“Only I can paint the picture you desperately want to see,” Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce), says as he attempts to plead his way out of a prison cell in “The Last Vermeer,” robbed of his freedom perhaps in post-war Amsterdam, but not his brio, a quality that no doubt has contributed to becoming a successful art dealer. Unfortunately, the authorities have taken notice after the sale of an extraordinarily rare Vermeer to a man with Nazi ties, bringing the attention of Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), a Dutch captain working as part of the Allied Forces to reclaim what ill-gotten items they can that are considered an invaluable part of the culture. A silver-haired fox, the wily van Meegeren fancies himself more as an artist than an art dealer and while his painting skills are questionable, you can appreciate him such as when you see a creative mind at work wheedling his way out of interrogations with Piller and his right-hand man (Roland Møller), or Detective De Klerk (August Diehl), an emissary for the Ministry of Justice whose approach to the art dealer is far harsher than Piller’s, appearing to have the aim of shutting him up before running his mouth off about some of his other former clients with Nazi ties.
Although van Meegeran is reduced to begging for his oil paints and brushes while he’s in custody, his remarkable story provides a broad canvas for director Dan Friedkin to explore the psychological aftermath for Europeans in the wake of World War II in what becomes an unexpectedly engrossing mystery. Culminating in a court case where the concept of weighing innocence and guilt takes on entirely different dimensions as van Meegeran confronts moral culpability as much as any crime that can be proven with physical evidence, “The Last Vermeer” does well to rest on the sturdy shoulders of Bang, who following his breakout turn in Ruben Ostland’s “The Square” reminds of the great movie stars of the era the film’s set in with his considerable charisma and suaveness, yet creates a protagonist for the present day as he vividly brings to the surface the trauma of fighting in a war, often undiagnosed at the time, and the anxiety that comes with the instability inherent in rebuilding a society, as well as the responsibility of participating in it.
Even as Pearce is liable to steal the movie as van Meegeren — and suggesting the character is capable of pilfering far more — Bang proves to be every bit his equal as Piller, which is no small feat, and the battle of wits taking place in Amsterdam, where the city may still be recovering from war but remains one of the world’s most beautiful locales (presented with due respect by cinematographer Remi Adefarasin), makes “Lyrebird” the kind of satisfying entertainment that seems missing from the multiplexes these days. Surely that speaks to its director Friedkin’s skill behind the camera, but also perhaps his business acumen as well with “The Last Vermeer” becoming his directorial debut after parlaying his experience as the CEO of the Friedkin Group, which runs the gamut from the auto industry to resorts, to becoming a major presence in the film industry with the production company Imperative Entertainment and the financing venture 30 West, behind such films as “Late Night” and “I, Tonya.”
During a whirlwind fall festival tour that included stops in Telluride and Toronto where “The Last Vermeer (then called “Lyrebird”) was given a warm welcome and eventually a distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classics, Bang and Friedkin spoke about bringing the sparks to this historical drama, creating a courtroom scene you’ll never forget and working with a co-star as unpredictable as Pearce.
How did you get interested in this?
Dan Friedkin: It’s an era that’s been of interest to me for a long time, and I’m just passionate about that Post-World War II era. This particular [story] came up as an idea just planted by a friend who said, “Have you heard Han van Meegeren’s story?” And I was like, “I think I heard a little bit about that.” But then I started reading about it, and it was just so fascinating. We just started developing it over time and seven years later, we’ve fortunately made the film.
Have you had the directing bug for a while, or was this something about this project in particular?
Dan Friedkin: I’ve always been on set as a producer and enjoyed that process immensely, but always [thinking], “I want to do that thing over there. I think I’d like that process. I wanted to give it a go.” And a mentor, Ridley Scott, who’s been terrific with me, he gave me the shot in the arm ultimately that got me to the point where I decided to do it. He said, “Just get on with it. If you want to direct, go do it.” So that got me over that hurdle a little bit, but I love it.
Claes, how did you get interested in this?
Claes Bang: Dan was a co-financier of Ruben Östlund’s “The Square,” which is how we met and how [Dan] got to know about me. We were in Cannes, and then all of a sudden, [Dan] had this script and sent it to me. And I’m like, “Wow, what a great, great story,” and I was taken by surprise because I did not know this story and I’m a bit of an art buff. I was really taken by it, and when I read the script the first time, if you don’t know the story, there are two or three big twists and turns that pull the rug from under you. It did that to me, and I loved this idea of this guy trying to come back on his feet after everything that happened – who knows what happens to you if you go through a war like that, but his world seems to be quite shattered, and now he’s trying to piece everything back together, and trying to get to the bottom of this case is a big thing in piecing it back together.
