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Female Gaze: Myrthe Mosterman

The blonde bombshell, the femme fatale, sirens of the silver screen. For 125 years we’ve been watching women on the big screen, but seldom have they been the ones pulling the strings behind the scenes. Thankfully, that is now changing. In this series of interviews with inspirational female makers, they talk about their own work, illustrated by a clip from a film by another female maker. In this second interview in the series, camerawoman Myrthe Mosterman discusses the film Honey Boy, featuring camerawork by Natasha Braier.

By Gina Miroula09 November 2021

Portrait of Myrthe Mosterman by Kiki Weerts
Portrait by Kiki Weerts

”During shooting, I’m inside my body, but the world around me disappears”, camerawoman Myrthe Mosterman explains animatedly. It’s early, and the café in Eye Filmmuseum is still quiet. “At the end of a shoot, I often think: I’m hungry, I need to pee, and shit! Where’s my sweater?”

Myrthe Mosterman in a black jumpsuit outside of Eye Filmmuseum
Photo by Anna Meijer

Myrthe’s work (fiction films, documentaries and commercials) is often described as ‘up close and personal’: viewers become submerged in the inner worlds of the characters in front of her lens. Her images are intimate and serene, often with striking use of colour. To illustrate the interview, she has chosen Honey Boy (2019) with camerawork by Natasha Braier.

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Trailer for Honey Boy

Myrthe hit puberty in the glory days of the video rental store. “I spent many nights watching films with a girlfriend; I kept a scrapbook with cuttings of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio.” She decided to study Film, took a photography course on the side and sometimes rented a darkroom. She says that these photos from early in her career lacked that certain spark. Nevertheless, something inside her had ignited: “I knew I wanted to tell stories using images.” Myrthe signed up for the Film Academy and was admitted to the Cinematography course.

She started shooting immediately after graduation. She worked on the documentary Sletvrees by Sunny Bergman, and on the intimate Liefdesbrieven by Tara Fallaux. Later projects included the short films Weeën, about fear of fatherhood, and Het einde van Monica, as well as the as yet unreleased fiction films Splendid Isolation and Zee van tijd. In 2020 GOUD, for which Myrthe provided the camerawork, won a Golden Calf for Best Camera.

You chose the film Honey Boy. What makes this film so special for you?

“The acting and the shooting style are incredibly strong. It’s an autobiographical, therapeutic story, as screenwriter Shia LaBeouf plays his own father. You feel it could escalate; with an autobiographical film, the emotions often run high. In cinematic terms, at times it’s almost kitschy and nostalgic. A lot of flares are used [sunlight streaming into a camera lens], which we as viewers recognise as warm and romantic. Camerawoman Natasha Braier goes for this deliberately because it’s all about memories of youth which are not nostalgic at all. So the dreamy feel creates a tension with the story.”

The dream sequence Myrthe has chosen illustrates several storylines, including a meta line about filmmaking. The brightly lit night scene is followed by a day scene in which the natural light almost seems fake. A ladybird lands on protagonist Otis’ arm; he follows the insect with his finger. Myrthe: “I like to improvise, and to make use of reality in this way if it happens. You can see this in this scene, it brings a sense of veracity and intimacy.”

Scene by night, from Honey Boy. Photo: Monica Lek.
Scene by night, from Honey Boy. Photo: Monica Lek.
Example of lens flare, from Honey Boy. Photo: Monica Lek.
Example of lens flare, from Honey Boy. Photo: Monica Lek.

In Honey Boy, the acting space was 360 degrees: the actors weren’t restricted by markers. They were able to move freely, without a fixed mise en scene. Myrthe: “Braier isn’t shooting herself, but directing the images. She’s literally DJing with the light, while her camera operator, wearing a headset, makes the shots. I couldn’t do that, because for me the interaction with the actors is very important. I like to define a big space, set up the lighting generously and then shoot by instinct. In Honey Boy, you can feel that like me the director, Alma Har’el, is a woman with a background in documentary. The film does great justice to LaBeouf’s story.”

For GOLD, you filmed a young gymnast. In the scene on the treatment table with his physiotherapist, you get incredibly close; something really happens between the two of them. How did you manage to capture this?

“The film is made up of three lines: the gym, the father-son relationship and the affective relationship with the physiotherapist. Her touch triggers something he is missing, which allows his emotion to break through. In the parental home, where I depict the complicated relationship with his father, I use long lenses – this creates distance. With the physio on the other hand, I film from very close up, in a light space. This scene actually makes me uneasy – it’s on the boundary of too intimate. The three of us got into a very special dynamic. That was possible, and it was permitted, and it was beautiful and kind. I was in their aura, but I didn’t want to cause any disruption.”

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The scene at the physiotherapist, from GOUD.

