Female Gaze: Iris Otten

The blonde bombshell, the femme fatale, sirens of the silver screen. For 125 years, we have seen women on the cinema screen, but they were seldom in control behind the scenes. Luckily, things are finally changing. In this series of interviews, inspiring female filmmakers talk about their own work on the basis of film excerpts from other women’s films. In this sixth interview, Iris Otten talks about her field, production, using Dirty Dancing, by producer Linda Gottlieb, as an example.

By Gina Miroula14 March 2022

Iris Otten portrait by Kiki Weerts
Portrait by Kiki Weerts

“Sometimes I feel as if I am juggling 100 plates at the same time,” says producer Iris Otten when we discuss the sizeable scope of her work. She orders orange and ginger tea, then looks out over the IJ River. “Naturally something sometimes breaks, as it does in real life.”

Female Gaze: Iris Otten in Eye Filmmuseum

Iris and her family moved to Curaçao to where her father had been stationed as a navy chaplain when she was nine. He died 18 months later. “I continued living with my mother and my two younger sisters. The death of the man of the house impacts your development. I was very contrary: the teenager from hell.”

Growing up in the Caribbean, two smash-hit films dominated her life: Grease and Dirty Dancing. “We dressed up as Olivia Newton-John for every party, but I thought Dirty Dancing was more exciting. We had recorded the film on VHS at home. I must have watched the final scene 150 times: it exerted a huge pull on me.”

Iris Otten at work
Iris Otten at work

Back in the Netherlands, Iris studied at and graduated from the Dutch Filmacademie. In 2006 she started working for the production company Pupkin becoming a partner there in 2009. She has been and is closely involved in a wide range of feature films and series, including: Jongens, Aanmodderfakker, Take Me Somewhere Nice and the yet to be released Lampje.

Late last year, she founded the Pupkin sub-label Juliet with Nathalie van der Burg. The creation of Juliet was motivated by the desire to produce cross-over films and family series that contribute to an optimistic society and inspire new generations. The focus is on a female target audience.

“My profession requires an immense sense of responsibility.”

Iris Otten

You selected Dirty Dancing. What moves you about this film?

“It’s entertainment with a message. A story of feminism, class and heritage, but also of abortion, love and sex.”

The melon scene in particular stuck in her mind. In it, Baby stands at the bottom of the stairs at the resort she is staying at with her family. The stairs lead to the staff room, where things take place in secret: men and women are dirty dancing. “Baby enters a world she has no knowledge of with a melon under her arm. She is insecure, has no sense of rhythm and wooden hips. Then she meets sexy Johnny. He releases something in her with his charm and supple movements.”

A little while ago, Iris watched the film with her sons. “I asked them which scene they would choose. The answer was: ‘The scene in which two old ladies start dancing and one of them throws off her stole’.” Iris’ face lights up briefly. “I hope the world could be like this: that everyone can move freely and openly. That is what life should really be about.”

still from Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, US 1987)
still from Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, US 1987)

Are these scenes reminiscent of the watermelon scene in your own films?

“I try to look for that feeling in all my projects. In real terms that worked out well in the feature film Jongens (Mischa Kamp, 2014). Actor Gijs Blom played the role of Sieger, a kid from the sticks who is into athletics. He meets Marc (Ko Zandvliet) and feels attracted to him. As a teen he doesn’t know what to do with those feelings. Just like Baby in the melon scene, Sieger slowly surrenders to Marc and the feelings this entails.”

still from Jongens (Boys) (Mischa Kamp, NL 2014)
still from Jongens (Boys) (Mischa Kamp, NL 2014)

Jongens is not just about homosexuality, but more about two people who are attracted to each other and fall in love. The film was a huge international success. “We often received emails from China where the film was screened illegally. Another great comment came from a festival in southern Italy where the programmers stated that it was: ‘Fabulous that we can screen this without causing offence’.”

still from Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarević, NL 2019)
still from Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarević, NL 2019)

Iris also refers to a film such as Take Me Somewhere Nice as an example. “The lead returns to Bosnia, her country of birth. It’s an unknown world to her and the new people she meets teach her about herself.”

“I hope that the stories I select as a producer provide good examples of this: being open to each other and new experiences.”

What fascinates you about working as a producer?

“To me, producing is all about bringing a lot of different people together to collaborate.” Iris looks around. “While we are here, a good team is filming somewhere in the studio. Isn’t that just astounding? There is always a lot going on that I am privileged to be part of.”

“My profession requires an immense sense of responsibility. As a producer you should make properly considered decisions, because which stories do you want to support, and which stories will you put out there? I like the development process most, working towards a script. Sometimes a logline is enough to explain the story, other times this only develops after two years; in that case, there is only a point of departure or some characters. From time to time, this can be frustrating and you don’t reach an agreement together. Then it is my job to pull the plug, preferably in harmony with the makers.”

What kind of collaborations do you enjoy creating as a producer?

