Jerzy Skolimowski in Conversation with Sean Price Williams
Sean Price Williams
An interview with Jerzy Skolimowski and his wife, writer and producer Ewa Piaskowska.
Identification Marks: The Films of Jerzy Skolimowski opens at 7 Ludlow on May 5.
It is becoming less and less uncommon to find the most daring feature films are being made NOT by the young. The language of cinema practiced today feels rooted in developments and trends that were standardized 50 or more years ago, so perhaps it’s totally logical that boundaries in contemporary cinema are mostly being pushed by the same artists who were creating these new fashions. It’s a stale conversation to focus on the age of an artist, but how alarming that we cinephiles keep getting more turned on and excited by the upcoming works of the filmmakers we worshipped for so long, and less enthusiastic about a new voice. No film, last year, represented this experience for me more than Jerzy Skolimowski and Ewa Piaskowska’s EO. Comfortably connected to Bresson’s donkey movie Au Hasard Balthasar (1966), the film gave critics and intelligent audiences plenty to feed on. I find almost no true connection between the two films (I much prefer the Skolimowski).
Finding connections between the films in Metrograph’s retrospective Identification Marks: The Films Of Jerzy Skolimowski, though, should prove to be a fun game. Each film is entirely its own experiment: an exercise in film grammar, literature, camera, music, poetry, technology, sorcery. The voice behind these films originates in goodness; there is sympathy and optimism in what a human is capable of, even within the films containing such bleak endings. These films aren’t trapped by realism, the fantasy is all possible. Many of these are hard to see in suitable formats in this country— it’s a very rare opportunity to properly see 11 Minutes (2015)—and all are very much made to be experienced in the theater. It’s tempting to call out favorites, but this series is best suited for surprises.
Looking forward to discovery as much visiting the old friends, I chatted with Jerzy and Ewa on a NYC-Warsaw Zoom. I couldn’t help but ask about some of the less celebrated films. And they couldn’t help but impress me with some of Jerzy’s grand paintings.—Sean Price Williams
Jerzy Skolimowski, 1972
SEAN PRICE WILLIAMS: One of the things you told me about before that was really cool were your early boarding school years. You grew up in Warsaw, but this was near Prague?
JERZY SKOLIMOWSKI: Yes. I was in a Czech school, in Poděbrady, which is a kind of resort town 50 kilometres from Prague. It was quite exclusive—the English-type boys school—and we lived in the 16th-century castle of King George of Poděbrady. Some prominent people came out of there. There were 10 dormitories and each had a boss, usually the oldest boy in the dormitory. In my dormitory, the boss was Miloš Forman. And in the bed next to mine was Ivan Passer. So out of that dormitory of eight boys, three became film directors!
SPW: What age were you?
JS: I was 10 or 11. Ivan was the same age, and Miloš was six or seven years older.
SPW: Wow. There were even more people, musicians, I imagine.
JS: Not in my dormitory but in my class. I shared a school desk with Václav Havel, the future President of the Czech Republic and famous playwright.
SPW: Did you keep in touch over the years?
JS: We would meet on occasions, maybe five or six times—the opening of one of his plays in Warsaw, and we had dinner, or when I was invited by President Mitterrand to the ballet. Miloš I met many more times.
SPW: There’s such a difference between the Czechoslovak and Polish New Waves, but it’s interesting that you key players were growing up together, becoming adults together. When did you meet [Roman] Polanski? Was that [at the National Film School] in Lodz?
JS: We were both kind of jazz groupies. Playing jazz in Poland in the late ’50s was practically illegal because jazz was treated as a part of American culture, which, of course, was Western culture, the culture of the enemies of our Eastern Bloc. Jazz was not welcome in public, so it was played in semi-secret places, usually cellars.
SPW: Which would have been the perfect environment. Even in the West, it would be best in the cellars. That’s the atmosphere for it.
SPW: Was Krzysztof Komeda there?
JS: Yes, this is where I met Komeda and all the other Polish jazz players. They had their followers, so it was through word of mouth that we were going to meet in Krakow, let’s say, on Halloween. That was quite a famous date, it was always Krakow on Halloween. We were maybe 14, 15 years old.
SPW: Are you still listening to jazz?
