I’m not interested in what people say
Mula lives in a village with her husband, her sick mother, and her daughter Nina. On the weekend before Nina’s First Communion, they are joined by her brother with his family, and Kaja, Mula’s younger sister who had suddenly vanished 6 years before. Kaja is Nina’s biological mother. Mula is anxious that her unstable little sister returned to take her baby back. The rest of the family, initially wary of Kaja, soon starts treating this as a fresh start and a sign of reconciliation, which only aggravates Mula further. Mula decides to throw her sister out of the house. But on the day of Nina’s Communion, they bury the hatchet. Still, there was another, more important reason for Kaja’s return.
“My protagonist has this thing where she needs to control everything around her. It’s a disease of affluence we all get. In my personal life, I’m trying to keep my ambition in check and not strive for control. My career is a type of personal development for me.” – says Jagoda Szelc, the writer and director of “Tower. A Bright Day”. Interview by Tomasz Kolankiewicz.
Tomasz Kolankiewicz: At the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia, you won the awards for best debut and best screenplay. Your film was very polarizing: some people completely rejected it, while others couldn’t praise it enough. There was also controversy. People were asking: “What’s this actually about? Why this subject? What’s going on here?”
Jagoda Szelc: People feel obligated to control art. I’d have to be a complete idiot not to realize that some people will like this film, while others will not. Mariusz Grzegorzek, my artistic supervisor, told me not to act like a kid from an orphanage – even if only 65 people saw my film, some of them still won’t like it. It’s difficult for me to think in terms of “audience” because I don’t know who they actually are. I can picture a viewer, an individual, that much I can handle. I wouldn’t want to be associated with any particular field, but I’m definitely closer to visual arts [the director graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Wrocław – ed.].
There are a lot of movies in the world that elude the mainstream, and yet no one’s trying to sound the alarm, like “Oh my God! What is that?!” I feel like open attitudes towards art are on the decline in Poland. It has been replaced by this small-minded kneejerk reaction of “I like this, because I can understand it.”
I understand that cinema was born out of popular art, but I’m interested in it mainly as a medium. I wanted to make a film that is falling apart. My protagonist feels the need to control everything. It’s a disease of affluence that we all get. In my personal life, I’m trying to keep my ambition in check and not strive for control. My career is a type of personal development for me. But today, a completely different attitude is being promoted: the entire world is telling us that we should admire those who are in control and those who have ambition. My film, “Tower. A Bright Day”, aims to confront the audience with the consequences of this attitude. To show a character that is pathological in her attempts to control the world around her, and also show where that could lead. The audience will draw their own conclusions. They’ll decide what each story is about. It’s all exercises for our sense of freedom. Andrzej Wajda used to say that when a moviegoer doesn’t know what’s going on, they get angry… I don’t agree: I think that when you don’t understand something, a space opens up where you can reflect on it.
After the Gdynia festival, I got many e-mails from producers that could be summed up as: “get a grip, don’t make art just for art’s sake”. But what if that’s exactly what I’m interested in, if I deliberately chose this path? Let it be known: I want to remain in this realm, I’m staying here. The ending is probably the most criticized portion of my film. I could have done many different things there, but I’m still surprised when people tell me with utmost certainty what type of ending would be definitely better than the one I chose.
In Gdynia, you received the award for the best directing debut, but also one for your screenplay. Your background is in visual arts, and scripts are literary. What’s your process? Do you write linearly, or build on ideas that pop into your head?
These awards were some truly bad parenting (laughing). That’s an interesting question, I’ve never really thought about it. At this stage of my journey, i.e. at the start, I write alone, because I can’t imagine writing with someone else. It’s very difficult for me to explain this pulsating mess in my head to anyone else. Which doesn’t mean that I’m not confronting other people with it. Whenever I write something, I go to my lawyer friend to tell me what he can understand from it. I also work closely with the cinematographer. Working on a text is a series of trials. My artistic attitude is much more important to me than the story I’m telling. The story is just the starting point. There are two types of sculptors: those who work by adding clay, and those who remove it. I’ve developed a mixed technique: first I “pile clay on”, and then I start taking it away.
