“Make it totally crazy, totally unusual!”
Nick Pinkerton & Sean Price Williams
An interview with Jerzy Skolimowski and Ewa Piaskowska on their new film EO.
Introduction by Sean Price Williams. Interview by Nick Pinkerton.
Between films, Jerzy Skolimowski paints. Or is it between paintings, he films. Mr. Skolimowski claims the two artforms, for him, do not intersect. In his brain these activities have no collision. Coincidently, many of his paintings are roughly the size of a movie theater screen. And coincidently, his newest film, EO roughly resembles some of his paintings. One painting from 1999, titled Agonia, features a vivid red that one finds all over the new film. A red that saturates the haunting love story Deep End, from 1970. A red that is often found in promotional materials for many of Mr. Skolimowski’s films. It’s almost as though he has the patent on the color.
EO feels like a first film made by an artist who has spent a lifetime working in another discipline. The form is almost entirely free from any tradition of narrative feature. Genre makes an appearance to add some spice, a movie star makes an appearance for funding. The supposed inspiration, a 1966 film made by a “master” filmmaker, now looks a withered pencil sketch compared to this new work, directed by a man much older than Bresson was at the time of Au Hasard Balthazar. EO is, in fact, a film with no predecessor. It is a mystifying experiment that challenges through its disregard for convention. Meanwhile, a sincere animality pierces through and overwhelms with emotion. The technical inventions throughout actually serve an emotional purpose, and it is a devastating film.
Film enthusiasts will be missing much in trying to understand EO in regard to Jerzy Skolimowski’s film body alone. Indeed, he is long overdue for a retrospective. But this film was authored and imagined by two people. Ewa Piaskowska is the “better half” of the creative force behind EO, here his co-writer and co-producer. And it should be recognized by the enthusiast auteurists that Ewa brought Jerzy back to cinema after a long absence with the 2008 film, Four Nights with Anna. EO exists from this union.—Sean Price Williams
NICK PINKERTON: I’ll start with possibly the most obvious point of entry to EO, which is somewhat unavoidable: the relationship of your film to Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). Approaching such a canonical point of reference, what made it seem imperative to do so?
JERZY SKOLIMOWSKI: Well, first, they are two completely different films, obviously. The connection with Bresson’s film is more my experience with it. When I watched Bresson’s movie, I experienced something which I have never experienced before or after: I had tears in my eyes at the end of the film, at the famous scene of the donkey dying, surrounded by the herd of sheep, with those little bells dingling at their necks. It’s a breathtaking scene, and I was so moved. I saw the film in 1966, when it was made, and the reason for watching this film was very personal: I had received a phone call from the editors of Cahiers du Cinéma—they wanted to interview me, which was a complete surprise; why would Cahiers du Cinéma want to talk to a young Polish filmmaker who had made only one, or one-and-a-half films, a complete unknown? Apparently, they made the list of the 10 best films of the year, and Walkover (1965), my very early film, took second place. That was shocking to me. After a long silence, I gently asked, “And who was the first?” The answer was Bresson with Au Hasard Balthazar. Only then did I see the film.
That was the film where Bresson really took me down to [the level of] a normal viewer, not a young professional who is trying to look at how things are done, or what the old "masters" had used specifically to achieve certain elements they wanted. That was a big lesson. As a summary, I would say [the lesson is] that the animal character can move the audience even more strongly than any human professional who would be executing his brilliant performance—there will be always a doubt in the audience’s mind that, no, this actor is not really dying, because we know that he’s still alive and that it’s all just a performance. While when the donkey Balthazar dies in that final scene, I truly believe I witnessed something so terribly sad, I was completely taken by surprise by the power of that moving effect achieved by Bresson. And I have kept that in mind, as you see, for over 50 years now. That was one of the leading things I wanted to accomplish. The other was to move away from linear narration. Which we both—my co-writer, producer, and my wife, Ewa—we were fed up with linear narration and wanted to tell the story a different way.
