To Be Aesthetic and Not Boring: An Interview with Jerzy Skolimowski
by Paul Risker
Before the opening scene of 11 Minutes, the idea of the film is illustrated in a pre-credits sequence. By this point in his career, the seventy-seven-year-old Polish filmmaker is no stranger to the beginnings of another narrative journey. In spite of the variety of stories that characterize his oeuvre, each film shares a common origin—a pictorial-like fragment. “In general there is always some kind of picture,” explains Skolimowski. “In Walkover, it was an image of the cross. In Four Nights with Anna, it was the image of the dead cow, and in Deep End, the little crystal in the snow, which is invisible, was the initial thing.” For Ewa Piaskowska, who wrote Four Nights with Anna and co-wrote Essential Killing, in addition to producing credits on those films as well as 11 Minutes, it is the filmmaker’s use of the image that is such a remarkable attribute. As she explains, “Lots of filmmakers nowadays create an image or come up with a metaphor, and the understanding of it in the mind of the audience is, ‘Oh, that’s just this preconceived thing.’ But I think Jerzy is the kind of director who doesn’t have that explanation, and the field of understanding is so much wider. It’s not like I am just using this and it is supposed to mean that. It’s not that simple.”
Whether this is what lies at the heart of Skolimowski’s enduring creative spirit, of course, leads into a wider discussion, although in speaking with the filmmaker, the note that is struck is one of an artist that is consciously aware of the narrative and aesthetic imperatives of cinema, both of which are locked in a dance.
Skolimowski’s career began in an unusual and innovative way: using the short films he was required to make at the Lódz Film School to form his first full-length feature film in 1965, Rysopis (Identification Marks: None). After meeting Roman Polanski at film school, Skolimowski collaborated on the script of Polanski’s Knife in the Water, one of the key Polish films of the Sixties. Although his early autobiographical films were termed “Godardian,” he maintained in previous interviews that he hadn’t seen any films by Godard before making Identification Marks: None and Walkover (1965). Skolimowski’s subsequent Le départ (1967), however, made in exile in Belgium, stars French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud.
In subsequent decades, Skolimowski has worked in his native Polish, as well as French and English, and his productions in and outside of Poland (including the United Kingdom, Belgium, and the United States) define him as an international filmmaker. A poet initially, his career has seen him attempt adaptations for the screen of works by writers ranging from Shakespeare to Nabokov. From the early stages of his career, beginning with his rendezvous with Shakespeare for the short film, Little Hamlet (1960), to his seventeen-year hiatus from filmmaking, which began in 1991, following 30 Door Key, literary adaptations have been a thread that have complemented his original screenplays. Following his return to filmmaking, however, with Four Nights with Anna (2008), Essential Killing (2010), and 11 Minutes (2015), Skolimowski has so far not re-engaged with literary source material.
The first of the two chapters in Skolomowski’s infinitely intriguing career involved his exile from Poland in 1966. Winding up in London, he began a period in which he would direct some of his most notable works, including Deep End (1967), The Shout (1978), and the Palme d’Or nominated Moonlighting (1982). Deep End, which takes place in a London bathhouse and was filmed primarily in Munich, is particularly noteworthy for its zany, quasisurreal humor, as well as a hilarious performance by Diana Dors, an actress known as the British Marilyn Monroe. While this chapter was productive, the second saw a seventeen-year chasm, during which he rediscovered his passion for filmmaking through painting. This cinematic hiatus for Skolimowski—as someone whose first involvement in filmmaking grew out of his love for poetry and whose lengthy devotion to painting eventually revived his passion for the cinema—reveals him as anything but a one-dimensional artist.
His recent return to filmmaking, and to Poland, began with Four Nights with Anna, a mysterious and often ambiguous account of the voyeuristic obsession of a middle-aged, socially awkward Polish man with a female neighbor with whom he seems to share some sort of emotional connection. This was followed by Essential Killing, starring Vincent Gallo as an Afghan POW who finds himself subjected to “enhanced interrogation” techniques in Poland, thanks to the American policy of “extraordinary rendition.” Essential Killing’s opaque narrative fascinated—and exasperated—many viewers. Whether the shadowy protagonist played by Vincent Gallo (in a bravura performance in which he doesn’t utter a word) is a member of the Taliban or a hapless victim of mistaken identity is ultimately undecidable. The film won Skolimowski the Polish Film Institute’s equivalent of the Academy Award for Best Director.
