by Pawel Pawlikowski
In the original script for Ida , the film opened with a scene of three nuns making a scarecrow in the field and then some generic dialogue scenes between them, setting up the situation and their characters.
During the prep in the monastery, I observed my art director Jagna, a woman with an angelic disposition, touching up Christ’s face with her brush. There was such tension and love in her face as she was doing that—I knew I had a much better scene in front of me. In fact I had a whole sequence of shots. The sculpture of Christ, which started out as one of several props, became a key image. It was much better for Ida and for the film than the business with the scarecrow we’d contrived in the script. The unexpected snow was another bonus. It gave me an idea for two graphic top shots and the quiet moment of prayer around the fountain.
This way a string of dialogue scenes were replaced by a series of shots, which were much stronger, and which set up the tone of the whole film.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against good dialogue. But I can’t bring myself to shoot dialogue that merely gives information or colors in the characters, and has no “music.”
There are some characters that I find easy to write. I know them; they’re like me or like people I’ve known. Wanda was one of those. Others are much more elusive and difficult to write, though I know they must exist. Ida belonged to that category. We gave her some temporary dialogue in the script, to have something down on paper, but I knew that it wouldn’t be until I cast the right actress that the character would thicken out. The problem was I couldn’t find the right actress. For months we looked high and low, all over Poland, in theatres, in drama schools, but there was no Ida anywhere. In the end we a found a young woman, sitting in my local café, reading a book. She wasn’t an actress, but a student of philosophy at Warsaw University. Not only was she not an actress, she was one of these very rare young people these days who had absolutely no desire go into acting. Perfect for Ida.
The financiers and the sales people clearly didn’t share my enthusiasm. Why not get a proper actress? Did she have the emotional range? (Implying they thought she didn’t.) First weeks’ rushes didn’t seem to reassure them. They wanted tears, passion, proper emoting. The static camera didn’t help them, either. And then there were all these scenes and lines that had not been in the script.
This scene came about because I needed something at this point in the film to warm up the relations between the two heroines. I wrote it during rehearsals and perfected it during the lunch break just before we shot it. Young Agata’s natural dimples helped to get the dialogue rolling.
I was really happy with the rushes and felt we were onto something. The film I had in mind was emerging, the “literature” was receding.
In the financier script, there were five scenes showing Ida’s first encounter with the big city. They included her getting lost; talking to a policeman; going into a shop, listening to music; seeing hip young people; couples kissing. These three or four pages of script shrank into these two shots:
With each day of filming, I was more and more convinced the story could tell itself without coverage and exposition. Putting strong moments in strong shots side-by-side and leaving things to the imagination was the key.
The trick was to choose one angle, the most effective shot, and then to work and rework all the elements: framing, light, dialogue, movement, gesture … Adding, taking away, improving, from take to take, until the thing had the right life and rhythm. This meant forgetting the script and treating each scene and each shot as a thing in its own right. Ewa, the Polish producer, started joking that I was writing the script with the camera. She didn’t seem to mind, she loved what we were getting.
I felt that we would make the viewer enter the film in a different way and experience it not as a story you’re being guided through, but a kind of permanent present that unfolds in front of you. I was quite aware, of course, that most viewers might not enter this kind of film at all.
We shot this scene on the second day of filming. It was then that the method really clicked and I knew we were onto something. In retrospect, I know this approach owed something to my favorite Godard film, Vivre sa Vie, its rejection of continuity and use of stark, seemingly random compositions. What also really helped was having next to me an excitable and, it turned out, talented young DoP—Lukasz Zal—who’d never shot a feature film in his life and had no reputation or ego to protect. He wasn’t afraid of taking risks. On the contrary. And his lighting turned out to be exquisite, too.
Putting static shots side by side, and stripping things down, wasn’t just a stylistic affectation. It forced the viewer to watch and listen differently, it trained them to fill in the gaps and not expect to have things explained. Which allowed me to drop dud scenes, lines, exposition, without damaging the story. On the contrary, the method actually helped me find the story. Or rather its best, its only possible shape.
Between the scene of the two women chatting at the table with the waitress, and the shot of them going into the dark tenement house, there was another scene, where Wanda quizzes a man called Marek about the whereabouts of the supposed killer, Szymon. While Wanda talks to this Marek, he recognizes in her the notorious Stalinist prosecutor with blood on her hands—which was to have serious repercussions later on in the script.
The scene was lifeless, it was just there to get us from A to B, but it was in the schedule, the actor was hired, so we shot it. It was painful. It wasn’t the fault of the actor or the director. It was just a bad scene, a scene about information. The whole character of Marek had no life and was just there to tell us stuff, and however drunk and bitter we made him, there was no way of making him fly.
Getting rid of the Marek scene in the restaurant gave more weight to Ida’s look towards the rehearsing saxophonist. Which was a much better punchline for the scene, and also helped us set up something important between the young couple for later on.
By then, the film had already taken a life of its own. It rejected stuff that didn’t suit it and suggested better solutions. I was rewriting as I went along, weeding out what didn’t work and inventing new scenes.
