At the age of 84, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski has crafted one of the most vigorously energetic and vibrant films of the year. Inspired by Bresson’s seminal classic Au Hasard Balthazar, but taking the idea to formally dazzling new heights, EO tells the journey of a donkey traversing through Europe. Via a series of striking vignettes, we witness the totality of the human (and animal) experience.
As Poland’s Oscar entry opens in U.S. theaters courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Film, I had the pleasure of speaking with Skolimowski and his co-writer, producer, and wife Ewa Piaskowska about the total freedom they found in creating EO, the power of Bresson, leaving room for the audience’s imagination, and the Christ-like allegory in the film.
The Film Stage: There’s a sense, watching the film, that you gave yourself total freedom in where this journey would go. Can you talk about developing the structure?
Jerzy Skolimowski: Yes. Actually, the film structure is ruled by—as you rightly observe—a total freedom because we have made it actually against the general rules of filmmaking, which is the linear narration and three-act structure. Those technical devices which normally are being followed by the scriptwriters and then the film directors. Usually, one-hundred percent of the films are done with that method. Since we are working with Ewa Piaskowska, who is here with me, who is my co-writer and co-producer and also my wife and we already worked on four projects [that is not the case]. Before EO we made Four Nights with Anna, Essential Killing, and 11 Minutes. Already with 11 Minutes we were trying to break away from that linear narration. We didn’t succeed fully in what we were planning to do, but at least we made the first step into that direction. But to go further, we decided that perhaps if we were to have the animal character as a leading character of the film and to look at this story around the animal and through his eyes, that would give us much more freedom. Because then we can use fragments by using the device that those are the fragments which actually the animal sees––
Ewa Piaskowska: Or imagines. Or dreams about.
JS: They wouldn’t need a story to be told from A to Z. You know, that A has to be followed by B and B, C, D, et cetera. Those could be just fragments. We thought that perhaps the little stories – because there are few stories in the film – we will treat them like vignettes, like human vignettes. And we will minimize those really as much as possible just to give hints here and there of what the situation is about and then being seen fragmentary by the animal and using his point of view. That would be the explanation why the story is not told in a regular, linear manner.
EP: Following the three-act structure, it’s such a mechanical job. Basically, you have to sort of keep all those rules. And of course it’s fine. There are plenty of fantastic films done this way. But for us, having to play with something completely different sort of opened those different facets of your brain. And think about the storytelling or the character or the narration in a way that turns your imagination into new venues. This is what we are looking for.
Yes, it’s genuinely thrilling to watch. There’s a real sense of character with EO. Part of that psychological pathos I think comes from some of the camera techniques you’re using. But also a lot of it has to do with the audience and what they’re responding to. There’s not a lot of dialogue in this film. You leave a lot of room for an audience member to think about their lives. Was that a major goal?
JS: Yes, we purposely left a lot of room for the audience, for their imagination, for their ability to connect the certain details and to make people follow the story in their own way. And because the human vignettes are rather banal, those are not anything special. There are not the big stories behind that––it’s a story about a little bit of jealousy, a little bit of the need for murder––those vignettes are easy to decipher by really using an audience’s brains and imagination. And therefore we put the whole effort on the visual aspect of the film and the sound and especially the music, which my instructions to my composer [Paweł Mykietyn] with whom I already work three times. He’s a great classical-music composer—his symphonies are played all around the world in philharmonics—but he is equally ambitious to do the music for the film. Not as a kind of stepping down into the lesser genre––no, he is really executing his full talent and sensitivity in that field. And my general instruction for him was that whenever he would find the moment to use his music like an inner monologue of the donkey, then this is what I really need him for. And he did that job very, very well. From time to time the music is like the sound of what’s going on in donkey’s head.
EP: And also pathos. I think Paweł is most responsible for this kind of metaphysical aspect of the story and the pathos.
Yes, definitely. And speaking to that visual aspect, I know you worked with a trio of cinematographers and you also gave them total freedom. You said to go capture this however you can and really push the bounds. For some shots, like the bird’s-eye view, how much of that was pre-planned versus finding it on set? It really feels like you’re really inventing a new cinematic language with a lot of the ways you place the camera.
JS: Some of the scenes and sequences were precisely written in the script—like the night forest journey, which was written with every detail and every other animal involved in this scene, with them all there. We had the spider.
EP: The fox.
JS: The frog. Yes, so that was executed really precisely and pre-planned, of course, with the DP on how to shoot it. That actually was the most difficult sequence for everybody, including the donkey. That was really the longest scene, and we spent the whole night from late afternoon until dawn the next day. Maybe thirteen hours of work. We were really worried that the donkey may be tired. But as you probably know, we were using several donkeys and for this particular scene we had two: a male and a female.
And it’s the simplest trick of working with the donkeys is that if we need a passage of the donkey from point A to point B, we had both of them––male and female––at point A and then walking them all the way to point B, and then leaving the female at point B and returning with male to point A, but he already knows the way and he knew where the female is and therefore he was eager to go that way. [Laughs.]
Got it. A tale as old as time.
EP: But to complete the question, there are also other shots in which we just used whatever just happened on set, because working with the donkeys is rather unpredictable. You’re never quite sure what they are going to do. So being ready always to just capture a moment, all those little miracles on screen. This was an important part of the process, is to always be ready and always to block 360 degrees of the set to have as much freedom as possible to shoot whatever the animal needs.