With films, it’s a bit like it’s not really that important what they’re about. It’s about what impact they were supposed to have on the audience. I think every viewer determines what the film was about, for them. On this basic, primitive level, “Tower. A Bright Day” was supposed to have the impact of a “good film” that after a while also surprised you. And more subtly, I wanted to make a film about total control: the force with which we are all struggling on a daily basis.
In many ways, this is a very graphic film. I’m not just talking about the framing or cinematography, but also about color correction and your use of impressionist shots that hold some resemblance to video art. I wonder how your visual approach was translated into the film. What do you do to tame it and use it to build your cinematic reality.
Along with my cinematographer, Przemysław Brynkiewicz, we are big fans of Philippe Grandiereux. He’s a very daring artist who pushes the artistic pedal to the metal much more than we do. We’re only just starting out, we’re still too anxious and timid. I think that in the next films that we are planning with Przemek, we’ll be braver. I’m not interested in what people say, because everyone should feel entitled to their own opinion. The most important things for me are what you do and what you dream of. I’m dyslexic, and I once read that while a healthy brain visualizes thoughts using five images, a dyslexic person uses twenty five. Maybe that’s why I find it easier to use images.
I read in one of the reviews that “Tower…” is a cool improvisation. That couldn’t be farther from the truth: it was all meticulously planned out, there’s not a single accidental cut or non-premeditated color correction decision. Take for example the scene in which someone whistles, and that whistle is suddenly cut off. That editing choice was listed in the shooting script. This was supposed to be a naturalistic film, which is why Jarek Sterczewski colored it in a naturalistic way. As for the photography itself: we shot everything so that it would be either sunlit, or cast in deep shadow. I chose little known actors because I wanted the audience to have the impression that they weren’t acting out some characters, but rather were found by the camera almost by accident. They’re being shot from the back, almost from behind their heads. It’s supposed to give the impression of the camera having arrived to the scene late. Together with Przemek, we decided to shoot it like a documentary – no counter shots. It was all supposed to lend the film a naturalistic feel, to deceive the audience. We planned all the shots to within a millimeter. The shooting script was 70 pages long, and we followed it to the letter.
On the subject of inspirations: what films do you like?
I like different directors: Carlos Reygadas, Philippe Grandieux, Harmony Korine… but if I want to watch something on a Sunday evening, I’ll pick Akira Kurosawa. Especially “Dodes’ka-den”, “I Saw a Dream Like This”, “High and Low”, and of course “Seven Samurai”. As for inspiration, I mostly draw it from painting. For example the scene in which one sister puts her hand into the other one’s mouth is inspired by the art of Aleksandra Waliszewska. I’m also influenced by other painters: Jan Van Der Pol, Willem de Kooning, Hubert Kokrandt, Alex Urban, and the sculptor Olaf Brzeski.
When I think of the group scenes, my points of reference are Willem de Koonig’s scenes of family chaos. I once saw Penderecki’s sketches for his operas in “Glissando” magazine. It was the first time I realized that he’s charting them out graphically. So I also started doing that with individual scenes. Every moment can be represented graphically, every scene has a center of gravity.
That’s an interesting collection of names: mainly contemporary experimental directors, and one of the greats. “Seven Samurai” is a classic samurai film inspired by American westerns, which as we know has itself inspired one of the genre’s seminal works: John Sturges’ “The Magnificent Seven”. How would you characterize “Tower. A Bright Day” from the genre point of view? Did you deliberately use elements of horror?
I found this combination very interesting. I felt that I wanted to move in that direction, but didn’t really know how. I like genre films a lot, and when I was going into production, I thought to myself: this might be the last time a freak like me gets an opportunity like this. I felt like it was a once in a lifetime sort of situation: the film’s producer, Mariusz Grzegorek, who is also the head of the Lodz Film School, is himself a wacko (because he’s a real, uncompromising artist). Only he could have allowed something like this to happen. I figured that if that’s the case, I’m going to use this opportunity to do everything I’ve always dreamed of.
Given our budget and production capacity, a genre film seemed natural: it meshes well with this sort of intimate storytelling. I wanted to see if I could work the genre, but also if I could direct three little children on set, and wrangle the timeline. The production was a process of learning and experimentation. I kept hearing this voice in my head: “Just don’t get scared, once you get scared – you’re done.” Of course there are many different genres. I’d never try to make a comedy, that’s too difficult for me. Which is why I respect Paweł Maślona for his interesting debut “Panic Attack”.
