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Essential Killing: Polish Film Legend Jerzy Skolimowski Interviewed
Simon Jablonski , April 5th, 2011 05:55

Simon Jablonski talks to director Jerzy Skolimowski about politics, painting, Polanski and working with Vincent Gallo on his latest film Essential Killing

Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s latest film, Essential Killing, is already one of the year’s most intriguing pieces of cinema. Vincent Gallo (opinions of whom seem to cluster at either end of the ‘modern-day Renaissance man’ or ‘pretentious shit-heap’ scale) plays a bearded fugitive of ambiguous origin who gets captured after blowing up a group of American soldiers. During his transportation from an un-named desert region to a secure detention centre, the van he’s in crashes. So, shackled and handcuffed, he sets off on foot, presumably to get home. The film’s many ambiguities are punctuated by Gallo’s character’s silence throughout. Though such uncertainties in film can often be annoying, in Essential Killing they are artistically vindicated by always keeping the audience at arms length from a feeling of certainty and comfort, so, in part, you share the character’s confusion.

It’s no surprise why Skolimowski considers this his best film. It’s certainly unique, affecting and tense; some of the scenes pass like a succession of oil paintings. Before his previous film Four Nights With Anna, Skolimowski had taken seventeen years off from filmmaking to peruse other endeavours, including becoming a successful painter.

His career has been unpredictable. Starting out at the prestigious National Polish Film School in Łódź whose luminaries include Krzysztof Kieślowski, Andrzej Wajda, Feliks Falk and Roman Polanski, Skolimowski actually wrote the script for Polanski’s first feature film Knife In The Water. After rubbing the Soviet censors up the wrong way, he had to leave Poland and started making films around the world. It’s also just been announced that the BFI are set to re-release one of his English made films, Deep End (a film notable for its cameo by Diana Dors) to add to their Flipside collection.

This year, Jerzy Skolimowski was honoured by Kinoteka, London’s Polish Film Festival, and given this year’s opening spot. The Quietus went along to chat to the director about Essential Killing, political agitation, and working with Polanski.

Was Essential Killing purposely politically ambiguous or was there a subtle message?

Jerzy Skolimowski: No, it was a necessity. I tried to avoid touching any particular issues. We don’t know where the action takes place, where it begins and where it ends. I treat it completely as a background. To me it doesn’t matter if the background is the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Pakistani border or any other place and it doesn’t matter if the film ends in Lithuania, Poland or Romania or any other Central European Country. Neither does the side of the conflict matter. We know that one side is the American army and on the other are some guys in turbans, but even that doesn’t matter. What’s even more important is that it doesn’t matter if the main character is innocent or if he is just the wrong man in the wrong place and the wrong time or is he a trained terrorist. What matters is the story of the process of the human being turning into a wild beast. Facing the snow for the first time in his life, barefoot, in shackles and handcuffs, trying to run away - this is the subject of the story. And that’s what’s important. This timeless story, this universal story - it could be in many different places in many different times, it could be in the past, it could be in the future.

Is that why you cast Vincent Gallo as Arabic?

JS: Yes, because it’s also a very open question and I’m open to every interpretation. Maybe’s he’s not a man from the Middle East and he’s one of those Westerners who went there and assimilated and found himself on the other side of the conflict. As I said, what’s important is the process, regardless of who this man is in reality.

Had previous bad experiences made you shy away from political content?

JS: Yes, I made a political film which really ruined my life. In the 60s I made a film called Hands Up, that was a very strong political statement, anti-Stalinist. Stalinism was officially over, but in people’s minds it was still there a little bit and I pointed it out quite obliquely and it was a subject of censorship and eventually pushed me out of the country. I was forced to emigrate. I had a gypsy life going from one country to the other making films in some odd places.

Did you feel being thrust into the world improved your filmmaking?

JS: Most likely yes, but who knows what turns my life would take if I wasn’t forced to emigrate, if I would have been allowed to make films like Hands Up. You know, Hands Up had the potential to change history if this film would have been on the streets. It was a kind of eye opener and mind opener: how we have to fight the communist in ourselves, how this disease was planted in ourselves.

Was this a problem that was rife in Poland at the time?

JS: Oh yes, there was a group of artists and we were playing a game with censorship. We were using metaphorical language, suggesting things, but discretely enough that we wouldn’t really be a subject to the censors’ scissors. But I went too far: I made Hands Up too open, too visible, too much in the nose of authorities. They said, 'No, no, it’s out of the question, this film will never be shown.'

Have you noticed a difference in style or content in new Polish films?

JS: Yes. Some years ago too many people were trying to make Hollywood movies, trying to imitate American films. Now it’s a variety of films, huge variety. And so many first films, and it’s all thanks to the activity of the Polish Film Institute, which is an institution with a considerable budget, able to support most of the Polish film productions.

During such periods of censorship, when you were at Polish film school did you have access to many Western films?

