After cutting his teeth as a filmmaker with a series of acclaimed documentaries for the BBC during the 1990s, Pawel Pawlikowski (born 1957) was named Most Promising Newcomer by BAFTA for his feature début Last Resort (2000); the follow-up, My Summer of Love (2004), won the BAFTA award for Best British Film of the Year. But neither picture felt obviously British, since each reflected a border-zone existence (literal or figurative) in a sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrific country. Indeed, both of these films are imbued with the sometimes wry, often sardonic spirit of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s; accordingly, each is less a convoluted narrative than a fable-like character study more preoccupied with the “unrepeatable” moments offered by idiosyncratic actors than with the idolization of glamorous stars.
Nor was the director of Last Resort and My Summer of Love “obviously British.” Born in Warsaw, Pawlikowski first visited Britain in 1971 at the age of fourteen, then lived in several European cities before settling in the U.K. with his Russian wife and two children. His wife’s sudden illness and death in 2007 put his professional life on hold while he focused on raising his children, with whom he now lives in Paris. Pawlikowski thus seems to have been an exile since he was an adolescent, always observing from the outside. And his films show it, from Last Resort and My Summer of Love to the more recent The Woman in the Fifth (2011) — a thriller about a troubled American writer living in Paris — and Ida (2013) — Pawlikowski’s first film set in his native Poland, about a novitiate nun in the 1960s who must examine the nature of her own religious identity as well as the issue of her country’s wartime past.
Insistent about not being pigeonholed, Pawlikowski is one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary 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 film and the heavy-handed didacticism that sometimes mars well-intentioned socially realistic pictures. While his movies occasionally evoke the acute observational prowess of Ken Loach, his willingness to collaborate with his actors before cementing a final shooting script is reminiscent of some aspects of Mike Leigh’s working method.
I spoke with Pawel Pawlikowski in London in the summer of 2014.
Bert Cardullo: How, for you, do the disciplines of documentary and fiction-feature filmmaking interact?
Pawel Pawlikowski: I don’t think I was ever a proper documentary filmmaker. I’ve always been a bit of a hybrid. My documentaries tended to be quite oblique and constructed and often rather personal or subjective. I had little to do with the cinéma vérité tradition, where you stick a wide-angle lens on your camera and just follow your subject, or with the other type of documentary, where you just juxtapose moody or atmospheric shots with talking heads or voice-over commentary. My ambition as a documentarian was to look at real-life stories, situations, and characters cinematically. I tried to distill them into strong scenes and images and to put them in some unexpected order that amounted to a cinematic vision — particularly in a film I did in Bosnia, Serbian Epics (1992), which became rather famous (fig. 1). I didn’t want to spoon-feed my audience. But this sort of lyrical, ironic filmmaking demanded a degree of mental participation from the viewers that many apparently did not have or want to give. So around 1995, I realized that it was getting more and more difficult to raise money for these films.
For me, the jump to fiction was not such a radical break at all. All filmmaking is about creating a world through photography, editing, and sound, and most good films feed off reality in some way. So although, as a documentarian, I was photographing things and stories that were real, I always tried to show them creatively or against the grain, as ambiguous and strange. Then and now, I’m always on the lookout for original stories, characters, situations, and places, and I always keep my ears open for good bits of “found” dialogue.
The fun part in filmmaking — both documentary and fiction — is exploring and finding things out about people, including yourself; it’s getting under the skin of someone or something and finding the film. Of course in the usual sort of feature-film script, you get it all laid out — the characters are set, and they do what they do to move the plot forward; it all sort of adds up in the end, but there’s no mystery, nothing to be discovered, nothing for the filmmaker to do, really. Directing that sort of thing is more or less like plumbing. Naturally, if the script is a real work of art and the writer has genuine vision and has done some serious exploring of his own, then that’s a different proposition. But such scripts never land on my desk.
BC: I feel that there is very little “fat” in your finished films, documentary or fiction.
PP: Yes, the end result may seem “fat-free,” but the process is more complicated: it’s full of digression and waste. What usually happens is this. First, I need to get really excited about something: a character, a theme, a story. And this is the most difficult part. I am extremely lazy, so I really need to get worked up about something to want to get out of bed early every morning for a year or two. Once I’ve stoked up this fire inside myself, I start throwing all sorts of things into it — personal stuff, memories, people I knew, characters from favorite books, photographs, strange stories from the newspapers, material from my previous films, and all kinds of terrible, pretentious ideas and motifs. I also start driving around looking for landscapes, meeting people, taking pictures, and writing notes. Once I’ve amassed all this stuff, I try to sketch out the story outline and see what fits and what doesn’t. I keep trying the different versions of the outline on people — a good friend, my producer, whoever will stay with me in the room and listen. It’s trial and error.