“I am always curious about the story the maker wants to tell. Does it have societal value? I like to develop encouraging stories.” Iris always speaks to (new) makers in advance. “What are our mutual expectations? Or more crucially: what is important to you as a human? I prefer to make entertaining films based on values and standards.” She runs her hands through her hair, smiles: “Does that sound too preachy coming from a chaplain’s daughter?”

Iris Otten in Cannes
At the Cannes Film Festival
Iris Otten in the train to the Berlinale
In the train to the Berlinale

How do you keep the personal and the professional apart in your work? Doesn’t your position as the producer put you slap bang in the middle?

“That is the hardest thing about my job for me; I’m not a natural at negotiating. Years ago, I worked as the production leader for Keyzer & De Boer Advocaten: 22 episodes with a list of actors as long as my arm. I thought that was a good exercise in negotiation, but I keep struggling with it. it’s all about expectation management, after all people are often slightly disappointed. That’s why I am so happy with my colleagues like Sander van Meurs and Nathalie van der Burg, who take care of the business end of things.”

Iris doesn’t mind having difficult conversations. “Experience has made me better at them. It all depends on who the person opposite you is, after all, it’s an interaction. Sometimes I talk to a coach about my work, because my profession is pretty all-encompassing. You are responsible for money, schedules, staff and running the business. Together, Juliet and Pupkin have 11 employees I have to care for and then there are all the productions I supervise.”

In mid-February, the Het Parool newspaper in the Netherlands ran a headline that women are still considerably under-represented in the Dutch film and TV industry. Both on camera and behind the scenes. What’s your take on this?

“At age 21, when I was at the Filmacademie, I viewed myself as a unicorn in the field. Only a handful of female producers had preceded me.” In the early 1990s, Stienette Bosklopper started the production company Circe Films and many of her projects (Wolfsbergen, 2007, Boven is het stil, 2013) were selected for international film festivals. “Hanneke Niens (De tweeling, 2003) and Leontine Petit (Dunya en Desie, 2008) had also already made a name for themselves. My finals projects at the Filmacademie were Westwood Loves You and De laatste dag van Alfred Maassen. We went to Cannes, won a Golden Calf at the Netherlands Film Festival. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the thought: this is a male-dominated industry.”

“After graduating, I became depressed when I realised you can’t learn production from a study programme, you have to go out and do it. I was convinced it would take years for me to become a producer. I wanted to tackle things step by step, that suits me better. In 2009, I became a partner at Pupkin and then it took another two years before I found the courage to introduce myself as a producer.”

Now in 2022, Iris is of the opinion that things have improved. “Female producers have gained visibility. Room for Film is a production company run by two women, Family Affair Films is owned by Floor Onrust, Noortje Wildschut and Chris Stenger, and Viking Film is run by Marleen Slot. Topkapi, Lemming and our company have a good employee gender balance.” To Iris, cooperation is about people. “Not about whether I get on with men or women better.”

Iris Otten and colleagues with a Gouden Kalf award for 7 Kleine Criminelen
With a Gouden Kalf award for 7 Kleine Criminelen
Iris Otten and colleague with Cinekid Leeuw award for 7 Kleine Criminelen
With the Cinekid Leeuw-award for 7 Kleine Criminelen

In late 2021, you and Nathalie van der Burg launched the Juliet label at Pupkin. Which productions will Juliet focus on?

“We intend to concentrate on family films and series, but also cross-overs; a type of Dirty Dancing.” Iris’ mind wanders briefly: “I would like to produce that type of film because it is an entertaining story that reached the largest possible global audience. The film is even still enormously successful after 35 years. If we managed to do so with a film, I’d have the courage to stop.”

Juliet is currently working on Lampje (Directed by Margien Rogaar), after the eponymous children’s book by Annet Schaap. The series is due for initial screening on TV during the 2022 festive season.

still from Lampje (Margien Rogaar, NL 2022)
still from Lampje (Margien Rogaar, NL 2022)

“My job as a producer is to bring the right people together. Lampje was a challenging project that required a ditto crew. It was quite a challenge to film all the exceptional aspects of the book on a Dutch budget. Because where do you find an offshore lighthouse or a clifftop house where two children jump from a window and land in the sea, ending up metres below the surface. Our cameraman Robbie van Brussel, is very good with technology and visual effects. The same applied to the art direction. Barbara Westra helped us to create an entirely new, century-old world.”

Autumn will see shooting for Jippie No More! start. “A film for all the family, like Four Weddings and a Funeral.” The production company is also working on roughly ten other projects. “We juggle all these plates simultaneously with the knowledge that we should be taking less on. We are selective about our choices, but could be more so.”

Do you, after all these years, ever feel like shooting your own film?

“No. I am completely satisfied with my position. I can be part of the entire creation process whilst maintaining due distance. I do admire directors however because it is a precarious profession. Particularly if you want to shoot arthouse films, not commercials or TV series. If I ever have to change jobs, I’d like to be the head of a primary school.”