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Richard Porton, "An Interview with Pawel Pawlikowski"

"Against the Grain
An Interview with Pawel Pawlikowski"
Richard Porton, Cineaste

Insistent on not being pigeonholed, Pawel Pawlikowski is one of the most distinctive voices in recent British cinema—a director who refuses to churn out films that conform to predictable trends and generic prescriptions. Given the usual critical tendency to formulate Manichean divisions between escapist commercial fluff and committed political cinema, Pawlikowski is noteworthy for steering clear of both formulaic genre cinema and the heavy-handed didacticism that often mars well-intentioned political films. While Pawlikowski's films occasionally evoke the observational prowess of Ken Loach and his willingness to collaborate with his actors before cementing a final shooting script is reminiscent of some aspects of Mike Leigh's working method, Pawlikowski's two theatrical features— Last Resort (2000) and his most recent film, My Summer of Love — are also imbued with the sometimes wry, often sardonic spirit of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s. Like Milos Forman, Pawlikowski is less interested in convoluted narratives than in fablelike character studies and more preoccupied with the ‘unrepeatable' moments offered by idiosyncratic actors than entranced with glamorous stars.Polish born but an English resident since his teenage years, Pawlikowski cut his teeth as a filmmaker with a series of acclaimed documentaries for the BBC during the Nineties. Serbian Epics (1992), perhaps Pawlikowski's best-known television documentary, is a subtle, but remarkably low-key, indictment of the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's blood-curdling nationalist fervor. Opting not to take the obvious path and employ voice-over narration or talking heads to condemn Karadzic's advocacy of ethnic cleansing in a straightforward journalistic fashion, Pawlikowski chose to convey Karadzic's dangerous brand of lunacy in a more oblique fashion. A portrait of this crazily calm political leader emerges through footage of his daughter's wedding, as well as a confab between Karadzic and the astonishingly fawning Russian novelist, Edward Limonov.

Last Resort, Pawlikowski's first fiction film to make a dent in the public's consciousness, is similarly unpredictable and unsettling. Radically misconstrued by some critics as an earnest humanitarian plea for the rights of refugees in Britain, this thoroughly unsentimental fable displays empathy for the plight of a Russian woman adrift in an unfeeling England constrained by bureaucratic inertia without suggesting any facile social or political panaceas. Stood up by her English fiancée, Tanya (Dina Korzun), accompanied by her ten-year-old son, must fend for herself as she seeks asylum while confined to an antiseptic housing block designed for detainees. While languishing in a deadly dull seaside town, she is lured into the unsavory realm of Internet porn and enjoys a brief romantic interlude with a sympathetic local. As is Pawlikowski's wont, Tanya is a wonderfully nuanced character; neither pathetic refugee nor evil femme fatale, her wide-eyed vulnerability, and fallibility, is a perfect antidote to the one-dimensionality of most female protagonists in contemporary cinema, whether commercial or supposedly ‘independent.'

Unstereotypical female protagonists and lack of special pleading are also the most compelling components of My Summer of Love. On paper, this tale of a working-class teenager's infatuation with a much more sophisticated, upper-class girl seems unpromising. Other directors might well use this material as fodder for a conventional ‘teenpic' or ‘lesbian film,' Pawlikowski, on the other hand, seizes this premise as the departure point for a provocative, often moving, exploration of class differences and the fatal allure of misbegotten charisma. The by-now banal preoccupations of the ‘coming out' film are entirely absent in My Summer of Love; the word ‘lesbian' is never even uttered since Pawlikowski is more interested in power dynamics and personal quirks than liberal pieties or clichéd ‘messages.'