Once the outline and the characters are broadly there, the paring down begins. It’s mainly a matter of finding the balance between character and plot, between the unexpected and the believable, between information and the image. So you start stripping away all your bad ideas, clever motifs, weak narrative lines, excess exposition, and blatant obviousness. What can help in this process is casting and screen-testing. Even meeting actors who are wrong for the part can help you focus. And when you finally meet someone who is right, that’s a huge step forward.
So I keep trying things out, distilling, and slowly the characters firm up and the hidden shape of the film emerges. This can last right up to the first day of filming and sometimes, I am afraid to say, even beyond it. The main thing is not to tread water, not to rely on clichés. Sometimes you can’t avoid them, of course, but what you want is to get to the heart of something. You just have to make sure there is a heart to begin with. The key thing is the initial impulse and where it comes from.
When it comes to the actual directing, I also try to keep things simple. I try to stay close to my characters, so the visual perspective tends to be limited. Of course, as for big, wide landscape shots, with interesting light and framing — that’s a different matter. You need them to create the universe; you can never have enough of these. But otherwise I keep it small. I always feel that there is just one good angle from which to photograph a scene and there’s no need for what’s known as coverage. Unless you’re really struggling, which sometimes happens (fig. 2-3).
BC: I know that you don’t really start any project with a finished script, but instead with a shooting document. How does that affect your approach, and perhaps your ability to gain financial support as well?
PP: Well, it’s difficult. It’s more difficult than anything to work in this way, because it cements your (bad) reputation with the money people and reduces your possibilities as you advance — or try to — in your career. But for me, the script is just a jumping-off point. I love well-written scripts, but, you know, you need to look at the hidden life in scripts. You can’t just look at the surface of things. I always look at the stuff that shows potential for making the movie. Very often, though, it’s good to have a script. Because it’s a good disciplinary device, and it takes you into areas that are useful to explore and that enrich the whole process. The main thing is, you try to create these conditions under which you can put all the elements together and sculpt with them until you reach the desired end.
BC: As a filmmaker, how do you decide what to reveal to the audience, and what not to reveal?
PP: It’s a sort of balancing act between what you reveal and what you don’t reveal— you know, how much help you give to the audience. I mean, I’m just learning as I go along, but my feeling is that if you create enough scenes that define the characters, and if you create enough characters who are believable and have a life rather than just a function in driving the plot, then people will get drawn in, forget they’re watching a movie, and just follow the story. I love films where I’m not just being dragged around by excess exposition. And I know there must be more people out there like me.
BC: So it’s your style to be resolutely non-explanatory.
PP: I want each scene to stand on its own, to have a life of its own, and for the film to grow one step at a time, in such a way that you can’t see the strings being pulled. My aim is to distill reality through ambiguous situations. Because life does have its mystery. Stories or narratives involve reinterpretation, to be sure, but, in reality, everything is ambiguous or slippery in the final analysis.
BC: How did you end up making films, anyway?
PP: Film was my escape from everything. In Warsaw I used to go to the cinema all the time. It was very cheap and I’d go and see everything that was on. Hence film always meant something to me, but I couldn’t imagine myself directing because I didn’t know what it involved.
Then when I was at university, I started making films in a workshop and suddenly I felt that this was it. I’m a guy who likes to walk around and observe; I like feeding off reality and transforming it in a kind of literary way. Even my documentaries were not really an empirical record, as I suggested earlier — they were more about what was going on in my head. Film became the medium for me.
BC: What do you think of contemporary Polish and European films?
PP: Polish films no longer interest people; in fact, they no longer interest Poles. In England, something similar is happening. Local audiences don’t go to theaters to see England on the big screen — they get enough of that on television — so they go to the movies to see anything but.
BC: Since both Last Resort (fig. 4) and My Summer of Love (fig. 5) 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?
PP: Yes, I think so. I tend to be an outsider in most places. Once I left Poland in my teens, I was put in that position — looking from the outside and looking at things without understanding what people are saying, and seeing life without being inside the flow of life. Not anymore, but for a period.