Skolimowski’s latest film, 11 Minutes, can be regarded as an extension of Essential Killing. Together, the two offer a perspective of Skolimowski pursuing a simplification of cinematic language. Telling the story of the lives of a seemingly disparate group of Warsaw citizens who are on a convergent course, 11 Minutes could be viewed as bringing Skolimowski’s career full circle, with the clashing characters and segments mirroring the Lódz short films that comprised his debut feature film. Indeed, it is difficult not to see 11 Minutes as a film that serves as a momentary epilogue to a career bookended by Identification Marks: None and Essential Killing.
A film brimming with energy, 11 Minutes is balanced between intimate moments of drama and comedy energized by a cinematic fervor, especially the closing scenes that sadly will lose much of their impact outside of the movie theater. 11 Minutes demonstrates that while in reality we are slaves to time, the creative and narrative space afforded by the cinema, where time becomes flexible, allows a filmmaker to liberate himself from such constraints. Skolimowski takes advantage of this creative freedom to craft a story that is built upon a question that will be asked by viewers throughout the film—how do these stories converge? 11 Minutes shows Skolimowski playing with a simplified cinematic language that reflects his recent interest in cause and effect that, in itself, poses inherent complications in the film’s orchestration. Still the intrepid experimentalist, Skolimowski takes a popular contemporary genre—films featuring multiple genres in which various lives intersect—and turns it on his head. Instead of featuring, in the manner of Crash or Babel, protagonists united by adversity, his mininarratives, which include a director’s attempt to seduce a potential leading lady and the plight of a pedophilic hot dog vendor, pessimistically foreground his characters’ alienation from one another, not their interconnectedness.
In a recent conversation with Cineaste that took the form of a consideration of his career so far, beginning with the “accidental” origins of his film career and the innovative approach to his feature-film debut. He went onto share his thoughts on the creative process, including the adaptation of literary works, working with both congenial and difficult actors, sharing his films with moviegoers, and distinguishing the different roles of the filmmaker and the film historian.—Paul Risker
Cineaste: Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Jerzy Skolimowski: No, it all happened almost by accident. I was a young poet when I was sent to the country house for writers—I was the youngest member of the Polish Writers Union—and there I met Andrzej Wajda, who was writing a script about young people. I was the only young person there, so he decided to consult with me. I didn’t care about film at all at that time, and I dared to be very critical. I said, “This is all nonsense. Young people don’t behave like this and they don’t talk like this.” So he challenged me, saying, “Oh, right, then why don’t you write your version?” The same night I wrote twenty-five pages, which actually became the backbone of Wajda’s film, Innocent Scorcerers .
When he was shooting the film, he offered me a part in it. I play a boxer and he was very pleased with what I had done, so he said, “By the way, Jerzy, the exams at the Lódz Film School are starting tomorrow. Why don’t you go yourself and try.” So I jumped on the train, went there the next day, and started the exams. There were one hundred and fifty applicants for four places in the school, but each day there were fewer and fewer people because they had been eliminated. In the very end, there were a dozen of us taking the final exam and afterward four people were accepted, with me in first place. So it was really a pure accident.
Cineaste: How do you view the way in which our relationship to stories and cinema evolves as we age? More specifically, how has your perspective of the creative and filmmaking process evolved from film to film?
Skolimowski: As a young filmmaker, I was very keen on improvisation—my scripts were very imprecise in order to allow for spur-of-the moment ideas and to make use of genius loci. I was often adding or subtracting story elements freely and a huge degree of my creative process took place on set. As the films I was making grew bigger and more expensive, less and less improvisation was possible. Most producers are very uncomfortable with improvisation, understandably, but there are notable exceptions. My last three films were produced through my own company, so my creative freedom could flourish. In the case of my last film, 11 Minutes, the constraints result from the very specific timeline of the story. The entire film takes place within the same eleven minutes, as seen through the eyes of several different characters, which required a very precise choreography. I placed those constraints upon myself because I felt tired with traditional narrative drive and wanted to tell a multithread story.
