The result is a scratchy, somber, tender, idiosyncratic work that looks and feels unlike anything else. Although he eventually hired collaborators, this is very much Wilczyński’s baby — but it is also the product of the culture in which he is steeped. To underline the point, the director tells us how the film has been received very differently in countries that have known communism and those that haven’t.
The film received a theatrical premiere at the Berlinale in February, just before the coronavirus shunted the festival circuit online. It will play later this month as part of Annecy’s virtual edition. Ahead of that event, we asked Wilczyński some questions about his project.
Cartoon Brew: You recorded the voices first. How did the actors’ performances influence your artistic approach to the film?
Mariusz Wilczyński: I am a self-taught filmmaker, so because of lack of professional training, I often come up with different ways of doing things that I think are right. When I recorded the voices first, I was not aware that I was doing the opposite of everybody else. It wasn’t until 2017, when I was showing my films at the Mill Valley Film Festival in San Francisco, that I found that out. After my Festival Retrospective, I was invited to Pixar, where they demonstrated their production process [where the actors are recorded toward the end].
I started with voice recording because I wanted to preserve the artists who shaped my imagination and sensitivity when I was a kid. When I started making this movie, they were advanced in years and I knew I had to hurry. Andrzej Wajda, Gustaw Holoubek, and Irena Kwiatkowska were the first to be recorded. Their reading sessions made the characters that I was drawing richer, added new dimensions based on the actors’ personal lives and cultural meaning. It also unexpectedly influenced the way these characters look, move, and behave.
The movie has a special magic-hour light. Why do you like this light, these colors?
I have always been fascinated by the beauty of the magic hour’s light, its transience and fragility. It is a transition state between night and day, the real and the surreal. My movie is the dimness of the dawn that never comes or the night that never falls, where characters meet ghosts, the real intertwines with the unreal between life and death, and memories become the present.
The film is structured in a loose, dreamlike way. Given this intuitive structure, how did you know when the film was complete, and no more scenes were needed?
My film is optimally constructed and balanced. It took years to use the right proportions and proper scene composition and interaction. When you start watching, it may seem like an emotional stream of consciousness, a rough draft, loosely connected pieces of paper. Soon, you discover how different arcs interact with one another, and you start seeing the frame build on associations and emotional reaction. It is a very homogeneous construction and design, but you appreciate it much later into the movie.
This is your first feature, and feature films require many collaborators. Was it easy to delegate work, especially on such a personal project?
After eight years of working on this film by myself, I decided to hire other animators. It was a very hard and emotional moment for me because I like to work by myself, and all of my previous films were done that way. I hired 11 animators. They are some of the brightest and most talented Polish animation artists, who have won awards at film festivals from Annecy to Ottawa.
Most of them are my university students whom I got to know and respect. I am a professor at Lodz Film School, where I head the Animated Film Production Workshop, so it was relatively easy to find really talented animators. I delegated scenes based on their strengths and personalities. I am glad that I was able to enlist their help on such a big artistic project, keeping them away from less ambitious animation work. In total, around 100 people worked on the film from pre- to post-production.
How easy was it to find the funding for such an ambitious film?
The movie started as a 20-minute short, and grew until it reached 88 minutes. It is the first feature animated art film in the history of Polish cinema. We received overwhelming support from the Polish Film Institute, who generously contributed to the budget, as well as from the National Film Archive Audiovisual Institute, Adam Mickiewicz Institute, and Łódź Film Fund EC-1. We were lucky to also receive financial support from private co-producers. It is important to keep in mind that my film’s budget was relatively small for such a production.
Has the experience of showing the film to audiences changed the way you see it?
During the making of this movie, I often wondered if such a personal film would be too obscure, incomprehensible, or emotionally distant. I feared that the story or the social context would be clear only to the Polish audience. Judging by the audience’s reaction at the Berlinale and the film’s reviews, my fears were unfounded.
However, I was surprised by two things. The first is how the reception of the film’s world varied across locations. Audiences from California, Japan, and Western Europe emphasized how well I captured the ugliness, horror, and hell of the communist system. Audiences from Eastern Europe, on the other hand, complimented me on preserving the unique beauty, poetry, and nostalgia of the time gone by.
The second thing seems much more important. After the Berlin premiere, I was approached by a number of people who shared their emotions with me. They were touched that my movie allowed them to look at themselves in the mirror and see the abandonment – the communication breakdown – between their parents and them. They left the theater with the strong resolve to visit their elderly mothers and fathers.
It was a very emotional and touching moment, and the most important experience. It will definitely transpire into my next projects.