By selecting the picturesque if slightly creepy Yorkshire moors as the setting for his film, Pawlikowski effectively casts the landscape as another de facto character. It is in this far from idyllic pastoral setting that the beautiful and loquacious Tamsin (Emily Blunt) first encounters the impetuous Mona (Natalie Press). Ambling down the road with a motorless moped, Mona is immediately intrigued by the formidable Tamsin, who is equally curious about a young woman from the other side of town. This soon leads to an unstoppable infatuation after Mona visits Tamsin at her parents' commodious house. Blessed with the gift of gab peppered with strategically placed hokum, Tamsin and her infectious enthusiasm for Edith Piaf (“a marvelous singer” who is said to have gotten away with killing her lover since “crimes of passion” are legal in France), Nietzsche, and Freud can't help but charm Mona, who is more used to mechanical sex with randy older men. Mona's l'amour fou is more than slightly complicated by her ex-convict brother Phil's (Paddy Considine) recent conversion to evangelical Christianity. Abjuring liquor, Phil turns his pub into a retreat for other local converts. Yet, rather than stigmatizing Phil as an irredeemable fanatic, he is instead conceived as a human, all-too-human individual who is trying to acclimate himself to a confusing and hostile world.

Much of the effectiveness of My Summer of Love derives from Pawlikowski's unerring ear for dialog that sounds fresh and spontaneous and his gift for casting actors whose performances are completely free of ‘actorly' tics or pretensions. The film's dreamy, lyrical look is also enhanced by the work of the Polish cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski.

Cineaste spoke with Pawlikowski at the North American premiere of My Summer of Love at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2004. His lucid explanation of his filmic ‘process,' as well as his fearless willingness to chide some of his fellow filmmakers, made him an extremely engaging interviewee.—Richard Porton

Cineaste: Since both Last Resort and My Summer of Love deal with disparate outsiders, do you think that, coming from Eastern Europe and being something of an outsider yourself, you can look at British life with a certain amount of detachment?

Pawel Pawlikowski: Yes, although even if I stayed in Poland my perspective would have been that of an outsider. As a teenager, my favorite books were novels like The Catcher in the Rye. After the age of fifteen, I spent a lot of time in different countries—not just England, but Italy and Germany where I couldn't speak the language. This instilled in me a certain tendency to stare and observe— a kind of documentary obsession. And I didn't take anything for granted since I was slightly removed from the status quo. And this theme of the individual at odds with his society is always appealing. Of course, if I had been making films in Poland, I wouldn't have had to strain to abstract that reality as much as I am in my current films. The kind of cinema I grew up loving included Neorealism and especially the Czech New Wave. Milos Forman's Loves of a Blonde was the film that showed me what cinema was capable of. Making realistic films (although obviously a stylized form of reality) was a very radical gesture in a culture where free speech was limited. Nowadays, with Reality TV and everyone filming themselves, things are different.

Cineaste: Although you obviously take Helen Cross's novel as your departure point, your film is not slavishly faithful to the source material.

Pawlikowski: I depart from the novel considerably. I was basically interested in the two central characters—especially Mona. She had a wonderful voice in the novel, which is a first-person narrative. Although we couldn't use any of that in the film, that character drew me in with all of her contradictions—exemplifying a certain locality while also transcending that place because she has a great imagination and is yearning for something beyond that. That character, with her desire for an absolute love, gave me a foothold in the story. She's not the kind of character you find much in life these days.

Cineaste: There's not that much innocence these days, I suppose.

Pawlikowski: There's not that much innocence and there's not that much yearning for something that's not on television.

Cineaste: Although you began in documentary, My Summer of Love, despite certain documentarylike elements, is much more concerned with the inner and imaginative lives of its protagonists.

Pawlikowski: I was involved with a particular kind of documentary and had my heyday in the early Nineties when I made several films that won all of the awards. They were very oblique, constructed documentaries. I wasn't following someone around with a wide lens. I tried to distill some sort of cinematic vision out of reality—including a film that I did in Bosnia that became rather famous. They were lyrical and ironic films that tried to make the viewer work and make connections. I didn't want to spoon-feed; nowadays you couldn't make that kind of film since documentaries have to be much more ‘in your face.' Around '95, I realized that it was getting more and more difficult to raise money for these films, even though I had won the Prix d'Italia, the Grierson Award, and so on. The BBC revised their accounting figures and communicating with an elite audience was no longer cool. The use of a landscape, and trying to convey a point against the grain, was always there. People kept saying that these weren't proper documentaries.

Cineaste: But you seem to retain from Neorealism the idea that it's interesting to work either with nonprofessional actors or professionals who don't have that much experience.