Cineaste: As a filmmaker, do your experiences influence the way in which you watch films as a spectator?
Skolimowski: I never forget about filmmaking when I watch my own films. I am aware of every second—how it was done, what kind of mistakes I made, and what could be changed. But on those rare occasions when I watch films by other filmmakers, I am no longer a film director watching a film. For example, when I saw Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, I was sometimes taken aback by it, but it was still the feeling that, yes, it was well executed, well done. I think I have always looked at the achievements of my colleagues with a cynical eye, thinking, “Oh, well, that’s not bad,” or “Forget this.”
Cineaste: Your first directorial credits were short films, out of which you constructed your feature debut Identification Marks: None. Can you take us back to this rather wonderfully orchestrated approach to creating your first feature?
Skolimowski: The film school’s curriculum demanded that a student direct a specific number of short films over the course of a school year. I’ve made some of those. But very early on, in my second year of studies, I realized that instead of making three or four short films every year, I might as well come up with an overall story, stick to the same characters, and combine the short forms into one feature-length film, which is what I did. I had to cast myself in the main role—no actor could guarantee his continual availability during the course of those few years. I kept the same costume and was careful to always keep the same haircut, and I used every opportunity, every school exercise, to tell more and more pieces of the same story. At the end of my studies, I had a complete film, and I was probably the only director in Poland who did not have to rise up through the ranks of the directing department. I never was a director’s assistant or a second or first AD, which was an amazing achievement at the time. Even Roman [Polanski] had to serve his dues as an assistant before going on to make his own films.
Cineaste: Looking back, how did your expectations for Identification Marks: None compare to the realities?
Skolimowski: The outcome exceeded my wildest imagination. The film was immediately invited to the New York Film Festival as well as some others, and for a new graduate of film school to receive compliments from Jean-Luc Godard was quite something.
Cineaste: Fast-forwarding from 1965 to 1982, Moonlighting has been described as one of the great films about exile. How did your own experiences of self-exile in the U.K. serve or influence Moonlighting?
Skolimowski: In my case, this wasn’t self-exile. After I refused to cut the scene with the four-eyed Stalin from Hands Up! , the film was banned and I was “invited” to leave communist Poland. I ended up in the U.K. and, after Deep End and The Shout, I finally landed on my feet. One morning on my way to pick up the newspaper, I stumbled upon a group of clearly agitated Polish people standing amidst many suitcases in front of a hotel. It turned out they were tourists visiting London and their stay had just ended, but the night before martial law had been imposed in Poland and all flights were suspended. They had no place to go, no money, and they didn’t speak any English. I took them into my house and started calling friends—each of them accepted one or two people. When I ran out of friends, I opened up a phone directory and looked for Polish-looking names—those beginning with SZ or CZ—and managed to get a place for everyone but one person: Mr. Genio. He ended up living with us. Every time there was news about Poland, Genio would sit glued to the TV screen and ask what was being said. Very soon, I realized I was censoring the information so as not to disturb him. This seemed like a great idea for a film. I managed to execute it amazingly fast—martial law was declared on December 13, 1981, and the following May we had Moonlighting in competition in Cannes.
Cineaste: The Lightship is predominantly a one-location film. What advantages and disadvantages emerged from the spatial restrictions?
Skolimowski: In the case of The Lightship, the disadvantages were far more predominant. A small space meant it was impossible to escape the eccentricities of Klaus Maria Brandauer, who was very keen on getting on everyone’s nerves. After The Lightship, I promised myself never again to make a film on a ship.
Cineaste: As an adaptation, The Lightship fits into a career which includes some notable literary adaptations for the screen. I have heard it said that a film or TV adaptation is required to exist separately from the book or original source material in order to tell its own version of the story. Do you agree and how does working on an adaptation change the dynamic of the process?
