From Zen to Chaos: An Interview with Jerzy Skolimowski

The madcap Polish auteur discusses his wild, fragmented ensemble film, "11 Minutes".
Daniel Kasman

It’s good to have Jerzy Skolimowski back. After a hiatus from filmmaking of nearly two decades after the release of 30 Door Key (1991), the blackly comic Polish filmmaker returned in fine form with the perverse voyeur's journal Four Nights with Anna (2008). Any worry that revival would be singular was abrasively destroyed with the bleak, near minimalist survival film Essential Killing (2010), and now a small orchestral movement of virtuosic nihilism, 11 Minutes. Debuting in competition at the Venice Film Festival, we caught up with this fractured, anxious drama in microcosm (or microcosm in drama) at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Fernando F. Croce wrote that the film is

“an abstract panorama that in the Polish director’s hands suggests not classical art but a ruthlessly modern pointillism. Is there a stranger, more provocative late-career renaissance in recent memory? After Four Nights with Anna and Essential Killing, accounts of singular psyches both, Skolimowski switches to an ensemble piece, though one composed of kinetic shards rather than staid personalities. Unfolding over the eponymous chunk of time from the vantage of a handful of different characters—a hot-dog vendor with a hinted-at criminal past, an anxious bank robber, an ambulance crew, a coked-up courier—the film is a bravura welter of late arrivals, close shaves, and cataclysmic connections that plays like a malefic lampoon of the pompous 52- pickup card games of Code Unknown or Babel. (In one strand, featuring a blonde starlet being interviewed by an unctuous Hollywood bigwig who insists on being called “Dick,” Skolimowski reveals a streak of reflexive lechery worthy of De Palma or Verhoeven.) Telling symbols and signals hint point up the storytelling form: A stairwell blocked by a wardrobe (a nod to a famous early short by fellow wandering Pole Roman Polanski?), a watercolor sketch marred by an ink blot, a wall of surveillance screens with a dead pixel in its corner. It’s bound to be a divisive one, but the way this cunning, bracing film’s conclusion rejects the subgenre’s habitually affirmative view of human connection fully attests to Skolimowski’s mordant need, now as ever, to seek rather than to settle.”

The director, one of my personal favorites, was someone I have always wanted to meet, and I jumped at the opportunity to discuss the film with him, even though doing so, due to its structure, meant spoiling some of its surprises. So, a warning: the following conversation contains spoilers for 11 Minutes.

NOTEBOOK: You start your film with an incredible prologue of digital videos: iPhone movies, Skype video, surveillance footage. Why did you choose to begin in this fragmented digital space?

JERZY SKOLIMOWSKI: To make it different from “the film.” The film is eleven minutes, but I felt that there is a necessity of giving just a little information on the key characters. So I made like a four minute introduction, a glimpse of something that was going on between husband and wife, was going on with the film director, was going on with the hot dog seller who, as we learn, is not a real hot dog seller but is an ex-teacher who must have committed some crime, he was in prison, probably he was molesting young girls, he is punished during the action—the young girl spits in his face. These few episodes give us a little bit of an understanding of the characters, otherwise we would be only left with those eleven minutes, the maximum for each character, which in certain occasions may not be enough.

NOTEBOOK: What attracted you to this structure of multiple storylines eventually crossing over at the same moment?

SKOLIMOWSKI: At the very beginning I only had the idea for the finale. I somehow in my imagination had it almost frame-by-frame.

NOTEBOOK: The ending we see?

SKOLIMOWSKI: Yes. I didn’t know who those characters are, where they came from, I only know that it should be an avalanche of tragic events. So therefore I was working backwards. Having the finale I had to get to the beginning and establish the characters. So I had this list of who possibly could be there at that very moment, in that very place. One of the very first ideas was that there could be somebody passing on a bike, so who is that person—is he a student? What can I tell about a student. Is he a priest, maybe? Well, so-so. A courier! That’s the most natural, but what kind of courier? I was challenging myself with the questions. And so on, and so on. Once I got the palette of the characters, a dozen, I thought “okay that dozen of people will create eight or nine storylines.” To get to the proper length of the film it should be around ten minutes, but ten is such a round figure...twelve has the connotation of the twelve apostles, 12 Angry Men. Thirteen is [makes dismissive gesture]. So eleven! It is a very nice figure, aesthetically speaking. This is how it happened.

NOTEBOOK: What was the writing process like? Did you write each character all the way through his or her eleven minutes and then break up their stories through the montage?

