Polish-born, British-based filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski returns to his native land to make his latest feature, Ida, a fascinating story of a young nun in 1960s Poland about to take her vows who must confront the unexpected truth about her family. Her life is changed forever when she meets Wanda, the aunt she never knew who is a former state prosecutor in the post-WWII Communist era and also a Jew. Together they embark on a heartbreaking journey to uncover a dark family secret dating back to the years of the Nazi occupation. Opening May 2nd, the award-winning film is beautifully shot in black and white and features stunning performances by Agata Trzebuchowska and Agneta Kulesza.
I recently landed an exclusive interview with Pawlikowski who spoke about how the film originated, what inspired his return to Poland, what appealed to him about the people and the era in which he grew up, the film’s distinct visual style, his decision to shoot in black and white, how he found the two female leads and what they brought to their roles, his directing approach with a veteran actress and a newcomer who appear in nearly every scene together, how he worked from a script but also rewrote the film in the camera during production, the musical choices he made to bring the story to life, his development and evolution as a filmmaker, and his upcoming projects. Hit the jump to read the interview.
QUESTION: How did this project first come together for you?
PAWEL PAWLIKOWSKI: It was very gradual. I always write three or four projects at the same time. They’re stories that I want to tell, and usually I dump them unfinished for the next one in order not to get too cornered and depressed about it. The first time I embarked on this was five or six years ago. It was mainly about Ida, this nun who discovers she’s Jewish. And then, I started plotting something that wasn’t going very well and I abandoned it. It started as a reflection on Polish identity or religious identity. Do you have to be Polish to be Catholic and Catholic to be Polish? Or is religion something less tribal and more spiritual and transcendental? I wanted to stir it up a bit in Poland where religion is very identified with the nation and actually doesn’t leave much space for real spirituality. That was an intellectual reason to do it, and therefore like most intellectuals, instead of doing something, it didn’t go anywhere.
And then, for my second attempt, I pulled Wanda into the mix who was this character that I’d been playing with for another film vaguely inspired by somebody I had met a long time ago. When I put these two together, suddenly they were like a really good couple to be bound by family blood ties. Both were women of faith of some kind, different kinds of faith. One was on the way to discover the world and the other was totally burnt out and the world had nothing more to give her. Also, both were very different temperaments. They were physiologically and temperamentally different. It’s always a good starting point to tell a story that has many layers. When I put them together, the narrative just started to function and became this road movie idea.
The other big motive was to do a film in Poland in that landscape of the early 60’s which I hold very dear and which stayed with me. I was a kid when it happened, and I remember it from my own kind of very deforming memories from family albums, photographs, and memories of my parents who are both dead who were then in their prime and kind of cool people. It was a bit of homage to a certain type of Poland. I know you might find this film, especially in the States, very bleak and depressing. For me, I love that landscape and these people, people who are traumatized but strong, who have lived. And therefore, what they do and what they say have a certain weight, people who had to make big decisions in life that went wrong sometimes. I miss such people in the world today. I was also anchoring up to a more serious historical landscape, and not as some people might think. I don’t want to make a film about explaining the ins and outs of the Polish-Jewish situation. That was totally to the back of my concerns.
Your approach is very calm and meditative. There’s no tricky, hand-held camera work. Every shot counts, there are no cuts, and each scene is usually shot from one angle. Can you talk about your distinct visual style and the decision to shoot it in black and white?
PAWLIKOWSKI: I knew I didn’t want to make it like a normal narrative film where it’s all about story. I wanted it to be more like a meditation. There’s a strong story anyway, but I didn’t want to spell out all the links. I didn’t want to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. I wanted it to be like a meditation about life, about faith, about all sorts of things. Then, the decision to make it black and white takes it out of the normal, takes it out of the life which is in color and which also links it more to that period in terms of that black and white. In a very simple way, that’s how I remember that time and how I imagined it. I wanted to make the film like a meditation and it wasn’t just the black and white. It was also the static camera and the fact that I don’t like to drag the viewer to see and fill in all the information. I don’t have many close-ups. I don’t have dialogue that explains too much. I wanted people to be in the presence of these kinds of mysterious moments and to watch the film in a kind of permanent present. It’s not like you’re just guided towards some plot. You’re in the moment with these people, locked in, and you have to watch it properly. There was no coverage. It was difficult on the one hand because you can’t rescue yourself in the cutting room. But on the other hand, it was easier too, because I didn’t have to do this kind of industrial filmmaking where you have to move the lights around for every shot and where you have to change angles all the time. I could settle on one image, one shot, light it carefully but very simply, and then really sculpt the scene with the actors.