JS: So whatever is going on––whether we are preparing this shot or making some corrections—everybody should be ready for the signal that something special is happening with the donkey. And on that signal, everybody stops doing what they are doing and concentrates on catching the moments of the donkey. So that’s another example of the technique of our work.
When the project was first announced, people thought it might be a Bresson remake, but you are obviously doing something entirely new––taking a basic idea and then putting your own stamp completely on it. I do recall the story of how after you saw Au Hasard Balthazar it made you cry. What is it about Bresson’s films that pierce your soul?
JS: Well, my tears at the end of Bresson’s film were completely unexpected for me. That was really a surprise because I went to see this film the year when it was made, which means 1966. And I was a very young filmmaker just out of this film school, and I made my first feature Walkover at that time. But whenever I was going to the cinema to watch a film, I had this kind of slightly cynical look at the [filmmaking process], of how it’s done. Why the camera has such an angle and not another one, why there is a tracking shot, all those little technical details. And I did not let the kind of mood—which normally a director creates as the most important effect on his audience—I didn’t let the mood fully touch me, except with Robert Bresson, where I completely forgot that I am in the cinema, that I am watching the film, that I am watching the technique of making this movie.
He reduced me to the normal spectator, the normal viewer, which really was so deeply moving that I cried. And that was a big lesson that I received from Robert Bresson. And the lesson is that one can be moved stronger by the animal character than by even a perfect performance by the human actor because there is always, in the back of our minds, a suspicion that this is just the execution of the perfectly done job by the actor. That he’s got such a technique, such an ability to deliver whatever it’s needed. But after the director would say cut, the actor would just go for a drink or joke with the friends and that’s it.
Whereas the animals, they don’t know what acting is. They are just being there and this is why they are a little bit more trustworthy. And therefore moving the audience stronger. So that’s the reason for my tears. And the lesson from Robert Bresson. So [EO] is not a remake of course. It’s an homage or something. But these are such different two films. Robert Bresson’s is a black-and-white film shot with the one lens, only 50mm, which sometimes is very good for the film. But sometimes I suspect that maybe if there is a use of a wider lens, maybe it would be useful in certain moments. Also the fact that Bresson uses only amateurs, not actors. Which in certain cases, like Anne Wiazemsky, works perfectly. She’s really excellent. But in some other cases, the smaller parts are not that great. And if they would be played by professional actors, perhaps one could have a stronger effect.
My film is an explosion of colors, camera moves, different lenses, different pieces of equipment. All the modern technique of making a film is involved in it. And the colorization and the great editing. You know, we had this [editor] Agnieszka Glinska, with whom I’ve already made a couple of films. And I owe her really a lot because she’s got really excellent ideas and excellent feeling about the rhythm and, well, I had fantastic collaborators on this film—starting with Eva, who had written most of the script and then the DP and the composer, but also plenty of other people who really helped me with their input into the film. I never had such a good crew and such useful collaborators. As with this film, it’s just really more of an ensemble work than any other of my films.
The one thing that does kind of carry through a bit with Bresson is there’s this sense of spirituality and a spiritual journey through death with a Christ-like allegory. Humans learn more about themselves by just reflecting on what’s before them. Is that level of spirituality a major point of discussion for you, as an allegorical journey?
EP: I think we always saw it as an allegory.
JS: We treat it as an allegory. We even we had a certain feeling that we are telling something like a biblical tale. Perhaps because of the whole literature in which a donkey character is present, starting with Ovid and Apuleius and many, many other writers—including the Spanish Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1956, [Juan Ramón] Jiménez, whose wonderful book, called Platero and I, was also a huge inspiration for some little details here and there in our film.
EP: But I also think that this feeling sort of results from the character of the animal itself, and especially a donkey who’s such an obviously innocent creature. Which has never done an act of harm in his entire life. He’s so obviously, irreversibly innocent. And I think this innocence is this element which carries this kind of allegorical, biblical a little bit, note throughout.
Jerzy, there’s a quote you have that I love: “I’ve always thought that a director’s mortal sin is to bore his audience.” EO is a film that has so much vitality and life that it could be the bold vision of a filmmaker just starting out. What kind of advice would you give to directors to search for this sense of freedom to explore?
JS: My general advice for the young filmmakers would be to, first of all, try to tell something you really went through personally. That means something which affects you emotionally. So you would express some strong feelings, anger or jealousy or envy or love or whatever, but based on your own experience. But of course there’s no need to portray that experience in a realistic way. You could camouflage it as a metaphor. So those two elements: first, know what you’re talking about, experience it, but then camouflage. Do not make it like a personal diary, but as a tale as something to be taken like a fiction story.
EP: And I have another fantastic quote of Jerzy for you. He also said that “Cinema is 24 lies per second.” I think that’s one of the best things ever.
JS: Yeah, that’s what I said a couple of years ago.
EP: No, like 20 years ago or 30 years ago.
JS: But it was mentioned in Venice when I was receiving that lifetime achievement, Golden Lion, and one of the organizers quoted, saying “You said yourself, ‘the cinema is 24 lies per second.’” It sounds nice, right?
Yes. Well, keep lying.
JS: Thank you. I will. [Laughs]
EO is now in limited release and will expand.