Even if I had stayed in Poland, though, my perspective would have been that of an outsider. As a teenager, my favorite books were novels like J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. After the age of fourteen or 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. So this theme of the individual at odds with his society is always appealing to me (fig. 6). Of course, if I had been making movies in Poland, I wouldn’t have had to strain to abstract that reality as much as I do in my current films.
The kind of cinema I grew up loving included Italian neorealism and especially the Czech New Wave. Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1965) was the film that showed me what cinema was capable of. Making a realistic film (although obviously in a stylized form) like that was a very radical gesture in a culture where free speech was limited. Nowadays, with Reality TV and everyone filming themselves, things are quite different. In any event, I like the cinema I like. And I am not a great fan of British cinema at the moment, the films of the last thirty years or so.
BC: Why is that — for the last thirty years?
PP: Well, there are some—Trainspotting (1996) was tremendous, but generally it’s not my sort of cinema. No, I loved the socially realistic British films of the 1960s. When my mother was a lecturer in English at Warsaw University, she had a free pass to the British Council, so I used to go to see all the British films without understanding a word of them: Billy Liar (1963), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), kitchen-sink movies like A Taste of Honey (1961). I couldn’t figure out anything in these films but the images did stay with me — and with them some kind of abstract idea of England. I had a privileged education in British cinema, then, without ever speaking a word of English.
So I was a great fan of British cinema, but for my own fiction features I was trying not to think in terms of sociology. British cinema was, and is, drowning in sociology: how people speak, how they behave; everyone is so self-conscious. In My Summer of Love these distinctions are clear: one girl is from the working class, one isn’t. That goes without saying, and it’s no big deal. There’s no need to make a big deal out of class, especially since there are many English films that deal with nothing but class. Let’s now concentrate on the story and the psychology; let’s make it universal and slightly abstract. Every good film is a bit like a dream, when you come away from it. That’s what a filmmaker should aspire to, rather than try to create some kind of social document. I want to create a little imaginative world that will stay with the audience.
BC: My Summer of Love—despite certain documentary-like elements—is certainly much more concerned with the inner and imaginative lives of its protagonists. And you seem to retain from Italian neorealism the idea that it’s interesting to work either with nonprofessional actors or professionals who don’t have that much experience.
PP: Yes, I’m looking for actors that stimulate me and photograph interestingly, who also can provide me some sort of believable inner life filled with paradoxes — who are a bit mysterious, in other words, and who are not types. Most cinema is heavy with “types” who just serve the purposes 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 good literature.
BC: Just as “types” permeate films, the industry is also — at least from a marketing point of view—driven by genres. Perhaps some people will therefore try to pigeonhole My Summer of Love as a “lesbian” or “coming out” film, although it’s not at all typical of that genre.
PP: I’m glad you said that. The film was very well reviewed in Britain, although a couple of critics did exactly what you— and I —feared they would. I wasn’t interested in tackling the “lesbian movie” genre. I was just looking for an interesting pair of characters (fig. 7-8). I wanted to give the characters a certain autonomy in the narrative and make them a bit mysterious or complicated. 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, and the film takes you where it takes you.
BC: 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?
PP: Very much so. 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 concocts 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 first person, she has spirit, wit, and a kind of generosity. In the end, she’s less vulnerable than the posh girl. I 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.
BC: 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.
PP: 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 some non-commercial films, where characters can also be reduced to types. My previous picture, Last Resort, was about a Russian refugee — a young Russian woman. A lot of films about refugees just treat the characters as innocent victims; these characters have no autonomy. This might be a socially conscious approach, but it’s not interesting. Refugees can be as bad as anybody. They’re just people, yet it’s very difficult these days to give such characters an independent life and not reduce them to types.
BC: This refusal to reduce characters to types is particularly interesting with reference to the character of the evangelical Christian in My Summer of Love, Phil, played by Paddy Considine (fig. 9). In an American film, there would be a temptation to portray him as a simple-minded fanatic and demonize him, whereas in your film he’s treated with considerable empathy.