Sometimes I did 18 takes and just added a little take from something else. There’s too much dialogue. There’s too much light. I’d reframe slightly. Have a little something in the background and build a kind of permanent sculpting. On the one hand, it looks like it’s difficult, but actually that’s how I work.
I never work from the script. I’ve got the script more or less. My producer who had never worked with me before was a little bit taken aback at the beginning. She said something like, “You’re writing the script with the camera.” And there is something in that because I never just take the script for granted. It’s there and that’s good, but I do constantly work it, and not just visually but in terms of movement of the people and the music in the scene. Also, if the dialogue seems too much, I take away a line of dialogue. For example, there was a bit more dialogue for Feliks (Adam Szyszkowski), the killer in the grave. He started explaining why he did it. I thought I don’t really need to. It’s interesting, but it’s too interesting. In a way, it spoils the music of that scene and most people, at least in Poland, can fill in what happened. I wanted the audience to get into a place where they start to fill in for themselves, where their imagination takes part in the process and they’re not spoon fed stuff. I have this theory that if you do a film like that, those who have not fallen asleep or left the cinema, they will live with the film much longer, and it will really enter their imagination and the subconscious much more profoundly.
How did you find this amazing cast and what did Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska bring to their roles?
PAWLIKOWSKI: For both, I started out looking conventionally among the usual suspects — actresses who are in their early forties and who are good. You usually know who they are. I tried out maybe three or four. I had seen Agata (Trzebuchowska) in a play where she was tremendous. She’s a really good stage actress. She’s a real virtuoso, and she’s a very strong woman, very funny, sharp and hardnosed, and she’s technically very good. She had a really difficult role because Wanda is like several people. She had to play the tough bitch that’s very witty and dry and unsentimental, but sometimes she softens up, and sometimes she’s like a little girl. There are a couple of times when she’s vulnerable. It’s very difficult to have these different faces if you’re not already a versatile actor, which she is.
The other Agata (Kulesza), on the other hand, I looked among a number of young professional actresses, above all among students of drama in theater schools, and I couldn’t find anyone. And then, we found this Agata in a café just sitting and drinking coffee and reading a book. She looked interesting, and we approached her, and she didn’t want to act at all. She was not curious. She was one of the very few young people who didn’t want to act these days. She just wanted to study and finish her studies, and she was really quite an intellectual. She was studying philosophy and history of art and anthropology, kind of a mixed course, a very prestigious course at Warsaw University. She had something that was very Ida-like, very serious. She thought before she spoke. She was very much doing things in her own rhythm. She observed very carefully. You could see that she was observing and thinking. And then, she has strong principles which she does. Paradoxically, she’s a total atheist and she came out with it immediately. She didn’t pretend to be anything but, unlike a lot of actresses who when they knew they were auditioning for a nun, they would say stuff like, “Oh I always wanted to be a nun. I’m a great believer.” She is a coherent atheist. Anyway, she was good.
A lot rests on the shoulders of these two actresses who are in almost every shot together, but who have vastly different backgrounds and levels of experience. Was there a specific approach you used to bring out the best in each of their performances?
PAWLIKOWSKI: Above all, you make them feel confident that they are the right actresses for these parts, and they were. You create a kind of atmosphere on the set, and even before the set, where there’s no pressure. We’re a small team, and they’re intelligent, and they know what I want. I know what they can or can’t do. There’s a very friendly pulling-in-the-same-direction atmosphere, and we all knew they weren’t knocking off pages of script. We’re just shaping the film together, and after we finished, we were getting to know each other. In a few days, we became a really good team. The older Agata experienced that choice. She’s very good at helping the young one. She’s a very generous actress. She’s leaving enough space so as not to overwhelm, especially since she has a bravura part and it’s quite easy to overwhelm the more passive character. Also, I’m constantly tweaking the scenes, and they know and they trust that I won’t let things slip. I’m doing quite a few takes and adding different weight. I think they felt that they were in good hands so it helps.
There’s a nice chemistry between them which gave me the impression they got along well.
The music is wonderful and compliments the story so well. Can you talk a little about your musical choices?
PAWLIKOWSKI: Well, a lot of it is just pop songs from my childhood which got under my skin when I was a kid and which are funny and lively and full of optimism and cheekiness. They’re kind of signs of life after Stalinism. Things softened and then suddenly pop music became possible and jazz as well. In that tiny margin of freedom that was given to young people, they grabbed it with both hands, and there was a real explosion of rockabilly pop and some Italian kitsch music. There was a lot of stuff. It was a nice contrast to this slightly devastated landscape and I wanted that to be there as a contrast. I loved these songs. Basically, I chose songs that I loved. There wasn’t much of an intellectual rationale. It was just pop music.
