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Peter Greenaway, writer/director

One summer, more than 40 years ago now, my family and I stayed in a house near Hay-on-Wye. I always had a pen in my hand, I was always drawing. Intrigued by how the look of a piece of architecture changed according to where the sun was, I decided to draw the house from different perspectives. I set up perhaps five vantage points in the garden offering different views of the building as the shadows moved and the light changed. And I thought here’s an idea for a film. At the same time I was fascinated by England’s grand country houses – we lived near the Fonthill Estate, and on previous holidays I had painted the splendid Holkham Hall in Norfolk. I started thinking about the genre of country house drama, such a crucial one for English cinema. And, being of a certain clerical disposition, I was thinking of number counts, alphabetical structures and colour coding.

I needed to wind this all together. To make it dramatic, I developed the whodunnit at the film’s heart. Set in 1694, the film is about money, property, sex, power and art, but its original premise was: should an artist draw what he sees or draw what he knows? Seeing and believing. Just because you have eyes does not mean you can see.

We spent several months looking for the location. Groombridge Place, a moated manor house in Kent built in 1662, is grand but not extravagant, which was exactly what we wanted. It was well looked after, although we had to titivate the garden a little – introduce statuary, parterres, orange trees and suchlike. We all moved in for the long hot summer weeks of filming; the man who owned it was – if memory serves – a retiree who had made a large fortune in insurance. He decamped to live in the attic and kept out of our way but on quiet afternoons, if you listened carefully, we could just hear the sound of the cricket on a radio upstairs. The tea set for the tea-drinking ceremony scene – which was very fashionable at the time – was his and was very expensive. People were quipping that the entire budget of the film didn’t equal the value of the antique tea set. They were probably right!

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The sheep belonged to the next-door farm. I’d forgotten about them until I rewatched the film recently. There’s one shot that I particularly liked that is entirely devoid of human beings: you just watch, through the framing device that the draughtsman uses, the sheep coming towards you. They stayed beautifully within the frame. The draughtsman was brilliantly played by Anthony Higgins. I loved the way he swayed his hips as he walked about the property and the panache and the swagger with which he delivered his lines. Everything is deliberately very stylised – the costumes, the wigs, as well as the dialogue – people use 50 words to say something when 20 would have done. If anyone went off-script they got their fingers slapped: the artificiality was a characteristic of the film.

I had fixed ideas of who I wanted to cast and how they would perform. I like using actors who are experienced in the theatre as some of my takes are extremely long. Most cinema is “Cut. Cut. Cut” which does let a lot of actors of, shall we say, less experience, off the hook. An American critic said The Draughtsman’s Contract wasn’t really a film because there are only about 60 cuts. He believed “proper” Hollywood films had to have at least 300.

The curse of all cinema is the desire to tell stories. I’ve always refused to allow composers to read scripts – I don’t want them to try to illustrate it. Michael Nyman and I had worked together before and I knew him to be brilliant. I told him when the film was set, and talked about the country houses that had inspired me, but I don’t think I gave him any more clues. I said go away and write the music you want, and I felt confident enough knowing his music to be able to arrange, in editing, which bit went where.

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The film was a great success and still, 40 years on, I get a small fee every three months. Art films weren’t supposed to make money – what an absurd idea!

And the drawings? They were done by me – that’s my hand you see. I still have them, all 13, in an attic somewhere. To be honest I’m not exactly sure where, but the BFI is rather keen to get hold of them so I must find them one of these days.

Elaborate … Anne-Louise Lambert and Janet Suzman in The Draughtsman’s Contract. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

Dame Janet Suzman (played Virginia Herbert)

The script I was sent was enormously thick. So many words, full of post-restoration strophes, obfuscation and conceits. It was ridiculously undoable, but that intrigued me. Peter was doing something nobody had done before and its utter originality and daringness appealed. Once we started filming I realised he was building a maze filmically.

Peter has the eye of an artist. He loves paintings, he placed everything perfectly, every detail mattered. He filmed only with natural light and candlelight. Kubrick was the only person who had done that before – on Barry Lyndon – and he had a special, very expensive lens which could pick up low light. Peter instead put a little torch bulb behind every candle to up the wattage.

The complexity of the costumes and our elaborate wigs were extraordinary. We had to be up at six every morning to be dressed. Mind you I’ve worn worse – I had to be laced into an authentic Elizabeth dress with a 19-inch waist for an RSC production. It wasn’t until one of the other actors fainted in rehearsal that the director relented.

It was filmed in long sustained takes. I remember one particular scene that was eight minutes long, an interior scene with lots of dialogue. We had to speak very quickly and clearly for the entire single take. That was nerve-racking. He was a very inventive and intuitive director. Filming another scene on a hillside, the sun went behind the clouds, and instead of saying “cut”, like most directors would, he said “no, keep it rolling!” so during that scene you see the faces get shadowed, then, as the sun comes out again, come back into light.

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The budget was so low that there was this wonderful amity to it all and there was an ease among the various disciplines on the set that was very productive: a costume girl could move a prop without being arrested, the makeup or the lighting teams could make suggestions. There was a warm and collaborative atmosphere.

When I saw it finished, with Michael Nyman’s music, I just thought: “Yes!” It propels the film forward in the most magnificent way, giving it a perfect drive. Whenever you’re filming or rehearsing, you want something to be good but you have no idea if it is or not. But with this I felt there was a quality at work that was most unusual. We knew it was going to be special.

The Draughtsman’s Contract is out now in selected cinemas and on Blu-ray. A retrospective season, Frames of Mind: The Films of Peter Greenaway is at BFI Southbank, London, until 30 December.

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