Home Screen Features 30 Years of Drowning by Numbers: A Q&A with Peter Greenaway

30 Years of Drowning by Numbers: A Q&A with Peter Greenaway

30 years after its release, BAFTA award winning director Peter Greenaway answers Screen Editor David Conway's questions on his film, Drowning by Numbers


Outside an English country home, framed with the shadow of a deceased bird blowing in the wind, a girl with a skipping rope looks at the stars and counts them, finally stopping at one hundred. When asked why she has stopped at one hundred, she simply replies; ‘once you’ve counted to a hundred, all the other hundreds are the same’.

Some would consider this an odd sentiment. But as the opening to Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers, it is absolutely perfect. The 1988 film is a beautiful series of vignettes and images, twisting our perception back to a youthful curiosity that we have somehow forgotten, or perhaps repressed. Events are dictated by the rules of games, the English countryside is a blend of the morbid and the hyper-colourful, and traditional ideas of numbering and indexing are picked at like a child trying to sort this strange, ethereal world of sex and death into some sort of sense.

Fittingly, on the thirtieth year since the film’s release (another numerical occasion), Greenaway has answered some of Screen’s questions surrounding its creation, and the great cinematic game it plays.

In the thirty years since Drowning by Numbers, you’ve had an incredibly broad career, ranging across the worlds of film, opera and painting. Looking back at the film, how do you see it now, and how it fits into the broader picture of your body of work?

Mantegna’s ‘Death of Christ’, an influence on one of the key shots in the film

The film Drowning By Numbers – not surprisingly – was many things, not all of them so noticeable at the time of manufacture. First, it was a conscious desire to make a pastoral in the list of genres – tragedies, comedies, pastorals. Then I wanted to explore a fictional idea of my childhood. Thirdly I wanted to revisit a section of English landscape I knew well as a child to see how it looked some twenty-five years after being a 10-year old. I was fascinated by conscious game-playing – traditional English games like cricket in various alternative or perverted forms, games of catch, skipping, and human activity as a form of game-playing and ritualizing, with numberless written and unwritten rules and laws, some traditional, some invented. In the most general terms it is a film about numbers and counting, with a classic consciously three-part structure. Suggestions of Three Macbeth Witches, Three Chekov Sisters. In fairy tales, you are always granted three wishes. When you are drowning you do not come up a third time. And in specific terms it is a film with a persistent number-count to reflect time-counting and chronology. A play on the theme of Painting by Numbers – the game for children of colouring a painting diagram with the aid of a numbers chart. Fifthly, I was interested in making a film with an exoskeleton – an external structure – the number-count that made reflections on the nature of time, succession, chronology and the numerous ways cinema organizes itself – 35mm, 16mm, 8 mm, 16 by 9 aspect ratio, “cinema is the truth 24 time a second”, like the exoskeleton – an external protective structure like the carapace of a tortoise or a crab or an insect. A structure that was independent of any internal plot, story or narrative – akin perhaps to the colour structure of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. It is a film that will remind me of painting – full of painting quotations, half-quotations, semi-quotations and references and asides; a demonstration of how eight thousand (at least) years of painting can be compared – or there again cannot be compared – to only 120-odd years of cinema. One example in many – the Mantegna Death of Christ that quotes, rhymes and chimes with the second dead husband in the film, laid out flat and seen from the feet up. What was not so noticeable at the time perhaps is how it was a film that gave me an opportunity to revisit comfort zones – filming water always reliably photogenic and filming set-piece table meals –- a permission to think about insects and towers and playing with the multiple significances of the Apple from introducing the A is for Alphabet to Eve’s apparent delights and transgressions. These fascinations and obsessions still rumble on. It’s happening with the new film Walking to Paris.

‘I was fascinated by conscious game-playing – traditional English games like cricket in various alternative or perverted forms, games of catch, skipping, and human activity as a form of game-playing’

Thinking of the characteristic in more detail.

1. A Pastoral. A classic idea taken from painting and literature. Traditionally, in literature, the adjective ‘pastoral’ refers to rural subjects and aspects of life in the countryside that are romanticized and depicted in a highly unrealistic manner, as seen perhaps by the totally impractical and romantically-inclined urban city-dweller. Landscape as play ground. The pastoral life is usually characterized as being close to some sense of an impossible Golden Age. The setting is a beautiful place in Nature, sometimes connected with images of the Garden of Eden, as in the use of the genre is Christopher Marlowe’s from The Passionate Shepherd to His Love:

Come live with me and be my Love,

And we will all the pleasures prove

That hills and valleys, dale and field,

And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks

And see the shepherds feed their flocks ….