Pawlikowski: Yes, I'm looking for actors that stimulate me and photograph interestingly, who also can provide me some sort of believable inner life and paradoxes—who are a bit mysterious, in other words, and who are not types. Most of cinema is heavy with ‘types,' who serve the purpose of the plot. In landscape as well as actors, I'm always looking for something contradictory that reminds me both of my past and of literature and can bring some energy to the process.

Cineaste: Just as ‘types' permeate films, the industry is also—at least from a marketing perspective—driven by genres. Perhaps some people will try to pigeonhole My Summer of Love as a ‘lesbian' or ‘coming out' film although it's not at all typical of that genre.

Pawlikowski: I'm glad you said that. The film was very well reviewed in Britain although a couple of critics did exactly what I feared they would. These people spent most of their reviews comparing it to some other films that I either haven't seen or really hated. Are they tone deaf or what? One guy just spent his whole piece comparing it to six other films. This has nothing to do with me; I wasn't interested in tackling the ‘lesbian movie' genre. I was just looking for an interesting pair of characters and don't know if it comes across as a lesbian movie.

Cineaste: Of course, without being ‘generic' it doesn't seem like a film that would alienate a lesbian audience.

Pawlikowski: I wanted to give the characters a certain autonomy in the story and make them a bit mysterious. Since you don't quite know what they're going to do or say, there's an air of discovery about every scene. You don't think that a scene is just there to lead to another bloody scene. Very often you're just sucked in by the ambience; the film takes you where it takes you.

Cineaste: In many respects, the character of Tamsin, played by Emily Blunt, is like a character from literature—a charismatic figure who functions as something of a catalyst. Were you particularly interested in the collusion between a very flamboyant character and one who is much more vulnerable?

Pawlikowski: Very much so. It's also a very English sort of thing. I didn't want to make a big deal out of class since there are many English films that deal with nothing but class. But the fact that there are these two ‘givens' makes it interesting to build a story. On the one hand, there's this girl with a lot of imagination and a lot of acquired knowledge—and great vulnerability as well—who ensnares another person and imagines various schemes. And then there's the other girl who doesn't have the same cultural baggage. Although she doesn't have any tools to understand the other person, she has spirit, wit, and a kind of generosity. In the end, she's less vulnerable than the posh girl. I also like this sort of clash of characters and England is good at providing it. The trick was just to make it part of the story and not to get bogged down in questions of class.

Cineaste: Yes, that aspect of the film made an impression on me since of course a director like Ken Loach would have handled this dynamic quite differently.

Pawlikowski: These were existential, not sociological, questions for me. Part of the problem is that while, in commercial films, characters are functions of the genre or plot, this is even true in noncommercial films where characters are reduced to types. My previous film, Last Resort, was about a Russian refugee. A lot of films about refugees—such as Amos Gitai's new film that I saw yesterday—just treat the characters as victims; these characters have no autonomy. It might be a socially conscious approach, but it's not interesting. Refugees can be as bad as anybody. They're just people, and it's very difficult these days to give characters autonomy and not reduce them to types.

Cineaste: This refusal to reduce characters to types is particularly interesting with reference to the character of the evangelical Christian played by Paddy Considine. In an American film, there would be a temptation to portray him as a simple-minded fanatic and demonize him while in your film he's treated with considerable empathy.

Pawlikowski: In the U.S., the evangelical Christians are much more ‘hands on.' In England, it's a purer form of spirituality, less political or connected to wealth and power. I did a certain amount of research since that region is quite rich in the history of evangelism and witchcraft. There are many interesting remnants of religious ‘vibes' from, say, the War of the Roses in Lancashire and West Yorkshire. We tried not to demonize the character or make him comic. The Brits tend to ridicule anyone who puts himself out on the line and crucify anyone who seems vulnerable or absurd. It's very difficult to make this guy, on the one hand, believable and normal and, on the other, expressive and dangerous. It's a fine line and for a long time I couldn't get him right. He was either too bland or too demonic. I didn't solve that problem until the first few days of filming.

Cineaste: Did the documentary you made some years ago dealing with evangelical Christians feed into this project and inspire the character?

