A Long, Hot Summer in a Small Polish Town

By Nancy Harrison

tricks-andrzej-jakimowski.jpgTricks, 2007 

Polish director Andrzej Jakimowski’s second feature Tricks (Sztuczki) tells the story of 6 year old Stefek and his 17 year old sister Elka, during a long, hot summer in a small Polish town. Stefek’s father had abandoned the family when he was a baby, and the little boy becomes convinced that by challenging the notion of fate, he can cause his father to return home.

Nancy Harrison: I wanted to ask you about your previous background – as you have only made two features I was wondering how you got into filmmaking?

Andrzej Jakimowski: I first started to get interested in filmmaking in secondary school, although at university I studied Philosophy. But after philosophy I went to one of the two best film schools in Poland – there are two very good ones. The most famous is in Lodz, and the other one – not so famous but also very good – is Katowice. This is the school of Krzysztof Kieslowski. After film school, I made a few shorts, mostly documentaries, and I also started to produce the films that I directed, so I could learn the process. They were usually shot on 35mm, and at that time I fell in love with making documentaries. So now when I make features I take a lot of my experiences from that period, especially my experiences making documentaries. Then I made a short feature – my first fiction feature.

NH: Was your latest film Tricks also shot on 35mm?

AJ: Yes, I always shoot on 35mm – I like that medium and technique the best.

NH: There is quite a strong move to digital currently, but there are many people who are more comfortable with film. How do you feel about digital?

AJ: I think I would make use of digital also, but still the medium of film fits me much better. It needs much more concentration, and it’s very expensive, if the budget is not so big – like my films. Everybody in my team has to be very concentrated. It is much better to shoot something once – good – than 15 times and have no concentration and repeat and repeat. So I prefer to work very quickly, and improvise. For this way of working film is a good medium.

NH: That is interesting you should say that you have to be very careful with the cost of film, as I understand that the three main actors in Tricks were non-professionals, and that your previous film also used non-professionals. Isn’t that a contradiction, as it would seem that experienced actors would be more likely to get the scenes right the first time?

AJ: Yes perhaps that seems strange, but that is exactly why I prefer 35mm. For with non-professional actors one can never repeat something. They are unable to repeat – and if we try then each take is worse, as they start to ‘pretend’ and get mannered. Sometimes the same happens with professional actors – because I usually have a mixture of professionals and non-professionals. I like to combine them, and I usually like what happens the first time when everyone is maybe not that well-prepared for what happens, and are sometimes taken aback. This can be much more naturalistic and spontaneous. For me the best takes are when my friends – other filmmakers – are not able to tell the difference between real directed takes and those taken on hidden cameras. If these filmmakers are not able to tell the difference, then this means the direction was really good. For me the ideal is when you can’t tell the difference between what is true and what is directed and recreated. So looking from this point of view, using 35mm is not contradictory when working with non-professionals, as I believe they will do their best in the first moments, even if they are not completely prepared for what will happen, so often they have to improvise and their reactions are then very natural and honest. Of course not every non-professional can work in this way, but if you choose the right people, and ensure that they know that they should not pretend anything, they should not ‘act’ and they should not do just what they think that I want – they just need to be themselves. So working this way 35mm fits perfectly.

NH: Are you happy with straying from the script and improvising?

AJ: In Tricks the overall structure was not possible to change. When I was writing and shooting it was not possible to change the relationships themselves, but it was possible to improvise a lot within the scenes. In fact some scenes, once you see them during the filmmaking process, do not seem to work, so they are dropped, and very often I will rewrite or improvise. Or I will tell the actors what they must achieve in the scene and they let them improvise the dialogue. Also working this way keeps the actors and crew keen, as nobody knows exactly what we will be filming that day. But we keep the story structure intact. For example, in the scene selling apples – where the children try to bring luck to the apple sellers – this was to demonstrate whether the children could create luck. It would have been easy to replace this scene with others that also demonstrated the same principle of luck creation, but the structure of the story only had room for one scene such as this, and this one came out perfectly for me. So I am often ignoring the script, but not the ideas of the script.

tricks-andrzej-jakimowski-2.jpgTricks, 2007

NH: Does being the writer, director and producer of your work therefore allow you greater freedom for this way of improvisation?