PP: In the United States, the evangelical Christians are much more “hands-on.” In England, evangelical Christianity is characterized by a purer form of spirituality that is less political or connected to wealth and power. So we tried not to demonize the character of Phil or make him comic. The Brits, you know, tend to ridicule anyone who puts himself on the line and to crucify anyone who seems vulnerable or absurd. And it was very difficult to make this guy, on the one hand, believable and normal and, on the other hand, expressive and dangerous. This is 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.
BC: Did you feel that, making a film about young women, you had to be careful about how you shot it, that there was a danger of being voyeuristic?
PP: Yes, especially when it came to the scenes that enter intimate territory, we had to tread very carefully. We were aware that it was a danger area, that what we finally did could be misrepresented or misused somehow. But my general theory is that if you get the characters right, if you get into their heads, then there’s no danger of exploitation. The real exploitation comes when you use characters in a film as pawns for the sake of some plot — or politics — and that’s one thing I don’t like. If you manage to get into the heads of people and see the world slightly against the grain, then I think you’re engaging in a very moral exercise. I think that’s the best that cinema can do these days — to immortalize interesting or even compelling characters, people who are not average, who are not media constructs. If you are truthful and try to cultivate the authentic, you’ll be fine.
BC: The landscape helps you in this respect: it really contributes to the overall tone of My Summer of Love.
PP: I really like the ambiguous landscape you get in that part of Yorkshire, where nature and post-industrial decay overlap. But I wanted to shoot this very English landscape in a new way. Because of the kind of light you get in Britain, most films tend to capture the landscape in greens, browns, and grays. But I wanted strong, saturated color, no half-tones. We went for reds and pinks that would contrast with the green, and we tried to shoot everything in an afternoon light, to try and sculpt the objects a little bit more — trying to bring out the familiar in them at the same time as we made it somewhat foreign. I wanted the landscape to be elemental, more down-to-earth and passion-driven, and thus more in keeping with the story and characters. For that we needed the sun. To everyone’s horror, the place I’d set my mind on happens to be in the rainiest part of England, so it was a huge gamble. But we got away with it.
BC: You used the same cinematographer on My Summer of Love as you did on Last Resort, didn’t you?
PP: Yes, Ryszard Lenczewski, who is a good friend as much as anything else; he also shot my subsequent two films, The Woman in the Fifth and Ida. I think we are good for each other. We have very similar tastes and we always spur each other on. When we do have the odd quarrel, it’s never anything personal: it’s always for the good of the film. Ryszard is rather special. He is an old hand who knows all the tricks of the trade, but he’s also never lost the enthusiast and the artist in himself. He was the closest person to me on these films. I think your work with the cinematographer should be as intimate and direct as your work with the actors. You have to be able to cut to the chase and keep trying things out until you succeed. I want to work with people who are genuine, open, and brave, people who’ll get excited, who’ll challenge me. Such people are rare. Most tend to hide behind their supposed professionalism or their status or their agents.
BC: In My Summer of Love, why did you again make a film with women as the main characters, even as the main character of Last Resort was female?
PP: It’s difficult to explain, but women represent something that is not — but at the same time is — me. There’s a tension there, a perversity that I really feel we have in common, and also a conscience that goes in circles and in the end destroys itself. The world is not divided up into men and women, but rather into those whose conscience is enhanced by fantasy — who are seeking and who require transcendence in art or religion — and the consumers who are satisfied with the world as it is. That said, it’s so hard to find a big man, a man’s man nowadays, in life as in art. This is one of the reasons I did My Summer of Love after Last Resort: Girls are the new men.
BC: What was the inspiration, by the way, for Last Resort? Was the premise based on your own research?
PP: It was actually based on my own life. That was the starting point, anyway. But this sort of thing didn’t happen to me, although my mother did bring me to England. She became a lecturer in English literature at a university here and married an English guy. For me, Last Resort is about a mother and her 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! Oddly enough, after the film’s release, I began to be invited to all of these humanitarian events in support of refugees. This proves that journalists need a handle on any film they cover and that other people don’t watch films properly.
BC: Last Resort, from my point of view, is imbued with humanism and artistic integrity.
PP: I’d like to think such things are within me. I’ve always liked films where humans are at odds with the system, ordinary people who have some anarchy or poetry about them. I’m interested in characters trapped in a particular environment — characters with an intriguing dynamic that splits between their intellect and their emotions. I love to fall in love with such characters, and all the films that remain important to me are the ones where I’ve really fallen for the characters and have wanted to be up there on the screen with them.
