|The Film||Director||Credits||Cast||Press Quotes||Images||Trailer|
PAWEL PAWLIKOWSKI Director & ScreenwriterBorn in 1957 in Warsaw, Pawel Pawlikowski left Poland at 14, moved to London, Germany, Italy and finally settled in Great Britain. After studying literature and philosophy, he began his career making award winning, offbeat documentaries, which mix fact and fiction in a personal and poetic way.
His transition to fiction came with medium-length film Twockers in 1998.
His debut theatrical feature film, Last Resort, earned international critical acclaim and remarkable receptions at numerous festivals. It was awarded a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer.
His next film, My Summer of Love, won a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film of the Year, amongst a string of prestigious prizes.
Between 2004 and 2007, Pawel Pawlikowski was a Creative Arts Fellow at Oxford Brookes University.
He is fluent in six languages: his native Polish, as well as French, English, German, Italian and Russian.
AGAINST THE GRAIN
Interview with Pawel Pawlikowski and Ethan Hawke
The production company’s offices, Rue des Martyrs in Paris. It’s springtime. Since Ethan Hawke is in New York, it’s been suggested that he talks to Pawel Pawlikowski via video link. In a few minutes, Ethan will be
on the line... Meanwhile, Pawlikowski settles into in a quiet room. The open window gives onto a garden.
It is agreed to begin the interview in French, but Pawlikowski’s gentle voice will soon switch to English.
Douglas Kennedy’s novels are highly enjoyable thrillers to read. The heroes in them are often caught in a spiral that’s outside of their control. Yet THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH doesn't seem like the easiest to adapt for the big screen.
PAWEL PAWLIKOWSKI: Yes, but I never really thought of it as an adaptation, more like a good starting point for a film that would have its own internal logic. If you look at it in a certain way the story could be a record of psychological disintegration: the story of a man who falls apart, becomes schizophrenic. I've been interested in this theme for a while. Before starting on THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH I was writing a script, which dealt with this subject head on. In fact it was a little bit too head on... and too personal. Douglas' book suggested a more oblique and interesting way of dealing with this theme.
The book wasn't necessarily close to my world, but I was tickled by the possibilities it suggested. I felt it could be an interesting adventure, especially as I had the confidence of the producers at Haut et Court - we really wanted to work together. So I said, what if we took the book and went against the grain a little?
Let's take the main elements of the novel, shuffle them around, add some new things and put it together again in a different way. So we don't have this relatively innocent hero who stumbles through a hostile world, facing one problem after another, but a hero who himself is 'the problem'.
What is your approach to adaptation, in general?
Pretty liberal. In My Summer of Love, I also started from a novel, but the film mutated into something quite different. For me, books are simply a starting point, like newspaper cuttings, or dreams, or situations from your past life. They give you the elements... some characters, a landscape, an interesting situation...
But in the end the film has to find its own independent logic and find its own language. Staying close to the novel is usually bad news for a film... Here, I wanted to make Tom (Ethan Hawke) a complicated, conflicted and ambiguous hero... Tom is lost even before the film starts: his writing is going nowhere, it’s not sincere or inspired. Love too has gone wrong; for whatever reason his wife wants to have nothing to do with him anymore... So Tom projects his love - or rather his need for love - into his angelic 6 year-old daughter, whom he hasn’t seen for 3 years... That’s quite a change from the novel. The language of the film is also very different. It’s less explicit, more allusive, the plotting is looser, things unfold with images and the reality is slippery and ambiguous. The film starts out more or less realistic but imperceptibly the boundaries of reality and dream start to dissolve.
So in the end, is the film more your original screenplay than a literary adaptation?
It is original. Although I wouldn’t say it’s entirely 'mine'. Filmmaking is a collective and rather mysterious process, a journey which doesn’t all happen at the desk. I need a starting point, an overall idea, two or three characters with dramatic possibilities, ones who are paradoxical or conflicted. And then I write, I rewrite. I look for the actors, I find the locations, I take photographs, I work with the actors... Then I rewrite again with these faces and places in mind. Try things out on my producers or friends. At some stage my designer and director of photography get involved and I rewrite again. In a way this is analogous to literary creation, but it’s not literature. The process doesn’t happen on the page. Until THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH my films were vaguely naturalistic. They may have been stylized and at times a bit surreal, but ultimately they fed off the real world, they followed a realistic psychology and had a clear narrative logic. In THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH I went down a slightly different route.