Skolimowski: I don’t consider adaptations to be my strong suit. I failed at all but two attempts—The Shout, based on a short story by Robert Graves, and The Lightship, based on a novel by Siegfried Lenz. I am thus not the best man to discuss the dynamics of adapting literature to film. It’s very clear to me my temperament is much more suited to original material.
Cineaste: A filmmaker once told me, “Writing is like composing and directing is like conducting the orchestra.” As a writer/director how do you perceive the way in which these processes inform one another?
Skolimowski: I was never much concerned with theory. My domain is action, often based on pure instincts. So, instead of deliberating how literature, painting, and filmmaking influence each other, I much prefer to just write, paint, and make films. Of course, the processes overlap in meaningful ways and there are analogies and differences. I appreciate the importance of metaphoric language shared by both poetry and film. I appreciate balance, proportion, and the beauty of a film frame just as much as I admire a beautiful painting. But film for me is mostly about motion and narrative. I do feel I am using different parts of my brain when painting, and different parts when writing or directing. But it is the same brain.
Cineaste: Filmmakers often talk to me about how there are three versions of the script and I’d be interested to hear your perspective on the evolution of a film. Do you think there are those different versions of the script that take place one step at a time through the writing, the shoot, and finally the edit?
Skolimowski: In my case, each film is a different thing. In my earlier films, there was a lot of improvisation. The script was practically the paper filled up with words just to give us some ideas. But within a few years, I was trying to be more precise for practical reasons. You have to plan the film and those first Polish films were rather simple. They were using the existing stuff that didn’t need to have much preparation or preproduction. But then with time, and by using more and more professional tools, I had to be more and more prepared for each film.
When we come to 11 Minutes, the script was not written the way the film was edited at the very end because I couldn’t be sure that I wanted it to go like that. I was fully aware at the end of the shooting that I would have a set of cards in my hand, and I could play them in many different ways. In writing it, I tried to suggest that we will see different things, but I thought it would be unacceptable for the reader if I cut more frequently, for example when I have only half of a certain story. I was always trying to write the first half until the plane comes, which was like a time cutoff. So, whenever the plane comes, we know it is five minutes past five. At that very moment, I was giving a little piece of something, and then I started another episode. But from the sixth minute on until nearly the end, it was about pushing the action forward, but not revealing what was going to happen. And, at that point, not necessarily in a chronological order, but to suggest to the reader that we will be playing with time. Eventually the film was cut into little pieces, but one cannot write a script like that.
Cineaste: I have heard interpretations that 11 Minutes was inspired by the events of 9/11. From your perspective as the storyteller, was this a conscious source of inspiration?
Skolimowski: No, that’s not true. No, no, no. I adapted this image as one of the archetypes of our time. The story, of course, doesn’t have any relation to the 9/11 events, but the image is used as a symbol of the anxiety of our times.
Cineaste: It is an example of how the audience can independently create meaning. Do you like to give the audience the freedom to imagine and interpret?
Skolimowski: I treat this particular film like a poem. I provide metaphors and symbols and I don’t even need to put them into precise words. I am leaving it up to the audience and any interpretation is acceptable. It is like metaphor in a poem. One viewer understands it this way and another understands it completely differently, and to me any interpretation is welcome.
Cineaste: Does it still amaze you how viewers can individually create such a wide range of interpretations, something that makes cinematic storytelling so unique?
Skolimowski: No, I am used to it now—it is a normal procedure and how else could it work? I want to make the film as open to interpretation as possible.
Cineaste: One of the great collaborations in cinema is the one shared between the filmmaker and the audience. Do you perceive the audience as being the ones who complete the film and do you consider this to be a transfer of ownership?
Skolimowski: Well, it is a double-edged process. Of course, I consider the audience when I edit the film, but first of all I am pleasing myself. I am editing the film for myself and therefore it is my film. I do not lose that feeling. When I watch the film now, after so long, I know every single cut was not done for the audience, but for myself. At the same time, I give the film to the audience to share with me, but I still own it and that’s my movie. I don’t have the feeling that I gave it away and it’s not mine anymore. No, no, it’s very much my own film. I am a possessive person and so I do not easily give up anything.