One of the things that I love about this movie so much is how lightly it wears history where you still really feel it. Do you have to really immerse yourself in it to get that feeling?
Claes Bang: Actually, because we see it through this guy’s eyes, there are probably like a million ways that people dealt with coming out of that war and this is one version of what one guy went through, but an interesting thing we talked about, because we’ve never been through stuff like that in our generation, was to try and dig into that and say, have we got something to say about this? What could could be our take on that? That was the starting point.
Dan Friedkin: That’s right. There was this notion that everyone deals differently with that type of trauma of the post-war rebuilding process, dealing with the demons that remained with you even after the war and this notion of forgiveness, and I hope that this film illuminates that issue, which is that this character might deal with the war this way, but [another] deals with it this way. It becomes a personal psychological thing that has to be dealt with, and the judgment that goes with that why did this person do this during the war? That has to go away, as well as this notion of grit. For example, this character [Claes plays] starts out [where] everything has to be concrete. He has to put everything to bed and there’s good guys and bad guys. This is black, this is white. There’s nothing in between. The good guys and the bad guys. And clearly, there obviously were good guys and bad guys in the war, but there are shades of gray, and it’s actually on a continuum in terms of how people dealt with that trauma.
Was there a detail that unlocked this character for you?
Claes Bang: I’m not sure about a detail, but I always look for something in every character that I can identify with, and for this, I can essentially find that in myself – that when you’re in distress, you tend to go a little bit into that mode of [compartamentalizing] like, “Now, that needs to be over here because I can’t navigate this world [otherwise].” When you’re a little bit fucked up, that’s what I tend to do. You just want to put everything where it needs to be and that’s probably what I could relate to with this guy. When I find myself in these situations, not that I have been in anything as bad as him, I probably have the tendency to do a little bit of the same thing, so that was an identifying point of the character.
Then obviously, we worked a lot with Guy [Pearce]. We had three or four days last year, where we sat down with each other and it becomes about how can we sort of balance the scenes and make this whole story work. Because in that sense, I never see myself as an interpreter of the character. I see myself as a piano that the director can play, and I’m just supposed to have all the keys there, so you can do what you want with it, and I see that this is my bit of the story that I need to carry, Guy needs to carry this and Vicky [Krieps] carries this. So that’s important to understand that this guy is pushing the story here and here and here, but it also backs a little bit away from him to someone else. To have that understanding of that mechanic is something that became really interesting for this.
Dan Friedkin: And I think we were able to do that by the time we’ve spent together with the script earlier over those days. We were able to look at it not just in terms of the individual components, but the overall gestalt. We did that collectively, and I hope effectively. These things take on a life of their own. You have a vision of what the script will deliver and what it will look like, and you even have an image – how I’m going to shoot it and where and how a scene unfolds, but then they end up becoming something a little bit different and that’s actually one of the things I enjoy most about it when it takes on its own sort of magic.
How did Guy get involved?
Dan Friedkin: Guy was someone who I had been familiar with obviously, but Ridley Scott, who has helped us with this film in the early days and read some drafts of the script and gave me some notes, said, “Yeah, we’ll look at Guy.” You know, he has this breadth and when I heard his vision for what this extravagant, excessive- and destructive, in some ways – character would be like, it really aligned with my view of that character as well.
He’s so wily. Was that fun to play off of?
Claes Bang: It’s obviously an inspiration and very stimulating, but I find that happens with all the actors that I work with. And as [Dan] says, it reads [one way] and then you get in the room and start rehearsing it and then all of a sudden, it changes. It will never be what you had in your head. It will come to life, and you have to be open to this process, so when something happens with my character when I’m put in the room with him or with Vicky or Roland or with any other actor, I prep as best as I can to allow that openness, so I can actually go, “Oh my God, that’s fucking interesting. Now let’s try and take the scene in this direction, because what you’re suggesting right now with what you’re doing is really cool. And then I think I can add perhaps this or this,” so for me, it’s just always when it’s at its best, it’s an inspiration. It’s like you’ve got all these bits and bobs, and then you start building it, and all of a sudden, you have this tower or house or whatever it is that you build out of it.