JS: Not as much as in those days. At that time, I was quite well educated, though we didn’t have access to the records; if anyone, by some miracle, got hold of a record, we’d organize a private listening session. And we were listening to Willis Conover’s famous radio show “Music USA.” I remember an audition that was being broadcast from Munich, mostly for the American soldiers in Europe; the authorities in the Eastern Bloc learned a lot of people were trying to listen in, so a special signal interrupted the music and made a noise, like oooooo oooooo.
SPW: That’s how they tried to censor it?
JS: Yes, but we were still listening.
SPW: Wow. After your first films, jazz doesn’t really continue to play a role in the soundtracks, which are all very distinct and remarkable. Jazz doesn’t follow you through your cinema. Your taste seems to change with each film. You worked with Genesis, CAN…
JS: It started with my friendship with Komeda. He scored three of my films [1965’s Identification Marks: None; 1966’s Barrier; 1967’s Le Depart]. When he died, I lost a really great partner. After that, I made some accidental choices, some better than others. I had a good list of composers with whom I worked. There was Cat Stevens [on 1970’s Deep End]; there were a couple of guys from Genesis: Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks [on 1978’s The Shout]; I worked a couple of times with a good British composer, Stanley Myers [on 1972’s King, Queen, Knave, 1982’s Moonlighting, 1984’s Success is the Best Revenge, 1985’s The Lightship, and 1989’s Torrents of Spring]. And I gave Hans Zimmer his very first film job.
SPW: You worked together on Moonlighting and then The Lightship.
Klaus Maria Brandauer and Robert Duvall in The Lightship (1985)
JS: It was Stanley Myers who introduced us. We went to a club to listen to Hans play; I liked it very much and invited him to collaborate.
SPW: How do you feel about The Lightship?
JS: I like it. I think it was underrated. But the film had a problem: there was one star too many. The star of the picture was Robert Duvall, but Klaus Maria Brandauer also thought he was the star. There was a conflict, and it didn’t help. Klaus was being far from reasonable.
Ewa begins speaking in Polish.
SPW: Hi Ewa!
EWA PIASKOWSKA: I’m just saying he’s being very naughty now, isn’t he? He’s not supposed to say stuff like that.
SPW: It’s interesting, because Klaus’s career in Hollywood was very short. Maybe it was because of some personality thing? It’s making me realize, they were trying to bring him over [to the States], like they did with Jürgen Prochnow.
Anyway, Ewa, I was going to ask about you, you’re going to be a subject of this interview, too—working together, bringing Jerzy into so many new movies in the 21st century. And I wanted to watch Before Night Falls (2000) again to see you; you’re both in it, right?
EP: Jerzy’s in it, I’m just passing through. How are you?
SPW: I’m good!
EP: Listen, we have to tell you, we didn’t realize when we saw you last that you had made this fabulous film that we love to death, the one with [Robert] Pattinson: Good Time (2017).
SPW: Oh, yeah. That’s nice.
EP: It has such amazing energy and attention—everything is perfect. The subtle way it develops the humor, the irony. It’s fantastic.
SPW: Thank you. What are you up to post-Oscars? Everyone’s so mad about that. So lame. I could see you guys on the TV behind them, the expression on your faces. I had a good laugh at that.
EP: It was expected. No big surprise.
SPW: Unoriginal war films: great. [Ed: Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front won Best Foreign Film at the 2023 Academy Awards, a category in which EO was also nominated.] Are you taking it easy since?
JS: We kept travelling. We did some local festivals, and openings of the film. We were in London.
EP: We are going to Spain.
SPW: Have you been painting, Jerzy?
JS: Not recently. I think tomorrow we will go to the country and I will get back to painting. I was going to, but there is never enough time.
SPW: You’re in Warsaw now?
EP: Yeah, let me show you the view.
Picks up laptop to show view of the Vistula River through the living room window.
EP: It’s nice, it lights up at night. The tourist district is right over there.
SPW: The part that wasn’t destroyed during the war.
EP: Our building wasn’t destroyed because it was a Gestapo headquarters.
SPW: I’m curious to talk about some of the other movies that are not playing in the Metrograph retrospective, like Ferdydurke (1991). What happened with Ferdydurke? I don’t think it was ever released in America.