Again, jazz is a big deal in Poland and a real opening. There’s something spiritual in jazz music, especially in a tune like Naima. That was a Coltrane song. It was a piece that I wanted to use to seduce Ida. That’s how she falls in love or is enveloped by the world of Szymon (Jerzy Trela), the saxophonist. She doesn’t fall in love with him just because he’s a good looking guy, but she immerses herself in this beautiful tune that he plays beautifully. And then, the other bit of Coltrane is this harder bebop kind of thing, Equinox, which I’m using to smash to pieces the Communist International. The Mozart symphony I used is a great symphony I like which has this amazing energy, especially in its first movement. I had a fixation [with Mozart] once in my life and I gave my fixation to Wanda. She needs it to pep herself up and to give herself energy, and it helped me a lot in the suicide scene to make that pass smoothly, heroically.
And finally, there’s no film music as such. There’s no music written for the film. In the end, I used Bach, a chorale by Bach transcribed for the piano. It was a Busoni transcription of Bach for the piano. That wasn’t in the script to start with. That’s something I came up with at the very end. That’s the only piece of music that doesn’t come from the film. Usually, the music is played by the band, or it’s from the radio or a record, whereas that’s just from me from outside the story. That helped me. There’s something very melancholy but serene about that piece. It was like a new perspective that was introduced into the film. It’s like we’re looking at her from outside the film, and there’s a feeling of reconciliation about her and serenity. So, that felt good.
How does the final film compare to what you originally envisioned? Were there a lot of changes to the script during production?
PAWLIKOWSKI: The changes are part of my writing process. When I write, I imagine scenes. I write things down. I take photographs. I do some casting. I rewrite. It’s a permanent making or remaking. I wanted to make the kind of film which is like a meditation more than a story, which has these kinds of faces that convey the mood of Poland at that moment, but is also a bigger parable about stuff. I wanted a film that was musical, not that it’s got a lot of music in it, but that has a kind of musical shape to it, and that’s not prosaically narrative but has its own rhythm. It’s exactly the kind of film that I wanted to make but not in details. It’s more like I know where I’m going. I wouldn’t want to watch it anymore, but I think it’s more or less the best I could do.
You grew up in Poland and lived in Germany and Italy before settling in Britain. Your early work was as a documentary filmmaker and then you became a narrative fiction filmmaker. Can you talk a little bit about your development and evolution as an artist?
PAWLIKOWSKI: I lived a pretty chaotic life. I went to England and I moved around, and there were a lot of things that I was interested in. I wrote poetry. I took photographs. I was a musician and all sorts of things. Nothing brilliant, but I did all these different things. Usually, when you say that you did all these different things, it’s quite good when you can synthesize them in cinema, because cinema uses all these things. Also, it’s also knowledge about photography, about human psychology, and other things. But, to be more specific, I never went to film school. I actually studied literature and philosophy. So, when I started making films, I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I was too proud and arrogant to learn. I was just learning.
When I watch my early documentaries, they’re very eclectic. They don’t follow any particular [pattern]. I would have gotten thrown out of film school because I didn’t. I was just putting them together somehow as the spirit moved me, following my nose, thinking I was brilliant. Now, I look at them and they’re just so uneven. I like them all because they’re about something and they’re kind of original, but they’re pretty uneven. From film to film, even documentaries, I was learning the medium and learning how to bring form into some kind of relationship with the content, how to work it, and above all, how to create some kind of order out of chaos. I’m a pretty chaotic person, but I’m also a perfectionist. It’s a very unfortunate mix. So, for me, I teach film a little bit and I was looking for form from chaos, but also with each film it was like each film reflected where I was at the time strangely.
I never made films like kind of career moves, like making this film in order to make that film in order to end up in Hollywood. It was more like what’s on my mind now. It was more like where is my brain now, or my heart, or whatever. They’re all part of some kind of, for better or for worse, journey. Even the bad ones, or the less successful ones let’s say, I know exactly why they happened like this and why they are like they are. I stayed an amateur who needed to live a bit in order to make films. I don’t need to be on the set and just keep churning out films. I definitely don’t want to shoot some scripts that are given me. For me, each film, each script is like a little journey in itself, and I’m reinventing the wheel. It’s like how do I make this film. That’s part of the pleasure and that’s why I’m not a normal professional director.
What are you working on next? At one point, you were developing Welcome to Karastan, a comedy, and We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, a drama. Are those still in progress?
PAWLIKOWSKI: No, neither of them. I co-wrote this one and somebody made it. The Descent I couldn’t do anything with it. Now I’m going to make three other films, but like I always do. I’ll jump between them and wait for the moment where one of them will have these elements like three characters and landscape and some kind of gut feeling that this is worth spending a year and a half or two years of my life on. Just like when I was doing Ida, I was doing three different projects and waiting for this moment when the critical mass came together. So, I won’t go into details.