Dan Friedkin: Yeah, and with Joseph Piller, Claes’s character, it’s the foundation of the film in a sense that at any given moment, he’s either holding the mirror up so that Guy Pearce can see himself, or he’s turning the mirror around and holding it up to himself, so for Claes, what I like so much about having him for this, like from “The Square,” it’s all in the face. He’s processing. I don’t believe that was a script with a lot of dialogue, but it’s all about the visual impact. It can’t be overt. It requires a very subtle nuanced level of acting. And that’s something that Claes is able to deliver – how he processes events. And you don’t see that very often.
You also don’t see historical dramas on this scale being mounted as convincingly as it’s done here. Did that require someone behind the camera who had the experience you do as a producer to know what was possible?
Claes Bang: Yeah, it requires that you shut down like half of Amsterdam for three nights… [laughs] which were probably some of the best nights because it’s like just to have half of Amsterdam to yourself, walking around that late, it’s like a fairy tale. But it is demanding.
Dan Friedkin: It’s definitely challenging. One thing that makes it certainly easier and more fluid is we had a really solid team of leads on this – our first AD and our DP. When you’re shooting a court scene, for example, if I’m working directly with Guy and with Claes, executing the front end of the court scene, you’ve got to make sure on each take, that people are running in the same direction, so everything has to happen in the background. And our first AD Richard Goodwin was tremendous at handling all of that for us, so we could focus on the front end of it and I knew that I didn’t have to worry too much about the back end, so it’s about having great key people.
That courtroom sequence is so dynamic for a single setting. Was it difficult to keep the energy up?
Dan Friedkin: We wanted to do a court scene that was unlike other court scenes, which is difficult to do because if you watch several films with court scenes, there’s a certain structure to them. A film called “The Trial,” certainly informed this, how we executed this court scene and we came up with some ideas [such as] getting Roland to throw the chair down the aisle as a distraction, for example – that was something that we wanted to keep the energy of the scene up.
Claes Bang: But throughout the court scene, the light changes. The camera angles change. We get more and more people in the room, because there are more and more interested in this case, so you have all these different parameters that you can work with, but it’s quite a long scene and you have to be aware of this narrative that you’re building it from all these [elements] and as an actor to know that we need to keep building the tension all the time. You need to push it a little bit or [but you also need to know when to stand back and] now we actually move just slightly closer in [this moment with the camera] just to increase [the tension], all these little things in order to structure the whole.
But basically it’s trusting the good story because when you have something that is this interesting and solid, [the key is] to just stay calm and trust it. When I read it, I fucking loved it. I think it was true and we should trust it. But that is actually something that can be difficult sometimes, because you sit there and you’re like, “Wow. That’s a long speech. Is that interesting to anybody?” If the buildup is right, it is.
Dan Friedkin: Yeah, and we had to convey the passage of time in a court scene, which is different in a film than in a TV series or something [else]. Lighting was a big part of it. In fact, a lot of it was ambient light that actually naturally changed, because we shot it over four days, which was terrific, so we got that naturally, and I think it built a natural intensity because we also shot chronologically more or less, so the characters felt where they were in the court case.
Claes Bang: And we could almost like a little bit work off the extras because they were like, “Oh, what’s going to happen now?” They didn’t know, so that helped a little bit, because you could feel it.
Dan Friedkin: It’s interesting, because you worry about that in the edit and they were naturally in that moment. I rarely saw a background reaction that was off.
Claes Bang: No. They were really there. And [Dan] is so experienced in this, so talking about him as a first-time director is slightly weird. One thing that really has been like a gift for this, is how much he trusts the story and his instincts in telling this story at a [proper] pace. “This is it. Let’s not try and go all ‘Avengers’ in terms of how we shoot it. action and all. We have a really cool, classic story with the right influence here. Let’s just play it out like that.” And this is not something that everybody could do, because in this modern day and age, where everything is like so fast, you think people want to be stimulated in that sense. I’ve done a one-man monologue, one hour and 10 minutes that I’d done 400 times, and I’ve got nothing with me. I just stand there in front of people. I can tell you, people love a good story if it’s good. They will sit through it. And this story is so good, I should just really care that I don’t get in the way of it. It’s actually just about letting the story stream through you, and just leave it and trust it. Because people will always want to hear a great story.
“The Last Vermeer” opens in theaters on November 20th.