Myrthe is happy with the uninterrupted shots in the sports hall. “The relationship of trust between the main character David Wristers and me was crucial in this. I was a focal point on his mat, while he performed somersaults and ran really fast. I was pregnant at the time and was more aware of my body: we had to be extra careful. At the same time, the whole thing had to be presented in a grand way, and brightly lit. We had to move up, down and from side to side, to revolve through 360 degrees. A complex choreography altogether”.

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The scene in the sports hall, from GOUD.

What fascinates you about working with the camera?

“The search for how to best depict a story: from the pre-production of the script through to the execution. Entering into dialogue with a director and investigating with the crew what works and what doesn’t.” For Myrthe, her work starts the moment she picks up her camera. “In the same way an actor learns his text before performing, I know in advance what shots I think I will need. During shooting, I really like the physical feeling – it’s almost addictive – of checking out. As part of the dynamics on the set, I get involved in a dance with the actors. I’m not a maker, but a responder. For me, the response to what someone gives me, and what happens in the moment, is more important than determining the whole picture – what the film as a whole will finally look like.”

How do you work with the director?

“I am sent a film plan by my agent. First of all, I get to grips with the director’s vision and ideas, then I read the script and decide whether the maker interests me. I go more by the person, because a good director can make something good out of any bad script. And a strong screenplay can be ruined by an unsuitable director.”

“I am pretty intuitive; I know within five minutes whether we click. Another important consideration: am I being challenged or taken out of my comfort zone, and do I want to spend six months working with this person? My position is vulnerable. The work is intense, and often involves heightened emotions and outbursts, pressure of time and long working days. I have to feel safe.”

With some directors, Myrthe becomes friends, watches films and visits locations with them. With others, the cooperation is more businesslike. They work on the decoupage [dividing up a scene into basic visual elements or shots] for the story and see one another at set times. In the case of her feature films GOUD, Splendid Isolation and Zee van tijd, the approach taken was different each time.

Can you tell us a bit more about the fiction films you have shot recently?

“I recently finished Splendid Isolation with director Urszula Antoniak. A story about two women on a deserted island, and death. Urszula doesn’t do decoupage, but we talked in great detail about the film. She pushed me to not fall back on familiar patterns. Everything was shot on 16 mm film, with a lot of fixed frames. We had to choose what shots would best depict the scene on the day and location of the shoot. Normally, I follow the actors and respond to what they give me. This time, I had to place the actors myself. I’m very happy with the film from a visual point of view. It turned out to be an idiosyncratic, abstract film: almost a work of art.

Still from Splendid Isolation, portrait of a woman
Still from Splendid Isolation
Still from Splendid Isolation, a woman and a child at the beach
Still from Splendid Isolation

“This was very different when shooting Zee van tijd, in which a young couple lose their child at sea. Theu Boermans [artistic director of theatre company Nationaal Toneel] considers the visuals to be subordinate to the performances. He focuses more in his directing on the actors’ dialogue, listens to this with his eyes closed. Then he gives notes on this afterwards. Theu allowed me a lot of freedom with the camera, as long as the actors came across well. For me this was a big challenge, to not just shoot the most beautiful image.”

Myrthe remembers it vividly. For Zee van tijd, she and twelve others were floating in a sailing boat off of Malta. Below deck, everyone was really seasick. “I had the idea of positioning the boat in relation to the sun. Within one hour I had learned: a keel has a will of its own.” They had to go further and further from the islands, so it seemed like they were out on the open sea. There was constantly an island behind them, pleasure boats were always sailing past. “Straight away, my love of the documentary approach reared its head. I believed in the added value of the rocking boat, the thirty-degree heat, and the fact that the actors could hardly walk and stay on their feet.”

What films do you think are missing from the film landscape in the Netherlands now?

“There are not so many good genre films being made in the Netherlands. Our films are usually small-scale dramas with one main character and their own world. At the Film Academy, screenwriting students are often stimulated to draw on their own experiences. The Netherlands tends to avoid the big topics. Here, films about ‘humanity’, such as those by Terrence Malick [Badlands, Days of Heaven], would be completely bombastic. For me, the only directors who come close at the moment are Alex van Warmerdam and Urszula Antoniak. Their stories symbolise something bigger.”

In the Netherlands, we mostly have arthouse films not enough people watch, and then the big crowd-pleasers, which are seen as lacking in quality. I’d like to see more variety, for example. And genre films: good thrillers, for example.”

Myrthe Mosterman at work, operating the camera in her hands
Myrthe Mosterman at work

What projects would you like to work on in the (near) future?

“I don’t have a specific dream; I don’t have any ambition to work with a specific director. But I’m not much of a long-term planner anyway. A period film, or an explicit genre film, like a thriller, that would be really cool. Films with rules for the camerawork.

It’s nearly noon by now, and Myrthe has to get to Belgium; to help a friend with his new video. “I’m lucky with the variety in my projects. From artistic to commercial and everything in between. All these different cinematic forms and types of people: it keeps me sharp.”