt completely modern and I could approach it in a way that was contemporary and visceral. It was a great story and, yes, it was set in a period, but in the end it’s a romantic thriller and that was what I was so excited about. It got me thinking about how we could make a non-traditional period movie. How could you actually make an immersive movie, drop an audience right in amongst it, and show this crazy idea that these two young people have, and the consequences of that human emotion and the tragedy?”
Adds Alison Owen: “This film needed to be informed by someone with a lot of heart, and you couldn’t possibly have more heart than Justin. He is incredibly instinctive, which is a quality you don’t find that much these days. People tend to act more with their intellect than their heart and instinct. Justin’s also very collaborative and values everyone’s contribution.”
Chadwick was drawn to the story, but had some problems with the script until he persuaded writer, Tom Stoppard, to renew his involvement in the project.
Describes Chadwick: “The script was complicated and it took me a while to unravel. I think various people had come on board and they’d tried to rewrite it and do various drafts with other directors and writer director combinations that had fallen by the wayside, and it was a messy script. I asked Alison for a copy of the 2003 version, which was purely Tom Stoppard’s version and immediately I could see how we could do it. I managed to get hold of Tom who’d not been involved in the project since it had fallen apart. I went to see him with my story boards and what I was thinking of doing with it and we went through the script page by page. I had the most amazing time with him exploring the kind of film that we wanted to make and what would be relevant now. That was the real start, the real drive that we had, then the blueprint came after we started to work together on the movie.”
For Chadwick, it was of the utmost importance that the story feel relevant and the audience be enveloped in the action.
He explains: “I wanted to make a period movie feel visceral and emotional and just drop the audience in amongst the action. This isn’t like a period movie that’s set in a stately home; this is about working-class people and middle-class people. It was at a time when working class and middle-class traders could actually have vast wealth. They’d just newly discovered that the world was round. Ships were going around the world bringing cargo in from all over and they were questioning the presence of God and what that meant to them. There wasn’t the class system that there is, or was, in this country. It was a really intoxicating time, where money was sloshing around.”
For Dane DeHaan, it was not just the script but also the director that drew him in: “The first time I talked with Justin, he talked about taking this heightened Tom Stoppard language and making it real and making it live in a way that hasn’t really been done before, really grounding it in reality – and that’s what I’m all about in my work. Justin’s also such a passionate person, with this infectious energy and when he gets excited about something, you can’t help but get excited about it as well.”
Adds Alicia Vikander: “Justin is very involved and really gives us a lot of his time and I’ve felt very safe. He’s tough, which is good, and pushes the actors, so he’s been very good to work with.”
For Holliday Grainger who plays Maria: “There’s this swirl of tulip fever in the film and passion everywhere and laughing and gambling and drinking. I feel like the pace of the film is like a rolling ball down a hill that gathers momentum and just explodes at the end. Justin seems to have been completely affected by tulip fever. He’s got this enthusiasm every day and just seemed excited to be on set and you can’t help but be affected by that. He puts a lot of faith in you to do what you’re doing and freedom to move around the sets. We had these lush sets to play with and wonderful props, which he really wants you to use, so you can always be in the moment and as truthful as possible.”
Judi Dench agrees that Chadwick is a force of nature: “He’s absolutely a power of energy and enthusiasm and he gets everybody energized and says what he thinks and what he wants to get.”
Vikander was at pains to ensure that her character had some integrity and was not a two-dimensional interpretation of a young flighty woman who would go off with the first handsome young man that she met. She explains: “Cornelis is somebody that Sophia cares for a lot, shares a life with and with whom she is very much in love. When Jan first steps into her life she doesn’t want to be part of anything with him, because she comes from a very Christian background and she has a husband that she loves and a life that she wouldn’t just give away for something else. The love triangle is created because she is torn between the life she wants with Jan and the one she has. Even though she has love for Cornelis, she’s a young woman who hasn’t really experienced passion. I think everybody knows that the first time that happens, that you can’t really control it.”
Vikander explains how important it was for her that she sat for the portrait of Sophia that was used in the film: “I actually sat for a painter to make the portrait in the film and it is quite intense. In my job I look into people’s eyes that I don’t know that well, but when a painter looked at me, I got a bit scared because he was really trying to figure out who I am. The relationship between the painter and the person that gets painted is quite intense and I definitely brought that to the scenes with Dane. It really helped both of us to have that context to Jan painting Sophia. I think it really brought out the passion.”
Jan Van Loos
Playing an artist convincingly was always going to be difficult and yet was an essential component for DeHaan to master in his need to make the experience as real as possible. To that end, he spent some time learning how to paint under the tutelage of artist Jamie Routley, whose portraits have been exhibited, amongst other places, at the National Portrait Gallery in the BP Portrait Award Exhibition and is the artist who painted the portraits used in the film. Explains DeHaan: “I’m not a painter, and going into this I’d have given myself a third grade drawing level. Then I met Jamie, who trained in Florence in the seventeenth century style. He makes his own paints and paints as Jan would paint. Jamie was an amazing, invaluable resource because he gave me painting lessons and taught me how to make it look real.”
