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Pawel Pawlikowski had no idea that a small, black-and-white art film would end up being his most successful film yet, both critically and commercially. Ida has been a global crossover box office hit, becoming the most popular Polish film in the last 25 years.
The film has captured audiences with its tale of Ida, a young woman on the verge of taking her vows as a nun who must first meet her only living relative, the hard-edged prosecutor Wanda. She discovers from her aunt that she is actually Jewish, and the two go on a journey to discover the truth behind what happened to her parents during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
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Pawlikowski wrote the film, combining two characters he had discovered in real life, one a Catholic priest in Poland who discovered he was Jewish late in life, and another a sweet, older woman who he found out had been a Stalinist prosecutor. He set the film in 1962 Poland, a period which had always interested him for its visual look and strong music scene. With incredible first-time performers, breathtaking cinematography, and a story that draws the viewer in completely, Pawlikowski excels in a new form of filmmaking.
In addition to picking up a Golden Globe nomination, the film swept the European Film Awards, and won both the New York Film Critics Circle and Los Angeles Film Critics Association pick for best foreign-language film. It is also a favorite among many top critics to take home the Oscar in the same category.
Amongst his many other honors, Pawlikowski came to the Capri, Hollywood film festival to pick up the prize for best foreign film. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with the director on the Italian island to discuss how a black-and-white art picture became his most commercial film yet, how film can be a meditation, and his reaction to all the recent Oscar buzz.
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Every shot in the scene is framed like a piece of art. Was that your intention?
Absolutely. I wanted the film to be visually striking, because I wanted the images to be as strong as the performances. And I wanted them to have an emotional impact, through the composition, through the framing, the lighting.
I wanted to make a film that’s not just a story film, but more like a meditation. We don’t do a lot of close-ups and reverses. And I didn’t want to have any shots without actors. I shot every scene from one angle. It forces the audience to engage in it in a different way.
What do you mean by a meditation?
Just to immerse yourself in the film, not just in the story but in the space that’s created in the image, so the audience really doesn’t think what is next, but lives the film like a permanent presence. I like when that happens in cinema.
Read more Ida: Film Review
Film can be a meditation for you?
More and more. I’m less interested in films that have the usual kind of rhetoric of emotion. Like there’s a handheld close-up that’s emotional and people cry and there’s a kind of agitated camera to suggest truth. And I don’t like leading the audience too much with information. I want people to enter the shot and to find their way around it themselves. Having the emotional buttons pressed doesn’t work for me anymore. And very often people use music to compensate for lack of emotion.
This film is getting away from contemporary cinema, which is more guided. I was also attracted to a world where there’s less stuff happening. There’s less information.
How do you simplify in this day and age?
Yeah, you have to be quite conscious. I think people have the urge for it. I imagine that Ida’s unexpected commercial success had something to do with that. The film was really made like an art movie. I used to make films in England, and in France. People said this is professional suicide, making a film in Polish, where the camera doesn’t move, and in black-and-white. Yet it is the most commercial film I’ve ever done. So you never know. It means that there’s a craving for simplicity.
And also for simplicity, it’s just a rejection of triviality. And you do the stuff that is actually quite important, but without the kind of educational tone. I didn’t want the film to be didactic in any way. It’s full of ambiguities, and irony too. It’s tragic, but there’s irony everywhere. I think people crave those meaningful situations, stuff about faith, identity, dilemmas of live paradoxes in our souls. It’s going back to a time where lives were really defined by history, and also how you behave in the face of history. It’s kind of interesting to go back to that simpler humanity, simpler but deeper.
You’ve said before you have no desire to work in Hollywood. What about now?
Not terribly. I like to control my films from beginning to end, to write them the way I want. The lead actress, she never acted in her life before, and she doesn’t want to act. The freedom to do it the way you want, to cast it, to shoot it, I don’t think I’d have that in America, or even in Europe. The thing is to keep the budget small and just stay your own boss. And that’s for me crucial. I could never work in that kind of commercial environment where the stars have a lot to say, where the producers kind of push you around and tell you who to cast and who not to cast. I’m just not interested in that at all.
What about television?
Television is a different medium. I love good TV shows, but it’s not what I do. I kind of sculpt my films as I go along. And TV is all about writing, so you just shoot, shoot, shoot what’s written. And I keep changing my script all the time. Even when I’m rehearsing, I’ll add stuff. Something occurs to me. It’s like a permanent process. So for me, writing never stops. The main thing is that what I see on screen is right. It’s not whether I’ve executed the piece of writing, because usually scripts are terrible, including my own.
What’s your writing process like?
I think about it every day. I take notes. Sometimes something will occur to me in the middle of the night, or when I’m drunk on a plane. You never know. You just keep it open for a while. You have to have the story, beginning, middle and end, and at least two, three really rich, paradoxical characters, who I can really feel my way into, who reflect some aspect of me.
And I know what the beginning and the turning points are, and what the ends are. But how to get there, very often to get the budget, you have to write some script, just like a ballpark. And you kind of know some things are just sketched in that I hope I don’t have to shoot.
Ideally, I’d like to shoot films that are 25 pages of stuff that I then rework all the time. But you’re not going to raise money with that, not even in Europe. Ida had a script of 64 pages, which is much less than a normal script. But I kind of knew that half of it I was going to get rid of. And actually if you transcribed the finished film, it would be probably 25 pages. All my films are shorter than normal, because I like to condense. I like to leave stuff in-between.
What are you working on next?
Three different things, but the same sort of things. Two are Polish films. One is about young Bach, a sort of road movie.
Who would you cast for that?
Most likely an unknown. What excites me is to find my own cast, not to go for the obvious casting. It’s part of my process. For Bach, I would like to find a kid who is 19 and who could play instruments, and make it a bit like a documentary about a genius artist. Not a written melodrama, or a biopic, God forbid.
What was your reaction to all of the Oscar buzz surrounding the film?
It’s very nice. I’m surprised. I never imagined of course, when you do a film like that. I never thought in terms of the Oscar ever. It’s totally abstract for me. It’s a nice surprise in life, as well as the Golden Globe nomination.
I was very pleased about the European Film Awards, because that’s voted by the Europeann Film Academy members. And there were some really good films in competition. So I was really very moved and touched by that.
What would winning the Oscar mean to you?
It would prove my theory, that I never fully believed in, that if you do your own thing, sometimes the world will come around to you, rather than having to run after the audience, run after the money, run after success. I’ve always said that but it never happened until now. I always say that to my students, but it never statistically happened.
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