You're flirting with the codes of genre movies.
I'm not sure whether 'flirting' is the right way to describe it. Horror or suspense films are shot in such a way that the viewer quickly soon realizes what the game is. THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH doesn't give you these any genre handles, doesn’t signal anything clearly, things become strange and scary quite imperceptibly...
I tried to be as discreet as possible... In some ways THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH is a new departure, but at the same time, it’s not so different from my other films: few carefully chosen locations, not too much plot, the situations and images are a little stylised but they feed off a concrete reality and a landscape. And there's always one main character through whom we see the world.
Here, this world is Paris. The Paris you film is indeed strange, but it feels very original and very true to life.
I tend to use landscape as a mental space. I did that even in my documentaries. I’m not so much interested in the world as it is, or in paying homage to a particular place. I never wanted to show Paris, no more than I wanted to show the real Yorkshire, or the Kent coast in my earlier films. So I'm always really surprised when people come to me after seeing my films and tell me how much I really 'got' these places, places they’ve known all their lives, but never saw properly shown on the screen. I use real locations but I strip them down and make them strange in a certain way. I’m always trying to get at something timeless, dream-like or nostalgic. The hero’s emotional state is the key. It’s through him that we see the world. I really like Paris. And to be honest, I don’t see it in real life the same way I show it in the film. Even when I was young, broke and out on a limb, Paris always seemed welcoming. But let’s face it, this film isn’t really about Paris. The problem with Paris is that it’s really difficult to find places where it doesn’t look like some cliché of itself. It’s hard... Wherever you look, you have these white or off-white, creamy buildings. The doorframes, the windows, the cafés, all so Parisian!... And it’s so lively and colourful everywhere. I spent a lot of time with my adventurous set designer Benoît Barouh, criss-crossing the city on his scooter, scouring it for something unusual, something that would ring a bell... I wanted a Paris that wasn’t really Paris. I needed some 1970s Eastern Europe!
You have made a lot of documentaries, also very much in your own style. Do you ever want to return to that?
I wouldn’t mind. But the world I was interested in has disappeared. And anyway I don’t think there’s much call these days for the sort of documentaries I used to make. For me documentary was never about explaining the world didactically, or just humbly recording it, but more about looking at the world against the grain, making it less obvious, more troubling, mysterious, distilling it in some way, through the right image, sound, editing... It takes lots of time, patience and effort to film the right situation, the right moment, something revealing, unique or beautiful, from the right angle, in the right light. These days, in an age of total communication, images are dozen to a penny and everything has to be spelt out, rammed down your neck. There are of course noble exceptions, documentary fanatics like Dvortevoi or Kossakovsky, but generally documentaries are aimed at the TV, or they have to lure large audiences into the cinema, so obviously they have to conform to certain rules or formats. Obliqueness, ambiguity, poetry are not much in demand these days. I remember Kieslowski telling me over a drink some thirty years ago: 'Shoot each film as if it were your last. Or do something else!' This is what I tend to do. So here I am with THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH, this strange hybrid creature I love.
You're Polish, you live in London, you've never really lived in Paris. Do you feel an affinity with this man for whom everything in the city is foreign, and who’s very alone?
It's a situation I'm familiar with. You arrive somewhere new and big, where you don’t know the rules of the game, the ins and outs of the language; one minute you feel cocky and triumphant, AGAINST THE GRAIN next moment you're lost and all at sea. You suspect people may be harbouring ill feelings, want to rip you off or plot against you. And you always bring your personal 'baggage' with you. The Paris in our film is all about Tom’s state of mind. That colours everything we see.
Did you try during the shoot to make him more sympathetic or likeable? Or to play with the idea that he would hide his hand, or even that he’s unaware of his actions?