But there was still a major problem ahead. There was a whole section in the film from here on—roughly 30 minutes—which didn’t really add up, and where the plot was held together by static scenes in which information was being dispensed in dialogue and emotions were stirred up at the drop of a hat.
Some radical changes were needed here, involving completely new scenes in new locations. I could see now what I had to do, what the Film was and how I could get there, but I needed time. This was clearly the moment to break off and retire for my customary editing and rewriting break. But there was no way of stopping now, the schedule was the schedule. I had a knife on my throat.
This is when the Miracle occurred. A week before the end of filming, the snows came. It was only the end of November, but the temperatures dropped to minus-15, and thick snow paralyzed Poland. The conditions were impossible and, more importantly, continuity was all over the place, as three quarters of the film was shot without snow. We had to break up until the snows melted.
A catastrophe for the production. But what a relief for me! I’d live to see another day. I had my rewriting break after all.
The problem was that in order to shoot my new scenes, I needed ten more days—five more than were officially left in the schedule. Ewa was stressed out, but supportive. She was there with me in the trenches, and really liked how the film was turning out. Others were less happy. They weren’t sure about where the film was going, and now I’d also showed myself to be incompetent. The film had gaps, I’d gone off-piste, and now I was asking for more shooting days. Let’s face it, a director like me is every financier’s nightmare. Films are supposed to be professional affairs, made by professionals who know what they’re doing. Writers write, actors act, cameramen shoot, editors edit and the directors, er, direct. And the incompetent ones get the sack. Luckily, mine was the only recognizable name in the film, its only selling point, so sacking was not an option. The fact remained that the film had holes and didn’t yet add up. They had no choice but to give me the five extra days. And this is how I ended up with what I’d asked for at the beginning: a rewriting break and the exact number of filming days we’d originally shaken hands on.
The break lasted as long as the snow. Which was much longer than expected. It turned to be the winter of the century in Poland. This gave the younger Agata the chance to go back to uni and catch up on her courses, and me the chance to write out the new scenes properly and find the new locations.
Scenes such as these replaced a whole sequence of events that didn’t work. In the financier script, there’d been so many events crammed into a single night, and so much exposition, that the scenes canceled each other out and all psychological truth and poetry went out the window. No amount of emoting or jerky camerawork could have covered the faulty stitching.
As far as I remember, the financier script went as follows here: The two women go down to the restaurant. Wanda makes some lewd comments to Ida and goes to chat up a man. Ida sits and watches. The saxophonist joins her at the table. They chat about something or other and get attracted. Wanda dances with another man. The saxophonist goes back on stage. The ill-fated Marek, the carrier of the bad news, approaches Ida to tell her about her aunt’s Stalinist crimes. Ida is shocked to hear this and leaves the dance. Back in the room, later, the women quarrel about Wanda’s crimes and their different belief systems. Ida packs her suitcase and wants to leave, but the old man Szymon, the supposed murderer they were looking for, turns up and interrupts their quarrel. He admits his guilt and asks for forgiveness. Wanda collapses and this way Ida finds out about Wanda’s personal tragedy and her murdered son. Ida feels pity for Wanda and forgives her, comforts her. Then she goes to chat a little more with the saxophonist about something or other, before the two women set off in their car again to seek out Szymon’s son, Felix, in order to force him to reveal where the corpses were buried. All this happens in one night and morning.
It was roughly a third of the film, and I didn’t believe any of it. There was no way of making this fly. So what I did was this: I made Wanda reveal her Stalinist past in a completely new scene, which I put much earlier during their journey. And I spaced the events in the hotel over two nights, allowing the scenes to breathe properly and each beat to play out in its own rhythm. Rather than having the supposed murderer Szymon turn up at the hotel conveniently, like some character out of Dostoevsky, I turned him into a pitiable old man on his death-bed and made the two heroines visit him in a hospital.
Then I invented a whole string of new scenes, which were about rhythm, image and emotion, rather than information, plot and emoting.
Among other things, I needed a scene that would bring the two women together in a single gesture or action. Ideally, something wild and out of control. They had a lot of anger and pent up aggression they didn’t know what to do with.
So, let me end with this sacrilegious scene, where a desperate Marxist and a Catholic nun break into a deserted Jewish cemetery to bury the bones of their relatives in a broken family grave:
(This piece is adapted and expanded from The Colin Young Annual Lecture at the National Film and TV School on June 25, 2014)
Ida is available on: iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, YouTube, Xbox and Playstation.
Award-winning filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski was born in Warsaw and settled in the United Kingdom in 1977. He started making documentaries in the mid-1980s, including From Moscow to Pietushki, Dostoevsky’s Travels, and Tripping with Zhirinovsky. In 1998, Pawlikowski moved into fiction with Twockers, co-written and directed with Ian Duncan and strongly rooted in his documentary experience. His full-length features Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004) have won BAFTAs and numerous festival accolades. His most recent film is Ida (2013).