Films need to be felt, not thought up

Nina (Julia Kijowska) can’t have children. It seems that she and her husband Wojtek (Andrzej Konopka) have found the perfect surrogate. Magda (Eliza Rycembel) is twenty five and enjoying life without any obligations. “Nina” is the story of unexpected love, the ability to fill out a void, and complicated choices. It’s the tale of a passionate feeling that tears its way into a conservative, bourgeois world. The film is set to premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Tomasz Kolankiewicz talks to Olga Chajdas.

NINA, reż. Olga Chajdas fot. Robert Palka

Tomasz Kolankiewicz: The story of “Nina” began nearly 10 years ago. That is when the first version of the script was born, and when you did preliminary shooting as part of the Rehearsal Studio at the Wajda School. It was 2011.

Olga Chajdas: After I graduated from the Lodz Film School’s Department of Production and the Warsaw Academy of Film and Television’s Department of Directing, I did a lot of work on various movie sets. As a production assistant, director’s assistant, and finally – assistant director. But I always knew that one day I’d make my own movie. By 2011, I already had a script ready. That was the prehistoric age of this film, a very early draft. The starting point was the same: a married couple is unsuccessfully trying to have a baby, a young woman appears in their life, and the ladies fall in love. That core plot has remained unchanged, as have the names of the characters. But the rest has evolved a lot since. The interesting thing is that when I wrote this script 8 or 10 years ago, I was empathizing with the younger woman – Magda. Now, when I see the finished film, I feel closer to the older Nina. I also have evolved.

If I had to focus on just one striking element in your movie, it would be the emotional authenticity. We can tell that this film wasn’t so much thought up as it was felt. You mentioned that while you were writing the script, you identified with Magda – and it’s hard not to notice that Eliza Rycembel, who plays her, looks a bit like you.

(Laughing) Everyone’s been saying that. It’s funny, I wasn’t thinking about that at all. That wasn’t deliberate. But maybe there’s something to it, because even Eliza claims it is so. When we were working on the movie, I bought the same type of shoes Eliza’s character wears in the film.

Emotional authenticity was high on my list. We wanted to shoot “Nina” in long takes. I wanted to give the actors space to act, to provide situations in which these emotions could resonate. I didn’t do quick cuts, I always allowed the scene to play itself out. I’m not an intellectual type of director, I operate based on intuition and emotions – I guess that shows in my movies.

You achieved that effect also thanks to your wonderful work with actors. You have experience in theatre – tell me, what was your process with the actors? First of all, where did you find them?

I started working on the cast by picking the main character: Nina. I knew that I wanted Julia Kijowska to play her. She was my starting point, and I built the entire film around her. I wanted to do it in stages: first, I found her a husband, then the person she falls in love with, and only then did I start looking for her sisters and mother. As for Julka’s partner, we have some excellent actresses in Poland, but unfortunately directors don’t always allow them to spread their wings. I really wanted to find someone who would have good chemistry with Julka. Right at the first casting session, I felt that she had that with Eliza Rycembel. And Eliza is really inspiring. There were many great candidates at that casting session, but in the Julia Kijowska – Eliza Rycembel pairing, we found that tension that simply can’t be faked.

NINA, reż. Olga Chajdas fot. Robert Palka

I also appreciated Andrzej Konopka’s excellent performance as the husband, Wojtek. That was a great pick, a very talented actor who for a long time couldn’t get out of playing men in uniform and degenerates. Here we see something else: you cast him as a sympathetic, kind man.

Andrzej was supposed to play a normal, cool, manly guy. We wanted to underscore the fact that this is a man you try to keep, not one you want to dump. This role was very important to me, and Andrzej knocked it out of the park. I’d been thinking about him for some time, but I wanted to pair him up with Julia first and see how they worked together. Andrzej did a very non-obvious take during the casting session, and once again – there was chemistry.

You used the term non-obvious. It’s interesting to see you build the relationships between your characters, as you shy away from obvious stereotypes. Here, the younger woman is more dominant, introducing the older one into a new world in which she feels quite secure, though at the same time we can also feel that she is lost and looking for warmth and support. On the other hand, the man is not antipathetic. On the contrary. You avoid easy solutions and complicate the situation, making it more true to life. This love is not an escape from anything, or any sort of revenge.

I find these non-obvious situations very interesting. Every character has a turning point here. I wanted the whole story to defy easy categorizations, like “it’s a bad guy, so you have to seek comfort elsewhere”. To me, Nina is also in a sense a modern-day Madame Bovary: a woman who doesn’t really know how to characterize her needs.