A small group of actors, and a small scale production: as you mentioned, you hired people one doesn’t really see on movie screens. They’re theatre actors, and quite specific ones at that: actresses from the Gardzienice and Pieśń kozła circles. I’m curious as to how you assembled your cast and then how you worked with them. Theatre and film require different skillsets – in film, there’s no immediate contact with the audience, but there is a camera, which you need to know how to work: how to position yourself and what means of expression to use. How did you like working with them on the set?
I knew that as this was my debut, I couldn’t afford to shoot myself in the foot: I had to pick good actors to ease the burden a little bit. A good actor for me is a person who can collaborate with you, someone sensitive and intelligent who knows that we’re all playing on the same team. The sports analogy is actually not that random: during pre-production, we watched a lot of football. Football coaches are the best role models for directors: they are just, assertive enough, they know when to pull back and let something play itself out, and when to intervene. As for the names: I wanted to get a cast from a single city, so that I would always have access to them, and so that they’d have access to each other. So they could work even when I wasn’t there. I wanted to get three weeks of rehearsal, so that the cast meshed well.
There’s this thing, like a film’s genetic code, which says what the film is about and what it should look like – it shows you that on its own. I have this disorder called pansemiosis, in my case it’s like a disease. What it does is it makes you see signs, it’s like just next door to full-on mania. When I was assembling the cast, I saw signs that influenced the genetic code of “Tower…”: One day, Ania Kotorska, who plays Mula in the film, came to me and said that she has this friend who is an interesting actress, but doesn’t have a lot of film experience. I don’t do castings, I try to go straight to screen testing. So this actress, Małgorzata Szczerbowska, came to the screen test dressed just the way I envisioned this character should be dressed. And she didn’t even know what part she was supposed to play yet. She had this density, and we knew right there that she was the right pick. I found two of the children through the sister of actor Rafał Kwietniewski. She told me that her brother has two kids in that age, and that they’re excellent actors. Which turned out to be 100% true, though paradoxically the fact that they’re family made the job harder – it’s terribly difficult to act with your own children. The fact that they pulled it off is a testament to their talent. Children are the toughest piece of the puzzle. I found the third girl through casting – I wanted the part to come naturally to her, as children should not be forced to act. It also was no accident that Rafał Cieluch joined the cast: I was looking for someone who looks like Jürgen Klopp [football coach for FC Liverpool, who had for many years trained Borussia Dortmund – ed.]. I wanted Mula to have a husband who is very warm, who is her rock. Klopp seemed like that kind of wonderful man. When I told Krotoska about Cieluch, it turned out that not only do they know each other, but they had even had a thing as teenagers. This couldn’t have been a coincidence. The principal cast is rounded out by Anna Zubrzycki: she plays the mother in my film, and she’s one of the principal artists at Gardzienice, Ania and Małgosia’s older colleague, and a sort of mentor to the younger actors. So she was perfect as the mother. Finally, Artur Krajewski as the priest. Three different people told me about him at the same time, independently of each other.
So there were three weeks of rehearsal, of polishing the characters and getting to know each other. Sticking with sports terminology: a training camp before a big championship. How did you choose the place for this training camp and the film itself? What made you decide on Kotlina Kłodzka?
All the locations were two kilometers apart. I found our main location on the first day of scouting, thanks to my friend from Kłodzko – Piotr Makala. I’m from Lower Silesia, so I know the area. Again, I thought it would make things easier for me. It was all a matter of eliminating unnecessary difficulties, of making smart decisions and planning several steps ahead. In my mind, that is what directing is all about. Of course, when you’re producing a film, you also have to follow the money. At the end of production, we managed to secure funding from a regional fund, but had that not happened, shooting in Lower Silesia just seemed natural to me. I always take risks where it’s warranted, but in areas where security is preferred, I try to make things easy for myself.
So you’ve shot the film, and now you’re editing it. You mentioned that you were thinking about editing already at the script development stage. How did you work with your editor? There are a number of strategies: some directors leave their editors free rein, others monitor every cut. What did you opt for?
I had the opportunity to work with an exceptionally talented editor, Anna Garncarczyk, who was doing her third year at film school at the time. Both me and the cinematographer wanted the editor to join us already during production. We spent a month learning each other. Ania is very perceptive, she has an eye for choosing best takes. She sees things that I don’t even notice at first, because I am focused on other stuff. She also understood who I was as a director, and at times proposed downright brilliant solutions. She’s a very wise person, I just love her.
