JW: How did you find your Nathalie Press and Emily Blunt and how did you instil the wonderful intimacy between them?
PP: It was a very long casting process because I didn’t want known actors, I wanted to cast the film with originals. We didn’t have much money so it was long, but low-level research. I looked at actors, non-actors and spent a lot of time up north looking at Mona type working-class girls in places like Leeds and Manchester. A lot of them were fine but I couldn’t help feeling that there was always something clichéd and televisual about them, by and large they tended to conform to very broad types and I needed someone more complicated and contradictory, someone who could do more than one thing.
What I really wanted to avoid was making one of these so-called gritty realist films about contemporary Britain or contemporary youth. Neither interest me very much. I needed characters who were more interesting and timeless. There was this film Thirteen, which showed American adolescents as they’re really like – totally obsessed with their bodies, with shopping, hanging out at malls, listening to monotonous music, posing, swearing, trying to be cool. Well there’s quite a few of young actors and non-actors who can do that, but that wasn’t what I was looking for.
People go on about how real the characters in my films are, but honestly realistic acting is not my great ambition. Of course, you should try and avoid false notes, clunky exposition or emoting; that goes without saying. But the thing I really want to see on the screen are interesting characters, people who are a bit surprising, who I can engage with.
So we went on looking back in London and eventually we came across Nathalie who immediately stood out. She had a great presence in the room, a strong aura. There seemed to be this tension in her or a contradiction – she was clever, witty, spunky, cynical and yet she had something romantic about her and this rather intense interior. Sociologically Nathalie couldn’t be further away from a Northern lass – Natalie is from North London – but psychologically there were parallels with Mona. Once I saw Nathalie and had done some tests with her, I knew I had a bit of firm ground under my feet, I knew I had got to the first rung of the process.
The next stage was to find the Tamsin character. Again we went through a lot of young actors, including some bigger stars, but we did not find anything that interesting. Then I came across Emily and she had these striking lively eyes. She could do the posh, confident, horsey type of girl with ease, not that she is this type of person, but she knows that world and understands how it works. But she had these mischievous eyes, which could animate suddenly and a really quick mind. We auditioned a few other girls after Emily but I kept coming back to these eyes and when I put the two girls together – obviously I had to test people as couples – there was a real spark, in an opposites-attract sort of way. Both had energy, looked and sounded good together and moved well as a pair.
JW: You described the film as being ‘sculpted’ in that you shot without a script but rather worked on moulding the film with the help of your actors and your chief technical crew. How did this contribute to the rapport between the two leads?
PP: I did have a script of sorts, and a pretty clear structure. In fact many scenes were shot more or less as written, after some tweaking in the rehearsals, especially scenes that were driven by Tamsin. But in many other scenes, I sketched in several possibilities and kept things open to the process. The point and the subtext of these scenes was fixed and some of the lines and gestures too, but we kept trying things out in different ways, to weed out false notes and to generate something more alive and interesting on the screen. This open approach allowed me to mould the scenes and performances throughout the process, in workshops weeks before filming, or the day before, or in the lunch-break, sometimes even during the take, when I slipped ideas to the actors while the camera was rolling. Frustratingly for some, my brain never stops, I keep fiddling with the material and the process is never-ending. This sort of thing can only work, of course, if you have actors, a DoP and art department who really participate and also a producer prepared to go with you on this journey.
JW: So how much of the source novel by Helen Cross did you retain?
PP: Not much. What I kept was mainly the characters of the two girls. The book was a much busier, more populated affair. I remember Mona had a proper family, a father, a stepmother, an older sister and an obese stepbrother. Their pub was very lively, very Northern, with a crowd of characters. There was also a creepy paedophile lusting after Mona and there were two murders and the whole place was in the grip of the miners strike – the year was 1984 – ah… and the Yorkshire Ripper was on the prowl terrorizing the population.
JW: So you did a lot of stripping away.
PP: Yes it was all too busy. It was all too specific and at the same time too generic and the plot was a little contorted and fanciful. What was brilliant though was Mona’s voice – the story was told in first person – which of course we couldn’t use in the film, but it was really strong and memorable. I loved Mona’s mixture of intelligence and naivety, cynicism and yearning. Tamsin’s character is also from the book. The Born Again brother, played by Paddy Considine, I invented from scratch.
The world in the film is a little abstract. I wanted a more timeless and elemental world, one in which the sort of emotions I’m interested in could occur. The landscape I’m talking about has little to do with the surface of contemporary Britain, where we are so swamped with images, information, endless noise that it’s hard to respond to anything in a fresh way, to look into someone’s eyes and fall in love.
JW: Phil’s character was based was it not on an earlier documentary you made about evangelical Christians?
PP: Loosely inspired would be a better way of putting it. In 1987 I came across this evangelising preacher in Lancashire who wanted to plant a 20-metre crucifix on top of Pendle Hill, where famously some witches were hanged in 17th century. He convinced his followers that the whole area was once more under threat from witches and Satanists and he wanted to reclaim it for Christ. Unfortunately the local council didn’t give him a planning permission for the cross, they thought it would have constituted a "new development" – that’s England for you! So my film – "Lucifer Over Lancashire" – didn’t really take off either. After that I went to make films abroad.