For several months, I worked with the actors at home, and just before we started filming, we were able to rehearse in the apartments seen in the film. These rehearsals were very important to us. I knew that we wouldn’t have time to do that on set. Everything had to be ready as far as staging and characterization goes. And then, once on set, we just had to precisely set it up and give ourselves some space for movement. Tomek Namiuk, the cinematographer, really stressed the fact that the actors had to be super prepared. I had also worked with Julia Kijowska on the script. First I worked on it alone, then I was joined by Marta Konarzewska, a very talented screenwriter who gave the script its current form. And finally, there was Julia Kijowska, with whom we spent several months working on the text as Julka adjusted it to fit her character. We spent a lot of time doing this preliminary work, and I’m very happy about that.

NINA reż. Olga Chajdas, fot. Robert Palka

So you have your script, and you’re working with actors on its interpretation. How about the visual aspect of the movie?

For “Nina”, we were with Tomek inspired by photography – first by Nan Goldin, and then by Todd Hido. My version of the script had referential photos for individual scenes glued in. We had a very precise arrangement with Tomek, but I never said to my actors anything like “three centimeters to the left” – I wanted these long takes to carry the narrative. We wanted our set to feel intimate, and so combined various jobs to make the crew as small as possible.  That’s why Tomek didn’t light that much. And with little lighting, we had to use a very sensitive camera – the Panasonic VariCam. Because we wanted to get this slightly retro feel, Tomek rigged some old Zenit photographic lenses that he had bought for next to nothing in Belarus onto the camera. The most expensive one was something like 300 dollars. The image was sharpened by Adam Jedynak, who said that it was very problematic, because those lenses were highly unpredictable. Besides, they weren’t perfect – they had smudges and scratches, the light entered them in unexpected places. It’s good when this effect is achieved on set, as opposed to artificially generated in postproduction. Tomek’s idea and execution were great here.

This retro feel you mentioned is partly born out of the look of the image itself. It’s not just the light and sharpness you mentioned. You’ve also used an unusual format, and a very particular color palette. You talk with such passion about photography, and I know that you’ve done some yourself, and even exhibited your work.

Photography is very important to me. As I mentioned, the whole film is stylized to look like Nan Golding and Todd Hido photographs. The image isn’t perfect, and it’s shot in the 1,66 format, which makes it look like photos from the 1980s and 90s. I was also trying to get a similar feel soundtrack-wise. The music was supposed to be still. It was supposed to be just a single special moment – like a caught breath. Music is very important to me, also as a source of inspiration. When we were shooting the film, I listened to Ludovico Einaudi, I’d play his music all night long, falling asleep to it. The same can be said for the music from Godard’s “Contempt”, to which I had listened before we started shooting. The theme from “Contempt” actually appears in the film, in a scene where Wojtek puts the young girl in his wife’s car. I used different music in editing, but kept it in a similar vein. I wanted the soundtrack to go beyond the traditional realm of film music. It was composed by Andrzej Smolik, and he did a fantastic job. His music has that sort of freedom I was looking for. Andrzej saw that it was something new that can be built from scratch, but at the same time he kept it in the mood I suggested at the start. And as a parting gift, he gave me a Zenit camera – it turns out that he collects them.

The filming is done, and now comes what some see as the most crucial part of filmmaking – editing.

I edited the film with Kasia Adamik. She’s a director herself, and on top of that, for many years she had done storyboarding, so she thinks in terms of editing. She disrupted rhythms in a very interesting way. She distilled the essence of those extended, 10+ minute long takes. In effect, we feel like we’re seeing something that has just happened. While working on TV series I learned that you can’t shoot too much, because God forbid it all fits. When you shoot too much, you’re losing time, and then it’s a shame to not use all of it. That’s why with “Nina” I was after getting just one perfect double. There was not a single moment where I didn’t know how to tell the story, so we just shot everything from all angles. Otherwise we’d drown in editing. Already on set, I was thinking of transitions between scenes. Of course it’s not like I’m precisely planning where I’m going to do a close-up: I like to do variants, so I can do a wide shot, and then potentially use the close-up in editing. Editing is also where I try to give myself some freedom. To move these blocks around in a way that surprises me. To see if the things we shot can be arranged in an unexpected way.

NINA, reż. Olga Chajdas fot. Robert Palka

The last element – sound. It also plays an important role in the film. It complements the work of the actors, building new meanings.

The sound was handled by the company Dreamsound – Kacper Habisiak and Marcin Kasiński. When we started working together, they showed me their take on how they intend to achieve the mood I was looking for. Very quickly it turned out that in order to do that, we have to think about sound more subjectively. There are moments when footsteps or the sound of a hand going through hair are very audible – they were meant to build a very subjective image of this world, to distance the protagonists from reality. On the other hand, the city was meant to sound very intense. Warsaw was to be very dense, overflowing with sounds. This created a contrast between the detached characters and the fast-paced city. The decisive cuts in the image are mirrored by decisive cuts in sound. At the same time, in the club music sequences, we treated sound as something separate, as if it was something playing inside the character’s head. Every character had their own sound space. Everyone sounds different.