BC: In other words, you’re not interested in making didactic films, where falling in love with the characters on screen is not the point.
PP: Well, I have a kind of internal debate about this subject, since I’m obsessed with politics. At the moment, history is being tackled by the spin industry. For this reason, I believe that making a film in which the characters are not stooges is in itself a political gesture. Once again, 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 of all kinds, but my characters are not listening to any particular kind of music or using iPods or paying attention to pop culture. This itself was a political gesture of sorts, even if it was a negative gesture. It would have been dishonest to make a political film like Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), which is a shallow and stupid piece of work. If you can’t make a good political film —which is a neat trick — don’t. Listen to Wittgenstein.
BC: The critical acclaim Last Resort achieved was phenomenal. Did this create added pressure for you?
PP: Not really. Remember, I’d been around for a quite a long time before Last Resort. I’d already had my ups and downs. There was a time in the early ’90s where I couldn’t go wrong; every documentary I made seemed to come off just fine and I kept getting awards, great reviews, acclaim at festivals. Then the times changed and I had a lean period. I lost the commissioning editors, I sort of lost my audience, and I lost confidence. But I recovered.
Probably the biggest pressure is the one you put on yourself, knowing that whatever film you do next, you will have to live with it for at least a year and a half in the making. And if it’s bad it’s going to haunt you for many years to come. Also, as I said, I am really lazy and I can’t understand directors who simply enjoy making films, especially those who keep churning them out year after year without having anything much to say.
Anyway, the critical hype around Last Resort didn’t affect me that much. I mean the film was what it was. I liked it, but it seemed to me that some critics who professed to love the picture, hadn’t actually seen it. The film was this rather personal story about a mother and son thrown into a strange, scary world that, again, was slightly abstract. My “political” contribution was mainly to show two foreigners with a degree of empathy, from inside, as interesting people, and not in the way they’re usually shown in English-speaking films, as reprehensible gangsters or incomprehensible victims to be pitied. But despite what was there on the screen, these critics just went on about the film’s gritty realism, about its being a searing indictment of the asylum system. And then, rather comically, a pompous right-wing critic was spurred into action and declared—for the very same reasons — that the film was a piece of shit.
Yes, there are a lot of tone-deaf people out there, and they are not seeing the same films that I am seeing – or making.
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Filmography: Pawel Pawlikowski
- From Moscow to Pietushki with Benny Yerofeyev (doc., 1990)
- Dostoevsky’s Travels (doc., 1991)
- Serbian Epics (doc., 1992)
- The Grave Case of Charlie Chaplin (short, 1993)
- Tripping with Zhirinovsky (doc., 1994)
- Twockers (doc., 1998)
- The Stringer (1998)
- Last Resort (2000)
- My Summer of Love (2004)
- The Woman in the Fifth (2011)
- Ida (2013)
- Cold War (2017; in production)
- Baker, Maxine. “Pawel Pawlikowksi: Eastern European Analysis.” In Baker’s Documentary in the Digital Age. New York: Focal Press, 2015. 78-101.
- Bardan, Alice. “The Realist Impulse in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort.” New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film, 6.1 (2008): 47-63.
- Helff, Sissy. “Imaginary Europes, Transcultural Aesthetics, and Discourses of European Identity in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 51.2 (2015): 132-143.
- Kristensen, Lars. “Mapping Pawel Pawlikowski and Last Resort.” Studies in Eastern European Cinema, 3.1 (2012): 41-52.
- Monaghan, Whitney. “On Boredom, Love, and the Queer Girl: My Summer of Love.” In Monaghan’s Queer Girls, Temporality, and Screen Media: Not “Just a Phase”. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 101-126.
- Monk, Claire. “Pawel Pawlikowski’s Resistant Poetic Realism.” Journal of British Cinema and Television, 9.3 (2012): 480-501.
- Pulver, Andrew. “Pawel Pawlikowski.” Projections (London), no. 12 (2002): 265-282.
- Rydzewska, Joanna. “‘New Europe’ and Discourses of British Identity in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort.” Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 17.1 (2009): 91-107.
- Winter, Jessica. “Pawel Pawlikowski: Dreaming All My Life.” In Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood. Ed. Michael Atkinson. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008. 63-72.
- Wooley, Agnes. “Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort.” In Wooley’s Contemporary Asylum Narratives: Representing Refugees in the Twenty-First Century. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 75-91.