Cineaste: Your two most recent films, Essential Killing and 11 Minutes, are constructed around cause and effect, through which you pursue the simplification of filmic language. Rather than a complex narrative, each film resembles a domino effect and, in an age of overly long films filled with excessive dialogue, these stand out as two refreshing exceptions.
Skolimowski: You are right, but I should say that for me the greatest sin a film director can commit is to be boring. Unfortunately, there are many films that are quite boring, and I didn’t want to make a film like that. I am practically making movies for myself—I am making a film I would like to see on the screen. I was very pleased with the reaction of my friend Roman Polanski. After he had seen 11 Minutes, he said, “Thank God. This is the first time in many, many years that I didn’t know what was going to happen next. The terrible thing for me is that I go to the cinema and, after ten minutes, I know everything. I know how the action will unfold and how it is going to end, so I am just sitting there and waiting. But this time I had no clue what was going to happen.” That was the greatest compliment I could get.
Cineaste: Do you perceive your filmography as being able to be broken down into phases or discernable patterns of recurring interests that characterize your body of work?
Skolimowski: This is more a film historian’s job than mine. I guess you might see my four early Polish films as a separate phase, and my last three films made in Poland might be another, and you might divide them as adaptations or films based on original material. But this is not really my concern.
Cineaste: Looking back to your break from filmmaking and your return to writing and directing, how important do you think it was to take a break? Did you need it to reignite the spark?
Skolimowski: The break was very important. I was very dissatisfied with the film I made in 1991, 30 Door Key, and I thought I had to stop for a while to retune myself. I had no idea it would last seventeen years. I started painting—a long-time passion of mine, which I never had time to pursue—and I managed to establish myself as a young painter. With this new energy, I was then able to start thinking about cinema again.
Cineaste: Throughout your career, how has your approach to working with actors changed and have any actors surprised you in the way they have lifted the character off the page?
Skolimowski: It all depends who I am working with. For example, Robert Duvall came on the set of The Lightship so well prepared that I practically couldn’t do anything—I didn’t have any remarks for him. He had his own costume and his own hairstyle—meticulous to the last detail. He even designed the way he talks—his idea was that he should make a little parody of William F. Buckley, a southern way of talking—and I was just buying him every single second. To my surprise, six months later he gave a long interview to Film Quarterly, in which he said, “I am well prepared to direct my own movie now because I learned from Skolimowski.” [Laughs] So you either have an actor like this or you have an actor like one of those bastards who demand your complete attention. It is such a pain to work with them that you never want to work again with such a person. So it always depends on who the actor is. I have often tended to do risky casting. I worked with Klaus Maria Brandauer and Nastassja Kinski, to name just two. Some people were just impossible to work with.
Cineaste: On the subject of actresses, how did you come to direct Diana Dors in Deep End?
Skolimowski: Diana Dors was a sex symbol during my youth so, when making Deep End, I jumped at the opportunity to employ her. She seemed surprised to be offered the role. When I asked her to put on the costume I had envisioned for her—a tight, polka-dotted dress—she said, “So that’s how you see me? Well then.” I was very happy with her performance in the film.
Cineaste: Reflecting on contemporary Polish cinema, are you optimistic about its future both at home and on the international stage?
Skolimowski: It’s hard not to be optimistic after last year’s Oscar for Ida and some other awards for Polish films in international festivals. The Polish Film Institute has meant a great deal to Polish cinematography and has given voice to a new generation of filmmakers. If only politicians will allow the institute to do its job without undue influence, then Polish cinema will be just fine.
Cineaste: German filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me, “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” How do you view the way in which a film changes you both professionally and personally?
Skolimowski: Well, I would say that the question is so theoretical that any answer would be correct. I personally don’t feel that I am changing that much or that my perception is changing. I have certain criteria, which are quite well established, and which I can of course correct or modulate within the process of creating the film. But they are basically not to be boring and to be aesthetic. I hate it when the film or even a scene or single shot is not aesthetic. Those are the two main commandments and I stick to those.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.
Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 2
11 Minutes will be released in the United States this spring by Sundance Selects.