by Pawel Pawlikowski
The other day someone from the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Academy in LA asked my producer Ewa to send them the script of our film Ida so they could deposit it in their Core Library collection. Ewa rang me up worried: what exactly should she send them? She had 23 permutations of the script on her files. Surely she couldn’t send them the official script we raised the money on. It was nothing like the film that ended up on the screen. Maybe we could simply send a transcript of the finished film? But that would amount to no more than 30 pages—probably not much use to the Academy, either.
The accepted logic of producers and investors is this: you buy a book or an idea, then hire a screenwriter–usually a converted playwright—who turns it into a three-act structure, puts in some twists and lots of dialogue, and hands you a 90-page script. Next, you hire a director, who brings in his “vision,” attracts some cool actors, and breaks scenes into shots; and you get a cameraman who photographs the thing as artfully as the story will allow. Then comes the editor to speed things up or slow them down, cover up holes, and sort out loose ends.
The product at the end is more or less what was planned at the start. And with the right promotion, the right cast and soundtrack, the thing should make money.
I’ve always had a problem with this way of doing things. As a self-taught filmmaker who’d never been to film school and learnt the rules, I grew up making documentaries, which I usually shot and moulded as I went along. I started with an idea, a character or a situation, then threw all sorts of things into the mix—scenes, images; some found, others invented. Then I shook it all up—complicated, simplified—until I found the film. These films were neither documentaries nor fictions. They were strange hybrids that felt like the best and the simplest way I could express a complicated truth. How I got away with it is a mystery.
Things became harder when I tried to carry this fluid approach into feature films, where I came up against the inevitable division of labour, and investors who wanted to know what they were investing in.
The worst of it was that you had to have the 90 pages of script to get the process started. And most scripts, as far as I could tell, were second-rate literature and only seemed to make sense on paper. They were probably very useful to accountants and schedulers, but had nothing to do with the living film. Let alone with art. Some scripts–very few–were actually well-written and fun to read, but why on earth would one want to direct one of those? What was there to discover? You could see exactly the sort of film they would become.
Of course, I could see that scripts were a good idea for genre films, where the mechanics are pretty standard and the audience takes pleasure in the conventions. But those films have never interested me. Not as a filmmaker anyway. What’s always excited me was the journey into the unknown–or rather, to some place you know and intuit, but don’t quite know how to get to. For me, a good film has to have an inner life, which has nothing to do with literature or theatre. And the filmmaker’s job is to find it or unearth this shape in the process, using their skills, their taste, their experience, their imagination, and above all their sense of truth.
After all, this is how Art works in every other area, and nobody objects. If you’re a novelist, poet, painter or composer, you just lock yourself away and work on the thing, for a week, for a month, for a year—putting the thing aside if you need to—and finish when you think it’s ready.
Filmmaking is different. It involves money, equipment, and other people. Sadly. Or maybe not so sadly. It’s no fun being stuck in your room on your own. And, who knows, maybe obstacles and enemies do have a constructive role to play, too.
It seems that I’ve spent all my filming life struggling to reconcile my search for the Film with the mechanics of the industrial process (and people who just didn’t get it).
There’s nothing wrong with having a script, of course. It can be a useful tool. Up to a point. It gives you the general idea, an approximation of the structure, and even some good scenes and usable dialogue. But God forbid taking it too seriously and trying to shoot it as written. Personally, I’d much rather work from a 25-page outline that doesn’t narrow down the possibilities or lock you into a self-serving schedule.
All you need is a story with layers, two or three good characters, interestingly entangled, in an interesting space and, above all, some transcendent idea or emotion to carry the whole thing. Of course, I’m being disingenuous here saying “all you need” is these things. “These things”—the nucleus of your film, the heart—are actually the most important and difficult thing to come up with. Much more difficult than churning out 90 pages of script.
Be that as it may, the sad truth is that you can’t get financed on 25 pages.
In the case of Ida , after a year of writing and re-writing, my co-writer Rebecca and I ended up with 64 pages, which felt like a film, and more or less satisfied the financiers. They thought the script a bit scanty at that length, but it gave them the information about the times, the characters and their backstories. It dotted all the I’s and crossed most of the T’s, it spelt out the “issues” and even had some poetic flourishes and touchy-feely adjectives and adverbs to make the financiers feel intelligent and moved. The glaring plot weaknesses in the middle were covered up by some nifty dialogue scenes and a convenient character or two, whose jobs were to supply information.
It was the sort of script you raise money on, but definitely not the film I wanted to make. Not just because of the over-written dialogue, dodgy plotting and dramatic wishful thinking, but because basically I had a different kind of film in mind, one for which it would have been much more difficult to raise the money; a film I intuited, but wasn’t entirely sure how to get to. Not on paper anyway. What I wanted to make was less a story and more of a meditation. A film of graphic images and sounds that would work through suggestion rather than explanation, in which most scenes would be done from one angle, in one continuous take, without informational shots or dialogue and the usual rhetoric of cinema. A film in which form, emotion and idea would be one.
I know myself. I know there’s only so much I can do at the desk. I love inventing stories, and characters, playing with ideas and possible situations. But to become really inventive, I have to be on the move, away from the desk, scouting, casting, rehearsing, shooting, editing, rewriting. It’s only when I’m up against it that I become seriously creative. The writing never stops. The inventing, the distilling, keeps going during the whole process; the casting, the rehearsing, the scouting, the sleepless nights. Even during the shooting. That’s the beauty of film-making for me. Which is why I always ask producers for a five-day week, so I can tweak during the shoot and get some sleep. I also ask for a three- or four-week break in the middle, to edit and rewrite the film that’s emerging.
In the case of Ida, I made the editing break and the five-day week a contractual stipulation. The producers and financiers agreed. Even with the break and the five-day week, the whole budget was just 1.4 million euros, so my request was not exactly ruinous. We made a deal and I went to Poland to start casting and scouting for locations.
Then it all changed. The sales people who went to Cannes discovered that the prospect of selling a black-and-white Polish-speaking movie on a grim subject with unknown actors was pretty hopeless. So, from one day to the next, Ida was dropped, abandoned as an unworkable project. Luckily, one of the producers (to whom I will be eternally thankful) refused to give up, and decided to keep going regardless with the soft money we’d been promised from the Polish Film Institute, hoping to find the remaining budget somehow in the process. This could only be done, though, if I agreed to one week’s less filming and gave up on my contractual break in the middle. There was no room to wriggle. It was take it or leave it … I took it. I was too involved with my story, with my team, with Poland to let it drop. I took the plunge knowing full well that there was no way I could shoot the script as written and scheduled, and that only a miracle could save me.
And a miracle did occur. But of that and much more next week.
(This piece is adapted from The Colin Young Annual Lecture at the National Film and TV School on June 25, 2014)
Ida is available in video-on-demand formats 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).