Continuing our ongoing series about this year’s Foreign Oscar contenders…
The first time Dutch filmmaker Paula van Der Oest was nominated for an Oscar, she almost didn’t make it back to the Netherlands. Not because she’s long been hailed as the country’s answer to Danish helmer Susanne Bier as the rare writer/director who could crossover into Hollywood after making such internationally acclaimed dramas as “Zus & Zo,” which scored that first Oscar nod in 2002, and “Black Butterflies,” but because her producer was holding her ticket for her at the Academy Awards and after briefly leaving the Kodak Theatre, she had trouble making it past security to get back in.
“At that moment, it was horrible, but it’s a very good story afterwards,” says van der Oest, laughing about it now. “It’s Oscar night, I was in an extravagant dress, next to people who were handcuffed, and there’s a mug shot taken of me. I really want to see that, but I’m not sure if it’s still somewhere.”
Fortunately, van der Oest might have a shot at a redo. With “Accused,” known as “Lucia De B.” in its home country, the filmmaker turns a low point in the Netherlands’ recent history into a riveting thriller about a pediatric nurse named Lucia de Berk, who was sentenced for life in prison after nine babies died under her watch between 2000 and 2001. Tried and convicted in the court of public opinion well before she ever went to trial, the media quickly dubbed De Berk the “Angel of Death,” aiding along a prosecution that was based on specious evidence of wrongdoing. De Berk was eventually exonerated, but only after a group of people came forward on the outside to challenge the court’s ruling. While that collective is embodied in van der Oest’s retelling by just one person, a resourceful young prosecutor (Sallie Harmsen) who becomes disillusioned by her office’s handling of the case and eventually switches sides, “Accused” faithfully recounts the many twists and turns that led to de Berk’s vindication, with the director taking particular pride in how the same newspapers that once called her “Monster” now praised the film in their reviews.
Although the film has yet to secure American distribution, van Der Oest made a triumphant return to Los Angeles recently and took the time to speak about what it was like to work with her subject, how she likes to change things up from film to film and how she achieved the visual look of the film, not only with the camera, but how her extras dressed.
What attracted you to this story?
Of course, I had followed the story of Lucia a bit through the media, but the producer brought [this script] to me. The moment I realized that I too had these thoughts about her like, “Whoa, I’m not sure if this woman did not really kill those people,” I thought, “Okay, I have to make this movie because her story is incredible and I want to tell how a process like this works. I think the rest of the world thinks that the Netherlands is a tolerant, civilized society and that the legal system is perfect and smooth. In our country too, these things happen.
How big an event was this in the Netherlands?
Quite big because there was not only the first trial, but an appeals process, and she was imprisoned for more than six years. Before she officially was declared innocent, it took 10 years, and it was very hard for the people, and the judges, and the district attorney to admit that they made a mistake. They’re considered to be people that don’t fail, that are wise, and that know the truth, and this time, everybody from the police, the judges, the district attorney went into this tunnel, and they weren’t able to step out of it. It’s thinking with your gut, and that’s very dangerous.
Since the case spanned such a long time, was it difficult to decide what parts to include in a 90-minute film?
Yeah, we also had one big problem when we started because our main character was someone who was completely passive because she was locked up with no ability to do anything. Therefore we created an antagonist [driving the action] out of a few people that really existed. A retired nurse, who thought at the certain moment, “This is not right. Something is very wrong here,” and her brother started investigating the whole case and discovered that there was mistake after mistake being made. There was also an anonymous phone call to the lawyer [that warned Lucia] will be convicted. I wanted to make a film in which you first go along with the feeling that the nurse is guilty, then slowly, you realize that you [might be] wrong.
I’ve read Lucia was actually on set at times and fairly involved in the process. Was that at all intimidating?
That was very interesting. After all those years in prison, she’s surprisingly mild, and she has a great sense of humor, but she’s also suspicious. She doesn’t trust anyone anymore, which I completely understand. We let her read the script and she had a friend, a nail stylist, who she went through the script with, and they had put stickers on parts that they liked, they didn’t like or they thought were completely untrue, but acceptable for the movie. We didn’t give her final say because we had to make a movie, but we listened to her. We didn’t want her to have the feeling again people were deciding over her while she didn’t have any influence at all.
She was present during the editing process to see some versions of the film. The first one, she hated. She said, “You promised me an action movie. This is a boring story.” I said, “Well, it’s not that boring,” but of course you keep on editing, and you get a version that works. Finally, she was completely happy.
It really is a relentlessly paced thriller, which is something you haven’t done before. Was that an exciting challenge?
I liked it because it’s not that I want to make one genre. It’s just the story that I want to tell. I have a [cinematographer] that I always work with and he’s crazy about films, so he and I watched several court dramas, thrillers, and in combination with the script we developed this style, and I think it works well.
Is it true Anton Corbijn’s photography was a visual influence?
It was true in a sense that we didn’t want to have views in the film because she was locked up. You don’t have windows. Everything was enclosed, so that you would feel this suffocating feeling.
It also feels cold much of the time with how much you use blue. How did you develop the color palette?
It’s sitting down with the costume designer, the production designer, the director of photography, and producers — we wanted this monochromatic image – no red, no yellow, no green. If anything, it’s greenish blue. Our filmmaking is a bit different from U.S. filmmaking. Our extras don’t [come from a casting agency]. You can’t control them completely, so our costume designer was like a judge who said, “No, no. You have a red face. You have to leave.” People had to bring all the clothes into colors that fit our script. That’s how we all controlled everything. We didn’t want anything in the image that would disturb this idea.
Your filmography is so varied. Do you actually look to do something different each time out?
I don’t have a real system. There’s no systematic approach to what I do, so either there’s a story in my head that needs to come out or a project comes along. What is fantastic about my job is that every time you come into a new world you have to research very thoroughly and you’re in another part of society. That’s what I really, really like, except for directing actors. This actress [Ariane Schluter, who plays Lucia], I love her so much. She’s so subtle. You probably can’t hear it because that’s the language, but she studied the nurse [thoroughly], and then she applied this accent that’s from the city The Hague, so you believe her completely. That nuance may be gone when you go abroad, but for the Dutch audience, she was the nurse.