JS: That was my mistake. I liked the book, I liked the writer [Witold] Gombrowicz, but I should have realized this was untranslatable to the screen. There were several attempts. My late friend Andrzej Żuławski, he tried to adapt one of Gombrowicz’s books to the screen without success [Cosmos, 2015]. There were a couple of others. No one could make a decent movie out of a Gombrowicz book. Because the quality of those books lies in the very specific use of language; he is twisting words, meanings—not in the style of Joyce, because Joyce went much further with the sculpture of language. Gombrowicz was somewhere halfway.
SPW: It’s interesting about Gombrowicz and James Joyce, those adaptations are always not very good—maybe only the John Huston adaptation of The Dead (1987)? Some writing should just be writing.
JS: My films conceived from my original ideas are usually much better than my attempts to adapt literature. I tried that three times, and three times I failed.
SPW: Oh, the Nabokov film?
JS: Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventures of Gerard (1970), that was first. The second was Nabokov, yes: King, Queen, Knave (1972). And the third was Turgenev: Torrents of Spring (1989). All three of my not-favorite films, I must say.
The Shout (1978)
SPW: You adapted Robert Graves’s story for The Shout (1978). But you elaborated the idea.
JS: At least one adaptation was good! That was a very short story, just eight pages. We managed to develop it into a full-length script. A couple of my original ideas worked quite well, like I made the husband a composer of electronic music.
But Gombrowicz… When you hear that language on the screen, it sounds so artificial, it’s a mistake. And especially because I decided to shoot Ferdydurke in English—for reasons unknown to me now, maybe I thought I was bringing Gombrowicz to the world? And on top of that, with an international cast: two French actresses, one Scottish actor, one Welsh, and one American, Crispin Glover. Everyone spoke with a different accent. It became impossible to watch or listen to. It was one of my worst films, but it was entirely my mistake. If I was really crazy to attempt putting that book on screen, I should have done it in Polish at least. But I lost that chance. The Polish audience, of course, ignored it.
SPW: There’s a long break after that.
JS: Seventeen years! I had to stop making films as punishment for trying to make that film. But I used that time to develop as a painter. That was the first moment that I had enough time to take painting seriously. You cannot really paint while you’re making movies.
I had to completely reset my artistic ambitions. I managed to make a huge leap forward as a painter, which gave me the feeling of being a young artist who is taking only their first steps. Almost immediately I started to have exhibitions—I even won some awards from the Los Angeles International Competition, where artists from all around the world were presenting work. That gave me the feeling: “Yes, now I am an artist.” With that feeling, I was able to return to filmmaking.
SPW: Was Four Nights with Anna(2008) the comeback film?
JS: Yes. I went back to Poland, and I made Four Nights with Anna.
SPW: How did that come about?
JS: That’s a longer story. Towards the end of those 17 years, I came across a book by Susan Sontag called In America. It tells the story of a real Polish actress [Helena Modjeska] near the end of the 19th century. She was a really great theatre star, one of the best in Europe of that time—a kind of Polish Sarah Bernhardt, this quality, this caliber. Suddenly, she decided to stop acting, leave Poland, go to America and become a farmer. I saw this was good material for a film. And there was a producer interested: Paulo Branco [prolific Portuguese producer whose worked with filmmakers such as David Cronenburg, Raúl Ruiz, Wim Wenders, Chantal Akerman, and Manoel de Oliveira].
JS: He hired me to write the script and direct.
SPW: Let me guess, did he pay you, ever?
JS: He paid me something, but not much. [Laughs] Anyway, Paulo liked the script. I thought it was decent. But it was a very expensive film—at that time, it would have been well over €25M— and Paolo couldn’t find such money, especially with me as director. He said, “You have to rewrite the script, make it cheaper.” I dropped a couple of the most expensive scenes. After several weeks, he came back to me and said, “Listen, Jerzy, with you as a director, I cannot even find €10M, so we are unable to make this film. But if you would do quickly some little movie, just to prove that you are still capable of making films, maybe I will be able to find the money to make Susan Sontag’s book.
