In “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” director Peter Webber and his production team created a living, breathing, fully dimensionalized portrait of the 17th-century Dutch town of Delft on a budget of just $10 million.
The secret to their success lay in the angle of attack. Webber is a passionate admirer of Stanley Kubrick’s 18th-century epic, “Barry Lyndon.” But upon reading Olivia Hetreed’s screenplay for “Pearl Earring,” Webber saw a key difference between Kubrick’s film and the one he was about to make. “Kubrick was obsessed with the spectacle and manners of the period,” says Webber. “So he staged these elaborate and expensive set pieces. My film was about the intimate relationships within a single household.”
“Pearl Earring” focuses on painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) as he forms a covert relationship with 17-year-old servant girl Griet (Scarlett Johansson).
“The characters who pass through Vermeer’s house come from a broad spectrum of society, from the very wealthy to the very poor,” says Webber. “You get a microcosm of 17th-century Holland under one roof. So the film is, in a sense, an intimate epic.”
Production Design: Ben van Os
Finding a production designer who could bring this distilled drama to the screen proved difficult. “The various British production designers whom I spoke to approached the film a bit like it was a museum piece,” says Webber. “They wanted to get all of the period details exactly right, and were slightly scared of not getting it right.”
When Webber met Ben van Os — who had worked with Peter Greenaway on “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” and “Belly of an Architect” — he knew he had found the right person. “Ben is Dutch; this story is in his blood,” says the helmer. “So he wasn’t intimidated by the period obligations. He was much more interested in story and character. How are we going to create this mood? Ben said, ‘We’ll take this from this period and this from that period.’ It was music to my ears.
“The most important things are the story and the characters. I really don’t care if I’m going to get a letter from some expert in Dutch architecture saying, ‘That roof design wasn’t used until 17 years after your movie takes place.'”
Van Os created a cross-section of Dutch society by building three interior sets: the drab monochromatic, Calvinistic home of Griet; the lurid, painting-filled Catholic chaos of the Vermeer house; and the mansion of Vermeer’s wealthy patron, van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), filled with curios gathered on his world travels and eerie stuffed animals, which convey van Ruijven’s predatory nature.
The Vermeer house presented the biggest challenge. Van Os constructed the three-story set on one of the largest soundstages in Luxembourg. “We wanted the house to give us that sense of frames within frames so familiar from Vermeer’s paintings,” says van Os. “We built rooms with connecting doorways that led the eye through the house to give a feeling of space — and lack of privacy. We wanted Griet to always feel watched because the film is about being observed, either by Vermeer as he paints her, or by the other family members with their various agendas.”
Van Os knows that the little details give this cloistered world authenticity. “For instance, the windows are all exact reproductions of the those that were used at the time,” he says. “That was a big undertaking, quite expensive. We went to a company that restores all kinds of windows in old churches and historic buildings and had them build them for us.”
For the exteriors, Webber and van Os spread dirt and trash to give the streets the feel of a crowded city. “I was obsessed with getting animals — dogs, livestock — into as many shots as I could,” says Webber, “because it brings a breath of life to the piece.
The distillation process extended to the wardrobe as well. “I wanted a stripped-down look,” says Webber. “If I dressed all the actors in the real costumes of that era, they would be wearing ruffles and baggy outfits. I didn’t want to put Colin Firth in that. For a modern audience he’s going to look too costumey. So we came up with a look we jokingly called period Prada, to give the clothes sleek lines. I called it my Vermeer filter: take the real clothes from the period and reduce them to their essence.”
Costume designer Dien van Straalen — who worked for Greenaway on “The Cook, the Thief” and “Prospero’s Books” — combed through second-hand clothing and furniture stores, Indian silk shops and garment marts throughout London and Holland in search of period fabrics. Old curtains and slipcovers were converted to jackets and dresses, and aged with sandpaper. The wardrobes for each character varied from prosaic to grand. Again, the clothes made up a cross-section of the 17th-century Dutch society. “We used pale colors for Scarlett Johansson to give her the drab look of a poor servant girl,” van Straalen explains.
As for Vermeer, “obviously he was not a wealthy man, though he was considerably better off than Griet. So I wanted to keep him as plain as I could. He sometimes had to go out to social events, so we gave him one aged black dress suit with a simple white collar and a bit of braid.
“Vermeer’s patron, van Ruijven, wants to control Vermeer and enjoys his power over other people. For me he was a peacock strutting around with his money. I used more braids and more gold, big hats with feathers, and cloaks. We have costume makers in Holland who used to work for the opera so they know exactly how to make fancy clothing from that period.”
Makeup and Hair
“The makeup for Scarlett Johansson was very simple,” says makeup and hair designer Jenny Shircore, who worked on “Dirty Pretty Things”; “Notting Hill”; and “Elizabeth,” for which she won an Academy Award. “We just had to keep her skin looking milky, thick and creamy. This required some makeup because Scarlett has spots and things that happen to a 17-year-old. We wanted to present her as if she had no makeup on. We gave her a little bit of help by bleaching her eyebrows, because in the Vermeer paintings it’s all about skin and face, nothing else gets in the way, so you eliminate those other features.”
Almost all of the actors wore wigs, which presented problems. When Johansson’s wig arrived a couple of days before shooting, it had the wrong color and texture. “It was a nightmare,” Shircore laughs. “I didn’t dare say a word to Peter, because I thought: ‘We must sort this out without giving him a headache.’ We were up all night dyeing, straightening, curling and redyeing the wig.”
“For Vermeer’s wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), I used a very simple Dutch hairstyle. The women wound their hair round the back of their heads. There comes a point when you’ve finished the hair, it can’t be wound anymore because the length is used up. Instead of neatly pinning it away, we let the ends splay out, because in looking at references, little drawings and prints, we found that that’s what they did. Once you’re actually working within a period, the hairstyles evolve very naturally.”