Only a mind as delightfully twisted as Dick Maas’ could turn the good-hearted figure of St. Nicholas (aka Sinterklaas) – the bearded old man whose birthday is celebrated every December 5th in the Netherlands, and who went on to serve as the basis for our own country’s Santa Claus – into a vengeful undead killer. That’s the concept at the crux of Maas’ latest offering Saint (known as Sint in Holland), which premiered last night at the Tribeca Film Festival following an announcement earlier in the day that genre distributor IFC Midnight had acquired the film for North American release.
B-D’s Chris Eggertsen recently had the opportunity to speak with Maas about the film, during which the Dutch director discussed the Silent Night, Deadly Night-style controversy surrounding the film in Holland, why he describes it as “a horror movie for the whole family”, and his dubious feelings regarding offers from American companies to produce an English-language remake.
See inside for the full interview.
Though Dick Maas may be a new name to many of you, the Dutch filmmaker has been working tirelessly in the Netherlands for over 30 years, writing, directing and producing projects in an impressive array of different genres (horror fans may know him best for the 1988 serial-killer flick Amsterdamned). Though he’s previously worked in the American film industry – most notably with the Naomi Watts-starrer Down, an English-language remake of his 1983 techno-horror De Lift – his latest film, the killer-“Sinterklaas” action/slasher hybrid Saint, may well result in his greatest Stateside exposure to date. Currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City and already a blockbuster hit in his native country, the film was recently acquired by indie label IFC Midnight for North American distribution.
Bloody-Disgusting: So, what made you decide to tackle a killer St. Nicholas movie?
Dick Maas: I think [it was] more than ten years ago that I was thinking [of doing] something with St. Nicholas…[he’s] portrayed as the good-hearted man giving presents to all the children. So I was thinking, `what would happen if he was an evil figure?’ So, portray him as a child murderer…that was the starting point. And from there on, I was trying to get a script together. It took me several years to get the script [written]…I just wanted to do something [with] this myth, this well-known myth in Holland, and turn it upside-down.
B-D: Back in the `80s, America had a killer Santa movie called `Silent Night, Deadly Night’, and it caused quite a bit of controversy over the supposed effect it would have on children. And I understand there was quite a bit of uproar in Holland over `Sint’, so I was wondering if you could talk about that a bit.
DM: In Holland and Belgium, the St. Nicholas Society started protesting the movie…[they said] it was bad for children, et cetera. And I thought it was a bit silly, because it’s a movie for the ages of 16 years and older, so children weren’t allowed [into] this movie…it was much ado about nothing. But the most [controversial] thing [was] the poster, before we released the movie [Editor’s Note: the poster depicts the evil, zombified St. Nicholas backlit by the gleaming moon]. People were protesting it…[and] trying to prevent the movie from showing…it caused quite a stir here in Holland. It [generated] a lot of free publicity.
B-D: How did you come up with the look of the evil St. Nicholas?
DM: …Of course I changed several things about his appearance and his clothing. In Holland he’s portrayed as a sort of bishop dressed in red, with a cloak around him…but of course I changed it because [in] the movie, the guy…comes back as a sort of zombie. But he had to keep his appearance, like the real Sinterklaas, so…the clothes he originally wore were burned badly [when he was killed] and we decided to…make him as a sort of scary figure…a sort of warrior look.
B-D: There are quite a few killer Santa movies that have come out in the States in the past, and I’m wondering if you’re familiar with any of these films.
DM: Yeah, I know, of course, about several English films…that portray Santa Claus as the bad guy. I haven’t seen all of them, I’ve maybe seen one or two. I think I saw `Silent Night, Deadly Night’, and I saw `Santa’s Slay’. I saw all that after I already wrote the script…the script was written five or six years ago, and I saw those films after that. I of course knew that they were being made in the States, and I always wondered why nobody did something with St. Nicholas. So I thought I would be the one to make that movie.
B-D: Your film definitely seems like an action movie as much as it’s a slasher film.
DM: Yeah, I wouldn’t call it…people who are thinking this is an all-out slasher with a lot of gore, and very horror[-oriented], I think they will be disappointed. There’s a lot of action in it, there’s a lot of humor in it, there’s some great action set pieces, like a chase over the rooftops…so I always call it a movie that’s sort of a horror movie for the whole family. I mean, children from the age of 12 I think can enjoy it. Of course there are some…decapitations, and there are limbs chopped off. But it’s not in a sort of gruesome way like you have in a real slasher movie…
B-D: Is there a satirical element in the film as well regarding the holiday?