All to be seen in this film with loving irony.

In the ancient classic tradition it was a landscape full of sheep and shepherds and shepherdesses, and poetic love and lust – the paintings of Giorgione and Giovanni Bellini – and being aware of the Forest of Arden, the activities of Marie Antoinette etc. No sheep or shepherdesses here, though there are some dead cows (sheep have already been a pastoral feature in The Draughtsman’s Contract), but there are indeed many and various bucolic and rustic characters in the film – the landscape is forever self-consciously rural, rustic and bucolic.

I come from a long family line on my father’s side of country people – from East Anglia and Norfolk and Suffolk – gardeners, rose-growers, hedgers and ditchers, forest guardians, allotment-owners, people with a sophisticated observed knowledge of the landscape and all that is in it – no book-learning, no Latin names for botanical species – but a way with clouds and weather, the time to plant potatoes, where to find Red Admirable caterpillars in a nettle-bed, how to suck honeysuckle stamens with profit, when to anticipate the September swallows going back to Africa. My father was a gifted amateur ornithologist and knew a great deal about country-matters – much of which he passed on to me. I can still distinguish many birds by their song and always thought every schoolboy could do that – not true, though they would know the difference between a Rolls-Royce and a Lamborghini which I would not.  A love and concern for landscape and a certain anxiety about its temporality persuaded me at a young age (thirteen or fourteen perhaps), long before we all started using the word “ecology”, to try to become a landscape painter – to fix things down, to make them stay. To draw them and paint them and make them permanent. My heroes would be the Dutch landscape painters – like Hobbema and Cuyp, the rustic paintings of Breughel and Bosch but also the biological studies of Audubon and certainly the elements of Darwin’s Beagle journey and the explorations of Humboldt – all of which, through the processes of an art education, flowered into other areas of “fixing”, certainly into film-making. In Drowning By Numbers, the atmospheres evoked – in after-dark country gardens, cold early morning dawns, bonfire leaf-burning afternoons, sunset-lit evening beaches – are set-quoted from innumerable painters, many of them English: Samuel Palmer, Stanley Spencer, Millais, Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelites, Turner, Constable, perhaps both Blakes – William and Peter – David Inshaw and even the later David Hockney pastoral paintings when he returned to Yorkshire, though the film pre-dates the latter. But there is always irony. Big History and Little History. The Cosmos and the Miniature. The spider on the ice-lolly and the Skipping Girl naively counting the stars, wearing a Velasquez Spanish Infanta skirt, with a false Chirico shadow on the light-house tower and a dead bird of prey hanging on a gibbet. The rope and the bird of prey’s dead eye are made from Scotch tape that directly reflects the light straight back into the camera.

2. Childhood. The boy Smut is an evocation of myself in childhood in the nineteen-fifties. Living a private life of games and a fascination for the celebration of dead things which should always be noted and memorialized, with a passion for cricket, playing-cards and insect collecting, and a particular sense of place in mind – a genius loci – the Norfolk and Suffolk coastal landscape as prophetically close to the flat lands of Holland where I now live.

My father was obsessed with that section of the South-East English coast-line – plenty of sea water and fresh water intermingled, forever changing places. Big open skies. Bogs, marshes. Loads of birds.  It was ideal for my father’s bird-watching fascinations. As near as possible to the Dutch flat-lands without crossing the English Channel. Three thousand years of back-history into pre-history. Traditional Roman Catholic pilgrimage lands full of ruined and almost forgotten castles and hundreds of moulding unvisited parish churches, priests’ holes, ghost stories, shameful atrocities, moonless nights, nightingales and glow-worms.  Fairly reachable from London – though it took a day to get there via small country roads in my father’s battered car that broke down every fifty miles. As children (I have a younger brother) we spent summer holidays in caravans and tents and summer-houses and rented cottages and small hotels in and around Southwold and Walberswick in Suffolk, or further north in Bacton and Holkham and North Walsham. Later, as a young married man with two small children – I bought a very small 18th century loam and horse-hair and plaster-stucco-walled timber-frame cottage in the strange-sounding village of Diss with a stamping ground of another curiously-sounding village of Eye. Diss and Eye were full of ghosts. The cottage and its garden with its walnut tree –  where banging your head on the ceiling and burying your shit in the blackberry-patch was mandatory, was bought from the proceeds of selling my SteenBeck – a four-plate, flat-bed 16mm film-editing machine, when I decided to burn my bridges and cease being a film editor with no way back and taking up the risk of becoming a professional film director with an uncertain future.