AJ: Very much so, because working my way would not be really acceptable in a conventional professional structure. From the very personal stories I do, through working with friends and non-professional actors, it does not fit into the usual structures. I work very quickly, and make changes very often, so in a large group this would be difficult for others.

NH: A more instinctive way of working then?

AJ: Completely. It simply is the way I work – instinctively. Therefore I really hate being the producer – I find it difficult and boring, but it is the way it has to be. If I were to do a studio film, where there is endless discussion on the script and you have to cooperate and accommodate many people and there is too much preparation, it would be disastrous for me.

NH: Your actors must have to have great trust in you, if you are sometimes only giving them a chance for one or two takes, and also throwing them into a lot of improvisation.

AJ: Yes – and I must also trust them very much. But sometimes I also shoot them when they are unawares – which could be tricky, but they accept it in the end. This also keeps them fresh and on their toes. But they also know that I will not abuse their trust.

NH: They often say that you shouldn’t work with children, yet both your features have used children, and non-professionals. That must have been quite a challenge.

AJ: Its a challenge, but also a chance. Because if you have a non-professional you get a great freshness, a non-pretentious performance that is very natural.

NH: This is true for the boy who played Stefek – Damien Ul. He seems so young – how old is he?

AJ: During the shoot in 2006 he was 9 years old.

NH: He is very self assured and natural, and is able to carry the film.

AJ: If the right actor is chosen, then it is a great way of working – very risky as you have to chose not just someone who is right for the role, but also can bear the process of making the film. And it is not everyone who can act – if you were to take 10 people perhaps only 2 or 3 could be capable of acting. But it is never easy to tell that all these qualities are right until you are actually into the process – and then it is too late to change. So my methods are really very risky.

NH: How do you fund your films? You only use a small technical team, but you cast unknown actors. Is Poland supportive of new filmmakers?

AJ: My first film (Squint Your Eyes (Smruz ocsy), 2002) was produced without any outside support – neither institutional nor commercial. I just produced the film with my own money and what I could gather from private investors that we could find. And it was really hard. My second film (Tricks) was made with the support of the Polish Film Institute, which had just been started at that time. We got half of the budget, under the condition that if the film went into profit we would have to return the funding. As my own producer, I had to find the other half of the funding. This I found from various places, and the production company – which I run – also invested in it.

NH: Your first feature won a number of awards (FIPRESCI at Mannheim-Heidelberg, San Francisco International Film Festival, Sochi, Polish Film Awards) so that must have been helpful when trying to raise funds for Tricks?

AJ: It was very helpful as it gives you a solid reputation.

NH: Many of the films from Poland and Eastern Europe often have a very grey or cool look to them, yet Tricks has a very warm golden look to it – like it is from the Mediterranean.

AJ: Yes – it is not typically Polish in its look.

NH: And the feeling is also very optimistic overall, although the Stefek is sometimes quite a sad little boy.

AJ: Well personally I don’t consider myself an optimist, but that is the feeling that I wanted to capture with this film.

tricks-andrzej-jakimowski-3.jpgTricks, 2007

NH: The warm colours contribute a lot to the feeling – the sunshine, and the golden blond hair of Stefek and his sister...