Absolutely. That was key. The audience had to feel engagement and sympathy with the hero, while slowly realizing that we can't trust him, that there is something strange, possibly sinister about him. The technique is common in novels; between the lines we discover that the narrator is not telling the truth or that he is deluded. Since cinema is less 'interior' than literature - everything is shown -, this procedure is a bit of a challenge. I’ve never seen this kind of thing done in a film before. The difficult thing was how to do this incrementally, how to avoid having a 'key moment' when the audience discovers that the hero is not who they thought he was. It was a bit of a tightrope act. An audience is made up of individuals, who all very different, imagine the world differently, come with a different baggage. I like the idea of film as a kind of distorting mirror in which everyone discovers things - and themselves - in their own way and in their own time. It’s interesting in at which point will this or that person stop identifying with the hero and say to themselves: 'Hang on, there's something not quite right about this guy!' What's more, my ambition was to have it both ways, to make the audience start wondering about the hero, but at the same time to make them stay engaged with him right to the end. And hopefully to suffer when he goes under. Ethan is perfect for what I had in mind there. He exudes openness, warmth, generosity and despite his 40 years, he hasn't lost his adolescent candour. You trust him, you go with him. What's more, he’s got a sharp mind and a way with words. There's always something going on behind his blue eyes. It’s difficult to play a writer if you don't really have an intellect. Ethan actually is a writer. He’s on his third novel now. Getting Ethan involved was crucial. Warmth, intellect, intensity, a certain romantic idealism - you can never play these qualities convincingly, if you don’t have them.. (laughs)
We now move over to a computer screen. The delighted face of Ethan Hawke appears. He cannot yet see Pawel. Their complicity clearly didn’t end with the shoot: Hawke enthusiastically tells Pawlikowski about the dream he had the night before: they were both working on a big-budget epic in Russia. 'It's a deal!' Pawel replies. 'Just have to find the right oligarch!'
So how did you both meet?
PAWEL: ...Do you remember, Ethan?
ETHAN: You came to London, I was on stage at the Old Vic. I didn't even know who you were! My on-stage partner was Rebecca Hall. I told her your name and her eyes widened: 'He’s the hottest director right now!' I said to myself: 'Shit! I’d better watch his films!' We met in another theatre, the Royal Court. I was appearing in two plays, one by Chekhov and Shakespeare's A Winter’s Tale. Pawel didn't like the Chekhov production much, so he came to see me after the Shakespeare. By now I’d seen most of his films and I wanted to work with him. We met again in New York and with each meeting, we took it forward. I really played a part in creating it, and it ended up becoming one of my favourite roles.
What was you first impression of your character?
ETHAN: To be completely honest, neither Pawel nor I had any preconceived ideas about Tom. It was something about the mood of the piece that appealed to me. At several points I wondered about Tom's true personality. It all gradually fell into place. Pawel and I had some long conversations about the script and the film ahead of the shoot. We exchanged ideas, we discovered who he is. But in the beginning, I wasn't sure about anything.
PAWEL: You asked me at our first meeting why I wanted to make this film. And I answered, because the hero is wonderfully messed up, it’s the story of a breakdown. Could be beautiful. A tragic swansong. That’s not in the novel, but it could really work. That’s when Ethan perked up. He could relate to that. A film about depression, schizophrenia and suicide! Irresistible. (They laugh)
ETHAN: And for me, the film deals with the torment surrounding one’s desire to be the father you always dreamt of being. That’s something I’m interested in. Everyone has their own idea of what it means to be an ideal parent. But you also have to juggle with the constraints of everyday life. That’s a subject I’m interested in at this moment of my life.
Pawel, do you relate to this more intimate aspect of the story?
PAWEL: Totally. This conflict between love, work, ego... Wanting incompatible things, not being able to chose or compromise, being torn apart... we can all relate to that.
ETHAN: Our mutual trust gave us a great deal of freedom. Pawel works on instinct; if he doesn’t like something, he doesn’t like it, period. And he says so. When he watched the rushes of the first day’s filming, he sent me an email. I knew that after all our research around the character, he felt we’d arrived at something spot-on. Pawel doesn’t lie. If it wasn’t working, he’d have said so. We’d have been in quite a mess! But in the event, I was very confident. The character became richer every day after that.
Did you feel like you were moving through a labyrinth?