We signed the contract, and I went back to Poland with Ewa. One day, Ewa said, “Hey, you signed that contract to write the small film, remember? It expires now, so you’ll have to pay back the advance.” And of course, I didn’t have that money anymore. We decided to write quickly: over three days and three nights, we wrote Four Nights with Anna. It was based on a note in The LA Times that we had read in California; we remembered it because we had thought it was a good idea for a film. It was about a Japanese man so shy that he was only capable of meeting the woman he loved when she was asleep, so he was climbing into her window and watching her sleeping. That was all—such a little note, two sentences. Out of that, we developed the whole story. Paulo liked it, he promised to finance that little film, which was supposed to open my door into the great movie-making. It was the opening film in the Quinzaine section at Cannes, and it was a success.
But I didn’t return to In America. Ewa and I established ourselves as a writer and producer team [Skopia Film]. The financing system for Polish films is rather easier than in most any other country because there’s a state institution, the Polish Film Institute, which supports productions that have some artistic ambition, they are sometimes willing to help with nearly half the budget. Having half, it’s much easier to find the other half; this is how we made Four Nights with Anna, and then Essential Killing (2010), and then 11 Minutes (2015), and the last one, EO.
Four Nights With Anna (2008)
SPW: You never worked with Paulo Branco again?
JS: No more of Paulo Branco.
SPW: I worked with him once. Thirteen years ago, he produced a movie I co-directed [2011’s Eyes Find Eyes, with Jean-Manuel Fernandez]. No one got paid. He’s such a hero because of the films he has made, I have much respect for him, but it was such a bad experience.
JS: He’s well known for it.
SPW: I’m still happy to have had that experience.
EP: It’s the classic story. Four Nights with Anna, this was my very first producing experience. Jerzy is, you know, the pro, and we had just set up the company, and we’re supposed to be 70/30—a French-Polish co-production, Paolo 70%, us 30%. Then when we secured the money from the Polish Film Institute, immediately he started asking for it to be transferred over to him, just like that. We said, “No fucking way.” But on the night we were going to welcome the crew on location, we were driving through the forest, he calls Jerzy and says, “If you don’t send the money right now, I’m pulling out of the picture.” Jerzy said, “Of course, no,” and Paolo said, “I’m pulling out.” So we went to the welcoming ceremony, drinking, shaking everybody’s hands: “Hi, hi, what a pleasure.”
JS: It was a great moment, we start the film tomorrow, the first day of shooting, being optimistic. [Laughs]
EP: Knowing that we are like, alone, with only 30% of the budget, not knowing what to do. This was the beginning of the collaboration.
SPW: When did you and Ewa meet?
JS: In 1995.
SPW: During your painting period?
JS: Yes, I was only painting. I had tried to write some scripts, but unsuccessfully.
SPW: I want to talk about photography. There are so many ideas in the earlier films, in Walkover (1965) and Barrier, complicated shots, things like that. And EO is a visually very ravishing movie. Do you take photographs? And when you make a movie, how much are you thinking about the photography?
JS: I don’t take photographs. I take some pictures with my iPhone but that’s more documentation of a situation or an object. I pay huge attention to the way my films are being photographed. Although I have worked with so many different cinematographers, stylistically I think they create a unit.
SPW: You have a different cinematographer on every movie. How do you choose them?
JS: When I am choosing a new cinematographer, I watch the films they’ve made. And I have to like those films. If I don’t like something, I will discuss it openly with them: “I think you made a mistake here and there.”
SPW: Was that the director’s fault?
JS: Well, if they’re open and wise enough to admit that they’re capable of making mistakes, then there is a dialogue between us. But if they’re stubborn and think that they’re already a master of the screen, I don’t see them as my partner. I have been quite fortunate with my choices, really. Even those bad movies, I like their photography.
SPW: It’s not just the skill of a cinematographer, but also the chemistry of the collaboration. I think that’s something people who don’t make films don’t necessarily know—that important bond between the cinematographer and the director, pushing each other creatively, maybe even fighting! But you wanted to change it up for every movie. The primary cameraman on EO, Michal Dymek, he’s a young guy, right?