JW: You retain this element for My Summer of Love. Was the imagery too good to resist?
PP: It was partly that, but more importantly I needed this Born Again brother to put Mona’s infatuation into a slightly different context. Both brother and sister are passionate creatures and have this hunger, this need to lose themselves in something bigger than themselves. Again not an easy thing to imagine in today’s Britain where any hint of passion or engagement tends to look ridiculous, where people are so self- conscious that they tend to hide behind this sort of nervous hand-me-down irony. In modern society most people define themselves by their consumer and life-style choices, they tend to get their ideas and wisdom from television, magazines, or papers rather than from life experience, from having been tested by History, or having stuck out their neck, tried something out and failed. Believe me, this is not an easy world in which to invent good films.
JW: I felt that Phil’s newfound religion was never anything more than a front, a temporary stopgap to abate his frustration and inherent violence. His diatribe against the religious ‘fakers’ is directed towards himself as much as anyone else.
PP: I don’t think it was a front. Phil meant everything he said. He wasn’t a hypocrite. But there was definitely something about his speeches and gestures, which suggested that his faith was fragile and a little hollow. For me it was a difficult balance to strike because I didn’t want the audience to notice too early how fragile his faith was. At the same time I didn’t want him to appear too bland and sorted out in his faith either. So we kept tweaking him until we got him more or less right. Paddy is a really interesting and instinctive actor, full of hidden possibilities. I certainly had him in mind when I was writing the part.
JW: How for you do the disciplines of documentary and fiction feature film-making interact?
PP: 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 constructed and often rather personal or subjective. I had little to do with the verité tradition, where you stick on a wide lens and just follow your subject, or with the other type, where you just cut moody shots with talking heads or commentary. My ambition was to look at stories, situations and characters cinematically. I tried to distil them into strong scenes and images and put them in some unexpected order. This sort of filmmaking demanded a degree of mental participation from the viewers. So at some point in the nineties it became unfinancable.
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 we were photographing things and stories, which were real, I always tried to show them creatively, 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 film filmmaking – both documentary and fiction – is the exploring, finding things out about people, and about yourself, getting under the skin of 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, but there’s no mystery, nothing to be discovered, nothing for the filmmaker to do. Directing that sort of thing is more or less like plumbing. Of course if the script is a real work of art and the writer had real vision and himself done some serious exploring – like say in the script for The Taxi Driver or The Singing Detective or Chinatown – then that’s a different proposition. But such scripts never land on my desk.
JW: I feel that there is very little fat with your work.
Yes, the end final result may seem that way, but the process is more complicated, it’s full of digressions 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 bit. I am extremely lazy, so I really need to get worked up about something to make me want to get out of bed every morning for a year or two. Once I’ve stoked up this fire, I start throwing all sorts of things into it – personal stuff, memories, people I knew, characters from favourite books, photographs, strange stories from the papers and all kinds of terrible, pretentious ideas, motifs, stuff from my previous films (the moped with no engine, for instance, is something I stole from Trevor in "Twockers"). I also start driving around looking for landscapes, meeting people, taking photographs and writing notes. Once I’ve amassed all this stuff, I try to sketch out the story outline, see what fits and what doesn’t. I keep trying the different versions of the outline on people – my wife, my producer, whoever will stay with me in the room and listen. It’s trial and error. A good writing partner would help of course; someone like-minded who could bring stuff to the table and spur me on in some way. I’m still looking for that.
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 lines, exposition, 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 met someone who is right, then 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. Just make sure there is a heart to start with. The key thing is the initial impulse.
When it comes to directing I also try to keep things simple. I try to stay close to my characters. The perspective tends to be limited. Of course, 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 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.
I generally avoid tracks or crane shots. It’s partly because I don’t work with big budgets and these sorts of things take time to set up. But also I find that very few filmmakers know how to use these things well. Usually these sorts of operations seem to be there just to draw the attention to the fact that the director is directing. In fact, what they actually draw attention to is the fact that the film is missing a heart or some other vital organ. I remember on My Summer of Love we came up with some complicated shot for a very simple scene. We had the track laid and lit it, then I looked through the viewfinder and said to my DoP: "God Ryszard, this is beginning to look like some… movie". Which was an anathema. We axed the shot immediately.
JW: Did the ‘sculpting’ approach that you adopted cause you any concerns? Were there moments were perhaps you felt that the project was in danger of drifting away from you?
PP: There were ups and downs. I did shoot a few non sequitur scenes. There were a couple of others – we had to shoot them out of chronology and they weren’t pinned down very well – which had the wrong tone or wrong emphasis. So I had to re-shoot them. But the emotional structure of the whole was pretty firm. Basically, when you have a set of good characters and relationships, the right actors to do them, a decent beginning, some strong turning points in the middle and a possible ending – and when you know what the whole story is about – then you know that you have strong foundations.
JW: And what were these key turning points? I thought that the cello scene was pivotal as it indicated to Mona a beauty and culture her class had denied her.