Pawlikowski: That was some years ago, in 1986-1987. It did feed into the current film in a way, although that dealt with a much different sort of character. At that time, it was actually quite easy to get money through the BBC to make a film; it was sponsored by something called the “Community Program Unit.” People wrote in to request films be made on various issues that were troubling them. This was a fig leaf for the BBC's attempts to be community minded. I read about an evangelical priest in Lancashire who was obsessed with the threat of Satanism and witchcraft; in this area—Pendle Hill— witches had been hanged three centuries ago. There was an occult air about the place and I rang this guy up and suggested that he request a film be made about his plight. That was a sneaky way to get my first film made by the BBC . His aim was to place this huge cross on Pendle Hill and claim it for Christianity. In the end, he didn't get permission to plant that cross. I spent a bit of time in that area and the landscape stayed with me—abandoned weirs and strange mines and hllls worked over by man over a long period of time.

Cineaste: All of the characters are quite nuanced in that they're neither heroes nor villains and can be seen as both victims and victimizers.

Pawlikowski: Yes, it's very difficult to tell stories like that. Most stories need some definite input of good or evil. Renoir's precept—“Everyone has their reasons”—is very difficult to carry out. But it's wonderful when you can. In both this film and Last Resort , I had a cruder version of this story in which one character did make something happen in a rather crude way. It was just to get the story going and then I dismantled that through rehearsals and workshopping.

Cineaste: In My Summer, you're carried along by the romantic ambience.

Pawlikowski. Yes, the desire—and the games that the characters play—as well as the brother's intense quest, which interferes with his sister's life.

Cineaste: It's an intensity you often get with coming-of-age stories.

Pawlikowski: Yes, the Phil character wasn't in the novel and the idea was to create a brother and sister who both have the same temperament in many respects—both ready to jump into new ventures headfirst—and who have yearnings for something absolute and contradictions that they can't solve. The book was much more sociological; it was much more about the life of the town and the pub. It was also set during the miner's strike during the Eighties and two murders occurred. So I forgot about many of those elements.

Cineaste: You mentioned workshops with the actors. Did the actors hone their characters during these workshops?

Pawlikowski: Yes, they had a kind of script. There were certain scenes that were written and that I could get my head around, as well as other scenes just more or less describing what was happening and the point of the scene. These workshops were designed to help me imagine, and write, the next stage of the script. I also wanted to get the actors involved with the characters, but they were mainly designed to help me make the film richer and more nuanced. This process only stopped when filming began.

Cineaste: Was something like the tale of Tamsin's sister and her fictitious anorexia developed in this way?

Pawlikowski: No, that was always there. Emily's character (Tamsin) was very clear-cut from the start and most of her dialog was down, although some of it was enriched along the way. With Mona's role, however, there were areas where we enriched it to the point that it was very different from what was initially on paper. It was all a matter of whatever worked; my view is that dialog is only good dialog when it's up there on the screen and how we get there is nobody's business. If it's written well, it will survive the process. If it's not great on paper, we'll refine it until it works. At some points during the filming, I would just throw out some lines which would lead to other lines that were dormant from the workshops. I was suddenly like an actor contributing to the process. The main thing is to have life on the screen.

I was just watching this Danish film, Brothers, at the festival. There were some great scenes and then there were some really lazy scenes. If I had directed it, I would have changed things as late as the day of the shoot. There's no need to go with something merely because it's in the script.

Cineaste: In a way, it make sense that Tamsin's dialog would have been decided upon at an earlier stage since she's something of a performer and you get the idea that she's enacted some of these scenarios before. Mona, however, is a more improvisatory character.

Pawlikowski: Yes, the important thing is that you don't feel that they're reciting written text. It's much more satisfying when something meaningful comes out that gives the impression of being spontaneous rather than labored over and rehearsed by an actor. I'm mainly interested in reducing the plot elements and focusing on the characters.

Cineaste: The style seems rather exploratory. You don't expect, on the one hand, certain extreme close-ups or, on the other, certain scenes featuring dialog where the camera keeps its distance.

Pawlikowski: I just want to keep the audience on their toes. I like the fact that people tell me that they never know what's going to happen next, given the fact that there's a certain amount of uncertainty and ambiguity about these characters.

Cineaste: I read that you initially tried to cast the leads though visits to schools.