JS: EO started with a different cinematographer. Unfortunately, he got Covid after just a few days. We had to stop the picture, quarantine, find a replacement. By chance, I found Michal who eventually shot most of the film, except that beginning, and also a few days at the very end when he was already committed to some other film—because who could predict we’d be shooting EO for over two years! We had Covid in the crew three times, so three stoppages. And the seasons changed, so we were forced us to wait for the right season for continuity. It wasn’t an easy movie. We really suffered. But nobody regrets it. I’m still very pleased with the film.
SPW: What about working with Vincent Gallo in Essential Killing? I have to ask.
Jerzy smiles, takes a sip of red wine, and motions to Ewa.
JS: You tell.
EP: You know, we are all extremely happy with his performance. And he was a great entertainer, just fantastic company at the dinner table. But the collaboration ended with Jerzy and him not speaking to each other, for the last five days. They communicated through the first AD. And also, I mean, he had all these funny quirks… but that’s gossip, so… But it was a great performance. I think if you listen to the speech Jerzy gave in Venice when he was accepting the Coppa Volpi award on Vincent’s behalf, that will tell you everything. [Laughs]
SPW: Okay. [Laughs]
JS: We won the Grand Jury Prize for the film in Venice. Additionally, Gallo got the Best Actor award.
EP: Including a very expensive watch.
JS: A very expensive watch. He was in Venice, of course, present, but he didn’t come for the ceremony so I had to go on stage and receive his award. Holding this large award, I said:
Hi, Vincent, I know that you are watching the ceremony in your hotel room. And it’s only 100 meters—you could quickly run here and accept it yourself, so come on, rush, rush! I will fill the gap now telling more or less what you wish you were going to say. So: Vincent wanted to tell you that he is very grateful to the writer of this script, Jerzy Skolimowksi—thank you, Jerzy. Also, he’s very grateful to the producer of this film, Jerzy Skolimowksi, thank you. And he’s also very grateful to the director of this film, Jerzy Skolimowksi, who cast Vincent in this film.
There was a lot of laughter and applause. Of course, Gallo didn’t show himself on stage—but he demanded the watch.
SPW: Of course! [Laughs]
JS: He was very insistent: I want the watch right now!
EP: But he’s brilliant, brilliant. So intelligent, so smart.
Essential Killing (2010)
SPW: What made you cast him? What drew you to him?
EP: At Cannes, there was a film playing that he was in, Tetro (2009), directed by [Francis Ford] Coppola. We sort of already had the script [for Essential Killing] written, and then we spoke to Jeremy [Thomas, the film’s producer], we were sitting in Jeremy’s hotel suite, and he said, “I saw this interesting film yesterday, Tetro. What about Gallo? You should go watch it.” So we went—I think Vincent was actually in the audience. We thought, “Yeah, fantastic.” And we loved his work—Buffalo ’66 (1998) is still one of my favorite films. Then when we met, Vincent convinced us. He said that he loves, you know, cold climates. [Laughs]
JS: That he loves to be barefoot in the snow.
EP: And that he had always wanted to make a very physical film. He was very convincing. The only films of his that he was telling us about were those made with Claire Denis—like, there’s lots of snow in it, and it was cold when it was shot so it’s his best performance. He convinced us he was perfect. It turned out…
JS: He doesn’t like the cold. And he especially doesn’t like going barefoot in the snow. [Laughs]
SPW: I was in Cannes that year also. He came to a screening of a movie I’d worked on, and it was so thrilling. He was such an impressive force to us, at that time. Him watching our movie, it almost overtook the entire event; the premiere was suddenly all about Gallo is in this room right now. And I remember, I saw Coppola eating breakfast alone in Cannes; I was like: wow, how does this happen to such a hero? Just eating alone. It looked so sad.
The next film you made was 11 Minutes. How do you feel about it? I’m excited, I haven’t seen it, I get to see it on the big screen.
JS: Please, let me know what you think. I like that film. I made it for the ending, because that was the first idea I had about that film, the end. I wrote the script—the only one [since 2008] without Ewa’s collaboration—with just the end in place. I had to move step by step backwards: how would all those people find themselves involved in the end, in that place? I haven’t seen it for years now. What I remember, there were some good scenes, especially the finale I like very much.