For this fourth feature-film I wanted to revisit all these places of my youth. The centre of our operational locations was a farm on a tidal estuary creek a few miles inland from Southwold – you can recognize the Southwold lighthouse flashing across the fields– erected to warn locals of Napoleon’s expected invasion – country-lanes, swimming pools, beaches, nettles, woods, forests. A sort of wet, flat ancient Garden of Paradise idyll – my second idyllic Garden of Paradise. My first idyllic Garden of Paradise was in Wiltshire between Salisbury and Shaftesbury at a tucked-away place called Wardour which sounds Tolkienesque and was where I made most of my early short films – the landscape of William Beckford who wrote Vathek, the first Gothic novel and built a folly with a tower higher than the spire of Salisbury Cathedral.

3. The number-count. Three women, three drownings. And the count of one to a hundred. Sometimes the relentless count is obvious, written plain on objects in the film, on gates, doors and cows – sometimes the numbers continue on the soundtrack, sometimes a close scrutiny has to be made to see the numbers on the backs of insects. When you have reached the number fifty you know you are half way through the film. If you are thoroughly bored you can look at your watch and know you have fifty more numbers to go.

You have often discussed your frustration at the way contemporary cinema is stuck telling narrative and screenplay-based fiction. Drowning by Numbers ties into this nicely, as although it appears to be a narrative film on the surface, it is in fact completely deconstructing the very rules that dictate traditional narratives. Was it a goal of yours to highlight how cinema is much more than just storytelling?

I have always realized that, despite its apparent appeal to considering the world in visual terms, cinema is essentially a text-based phenomenon. Practically every film you have ever seen started its life as a text. Even documentary-films have to be scripted nowadays to receive funding. Cinema script-writers are highly-paid members of the film-manufacturing process. So in essence, we have a cinema of illustrated text. Is that really cinema? Is that what we want cinema to be? You could say that Western painting up till the 1860s was like that. Most painting was subject to literary essentials – largely illustrations of the Bible or Ancient Greek and Roman mythology, from the 16th century onwards maybe illustrations of history. Portraits and still-lifes were most often exemplars of literary thinking, literary metaphors; a portrait of Henry VIII was a metaphor for monarchial power relevant to text.  A Dutch painting of a peeled lemon was a from-literature demonstration of the bitterness of life. Painting fulfilled the priorities of the archive, largely a journalistic medium. After the 1860s with the Impressionists, painting finally become painting painting, with no necessity to tell a story any more or be an illustration any more, or need to depict some aspect of some so-called reality anymore.

‘I hope to make films for multiple viewings, to savour a frame like you savour and can ruminate and contemplate a well-wrought painting for hours’

My eventual and so-far almost impossible aim is to make multi-screen, present-tense, non-narrative films. A cinema made by painters, not writers. An Italian journalist once asked how was it I started a career as a painter and ended up essentially as a film-maker.  I glibly said I was always frustrated that paintings did not traditionally have soundtracks. I wanted to make paintings with soundtracks. I am not unhappy with that definition. However – I want to avoid cinematic suicide and am aware that audiences largely go to the cinema to be told a story. I am fascinated by words, calligraphy, the excitement of the image-sound edit, but believe words should be kept in literature and not be the master of images – so I travel slowly towards making non-narrative cinema. But I engage, as you suggest in your first question, with all cinema’s forbears, relatives, cousins, aunts, ghosts, phantoms, imitators and avators, preparing myself – along the lines of the Pasteur quotation – “Fortune favours the prepared mind” – for the great day when we might have true cinema.

One of the film’s most distinct elements is its lavish, intricate shot compositions, such as Madgett’s outdoor dinner table, or the opening frames of the girl skipping on Amsterdam Road. Can you discuss how your training and influences as a painter inspired you to frame these sequences?