DM: Of course, it’s different for an American audience to get all the small details of…[but] it’s not a satire or something. I wanted to play a straight movie that had a sort of epic feel to it. But it’s not a satire of any kind…there are a lot of small things that are attached to this St. Nicholas celebration that I turn around or I play with.
For instance, when St. Nicholas…normally he throws presents [in] the chimney for the children, and I turn it around. In my film, St. Nicholas [is] not giving presents, he wants presents…and he makes a list of what he wants…[and] in the [St. Nicholas] celebration children make a list of the presents they want.
So there are several of those small things…[that will be lost on] an audience that doesn’t know anything about the celebration…[but] the basic ingredients of the movie, that there’s a good guy and a bad guy…that’s a main theme in a lot of [American] horror movies. And in the movie there is some explanation of what the celebration is about in Holland. But I don’t explain everything…it’s just enough that people can enjoy the movie, I think.
B-D: What’s St. Nicholas’ signature weapon? Obviously Freddy Krueger has the claw, Michael Myers has the butcher knife, etc…
DM: Yeah, he has a…staff, you call it, the thing in his hand…I don’t know how you call it in English…it’s a metal, shiny, golden shiny stick with…I put sharp edges to it and made it into a lethal weapon. He can put that thing around people’s heads, and swing it around…it’s what he uses a lot in the movie. He can use it as a spear.
B-D: Are you thinking of making a sequel to this, given how big a hit it’s been in Holland?
DM: Yeah, we are thinking about it. It’s not on the top of our priority list. So we have the sort of concept for a second one, but that all depends how it will play abroad. It fared well in Holland, and I’m really waiting to see what it does outside Holland. If…there’s demand for a sequel, then we’ll consider it.
B-D: As far as an American version of the movie, is this concept something you think would really translate well, considering how specific the premise is to the culture of Holland?
DM: Yeah, I think it’s specific. I get…people who are inquiring and want to buy the remake rights. I’m not really sure how that would turn out. I don’t know how they see this, because it’s so based on [our] tradition[s], and the setting is so Dutch…I don’t really see Sinterklaas on the rooftops of, for instance, New York, or in L.A., you know? It’s kind of weird to me that people are asking me for remake rights. I don’t know how they would approach it.
B-D: What was your experience like working in American filmmaking the last time around? [Editor’s Note: Maas has previously made two films in the U.S.] Was it a positive one?
DM: Working in America…I like it…I shot two movies now in [America]. The last one was `Down’ with Naomi Watts. I thought it was really cool.
B-D: There have been quite a few genre films coming out of northern European countries lately that have been getting quite a bit of attention in the U.S., and I’m wondering if you feel that’s translated to you getting more Stateside attention for this film.
DM: Well…there are a lot I think from Scandinavia, and Denmark, and not that much from Holland…but I don’t know if it’s changed that much. When I made a movie called `Amsterdamned’ in the `80s, it was already…it was released in [American] cinemas. So I don’t know if things have changed very much. But there’s always interesting genre movies, there are a lot of those remade in the States here. But I don’t know if it’s changed a lot since the `80s, I’m not sure.
B-D: I’m wondering if you’ve seen `Rare Exports’. I understand that it’s quite a bit different from your film, but I’m just curious because both deal with a killer Santa Claus figure.
DM: I haven’t seen it yet. I still have to see it. I became aware of it when we were starting to shoot. So it was a sort of coincidence that they were working more or less [at the same time]. Their film is about Santa Claus, and mine is about St. Nicholas. But yeah, it’s more or less a coincidence.
B-D: So what’s your next project after this?
DM: We’re [starting] a movie now called `Quiz’, and that’s a thriller. We’re starting to shoot in July or August in Holland…it’s about a game show host who has an appointment to meet his wife and daughter in a restaurant, and he’s waiting for them in the restaurant, but they don’t show up. And suddenly there’s a strange man at his table, and he claims to have kidnapped his wife and daughter, and he shows a photograph of them being tied up.
And the guy says, `you’ll have to answer ten questions [correctly] in an hour if you want to see them back alive.’ So he turns the tables around. He’s pretending to be the quiz master now, and the game show host is the contestant. From there, the story goes, and there are some twists and turns, et cetera. But that’s basically the idea.
B-D: Will you be returning to horror again down the road?
DM: I have another script ready, a big action movie, but I’m not sure what I’ll do after that. I like to do several genres. When I make a horror or thriller, then [I do] a sort comedy again, and then after that [I do] an action film. I like to do several genres…I don’t have a real horror movie lined up at the moment, though.