Pawel Pawlikowski is the Polish, 61 year-old Academy Award-winning Director behind Ida, the 2015 Foreign Language Oscar winner. His new film Cold War is poised to challenge Roma for this year’s crown. It’s a stunning romance that spans multiple countries over many years, anchored by a star-making performance from Joanna Kulig, who sings, dances and smolders. My interview with Mr. Pawlikowski below was edited for length and clarity.
Hammer to Nail: We are introduced to the main character, Zula (Joanna Kulig), at an audition. How did Joanna’s audition go in real life?
Pawel Pawlikowski: I auditioned her 10 years ago for another film, an early version of Ida. And I remember being in a restaurant, and being completely charmed. She was totally wrong for the part, but she left such a strong aftertaste. I created a part for her for The Woman in the Fifth. It wasn’t a very complicated role. The character was too simple for her, and for my own liking. And she had a small part in Ida, prancing around and singing rockabilly songs. But I had her in mind for this project, not just because she can sing, but because she has this energy and is a bit of a survivor. It was 10 years later, so I imagined her being 10 years younger, but because she was obviously the only one for the part, I changed the character in the story and made her 24 instead of 17. I changed the story to keep her in. And I gave her a criminal past.
HtN: So the criminal past was a late addition? It seemed like such a crucial part of her character.
PP: It wasn’t late. Nothing is late. My script is always in flux. That’s part of my method, always tweaking, adding, taking away.
HtN: The music plays a huge role in the film. I love how the same song comes back throughout the film in different styles. How did you go about arranging it?
PP: 5 times it appears, this song.
HtN: Did you have help creating all those iterations?
PP: My starting point was the version that you hear with the folk ensemble performance, with the orchestration. That’s part of a repertoire of an existing folk ensemble. Then I took the song and I asked the little girl to sing it, and she had never sung it before so she sang it out of tune, but it was perfect. And then I asked the musician, Marcin Masecki, to do a jazz version of it, which he did brilliantly. The music changes with their relationship and with where they are and when they are.
HtN: You dedicated this film to your parents. Can you elaborate on how they met and fell in love?
PP: They met on holiday in 1949. She was 17 and running away from home to the ballet. He was a medical student but 10 years older. They fell in love and very soon he was drafted to the army. They lost sight of each other, and betrayed each other. Then got together and got married. Then they had me, they quarreled, they divorced. He escaped from Poland. She married a British guy and went to live in London with me in tow — I was 14. Then she divorced this guy that she married. My father was with another woman in the meantime in Germany, but he also got divorced. And then my parents got back together again, and starting living abroad together. Then they managed to quarrel again, and split up again, and they got back together, and then they died together after 40 years of this mess. And so the dynamics of the relationship were similar. What was different was that they did not have music, but what they did have was a son who kind of kept them together — their only child. They died in 1989 right before the wall came down, so they never saw the end of the Cold War.
HtN: That’s a fascinating story.
PP: It’s a messy story. So I had to move away from it a bit, and make them musicians and contract it to 14 years. But the beats are similar.
HtN: Every time it transitions to a different time period the sound cuts out first and then the picture. Until the last cut. What was the intention behind that?
PP: I just wanted the film to be a little bit syncopated all the time, and keep people on edge. Generally with the cutting I wanted to be a bit jazzy about it, keep it syncopated, not have a self-regarding heaviness. Nobody in the past would have told it so elliptically. I wasn’t sure the experiment would come off.
HtN: Have you seen Same Time Next Year with Alan Alda?
PP: I haven’t. I’ll make a note of it. I suppose Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage. That jumps in time and every time we come to them they are in a different configuration and you have to figure out what happened. That film has this strange effect, it makes you very sad about the changeability of things.
HtN: My favorite shot in Cold War was when they are standing against the huge mirror in the lobby. It’s a nice visual gag.
PP: There was such a mirror in this location. I thought it was a very economic way of telling the story, as long as all the extras do the right things. I wanted to make it feel real because everything happens in real time, but slightly poetic and unnerving because you don’t quite know what the perspectives are. That’s how I tried to make most of the film; scenes are 1 shot or maybe 2, the actors act, the background does the right thing, sometimes it took 30 takes to make sure everything coincided at the right time.
HtN: I wanted to ask about the last shot of the film—a billow of wind across the grass. Was that intentional or just good fortune?
PP: I had a propeller. It was a nightmare, but it paid off.
– Matthew Delman (@ItsTheRealDel)