AJ: Yes it was a lot of work to achieve the look. Because of my documentary-like way of working, we did not do a lot of lighting changes. We decided to leave a lot of the colours quite pastel and then use a very sophisticated process to have the colours more pastel. It was a combination of filters and processing the film stock. One of the things that I wanted to highlight was the freckles on the face of Elka, and to keep the golden look of the light. This light was quite difficult to achieve in Poland, as the natural light in Poland is a little bit gloomy – partly because of the colours on the streets, as this part of Poland was quite industrial and grey, and partly because the climate is more British than Italian. During shooting we often had to wait long periods for the sun, and the moment there was a break in the clouds we were shooting. This of course was a problem, as our budget did not allow us money to wait. The shoot took one month, and later, as it was a time of heavy rains, we had to take a 2 week break before coming back for two 3 day periods – so it was 36 days in total we were shooting. My previous film took 19 days to shoot.

NH: There are a lot of journeys taken in the film – movement and transportation – trains, motorcycles, the car, running, walking – everyone seems to be moving all the time.

AJ: This is the world of the big mechanism – the big world – how movement interconnects. This is the world that Stefek has to discover – how things work together. Like I have had to discover how filmmaking works, the interconnectedness of finding money and shooting a film. The railway is the main mechanism – something that is huge and not easy to manipulate. But the other transport – cars, motorcycles – these are more personal and spontaneous. The scene with the boys racing against the train, this was an expression of the spontaneous against the predicted – and whether the individual spirit is can triumph over the mechanism. But metaphors can make me uncomfortable – I never start with metaphors – I prefer to show things as they are, with their real meanings.

NH: But the characters themselves also go on personal emotional journeys – certainly Stefek and his father?

AJ: But a story is always better if the characters are moving somewhere – forwards.

NH: And you also have many images of birds within the story.

AJ: With the pigeons I was interested to learn that when they are set free they circle around in the sky. This circling to me was reminiscent of thoughts and memories, the way that they circle around in your mind. This circling of the pigeons is a way of Stefek making his father remember – a slightly hypnotic way of drawing attention to memory.

NH: Of course, pigeons are also known for how they return home – something that Stefek wanted his father to do. 

AJ: Yes, but because of the model of the plastic hawk that is left at their cage, they are unable to return, so there is a tension – the desire, but also an obstruction. A problem that needs to be solved.

NH: The film concerns fate – do you believe in fate or self-determination?

AJ: I believe that we can influence fate, so that means there is no fate, because obviously in order to believe in fate, we must think it is something that cannot be influenced. If the future can’t be changed then you cannot get out of the chain of cause and effect. But it is not simple, as I know that many things are predetermined. In reality, there is only a small margin that can be manipulated, but still it exists. This is the small time that we have to negotiate what can be changed, but I think that a lot is pre-determined.

tricks-andrzej-jakimowski-4.jpgTricks, 2007

NH: What was the reception in Poland to the film?

AJ: In Poland we were lucky and unlucky with the film. For a small independent film we were commercially successful – with admissions at about 20% of those for big American blockbusters. It was released in multiplexes so we were able to reach a wide audience. On the other hand we were not successful because at the time of its theatrical release there were national elections in Poland, and the huge political campaigns had the priority for all the advertising and much of the editorial in newspapers and magazines. Fortunately word of mouth took over and we had good audiences. It has also been picked up by most European territories for theatrical release. It is hard to release art house and independent films internationally – it is a struggle. They are not able to advertise so widely and are often hard to categorise, so they often have limited distribution and small release windows. It’s tough for people who love cinema to keep them in the theatres when there are blockbusters. If the directors or the actors are known – if they are a brand name – it is easier, but for a small film like mine, it is very tough.

NH: Are you working on a new feature now?

AJ: Yes I have been writing a lot – I wrote the full script, but when I revisited after a while I decided it needed to be rewritten. This is a bit discouraging, but also quite important to me – that I can create something but also tear it apart. It’s good to be self-critical. There is a phase of enthusiasm, then the time of criticism, and then the enthusiasm can return with a more solid grounding.

Tricks plays as part of the 7th Kinoteka Festival. It will be released by New Wave Films in the Autumn.

Nancy Harrison is the assistant editor of Vertigo and a regular contributor to Kultureflash.