You mentioned Warsaw. The city plays an important part in the film. It seems like an intimate drama – the whole thing could take place within several enclosed spaces, but you often have your characters venture out into the city. Was Warsaw supposed to play a particular role in the film?

I wanted to show Warsaw in the transformation period. That’s why I shot some footage by Smyk and the old Rotunda before they got demolished. Of course the city also plays a certain role in the film. Warsaw is at a crossroads, much like our protagonist. Something is being torn down, and we’ll have to see what replaces it… I like working on interesting locations and making the surroundings into another character in the film.

There’s also a lesbian motif in the film, someone discovering something new and unsettling – but also very alluring – inside themselves. However, “Nina” can’t be described as an LGBT film, it’s universal.

That was very important to me. Nina never says that she’s a lesbian, she simply crossed paths with someone and fell in love with them. I was very intent on it not being an initiation film in which the protagonist is discovering her sexuality. She discovers another person. The key part was the protagonist’s inner emptiness, in which there was space for something new to appear. I am a lesbian myself, and I’ve always longed for good films on the subject. Lesbian cinema is overwhelmingly bad. There are single gems such as Lisa Cholodenko’s “High Art”, or “Carol”, or “Blue is the Warmest Colour” – but those films are good because they are not lesbian films. They don’t just talk about the fact that girls love each other. They’re good because they’re universal, they’re telling a story about something more important than mere sexual orientation.

It’s interesting that you mentioned “Carol” and “Blue is the Warmest Colour”. Both of them were made by men – Todd Haynes and Abdellatif Kechice. So apparently, a man can also make an authentic lesbian film, as the key part is capturing universal emotions.

It was very important to me for this world to be authentic, but it’s not just a film about this world. Of course everything had to be very real: for example, most of the extras are from the lesbian community. Our casting director, Paulina Krajnik, worked her butt off bringing in extras from all over Poland. That made our backgrounds look very real. Even though it’s not a strictly LGBT film, I have to say I hope that our community sees it. Also because I personally, as a teenager, was looking for films about the things I was feeling. Ones that I could connect with emotionally, and with which I could identify.

NINA, reż. Olga Chajdas fot. Robert Palka

There are sex scenes in the film. You don’t shy away from them, and whether it’s homo- or heterosexual sex, they look very natural. They’re not jarring in any way. There are neither prudish camera pans to the fireplace, nor gratuity, for which Kechiche’s film was criticized. In your film, the sex is normal and natural.

I have a problem with that scene in “Blue is the Warmest Colour”: it was the only one in the film that rang false to me. It looked like it was made by a man who watched a lot of lesbian porn. For me, the evolution of sex scenes in my film was very important. Each one was supposed to talk about different emotions. When we were figuring out scheduling, I realized that there really was quite a bit of sex in the film. I probably got that impression because we shot most of those scenes at the start. The actresses had to become very intimate with each other, practically disrobe at “hello”, but I feel like this made each passing day easier than the last, because there was nothing left to hide.

In your films, you show women. How is it to be a woman in the cinematic boys’ club now that Polish female filmmakers are raising their voices, talking about misogyny, defending their rights, and – most importantly – making a growing number of excellent movies?

For me, gender isn’t that important. I think this work is more about personality. For example, I don’t use the feminine form of the word “director” [translator’s note – all Polish nouns are grammatically gendered]. Not because I feel like this profession is super masculine, or something. That’s just what it’s called. Of course the Polish film community is a boys’ club – there’s more men in it. But I always seek fault in myself, rather than in my environment. Naturally, I know examples of gender-based injustice, but I try not to indulge in that sort of thinking, and instead just push ahead. There are more and more female directors in Poland, in last year’s short film competition at the Gdynia Film Festival, women definitely dominated. Something’s changed. And I feel like that is true for the rest of our society as well. Women are coming into their own, they’re starting to feel their power. I also know men who rail against that fact – that’s also a general trend. Women have a different emotionality, and Polish cinema really needs that, because for many years our voice has been underrepresented. Though the lines aren’t necessarily so clearly drawn – like it was in the case of “Carol” and “Blue is the Warmest Colour”, which were made by men. We also have an expert on writing great female characters in Poland – I’m talking of course about Tomek Wasilewski. It’s important for women to be both behind and in front of the camera – seeing how many talented actresses we have here, I’ve always found there to be not enough starring roles for them.

Interview by Tomasz Kolankiewicz

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