11 Minutes (2015)
SPW: Oh, and what about The Palace, the new Polanski film [that Skolimowski and Piaskowska co-wrote with Polanski]. Do you know, was it submitted to Cannes and rejected, or…?
JS: No, it is not ready yet. The film is still waiting for the special effects, and the final re-recordings. Perhaps he will be able to finish it for Venice, but I am not sure. If it goes with the speed that is has so far, it may be just very late this year.
SPW: What brought you and Roman back together to write this movie?
JS: This surprised me; I received a phone call from Roman when I was working on EO. It was actually in one of those breaks—we had to stop for three or four months—and suddenly Roman called and said, “Do you remember when we were working on Knife in the Water?” Years and years ago. Knife in the Water was… 1962?
SPW: Sixty years ago!
JS: Yes, 60 years. But Knife in the Water wasn’t our only idea for a film. We had one fully written script, A Test Screening, that Roman never tried to make.
SPW: What was that about?
JS: Some young filmmakers fresh out of film school. We had a couple of other ideas as well. One was to shoot a whole film inside a hotel. When he called me, he said, “I’m thinking about going back to that idea. Would you join me in writing?” I said, “Of course, with pleasure. I actually have several free weeks now!” Ewa and I, we jumped on the plane to Gstaad and stayed a few days in the Gstaad Palace hotel—so we had the personal experience of the hotel where all the action takes place—and then we started to write. Altogether, it took us three trips, each two weeks long. In those six weeks, we wrote the whole script. And Roman started to shoot almost immediately! If not for some technical problems—there were some complicated special effects—the film would have been ready. But you know how it is with films, one problem creates another. What I’ve seen so far is very promising; wonderful performances, especially by Mickey Rourke, he’s extremely funny in the picture.
SPW: Did you visit the set at all?
JS: No. At that time, I had to finish EO. I couldn’t visit even a single day. They shot it all in the real Palace.
SPW: That’s exciting… Oh, I just thought of something. So I’m in the office where are we edited our movie [The Sweet East]. I want to show you, we’ve got some Borowczyk posters hanging.
Sean picks up laptop to show two large posters of films by the Polish director Walerian Borowczyk up on the office walls.
SPW: We’re surrounding ourselves. This was our inspiration.
EP: [Gasps.] I love this. What is this one?
SPW: That is Immoral Tales (1973). And then this is The Beast (1975). Jerzy, what did you say about Borowczyk when I asked you about him before?
JS: I only met him couple of times, shortly, so I really didn’t know him. I like his films. They were daring for the time.
EP: Fantastic poster.
EP: We should show Sean the paintings.
SPW: I can see one behind you. I really do think your paintings are great. And no one in New York knew about this until recently!
Ewa picks up laptop and leads tour of Jerzy’s paintings throughout the house.
EP: This is a painting, but it’s big. Can you see, if you stand there Jerzy… ?
SPW: It looks big! [Laughs] Was that recent? When did you paint that?
EP: In California. Very moody. I love this one, it’s fabulous. See how huge it is?
SPW: Oh, yeah. [Laughs] You brought it from California? That’s impressive shipping.
EP: Yeah. This is another big one, that’s called The Tempest.
SPW: Oh wow.
EP: It’s as wide, but it’s like, shit, it’s also quite big.
SPW: I have to visit.
EP: You really do. If you look up close, you can see it has these strange textures, like it got burnt, or something was touched by fire.
JS: This is another one, Nancy.
SPW: *Who is she?* [Laughs]
EP: It has this weird—can you see that?—this part is a little [Francis] Bacon-esque.
SPW: Yeah, but it looks Polish. It sure does look Polish, you know? Actually, like Borowczyk, the posters he used to make.
EP: I cannot show it, you have to just come and touch it yourself.
SPW: [Laughs] Okay, great. That’s an invitation, alright.
Sean Price Williams is an American cinematographer, film director, and actor. He is known for his textured, fluid camerawork (often handheld) and a heightened attention to available light. The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody described Williams as “the cinematographer for many of the best and most significant independent films of the past decade, fiction and documentary.” He was the cinematographer for the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time, Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits, and Nathan Silver’s Thirst Street. His directorial debut, The Sweet East, will premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
Jerzy Skolimowski on the set of EO (2022)