ETHAN: I really like that word, 'labyrinth'... That fits perfectly. I hadn't thought of it. This character is caught in a maze; he takes one path, finds it's a dead end, then looks for the way out without being sure which way he came in. This film will speak to anyone who, at some point in their life, has felt they're in that situation.
Were you aware of trying to keep the audience on your side?
There's always a lingering doubt, a mystery about what you say and what you do.
ETHAN: In cinema, the actor is what is beautiful, but it's also about what the film, the editing, and the image does with him. True, Tom remains likeable. If you build in too many shady areas, you discredit him. That's part of the construction of the character and of this film. But like everyone, I am serving Pawel's vision of things. He was the one who shaped these characters. The madness comes through from time to time, when it's the right moment. But not too often. The love too, at the right moment. And the humour. We shift from one register to another. In cinema, the actor doesn’t construct his character on his own. You have to put your faith in others to create it with you. You offer your palette, that’s all. But playing this kind of character is an internal experience. The actor and the directing become one. In cinema, the camera often captures the actor just as he performs. In this film, everything is seen from Tom’s point of view. His point of view and the camera’s merge into one. I realized the kind of film Pawel wanted to make and that I had to enter into it, so that our approaches became one and the same.
Had you ever worked like that before?
ETHAN: Never! But we made a great team and I felt like I was discovering the film at the same time as Pawel. There’s something in this story, and even in the novel, which is unsaid. And which spoke to us.
The film has its backbone: that’s the character of Margit. Her personality is always very clear: it’s 'sex, death, ghost, life, mother'. That makes her very stimulating for the others. You could build things around that. PAWEL: Yes, she is a presence throughout. A sort of magnet. Her character may be quite enigmatic, but her function in the story is pretty clear.
ETHAN: For me, certain actors embody the very essence of cinema. Kristin Scott Thomas has that quality. She has an incredible presence, she's a fantastic actress. She has that strange sensuality, that natural elegance. It's an experience to act with someone like that.
With her, everything seems easy. With others, you have to work really hard to get there. They need exceptional lighting, an exceptional text. Her character is above all symbolic: a lot of actors aren't up to that. PAWEL: Yes, Margit is a mystery wrapped up in an enigma, without a clear backstory - even her nationality is uncertain. For an actor, that’s complicated, but Kristin was great, fearless. I approached her with some trepidation at first. I'd heard that she was very demanding of her directors, but I found her fantastic to work with, a real luxury, very courageous and open, and at the same time very precise. She gave me everything I needed and more. She has great elegance in her working relationships. I like the scene when she talks about her roots. It’s already a bit off-key and bizarre, but Kristin does that with a naturalness that makes you totally believe in it!
PAWEL: I didn’t want to give too much information. It’s also a question of rhythm.
I like the idea that each scene has to have a musical rhythm. It's not simply a matter of the meaning of the words. It’s about tempo, you have to find a certain swing. That's part of cinema for me: a sense of rhythm. Joanna Kulig, the Polish actress who plays Ania, has a lot of that too.
ETHAN: Yes, she understood exactly what you wanted when you talked to her about music. You asked her to act at a certain moment like a mazurka! Pawel knows how to find a rhythm, a little filmic melody, without moving his camera. I watched his crew at work, especially Ryszard Lenczewski, his director of photography: they were like an orchestra. Like an old-school rock band, where the words alone aren’t the most important thing. There's the bass, the drums, lots of things going on. Right on the beat, as you said.
PAWEL: Ryszard and I have a very strong understanding, we’re pretty much in tune, almost symbiotic at times. Ryszard is an old fox who knows all the tricks and short cuts, but he's never lost his childlike excitement, a sense of adventure, inventiveness. We’re good together. He’s like me, a bit lazy, he doesn’t do too many films; he doesn't get out of bed unless he's really excited by a project. I work with him in the same way I work with a good actor. Each scene is a little dance, a give and take.
ETHAN: Yes. And that gives the film a presence, a visual power. Every scene is the tip of an iceberg.
PAWEL: What I wanted was to steer clear of both naturalist drama and genre and come up with something original... I wanted to open up a certain space and draw in the audience; hypnotise them in a way, so they slowly forget their expectations, the usual questions, and let themselves go on this mysterious journey...
and hopefully recognise something of themselves in the process.
Interview by Harold Manning