Pawel Pawlikowski

Interview with PAWEL PAWLIKOWSKI
WHAT ARE THE ORIGINS OF « IDA »?

IDA has multiple origins, the most interesting ones are probably not quite conscious. Let’s say that I come from a family full of mysteries and contradictions and have lived in one sort of exile or another for most of my life. Questions of identity, family, blood, faith, belonging and history have always been present.

I’d been playing with the story of a Catholic nun, who discovers she’s Jewish for years. I originally set it in ‘68, the year of student protests and the Communist Party sponsored antisemitic purges in Poland. The story involved a nun a bit older than Ida, as well as an embattled bishop and a state security officer and the whole thing was more steeped in the politics of the day. The script was turning out a little too schematic, thrillerish and plotty for my liking so I put «IDA», aside for a while and went to Paris to make « THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH ». I was in a different place at the time.

When I came back to « IDA », I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted the film to be. With my co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz we stripped the whole thing back, made it less plotty, the characters richer and less functional. Ida became younger, more inexperienced, more of a blank slate, a young girl on the brink of life. Also we moved the story to ‘62, a more nondescript
period in Poland, but also a time of which I have most vivid memories, my own impressions as a child – unaware of what was going on in the adult world, but all the more sensitive to images and sounds. Some shots in the film could have come from my family
album.

WHERE DID THE CHARACTER OF WANDA COME FROM?

When I was doing my post-graduate degree at Oxford in the early 80’s I befriended Professor Brus a genial economist, a reformist Marxist, who left Poland in ‘68. I was particularly fond of his wife Helena, who smoked, drank, joked and told great stories. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, but she struck me as a warm and generous woman. I lost touch with the Bruses when
I left Oxford, but some 10 years later I heard on BBC News that the Polish government was requesting the extradition of one Helena Brus-Wolinska, resident in Oxford, on the grounds of crimes against humanity. It turned out that the charming old lady had been a Stalinist prosecutor in her late twenties. Among other things, she engineered the death in a show trail
of a completely innocent man and a real hero of the Resistance, General “Nil” Fieldorf. It was a bit of a shock. I couldn’t square the warm, ironic woman I knew with the ruthless fanatic and Stalinist hangman. This paradox has haunted more for years. I even tried to write a film about her, but couldn’t get my head around or into someone so contradictory. Putting her into Ida’s
story helped bring that character to life. Conversely, putting the ex-believer with blood on her hands next to Ida helped me define the character and the journey of the young nun.

MUSIC SEEMS TO PLAY A BIG ROLE IN THE FILM

Yes, the pop songs were key from the start. They were fatally imprinted on my childhood memory. They really colour the landscape. Coltrane and stuff came from my adult self. Incidentally, the late Fifties and early Sixties were great for jazz in Poland. There was a real explosion: Komeda, Namyslowski, Stanko, Wroblewski… Apart from telling Ida’s story, I
wanted to conjure up a certain image of Poland, an image which I hold dear. My country may have been grey, oppressive and enslaved in the early Sixties, but in some ways it was ‘cooler’ and more original than the Poland of today, and somehow more universally resonant. I’m sure that lots of Poles with a chip on their shoulder, and there are many, will fail to notice
the beauty, the love that went into our film – and will accuse me of damaging Poland’s image, by focusing on the melancholy, the provincial, the grotesque… And then there’s the matter of a Polish farmer killing a Jewish family… there’s bound to be trouble. On the other hand, there’s also a Stalinist state prosecutor of Jewish origins, which might land me in hot water in
other quarters. Still, I hope the film is sufficiently specific and unrhetorical to be understood on its own terms.

HOW DID YOU CAST IDA?

After looking high and low all over Poland among young actresses and drama students, I ended up chosing a complete amateur, a girl who’d never acted in her life and didn‘t even want to act – a rare find these days. A director friend of mine, Malgosia Szumowska, who knew I was desperate and running out of time, saw Agata in a Warsaw cafe. She rang me on
the spot, I was in Paris at the time, so I asked her to secretly take a picture of Agata on her IPhone and send it over. On the face of it, the girl was totally wrong, a striking hipster with a baroque hairdo, vintage clothes and ultracool demeanour. Hardly material for a nun. But she did look interesting and I really was desperate. It also turned out Agata was a militant feminist, wasn’t sure about the existence of God and definitely had no time for the Church in Poland. In the audition I took away the make up, the hair, the hipster accoutrements and had a closer look: she was spot on. There was something timeless about her and touchingly
authentic, unspoilt as if untouched by the media and general narcissism of today. She had the face of an earnest child, but also an air of strength and calm intelligence. Some of the producers and financiers were extremely dubious about employing someone who’d never acted before and didn’t even want to be an actress. They kept sending me worried e-mails before and during the filming, but in the end the risk paid off brilliantly. I can’t imagine anyone else playing this part. I think she enjoyed the experience too, but it’s pretty clear that she’d rather be a director than an actor.

Agata Kulesza who played Wanda is also a woman of rare strength and integrity. But in other ways she was the polar opposite of the younger Agata. A real virtuoso who combined a thorough theatre training with great energy, totally devoted to her metier. To play the quickwitted, conflicted, manic, melancholy Wanda she had to pull out all the stops, while staying focused and restrained and avoiding bravura. A difficult balance to strike.

For the young saxophonist Lis I wanted an actor who could really play the saxophone and also look and feel like someone from the Sixties. Not easy these days. Generally speaking young male actors tend to be either pretty boys or masculine thugs. It’s difficult to find young men who are at once masculine, sensitive, intelligent, witty and charming. Dawid Ogrodnik was all
these things. Above all, he felt authentic. He turned up at the casting session with a hangover. He’d won some award and he’d had been celebrating all night. He didn’t have a sax, but turned up with a clarinet he’d borrowed from a mate. There was something touching in the way he was trying to screw the clarinet together and about his confusion when his phone started ringing in one of his pockets. He couldn’t find it at first, then produced some old battered mobile to explain to his friends he was about to start an audition… I tried him out with Agata Trzebuchowska. They talked, they danced, they felt good together.