He continues: “A lot of times in movies, you see this really stereotypical movie version of a painter just standing in front of the painting at his easel. But that’s not really how it was done. It was about stepping back and taking it in. Everything you see in the movie is authentic to how these Dutch painters were probably painting. It was important for me to get that right and to get it accurately. I think I may be high school level at this point in my painting.”
Justin Chadwick explains the casting of Christoph Waltz: “Christoph was one of the first casting ideas for the film. The book hints at an older man, and the screenplay hinted at somebody much older. However, I felt that it was better to have somebody a little younger; a powerful man, a merchant, who had made his fortune, who was still alive and would add a dynamic to that relationship that was more complicated. Some people might watch the film and root for Cornelis, and that felt important and was a new way of thinking about that character. That really was the starting block, and once we got Christoph in, we could make Cornelis into a powerful man, not this doddery buffoon of a character, as was originally written, but a real force.
For Deborah Moggach, the writer of the novel Tulip Fever, on which the film is based, the casting of Christoph Waltz added a dimension to the story that she greatly appreciates: “We’ve got a very stunning actor playing Cornelis, and that brings a whole new dynamic to that marriage. It makes it much more interesting because he’s got a face which is filled with sorrow and depth; he’s got huge nous to the way he acts. Christoph is a wonderful actor, but because he’s so attractive and younger than I would have expected, it makes the dynamic between him and Sophia really interesting. We care about him much more. He’s not just an old duffer blithering on about tulip bulbs and his business down in the docks. He’s a man who’s suffered hugely with the loss of his first wife. There’s a relationship between them which is much more interesting and that was thrilling to see played out.”
Director Chadwick was thrilled when Dame Judi Dench took on the role of the Abbess, a new character introduced into the screenplay that was not in the original book. He explains: “You’ve got this illegal tulip world that’s happening in the backs of taverns, and you’ve got these orphanages full of children that have been left by the wars that happened, and the famines and the plague. We needed a character that would connect all these worlds, and Tom [Stoppard] wrote in the very final draft of the movie a character which bound them altogether – the Abbess, which is played by the beautiful Judi Dench. What a joy! It was a dream come true for all of us. Her energy was just extraordinary from the moment she arrives on set. It upped everybody’s game, and fortunately, a lot of the young cast had the chance to do a scene with her and she was just electric.” He continues: “There’s something that comes from her eyes that just connects with other human beings. She’s tough in the film, but she does it with such truth and grace. It was an honor.”
Dutch Art – Inspiration and Execution
The writer of the novel Tulip Fever on which the film is based, Deborah Moggach describes how her interest in Dutch art inspired the work: “Twenty years ago I went to a sale at Christie’s because I’d seen this painting in the auction. I loved it to bits and I bought it. It’s painted in 1630, I think, and it’s of a woman getting ready to go out. She’s wearing a little fur-trimmed velvet jacket, which was the fashion of the time, and she’s looking out of the canvas at us with a rather enigmatic expression on her face. Her maidservant is bringing her a little pearl necklace to put around her neck and her manservant is bringing her a glass of wine. She’s obviously quite pampered, quite rich, but her face was just enigmatic, and I thought, ‘She’s up to no good; I wonder where she’s going? Is she getting ready to go out? Is she going out somewhere she shouldn’t be going out?” I hung the painting in my sitting room and gazed and gazed at it, and this story came to me.’
Moggach continues: “At the time I was living with a painter and he got very involved with the story too. As I was writing the book inspired by this painting, I was doing up the house that I’d bought for him and me to live in and he drew me drawings from Vermeer paintings, drawings to illustrate the book as I wrote it. He was also renovating the house like a Vermeer. We would build a fireplace that he’d copied from a 17th century Dutch painting. It was wildly romantic. We split up in the end, but it was lovely at the time.”
Moggach was deeply affected by Dutch art of the time and explains: “I wrote the book in this great fever of love – both for my partner but also for Dutch art, because they tell such stories. In this quiet domestic scene of this woman getting ready to go out there was a whole drama going on. I think in that short period in the 17th century, after paintings were religious in the 16th century and before the baroque period, these domestic paintings provided very thrilling narratives. They’re like film stills because you’ve got an arrested moment of drama and you feel if you blink, that woman is going to get up and move across the room, that man who’s watching her as she’s playing the virginal is going to move off with her, and the maid who is sweeping is going to run off with the servant. Those paintings tell us so much about normal life then and you feel like you are entering the household of these people and that’s where the story was.”