PP: For me even more important was the scene where the girls dance to Edith Piaf and Tamsin tells Mona this complete fairy tale about Piaf’s murdered husbands. Mona is totally out of her depth here and totally gripped by Tamsin’s yarns and Tamsin realizes she can take Mona wherever she wants. Another key moment is where Tamsin tries to seduce Phil. I was always looking forward to shooting that scene. I knew it was going to be great, and it really twists the story and makes it go somewhere new. Then you have the moment where Tamsin’s supposedly dead sister crops up – a real kick in the face – where Mona realises that everything Tamsin has told her is probably a lie. However flexible my methods, I have to have such key scenes worked out from the very beginning to know I’ve got a film.
JW: The ending also comes as quite a shock.
PP: I toyed with the idea of Mona going the whole way and murdering Tamsin, but this would have been a bit too literal. Also, to have concluded the film in this way would have been horrible. Where can you go after murdering someone? Also I am generally scared of murder and blood-spilling. So we left the ending a bit more open. Mona re-emerges from the forest with a spring in her step, while Tamsin is left deflated and empty. What will happen to Mona is hard to say. She’s definitely the stronger character at the end. I am sure Tamsin will be OK too, she’ ll bounce back from this misadventure, go to back to her boarding school, then to Oxbridge, and have a brilliant career in the media. Some of the financiers didn’t like the openness of the ending. They wanted the audience to leave the cinema ‘with a smile on their face’ and begged me to show Mona enjoying a new life in Paris or somewhere nice. I had to put my foot down.
JW: And what about the beginning of the film, an image we later return to of Mona drawing a portrait of Tamsin on her wall. How did this originate?
PP: I was racking my brains for what she could be doing in that room, where she was being held captive for such a long time. Then I remembered that between takes Nathalie kept making these obsessive drawings, faces, angular shapes. This is where the idea came from. I decided not to rehearse this scene and explained to Nathalie that we should launch into it and do in real time. I asked her to be intense, but also calm and tender, in love with her drawing. When Nathalie started drawing on the wall, the atmosphere in the room went really strange, magical or may be demonic. Her intensity, her face, the movements of her body were amazing; just a girl, a pencil and wall in an empty silent room. I had shivers running down my spine. What was also amazing was the way Ryszard (DoP) managed to get into Nathalie’s rhythms with his hand held.
JW: I understand that prior to shooting the film you viewed a lot of the Polaroids of where you grew up in Poland.
PP: Not that’s some misunderstanding. What I said that sometime after we shot the film, I was showing my kids an old family album from Poland and realised that there was surprising similarity between the world I grew up in as a kid – simple, stripped down, no adverts, no cars, few gadgets – and the world we made up in Last Resort, Twockers or My Summer of Love.
JW: The landscape really contributes to the overall tone of My Summer of Love.
PP: I really like this 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 light you get in this country, most films tend to capture the landscape in greens, browns and greys. I wanted strong saturated colour, no half-tones. I wanted the landscape to be strong, elemental, 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.
JW: Was it always your intention to work again with cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski?
PP: You never know in this business, but it was a really good collaboration on Last Resort and he is a good friend as much as anything else. 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 – we usually switch to Polish for that – 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 him. He was the closest person to me on the film. I think your with the DoP should be as intimate and direct as the work with the actors. You have to be able to cut to the chase, keep trying things out. 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.
JW: I was impressed by the music by Goldfrapp. This also contributes I feel to the film’s timeless quality.
PP: I didn’t know them before the film, but during the editing somebody played me Felt Mountain and I really liked it. I put one of the tracks from that album against a scene in the film and it was very much in the right territory, melodious but disturbingly off key, a bit like the film. The collaboration with Goldfrapp was again very open and organic. They wrote some material for the cues, some of it worked, some didn’t; we shifted things around a little and tried some new things. They were great, not at all precious. I was really surprised. Often with well-known musicians the attitude is, ‘Here is the score we did for you. Take it or leave it".
JW: The critical acclaim the Last Resort achieved was phenomenal. Has this created added pressure for you?
PP: Not really. You see, 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 nineties where I couldn’t put my foot wrong, every documentary I made seemed to come off 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, I lost confidence and I ended up making a rather bad film. 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. 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.
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 film, hadn’t actually seen it. The film was this rather personal story about a mother and son thrown into a strange, scary world which 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 the way they’re shown in English-speaking films, as incomprehensible gangsters or victims to be pitied. But despite what was there on the screen, these critics just went on about the film’s gritty realism, about it being a searing indictment of the asylum system. And then, rather comically, a pompous right-wing critic was spurred into action and declared that the film was a piece of shit.
The same sort of thing could well happen around My Summer of Love, so one shouldn’t get carried away either way. What was great, though, was to see the audiences in Edinburgh, Toronto and other screenings. They just went with the film and seemed to genuinely like it. As for critics, I have a pretty good guess what some of them will write. "After bravely confronting the issue of immigration in his uncompromising Last Resort, with its echoes of Dirty Pretty Things, In this World (and any other films involving immigrants they can think of) Pawlikowski has now tackled the genre of lesbian coming of age movie, paying homage to… (and here they reel off a number of other films that I don’t particularly like or haven’t even seen). Yes, there are a lot of tone-deaf people out there.