SKOLIMOWSKI: Actually, since I was aware that I would have to edit the film by chance almost, for technical purposes—for the reader to understand that this multiple story is not going to be one and then other one and the other one—I took the sort of technical device that I would break the story in the middle when the airplane comes. It’s at 17:05, that was the plan. So I was writing, for example, in story number one 17:00 to 17:05 and then comes the plane and I would change to the other story. So if I were telling the first story, I then would take story number seven from 17:05 to 17:10. And so on, and so on. So the reader had the sense that we are dealing with many.

NOTEBOOK: I would think it would be a challenge to maintain the anxiety and propulsion when moving from one strand that is operating on a high-note to one that is quieter. To manage that logistics.

SKOLIMOWSKI: Exactly, exactly.

NOTEBOOK: It’s a structure that’s now pretty well used in cinema, I was thinking of Kieslowski and bad Hollywood movies like Babel with overlapping characters and spaces.  And I felt that your didn’t seem necessarily like a satire or parody of those films, but really taking that idea and pushing it to an extreme. Why were you attracted to this fragmented approach?

SKOLIMOWSKI: Of course I was fully aware of the fact that this is not a new formula, but then I challenged myself to push it to the limits. I don’t think you could could more fragment the story than I did, you know? Anyway it was an enormous challenge, we had 65 editorial versions. Longer pieces, shorter pieces. I had to balance it. And I was learning during that process of editing, I was learning how far I can go, which way. Because several of those versions were even more fragmented, but then you are completely lost. You have to catch something even if it’s a brief moment, but it has to have enough content, you know, to make the point. To get into the other one. The version number 65 I had a full control of it and I knew it has to be done this way. I play the cards like that [mimics laying down playing cards]. It was a learning process.

NOTEBOOK: “It had to be done this way”...I feel like one of the challenges of a project like this would be that the end justifies everything. Everything was there to get to this baroque climax. Is that how you feel about 11 Minutes?

SKOLIMOWSKI: Yeah. Not by chance, the very first thing I had was the end of it, of course.

NOTEBOOK: That strikes me as a very fatalistic way of making this film, no? You have to push through, push through to get to this climax you want. Do these characters have any freedom in this story?

SKOLIMOWSKI: [laughs] Somebody talking to me described the whole thing as “controlling the catastrophe.” I had to control a catastrophe. I was playing a figure of god, “okay and you go here, and you die, and you will be saved.”

NOTEBOOK: How, then, do you see this mysterious figure we see in the film who shows up on the television and is in the dark penthouse room? He seems to have some intangible power over the proceedings.

SKOLIMOWSKI: Those are symbols. Metaphors. I treat this film almost like a poem, you know? I don’t need to explain the metaphors. I don’t even have for myself the explanations, “oh this represents this-and-that.”

NOTEBOOK: I think that’s a rare language in cinema now. The wardrobe stuck in the hallway and the pixel on the computer screen: all these things in 11 Minutes that are a pleasure to encounter in the middle of the story, you see them and pass them by, and they’re a part of the world, maybe, but they also have this extra weight to them.

What was it like working with computer graphics for this finale? It seemed so amazingly, painstakingly thought out—yet organically animated.

SKOLIMOWSKI: It looked real, huh? I must say a lot of it is thanks to the actors. They were really taking dangerous risks. Of course, someone of it was done with stuntmen, but you see the actress really falling down and you can’t do it by computer graphics. You have to have a layer of her being dropped. Of course she was secured with the ropes and this and this, but still the falling down, ten meters down, come on! Not many people dare to do it. Same with the Irish actor, Richard Dormer, he decided “yes I will do it,” and he didn’t know if he was in safe hands. You never know. The accidents happen, on a film set. The sensation of falling down, it’s terrible, and I owe them very, very much. They were great.

NOTEBOOK: I assume that sequence took a lot of pre-planning, perhaps storyboarding and things like that. Was it a relief, then, to shoot the other, freer scenes?

SKOLIMOWSKI: The other scenes were fun, you know?

NOTEBOOK: That’s the sense I get with your films, that while often they are quite dark there is always a fun being had behind the camera: what kind of angle can we choose, how fast should we move the camera, where should we go? Every shot has a little invention to it, a little joy.

SKOLIMOWSKI: There was joy.

NOTEBOOK: Even in the bleakest moments there’s always a humor, even if it’s an ironic one, or sometimes, as in Le départ, a cartoonish one.

SKOLIMOWSKI: It’s apparently my trademark. That even in a very dark moment, I always try to bring some light moments in. The audience treasures that.