Sound is a big part of building the film’s atmosphere – it facilitates cohesion. How did you work on sound, or rather on sound design?
I worked on that aspect with the Dreamsound team – it’s the company that co-produced the film. We wanted naturalism, I like it when actors speak over each other. I think I got that from home: at our family table, everyone talks at once, shouting over each other, so sentences are interrupted, and conversation threads get tangled. It was difficult to show that convincingly on screen, but I was lucky to get to work with great sound guys who understood what I was after, and were able to come up with something fantastic. They introduced a lot of psychoacoustics, adding another layer to the film. I have so much respect for them. Besides, working with Kacper Habisiak is just the best. He’s an incredibly witty guy.
Moving on to the film’s impact. As I mentioned before, reviewers were divided: some criticized the subplot of the Syrian refugee as not fitting in with the rest of the film. People were also critical of the ending, suggesting that maybe it would have been better to lob it off and leave the finale more open-ended.
The scene with the Syrian was my protest song, one of the two contained in that film. It’s a story inspired by a real person: Moha from Palestine, my friend from film school, who studied directing with me. He suffered horrible things in Poland. He was repeatedly the target various minor acts of aggression, until finally he was assaulted at a grocery store in Łódź. I’m shocked by the Polish politicians’ attitude towards refugees. They legitimize violence and hatred, which is why I really wanted to incorporate this “other” into my film. But it’s not just jammed inside, it serves an important role in the narrative: it breaks up the scene at the lake (looking for someone), distracts you during the ride back home (they’re going to get the refugee), it serves as a counterpoint on a number of occasions. The other protest song is about veganism. I’m a militant vegan, and I put a scene in the film in which children are watching “Agrobiznes” on TV. They see animals being killed. I find it terrifying that we don’t even notice mass slaughter of animals being shown on TV during the day. To kids.
A refugee, veganism… there aren’t any cyclists, but there is a priest…
That subplot is of course a critique of religious institutions. I’m not anti-religious, on the contrary, I value religiousness. I support all religions and think that everyone has the right to have one of their own, or to draw upon any number of them. I was raised in a family of atheists, but I think that I could have benefitted from a religious element. The institution of the Church is another matter, I’m a bit more critical of it. And yes, I feel that I’ve been very lenient on the Catholic Church. I could have gone after it more decisively. I’m just stating a fact: they are not serving people’s spiritual needs, they’re completely lost, they miss the mark on metaphysical needs. I’m not showing a priest who rapes children, that would bring this whole subplot down into the gutter. I wanted to show a different problem: a priest simply not being able to handle his job. Kaja is in tune with the primordial world of nature, and has maintained that link to spirituality, while the priest has lost it. Instead of going off on crusade after crusade, the Church should pause and think. I think that’s the most elegant criticism possible.
You mentioned Kaja – the soothsayer, the witch. As we know, historically the Church burned them at the stake. In today’s Poland, the narrative of witches is resurfacing. Right-wing politicians use the word to describe feminists and all the women who voice views from beyond their political spectrum. The women who took part in the black protests used the term themselves, somewhat contrarily – yes we are witches, and you better recognize our power.
I’m a witch myself, I think that much is obvious (laughing). It all began when I met a witch called Kaja who did a certain ritual for me, and I experienced something akin to death… I’ll tell you about it someday, if I find the courage… Our Christianity was a bit different at the start. It drew on pagan beliefs, which were still widespread among the population. A witch is someone who knows things, her hair is unbound. Fingernails and hair are what connects you to the world of spirits and plants. Native Americans believe that you achieve happiness when you return to the place where you were created. I don’t think we should distance ourselves from our pagan roots. I made a film about control. My protagonist, Mula, keeps thinking that she can own things exclusively: a husband, a child, a family, a way of thinking. She’s a bit like a colonizer. I don’t think you own someone else’s love. I’m a composite of the two main antagonists: on one hand I make these attempts to control everything, and on the other, I want to cut all ties and return to nature. Hence the twin titles, which serve as bookends. “Tower. A Bright Day” – the film begins with the title “Tower”, and ends with “A Bright Day”.
interview by Tomasz Kolankiewicz