EWA PIASKOWSKA: To be more creative and free, and just, like, out there.
JS: We thought, if we use an animal as a leading character, and tell the story through his eyes—
EP: —Which was not the case with the Bresson film.
NP: Yes, Bresson is very anti-psychology, anti-interiority, whereas your approach is quite the opposite…
EP: It’s more about society and morality. It’s not about the animal, as such. While we actually made a point that this film has to get into his mind and look at the world through him.
JS: Yes, basically, out of love for animals and nature. That’s quite obvious, the debt. Those were the leading intentions of our work: to take a stand in that matter, which is one of the most serious problems of our times—that people destroy nature, that they mistreat animals. This film is an appeal to change humans’ attitude.
NP: I wanted to ask you a little bit about some of the subjective camerawork. When you’re talking about inhabiting a donkey’s POV, what were the conversations like with your DP?
JS: That was one of the essential decisions we took before starting the film. To tell the story through the donkey’s eyes, we have to use his POV as much as possible. We were obsessive, we had the camera turned on the donkey graphically all the time—whether we were preparing a shot or doing some other work, the camera was always next to the donkey, because if he were to do something, if he were to make some unexpected gesture, or bray, we would register it, because he is our main hero.
EP: Also, the donkey’s face is not very expressive. Usually he doesn’t portray a lot of emotion. So, it was a trick.
JS: On the other hand, his eyes. Donkeys have got huge eyes, with that melancholic expression. They have a very strong impact. The audience easily identifies with that expression, and this point of view: from a slight distance, uninvolved, but at the same time being a sensitive and fragile witness to what’s going on.
NP: In addition to the POV shots, which are often sort of soft-edged, there are all these other fascinating shifts in perspective with no obvious motivation. I’m thinking particularly of the bit where EO is just wandering in a field and we get a low-level shot of him that’s heavily distorted. Or the magnificent drone shot through the sort of red-tinted forest. In moments like this, whose eyes are we looking through? What inspires these shifts?
JS: Generally speaking, whenever our DP [Michał Dymek] had some idea about making it a little more crazy or a little bit more unusual, I was always saying, “Go even further. Make it totally crazy, totally unusual!” I was pushing him to do very experimental shots, which generally speaking DPs hate, because they risk getting out of focus or making some technical mistake, and then the blame would be placed on the DP, not the director. But because there was trust between us, we were going for the most crazy possible solutions. I was not expecting this bird’s-eye drone shot would work so well, it was a near-miracle that technically we were able to do this without any mistakes. But that’s the result of trust, and also because we were able to take risks.
EP: That also happens when you produce your own film.
JS: One thing that I think should be mentioned was that we purposefully allowed a certain amateurish approach to filmmaking. We didn’t have precisely planned call sheet, you know? Nothing telling us that at 11:35am, we should have the camera here and start to shoot the scene. Fortunately, we’re the producers so we didn’t need to have anybody standing there saying, “Come on, come on. Look at your watch. Where are you now?” We let the shoot go as freely as possible.
NP: I suppose what I’m interested in is that with the POV material, you understand the motivation, whereas with something like this drone shot you are breaking any rules of motivation. I’m fascinated by the logic that decides: “This is the perspective that we need in this moment.”
EP: We established early on that all those shots in the film were divided into three categories. One was objective. Another was subjective, coming from the animal itself. And the third shot we had was a kind of God’s view, you know? Metaphysical, universe, cosmic energy, this kind of stuff. We thought this was very important to balance out the other two and give us a completely different perspective, to take a step back from the humans and this one particular animal and give us a broader scope of this cosmic… whatever force that all of us fall under.
JS: What we discovered early on, looking at the monitor while shooting, was that the same scene which we first cover with, let’s call it the “master shot”—the objective looking at the whole scene; who is where doing what, you know—if we then repeat the same shot but maybe slightly closer, or with a different rhythm, from the donkey’s point of view, it looks somehow different. Like it has been elevated to have a different meaning.