I enjoy the multi-layered image – what you see, what you remember, what you imagine, what you can quote – all fitting together for a rich, well-wrought, unlimited-possibilities experience – probably only available in cinema. Our imaginations are constantly super-fed. Let cinema recognize that and explore the possibilities and exploit them. The digital languages are making this more and more likely and possible. It’s a baroque cinema full of everything I can include and more. Stuffs, ideas, history, colour-theories, acting techniques, parallel art-forms, etc. Some detractors say there is far too much more.

Cinema can handle it. I hope to make films for multiple viewings, to savour a frame like you savour and can ruminate and contemplate a well-wrought painting for hours.

Van Gogh sat down in front of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch with his sandwiches and thermos flask for three days and came back the next week. There are of course some people out there doing these sorts of things.  I wish there were more. I certainly would like to be of their company.

Another of the film’s most striking elements is its lighting scheme, with an artificial self-awareness that forms the look of a countryside that’s come out of a dark, fantastical fable. How was this aesthetic developed?

Caravaggio’s use of colour was one of the inspirations for the film’s lighting scheme

We had some curious ideas. Like fighting God hopelessly with lighting daytime landscapes with artificial light. The idea is often a landscape seen through the hyped-up child’s imagination where perhaps fact and fiction and fantasy are not so clearly differentiated and are on the edge of being forbidden. My rememberances of childhood are often super-coloured. Beaches at sunset, for example at magic hour. Night-time frights and terrors. Fireworks were somehow so much more primitive then and so much brighter. I copy Vermeer (and Emanuel de Witte who is even better at it than Vermeer) with those ABABAB lighting schemes that alternate light and dark regularly forever into the distance. By asking the DOP to light by 26 light sources in one 100 minute film – dawn, noon, sunset, twilight, moonlight, starlight, lightning, firelight, candlelight, car headlamps, cathode tubes, matches, cigarette-lighter flames, lit cigarette-light, burnt-paper light, magnesium, searchlight etc etc. By copying Caravaggio silhouettes against black and remembering that Caravaggio was colour-blind and could not distinguish between black and red, and trying to quote that extraordinary green sunset in Caravaggio’s Flight Into Egypt. Copying the reflection from Mary Magdalene’s black hair by Georges de la Tour – so black light – it’s purple. Quoting that Gaugin pink in the Tahiti paintings – you could never believe that sand could be that pink. Always taking advantage of moving invisible water reflections – even in a desert where there is no water.  Light inside clouds and mists and fog. Light lit through a child’s translucent ear. Being illogical with the harvest moon like Samuel Palmer. And being hopelessly impossible with the light of Joseph Wright of Derby, and Fuseli’s melodramatic theatre-light and John Martin’s volcanoes. Currently we are impossibly lighting the whole of Europe with the searchlights of the Eiffel Tower in a film about Brancusi.

‘Cinema is much too valuable a medium to be left just to the storytellers’

A constant battle of oppositions seem to be going on in the film, ranging from the sexes, the colours of red and yellow, and the tug of war climax. What was your aim in applying such competitive, game-like logic to the world you created?

There is a large screed of human behaviour that appears to run on rules and regulations, ceremonies, rituals, repeated structures – often very visible and conscious but often not so. The structures of our greetings and welcomes and departures and partings. The way we essay towards love and lust. It’s maybe necessary. We need familiarities and sequences to get over the shocks and dismays and disappointments and failures.

Death is a theme laced throughout your work, and the matter-of-fact way it is addressed in Drowning by Numbers is a marked contrast to most other cinema. An obvious example would be the way Smut’s fascination with it is treated as a normal child’s hobby. Do you think that despite death being a prominent feature of films around the world, there are still taboos to break around the way it’s actually addressed and discussed?