NOTEBOOK: The music in the film was incredible, minimalist and powerful. Did you have this sound in your head while writing this?

SKOLIMOWSKI: The composer’s name is Pawel Mykietyn, a classical composer. He rarely works for the movies but he worked with me on Essential Killing, which was very successful work. He got the award Prix for Musique Sacem France for that film, there was a big celebration in Paris. We understand each other very well, so there’s not much of a word exchange between us. He catches the mood of the scene. So then it comes to the practical matters during the recording. I am always there and I hear what he does and I can say, “well, maybe longer, maybe slower”—remarks like this. He is excellent. The film owes to the composer quite a lot.

NOTEBOOK: And the style is his choice?

SKOLIMOWSKI: We established it. That it would be limited. We don’t want to go crazy and get a symphonic orchestra. Not that. Within those limits… because with this film, the limitation of time and the characters, everything is kind of limited, so the music as well. We thought, "okay we’d do it within that limit."

NOTEBOOK: Was 11 Minutes shot in Warsaw?

SKOLIMOWSKI: Yes, Warsaw and Dublin, we built the director’s hotel room in Dublin because it was an Irish co-production.

NOTEBOOK: Do you see this as a particularly Polish story?

SKOLIMOWSKI: No! It’s very universal, it could be played in any place. It could happen everywhere, in Thailand, in the United Kingdom, Sweden. Wherever!

NOTEBOOK: I feel some of the touches, the nuns and things like that…

SKOLIMOWSKI: Of course I gave a little bit of specific Polish things, the scene with the nuns and the hot dogs, it’s rather funny. A bit risky!

NOTEBOOK: Always on the edge. When you envisioned this ending, what was it specifically you saw? An image, a concept?

SKOLIMOWSKI: An image, yes.

NOTEBOOK: What image?

SKOLIMOWSKI: Falling down.

NOTEBOOK: It’s a big leap to go from “falling down” to killing a dozen people or maybe more!

SKOLIMOWSKI: The sensation of it. And there’s no way back. No return. One way. One way ticket.

NOTEBOOK: I’m sure you’ve discussed this to death when you made Four Nights with Anna, but three films in and you've certainly returned from your break from filmmaking. What’s your relationship to production at this point?

SKOLIMOWSKI: Taking a seventeen year break wasn’t planned, really. It happened because I made a bad movie, 30 Door Key. I was very unhappy with the film and thought I had to take a break to re-invent myself, somehow. I wasn’t planning seventeen years, I was thinking a couple of years. But then I finally had the time to paint; I was painting all my life, but never had enough time. So I took seriously painting, I had many exhibitions and I sold several paintings to private collectors and museums. Eventually it resulted a couple months ago I was given the title of Doctor Honoris Causa of the Lodz Academy of Fine Arts, so I was promoted to “professional painter”! Really, I devoted all that time and re-invented myself. I felt like I was an artist again. That I could go back to making movies, because I would probably not make those mistakes I made then.

NOTEBOOK: Essential Killing, however abstract it was in form, was obviously a very political movie. This film is even more abstract, more like a musical movement. Do you see a political undercurrent to this film?

SKOLIMOWSKI: In my opinion, Essential Killing is not such a political film, I treated those issues so discreetly, I never named any specific war, I never named any specific nationality. I wanted to make a human story: the man who’s chased. Survival.

NOTEBOOK: That sounds political to me, especially the context in which you place it.

SKOLIMOWSKI: True, but I tried to treat it as discreetly as possible.

NOTEBOOK: Has this process of reconstituting yourself artistically as a painter changed how you compose images? How you think about colors and composition?

SKOLIMOWSKI: No, I answer this question always “no.” To me, those are two completely different things. First of all, film deals with movement. Painting is a still thing, you know? Painting is done by myself only. No one collaborates with me. Every square centimeter of the canvas is my responsibility. And the painting is zen. Filming is chaos. How far you can go from one to the other! It’s completely separate things. I don’t think those two interfere at all. I’m a different person when I paint. I’m alone, I listen to the music, I have plenty of time, I’m not in a hurry. Every movement is important, sometimes it takes a long time, sometimes it’s spontaneous. In a film, I’m one of those with a huge group of people just behind my back and I feel it—and I don’t necessarily like it.

NOTEBOOK: Are you easily able to transition from filmmaking to painting and back?

SKOLIMOWSKI: No. When I film I cannot paint. I cannot paint. I wasn’t painting for two years, now. It’ll be good to be back.

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