EP: Also, the beauty and privilege of making a film like this is to allow yourself to make instinctive choices. Not really rational, nothing overly planned and executed and prepared—but just seeing something, catching the magic of the moment and being open to that, this way of creating is very, very fulfilling.
NP: To talk about a stage in the process that is maybe a little less instinctive by necessity, can you tell me about the process of writing the screenplay. I would think this kind of movie proposed particular challenges, because it’s very far from the classic hero’s journey narrative in which you have someone with goals and objectives going after things actively. Here you have a “hero” who isn’t driving the plot at all, but is being pushed about by the world; this has to demand a different approach to screenwriting.
EP: Usually when we write a script, we spend a lot of time informing ourselves about the subject matter. We read a lot, we immerse ourselves, and then the process becomes instinctive. You infuse yourself with all the possible influences and then spill them out quickly, allowing spur-of-the-moment ideas…
Also, this is a road movie basically, so anything could happen after each bend of the road, you know? I think you can feel it in the film. It’s not a calculated trip.
JS: We were aware of the fact that the more surprising the next step, the better. We were always trying to surprise the audience with every next shot.
We were always trying to surprise the audience with every next shot.
NP: In thinking about the various stations and stop-offs on EO’s journey, it seems like you’re almost giving us a kind of cross-section of contemporary Poland. What was the structuring logic in thinking about where you wanted him to go?
JS: We wanted to have the journey through not only physically different places, but also different levels of society… We wanted to point out that the attitude between those characters to the donkey would be slightly different. The [upper class] don’t pay any attention to the fact that the donkey is there in the palace garden. They have things going on…
EP: In addition to the script itself, we did some crazy shots. I don’t know if you enjoyed looking at the water flowing through the dam? We shot it just because we loved the location so much, and we had absolutely no clue where to use it. I think that was the last piece of the puzzle that we added, like almost on the day we were accepted into Cannes.
NP: I know the shoot was broken up and you had a little time in Italy, but in Poland were you able to shoot in a somewhat linear, sequential fashion.
EP: The regional funds obliged us to set up camp in different parts of the country. COVID was in huge part responsible for those gaps in the shooting, but it also gave time for the animal handlers to prepare the animals. It was only five or six days of shooting, and then a huge break so the animal could reinvigorate itselfw; they had time to prepare the donkey for the new situations in the scenes they were going to play. This was a long process, and I think the donkeys were very happy, you know?
JS: Yes, the well-being of animals was the number one rule in making this film. No animal was harmed. No one was really used. They had the best treatment. Our most important actors, most important…
EP: We also selected crew and actors based on their relationship with animals. Jerzy picked the actress to play Kasandra [Sandra Drzymalska], and there was a casting process where all the actresses were invited to come with their own pets, to see what was the energy like between the actress and the animal. Or if they didn’t have their own pet, we introduced our dog mid-conversation, to see what kind of energy would develop.
JS: By the way, half the crew stopped eating meat while we were shooting the film. They became vegetarians. Both of us, we managed to cut our meat consumption by at least two thirds. We are not fully vegetarians, unfortunately. Maybe one day we will achieve that. But maybe this film will appeal to at least part of the audience to think twice: is it absolutely necessary to eat that much meat? Is it absolutely necessary to allow the existence of industrial farming, which, in my opinion, is a crime.
Nick Pinkerton is a Cincinnati-born, Brooklyn-based writer focused on moving image-based art; his writing has appeared in Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Artforum, Frieze, Reverse Shot, The Guardian, 4Columns, The Baffler, Rhizome, Harper’s, and the Village Voice. He is the editor of Bombast magazine, editor-at-large of Metrograph Journal, and maintains a Substack, Employee Picks. Publications include monographs on Mondo movies (True/False) and the films of Ruth Beckermann (Austrian Film Museum), a book on Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Decadent Editions), and a forthcoming critical biography of Jean Eustache (The Film Desk).