One of Holland’s greatest unsung filmmakers, Dick Maas has brought movie fans across the world such delights as cult classics THE LIFT and AMSTERDAMNED and now Dick is back with another gem for genre fans with a twisted horror movie for all the family in SAINT so to celebrate the UK DVD release by Metrodome our very own Stuart Willis kicked back for a chat with the filmmaker about SAINT and his career in our exclusive SGM interview…
Stu: Firstly, I’d like to say thank you for taking the time to speak with us. We’re long-time fans of yours here at SGM.
Dick: Glad to hear that.
Stu: Can I ask, how did you begin your career in filmmaking? Was it something you always knew you would get into, being the son of a successful actress (Inge Beekman) and all?
Dick: When I was very young I wanted to become an actor. I was writing also a lot at an early age. Stories, stageplays. I have drawn comics, even published them. I made music, was in bands. Liked photography. Somehow it all came together and in highschool I decided to become a filmmaker.
Stu: Your first hit was THE LIFT, which many UK fans will fondly remember from the early days of video. How do you pitch something like the idea of a killer lift to the Dutch film industry?
Dick: I was very naive in those days. I just send the screenplay to several of the most successful producers in Holland. I thought they would all jump to the chance to make a movie about a killer elevator (laughs) But no; they had no idea what to do with a concept like that. Only after some persuasion from my side, one of them decided to give it a shot. Combining my movie with another one, he could make two movies for the price of one. That decision made him rich. The movie was the first Dutch film ever to be picked up by a major distributor (Warner Bros) and it was released all over the world.
Stu: In fact, how do you get films made over there? Not just films, but films of your scale – with all the action, explosions, car chases etc? Your films often seem to have much higher production values than other films from the Netherlands?
Dick: All Dutch films depend on government money. It is almost not possible to finance movies independently. The Dutch market is too small to earn your investment back. We have the Dutch Filmfund and your script has to pass a committee who decides if your film has potential. Almost every script of mine in the last ten years was rejected by them. I had to fight the decisions and threaten to go to court. In almost every case I succeeded in turning the decision around.
We have to work with very limited budgets. The budget for Saint was around 4 million Euro. I'm proud to say it looks like a movie ten times that budget. SFX and stunts are very expensive. We have all the know-how in Holland and some very talented film crews. With careful planning and elaborate preparation it is possible to pull it off on a limited budget.
I always prepare every shot in advance. Unfortunately there is no time for improvisation on the set. I made a moving storyboard of the roof chase scene that was very helpful to keep the SFX budget within limits. My movies follow my scripts almost to the letter. I usually throw nothing out. So there is no waste. Everything I shoot is in the movie.
Stu: AMSTERDAMNED was a huge cult hit in the UK. Were you aware of the film’s success at the time?
Dick: I didn't know it was a huge cult hit at the time. I became aware of it just a few years ago. I always did wonder though, why my movies never were shown theatrically in the UK. Over the years I got a lot of fan mail, also about my comedy series Flodder. I always found it strange that so little films of mine were released in the UK.
Stu: Was it AMSTERDAMNED that provided you with the opportunity to work in America? And can you speak a little about the experience?
Dick: The English language movies I made were all produced and financed out of Holland. We had a tax ruling a few years ago that made it possible to work with much higher budgets. I made Do Not Disturb and Down under that ruling.
Stu: You’ve worked with some big stars over the years – Naomi Watts, William Hurt, Jennifer Tilly etc. How do they compare with lesser known or home-grown actors? Do you find their experience makes your job easier ... or can they be self-serving arseholes?
Dick: I really liked working with them. When I met Naomi, she was on the brink of her breakthrough. I immediately liked her when I first met her, and wondered why she wasn't a big star already; she was terrific. Jennifer is very funny, we had a great time. William is very dedicated, and a lovable person. The only thing I regret is the southern accent of him, we decided on in Do Not Disturb.
Stu: Can you speak a little about the TV series "Flodder"? What is it exactly, and how can people outside of the Netherlands see it?
Dick: I made 3 Flodder movies in Holland and a spin-off TV series of 62 episodes. The first movie is still the highest grossing Dutch movie of the last 25 years. It's about a dysfunctional family that has been relocated by the government to a wealthy neighbourhood.
I don't own the rights to the movies anymore due to bankruptcy of my former company and mismanagement of my former producer partner.I hope that one day I will have the rights back and can release the series outside Holland in a good quality. I put the first movie, in a subtitled and dubbed version, on my website (dickmaas.com) , so people worldwide can enjoy it.
Stu: Your latest film to be released is SAINT. Congratulations, it’s a fantastic film. I wasn’t overly aware of the legend of Sinterklaas prior to watching the film. Could you elaborate on the myth that inspired your story?
Dick: Saint Nicholas is the biggest yearly event in Holland. The guy is more popular than the pope. The myth goes like this: every year St. Nicholas arrives on a steamboat from Spain. Accompanied by his helpers, the Black Pete's. He rides his horse on the rooftops and throws presents for the children into the chimneys. When the children have behaved, that is. When they were naughty, they will be put in a sack and taken back to Spain.
The celebration consists of many more elements. Most of the details will get lost to foreign audiences. People give each other presents accompanied by poems. Children put their shoes in front of the fireplace, sometimes with carrots for the horse. They sing St. Nicholas songs in front of the chimney. For Saint, I played with all those elements that are so familiar to a Dutch audience. I made up my own myth of St. Niklas to suit the movie.