I have believed that there are two dominant subject-matters – Eros and Thanatos – sex and death. [These are] the very beginning and the very end of every life – both somehow unknowable and not experienceable, both forever traumatically disturbing whether you are a believer in any religion or an atheist, whether you are a celibate or a hedonist. All else – besides sex to create and death to extinguish – is negotiable. Before and after is blankness, a void. And all art and all religion revolve around these two phenomena. What else is there to think about, to contemplate upon? All else is trivial, ephemeral. Balzac said money was important – we have not had it very long and so many foolish people have it – it cannot be important. Read Shakespeare and you might think power is important. But is not power the essence of dealing with sex and death – for and because of sex and death. To try to grapple with desire and circumnavigate death. To glut on the first and scramble to avoid the second. And cinema, now in the present world (maybe always, but certainly now with global freedoms and liberalisations) is at the apogee of the considerations of sex and death. Remember the last ten films you have seen. There was almost certainly a death. Death is cheap in cinema. And more than probably, there was sex. Sex is cheap in cinema. A great deal of death and sex in cinema is cartoonish, without responsibility, without consequence. We have poured and pawed over sex so thoroughly in contemporary mores, that maybe death is the new pornography. We are so fearful of it, it is hidden, concealed, unseen, repudiated, unfamiliar on the one hand – and on the other hand – it is ubiquitous and over-familiar, the nightly stuff of television.

Another theme that is prominent in Drowning by Numbers, and your other work, is counting and categorisation. What is it in particular that attracts you to exploring the way we order and categorise?

If I believe that cinema is too closely allied to the bookshop, to writers, to writing, to the word, to literature, to the short story and the novel, and if I believe we should cut the umbilical cord that joins them, I want to deny literary structures. I would look to ways to structure the time-based essentials of cinema in other ways than telling stories. There are at present universal structures – number counts, alphabetical organisations, equations – that are understood across language and cultural barriers as never before. There are non-literary considerations like colour-experience. Although a majority of audiences seek cinema to be told a story, I am aware that the very best painting is non-narrative; that, like the frame that does not exist in Nature and is a man-made artifice, so I believe the use of the story is the same – a man-made artifice that is a comfort-zone artificiality that cinema does not necessarily demand or want or to be relevant to. Challenge anyone to tell you the story of Star Wars, Casablanca, Blade Runner, The Seventh Seal – they will be unable to do so beyond the briefest of descriptions – cinema is about something else – an assortment of atmospheres, a performance sequence, a colour experience, a series of sounds and silences, a certain choreography, and the particular way those characteristics are brought together, shared, run parallel, contradicted, interconnected. That’s what you powerfully remember, connect with, appreciate. The story, the plot, the narrative is merely the glue, the cement, the mortar to hold the substantial audio-visual phenomena together. It is difficult to explain full cinematic experience in words and that of course is why it fascinates. We walk to the cinema with our memories and with the evidence of the reality of the world and with those activities and events and experiences that join those things together that constitutes imagination. Why should we stop when we enter the cinema to watch a film?

We naturally are organisers of experience whether it is a travel from zero to infinity or the Bolivian jungle dweller whose number system is one, two, three, many. Whether we count children or stars, we need orders and systems to create significance out of the apparent confusion which our feeble understanding suggests is chaos.

When looking at the meticulous games and sign systems in Drowning by Numbers, there is a sense that these are something for the audience to participate in and gain their own individual experience from. Certainly, the age of DVDs and streaming have allowed one to engage with these subtleties on a much more rigorous level with repeat viewings. On a final note, do you think the future of cinema will follow suit and become a much more interactive form of artistry?

Impossible to know. We are fearful that contemporary life cuts down on our understanding of experience, reduces everything to customized gobbets – we are steadily adopting the limited landscape of the computer which cannot dream.

American education systems are apparently dropping poetry, music and art from their educational curricula – it is considered that these areas are not necessary to live a nine-to five life of materialistic aims and ambitions. We are in danger of not needing teeth any more, imaginations will become unnecessary. We see this sort of attitude developing in many places. Institutionally – look at China: accept – do not dispute, agree – do not argue. Look at America. What you cannot buy with money seems irrelevant. Soon (it’s almost the case already) there will only be fifty (if you are lucky) subjects to make cinema about and only twenty-five ways to make cinema. Educational curiosity is falling. The bar is lowering on how to make cinema – even on how to look at cinema, and yet the ironies are unbelievable – we have created an information age where the possibilities of information are unlimited. Poverty is arriving on the back of plenty. How do we square this? Monopolies of finance are closing down our world.

What is the answer? I do not know. But I do know just as a beginning – we should try sacking all script writers. Cinema is much too valuable a medium to be left just to the storytellers.

Greenaway image credit: By Fronteiras do Pensamento [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia

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