JS: We had access to the classics, which were not shown in any other circumstances. The famous print of Citizen Kane which Roman Polanski had seen 43 times, I myself had seen it five or six times, but it was really screened again and again, these kind of films we had access to. Not to the contemporary filmmaking. I saw the first Nouvelle Vague film long after I made my first two films. So at that time simultaneously we were doing what would in Europe become the Nouvelle Vague. Godard was exhibiting in France, Milos Forman in Czechoslovakia, myself in Poland, Bertolucci and Bellocchio in Italy and so on. It was a common idea that film language has to be changed, and we were simultaneously doing almost identical things.

What was it like to work with Polanski?

JS: We never were in school together - I entered the school the year after he finished - but we worked together on the script for Knife In The Water. It was evident that he was an absolutely talented man. He had already won an award for the Two Men and a Wardrobe, so when we were working on the script, and we quarrelled quite a lot, at moments of high tension he was showing his award and saying “I am a winner of the festival” and I was pulling out of my pocket my ID card from the Polish Union of Writers and said “but I am a writer”, so it was a lot of fun. As always, what counts is the final result. And the script was great and the movie was great. The same applies to my collaboration with Vincent Gallo. It wasn’t easy, but what counts is final result. And I would make the same choices if I was to do all that again.

Were you aware of Gallo’s precarious reputation before you started filming?

JS: I’ve heard stories. But he can be completely excused of his reputation by the fact that he’s a method actor, that’s what makes him special. He really becomes the character he is acting and, in this case, he became in private life the fugitive and potential terrorist. A character who’s totally animated and frustrated, who can see an enemy in everybody around him; that was Vincent on set.

Did he speak on set then?

JS: Well, less and less I must say. He managed to make so many enemies.

How did working with Vincent Gallo come about?

JS: It was actually quite a lucky coincidence. Immediately after I had finished writing the script , which was May 2009, I went to the Cannes film fest and on the very first night I went to see a Francis Ford Coppola movie, Tetro, and Vincent was playing the lead. I noticed there was something striking about the way he walked, almost animalistic. At that moment I hadn’t thought of any actors, but this made me think of him as the main character. We knew each other, we’d met several times before. I went to up him and said I have this script I’d like him to read. Two hours later he phoned me and said, “Jerzy, not only do I want to do this film, I must do this film. I’m from Buffalo, I’m used to the cold weather and I want to do a very physically demanding film.” And I said that if you’re serious, then start to grow your beard. His enthusiasm was so encouraging that I didn’t need to think about anyone else.

It looked pretty chilly, what was the temperature on set?

JS: Poland was OK - it was about minus 15 degrees centigrade - but in Norway we had several nights shooting where the temperature was minus 35 centigrade and those were the days when Vincent was running barefoot.

Would you work with him again?

JS: That’s a different question.

Did you ever work with Polanski again?

JS: We are close friends. Roman was using some of my paintings in his latest film, The Ghost Writer. In that main location where most of the talking happens, two of my paintings are behind the main character.

Did you take up painting during your break from filmmaking?

JS: I devoted my time entirely to painting because I never had time for it - in between films you do not have time to paint. Twenty years ago I made a rather mediocre film and I thought, 'I’m not going to go this way again.' I was always very sure of my talent but I thought I was misusing it. Why should I be making films like this which could be made by anybody? It was nothing special, there was nothing of myself in it. I thought I will only make a film when I feel it has a chance to be a unique, something special - no more mediocre films. So I decided to paint and it was a very successful process, I had exhibitions all around the world and my pictures were bought for museums and private collectors, some of them by very famous people, Jack Nicholson bought four, Dennis Hopper bought three. It was a successful process which gave me a new energy and new belief in myself as an artist. So with that feeling I was able to go back to making films.

Essential Killing is visually spectacular, is there a relationship for you between painting and filmmaking?

JS: There’s certain aesthetics that are common, obviously. And being sensitive to colours, to composition, of course, elements of that you can find in a film. But remember that painting is a static thing and filming is a movement: it’s not a series of static images, it’ a movement, an aesthetic force. I think I am using different part of my brain when I’m painting from when I film. When I paint I’m alone with my canvas, no one interferes. I’m responsible for every square inch of what I do. It’s peaceful, harmonious work. Most of the time it’s almost Zen-like. Now can you have a Zen approach when you film? Impossible. It’s a mess, it’s a factory, it’s a melting pot, it’s a group of people you not only have to control but you may have to manipulate them, you have to get the best out of them in order to put it into the film. And it’s collective work.

Do you feel this is the best film you’ve done?

JS: I believe so, yes. It’s definitely the most mature of my work. I think I executed my knowledge to a 100 percent satisfactory result.

We’ve just heard Deep End is being rereleased by BFI.

JS: That’s what I hear. A German Studio made the restored version, it really looks beautiful. And to my surprise the film didn’t age practically at all: you can watch it like a contemporary film now, and I’m looking forward to its second life.

Deep End has that great scene with the aging Diana Dors.

JS: Yes, that was her first part after a break of a few years when she was making the change from sex bomb, beautiful blonde to someone with a more voluptuous figure. And she was great - she was very open to the fact that she looks different, that she’s playing a different character. She had an enormous sense of humour, it was wonderful. I like that scene with her tremendously, it’s one of my favourite scenes in that movie. I enjoy watching it every time.