By the way, the American Santa Claus is based on St. Nicholas. So when explaining to foreign audiences what St. Nicholas is about, I always tell them it's Santa Claus on a horse.
Stu: I hear you ran into some controversy by subverting such a popular legend?
Dick: We have some St. Nicholas societies over here in Holland and Belgium that were not pleased with the movie. They tried to prevent the movie from being shown in the cinemas. Also there was a big protest against the poster. It went to court, but we won.
Stu: Huub Stapel plays Niklas, the killer ‘Santa’. He’s a regular collaborator of yours. Is he the De Niro to your Scorsese?
Dick: I wouldn't say that. We've made 5 films together. We are best friends and when there is an opportunity to work together, we will.
Stu: In fact, which filmmakers do you draw inspiration from? Your style is quite singular.
Dick: There are a lot of directors I admire. Too much to mention. To name a few: Spielberg, Hitchcock, Tony and Ridley Scott, Ettore Scola, Ron Howard, Clint Eastwood, Luc Besson...
Stu: There are a lot of elaborate action set-pieces in SAINT, lots of stunts and effects. Can you speak a little about them: about the practicalities of shooting them on your budget, any production headaches, anything you’d scripted but perhaps had to abandon?
Dick: Everything that was in the script, ended up in the movie. The biggest challenge, we knew from the beginning, would be the horse chase across the Amsterdam rooftops. There weren't many examples in other movies of a galloping horse used as an element in CGI. So we had to invent our own method. For the most part we used a real horse shot against green screen. We made a three meter high, 50 meter long scaffolding in front of a green screen on which we let the horse run. Also we used a treadmill. Combined with the plates we shot on the Amsterdam rooftops on the coldest winter nights since ages, it made for a convincing sequence. We used a 3D horse only in 2 shots.
Stu: The film has a little bit of everything: scares, jokes, action, gore, fantasy. How would you sell it to a non-believer in one sentence?
Dick: 'A horror movie for the whole family.' I think the term horror movie doesn't do justice to the movie. People who expect an all-out gore fest would be disappointed. Action, humour and fantasy play a major part in the story. And also all the references to the St. Nicholas tradition and real live celebration, which will be lost for a great part to foreign audiences, are a major part of the fun.
Stu: What’s the reaction to the film been so far? I’m aware that it went down very well at UK’s Frightfest festival. Have you been in attendance at many screenings?
Dick: I don't attend festival screenings. I always sneak away after 15 minutes. I make sure I come back in time to see the audience jump from their seats at the final scare of the movie. The movie has been in a lot of festivals. I only attended Tribeca, Frightfest and Sitges. I was in the middle of shooting my next movie Quiz, so I didn't have much time to travel to the other festivals.
Stu: Have you seen RARE EXPORTS? What are your thoughts on another European Christmas-based genre film emerging around the same time as yours? Do people compare the two?
Dick: People compare them all the time. Which isn't fair in my opinion. They are totally different. I became aware of Rare Export during the filming of Saint. I hadn't heard of it before and I saw it when I finished Saint.
Saint was already ten years in the making. The final draft of the script was written 5 years ago. If it wasn't for the delay caused by the Dutch Filmfund, I would have shot Saint 4 years ago and I would have been the first :-)
Stu: You write, direct, produce and even compose the scores for your films. Is this through necessity, or simply a better way of controlling the final product? How do you get to work with so much freedom?
Dick: After my first movie The Lift, which I wrote, directed and scored, I wasn't that happy with the way it was produced and decided to produce all my movies myself in the future. I like to be in control of every aspect of the movie.
Stu: Your next film is QUIZ. Can you speak a little about that?
Dick: Quiz is the story about a famous gameshow host who has an appointment with his wife and daughter in an Italian restaurant. They fail to show up on time. Then a weird guy comes up to his table and claims to have kidnapped his wife and daughter. The gameshow host now has to answer ten questions within one hour if he wants to see his wife and child back alive. We finished shooting last week and are in the middle of editing. The film will be completed early next year.
Stu: Anything else in the pipeline that you’re able to discuss?
Dick: I have a big action movie in pre-production, called Para, which I hope to shoot next year. I also have some English language scripts which I hope to shoot in the near future. Depending on the success of Saint abroad, we also have a sequel in the works.
Stu: Finally, a question that frequently gets asked to SGM interviewees: in your recent travels to film festivals, have you seen any films that you’d care to recommend to our readers or any upcoming Dutch filmmakers we should keep an eye out for?
Dick: Regrettably I spend too little time on film festivals to see other movies. To mention interesting upcoming Dutch filmmakers is difficult. Mainly because there aren't any. Most of the upcoming directors are focused on movies for the Dutch market, or lack a genuine originality. Or their focus is scattered across all kind of genres. There are very few 'auteurs', people who write and direct their own stuff, or have a very recognizable style. Lot of them are directors for hire.
Stu: Thanks again for your time, and good luck with the film. It’s excellent and I hope it reaches as many people as possible.
Dick: Thank you for the questions!
Special thanks to Dick Maas and Chris Boyd at Metrodome. SAINT is now available on DVD from Metrodome Group.