Pawlikowski: I did a bit of that, but ended up not using any non-professionals. They're very demanding roles—and the process is very demanding. I put the actors under a great deal of pressure. And there was a certain erotic element in the process that you couldn't push nonprofessionals into. But I did see some working-class girls in the North, whose behavior seemed very much shaped by their exposure to television and the media. So I finally decided to use professionals. When I came upon Natalie Press, who plays Mona, I discovered that, although she hadn't done anything before, she was very gifted and had a bit of training as an actress. She had done some short films and really sort of trained herself. Emily Blunt had done some TV, although she had less experience than some very famous actresses I considered. But she was the only one who had it right and when I put these two together there was a spark. I of course had worked with Paddy Considine before and he's an interesting actor in that he tries to enter the character and is very methodical. He liked the way I worked and my process and was a very good actor to have around.

Cineaste: What was the inspiration for Last Resort? Was the premise based on your own research?

Pawlikowski: It was actually based on my own life. That was the starting point anyway. That place featured in the film doesn't exist and that sort of thing didn't happen to me. But my mother brought me to England. She was a lecturer in English Literature at a university there and married an English guy. For me, that film is about mother and son. But I resented that everyone thought that the film was a plea for refugees.

The character in the film is obviously a bogus refugee. If anything, she should have been sent back immediately for being a fake. [Laughs] Oddly enough, I began to be invited to all of these humanitarian events in support of refugees. But journalists need a handle and other people don't watch films properly. In many of these political films, people like Michael Winterbottom just assume airs as if they've got something to say. You saw the new Michael Winterbottom, didn't you? [9 Songs, screened at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival—RP] It was a joke, wasn't it?

Cineaste. I think he's talented, but perhaps he makes too many films. Maybe that's what happens when you're a high-profile director and are tempted by the money.

Pawlikowski: It's also a fact that you have to exist as a media figure. For example, I haven't made a film in three years and people started asking, “What happened to him?” Nothing happened. I tried various stories and was originally going to direct this film on Sylvia Plath that wasn't working for me. I basically don't want to make a film that's going to embarrass me or I don't believe in. It's like faking an orgasm. Or you can't pretend you're making a film that's a plea for refugees—it's much more complex than that. I once made a film on the war in Bosnia that was so oblique and weird that I got crucified for it because it didn't simplify the situation. It was an example of a kind of visual anthropology. Of course, at the moment it's pretty blatant what's happening politically. But we don't need films to explain that. Just switch on the Republican Convention! You can't improve on that. [Laughs]

Cineaste: Of course, in the U.S., the majority who switch on the television believe that there was some sort of connection between Hussein and Bin Laden during 9/11.

Pawlikowski: Right, but it's better that people make their own sense of it. The Republican types won't see my films anyway. So what's the point of preaching to the converted and jerking off? It's better to go to a demo or plant a bomb.

Cineaste: In other words, you're not interested in making didactic films.

Pawlikowski. Well, it's a kind of internal debate since I'm obsessed with politics. When I was making My Summer of Love, I was driving around looking for landscapes and listening to all of these debates on the radio. It was difficult not to get upset. The politicians were using the British hatred of the French to push support for Bush. When I made several documentaries in the Soviet Union, I touched on politics using a visual, dramatic handle. Nowadays you can't make that kind of film. You can make a kind of personality-driven assault like Michael Moore, which I thoroughly approve of. But it's not filmmaking, it's closer to journalism. It needs to be done, but it's not what I'm good at. At the moment, history is being tackled by the spin industry. I believe that making a film where the characters are not stooges is in itself a political gesture. I'm just trying to go against the grain slightly.

Although My Summer of Love does not strike any political notes, I'm not dealing in staple characters and am going against the grain of the enormous media saturation that you find in Britain today. Young people these days are swamped with media images. My characters are not listening to any particular kind of music or using iPods or paying attention to pop culture. This was a political gesture of sorts, even if it was a negative gesture. It would be dishonest to make a political film like Welcome to Sarajevo, which is a shallow and stupid piece of work. If you can't make a good political film, don't. Listen to Wittgenstein.

Cineaste: So, to sum up, what we can't speak of we should pass over in silence.

Pawlikowski: Exactly.