By Iain Blair
Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski is a BAFTA-winning writer and director whose film Ida won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Pawlikowski, who left Poland at age 14 and currently resides in the UK, is Oscar nominated again — as Best Director for his latest film, Cold War. Also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, Cold War earned cinematographer Lukasz Zal an Oscar nomination, as well as an ASC Award win.
Cold War traces the passionate love story between Wiktor and Zula, a couple who meet in the ruins of post-war Poland. With vastly different backgrounds and temperaments, they are fatefully mismatched and yet condemned to each other. Set against the background of the Cold War in 1950s Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris, it’s the tale of a couple separated by politics, character flaws and unfortunate twists of fate — an impossible love story in impossible times.
I spoke with Pawlikowski, whose credits include The Woman in the Fifth, which starred Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas, about making the film, the Oscars and his workflow.
How surprised are you by the Oscar nominations, including the one for Best Director?
I’m pleasantly surprised as it’s very unusual for a small film like this — and it’s in B&W — to cut through all the noise of the big films, especially as it’s an American competition and there’s so much money and PR involved.
Your Ida cinematographer Lukasz Zal also got an Oscar nomination for his beautiful B&W work. It’s interesting that Roma is also semi-autobiographical and in B&W.
I’m so happy for him, and yes, it is a bit of a coincidence. Someone told me that having two foreign-language film directors both nominated in the same year has only happened once before, and I feel we were both trying to reconnect with the past through something personal and timeless. But they’re very different films and very different in their use of B&W. In Roma you can see everything, it’s all in focus and lit very evenly, while ours is far more contrast-y, shot with a lot of very different lenses — some very wide, some very long.
You won the Oscar for Ida. How important are the Oscars to a film like this?
Very, I think. This was made totally as we wanted. There wasn’t an ounce of compromise, and it’s not formulaic, yet it’s getting all this attention. This, of course, means a wider audience — and that’s so important when there’s so much stuff out there vying for attention. It’s very encouraging.
What sort of film did you set out to make, as the story is so elliptical and leaves a lot unsaid?
That’s true, and I think it’s a great pleasure for audiences to work things out for themselves, and to not spell every single thing out. When you work by suggestion, I think it stays in your imagination much longer, and leaving certain types of gaps in the narrative makes the audience fill them in with their own imagination and own experience of life. As a film lover and audience member myself, I feel that approach lets you enter the space of a film much more, and it stays with you long after you’ve left the cinema. When a film ties up every loose end and crosses every “T” and dots every “I” you tend to forget it quite quickly, and I think not showing everything is the essence of art.
Is it true that the two main characters of Wiktor and Zula are based on your own parents?
Yes, but very loosely. They have the same names and share a lot of the same traits. They had a very tempestuous, complicated relationship — they couldn’t live with each other and couldn’t live without each other. That was the starting point, but then it took on its own life, like all films do.
The film looks very beautiful in B&W, but I heard you originally planned to shoot it in color?
No. Not at all. It’s been like this Chinese whisper, where people got it all wrong. When the DP and I first started discussing it, we immediately knew it’d be a B&W film for this world, this time period, this story, especially as Poland wasn’t very colorful back then. So whatever colors we could have come up with would have been so arbitrary anyway. And we knew it’d be very high contrast and very dramatic. Lukasz did say, “Maybe we shouldn’t do two films in a row in B&W,” but we never seriously considered color. If it had been set in the ‘70s or ‘80s I would have shot it in color, but B&W was just visually perfect for this.
Where did you post?
All in Poland, at various places in Warsaw, and it took over six months. It was very tricky and very hard to get it right because we had a lot of greenscreen work, and it wasn’t straightforward. People would say, “That’s good enough,” but it wasn’t for me, and I kept pushing and pushing to get it all as nearly perfect as we could. That was quite nerve-wracking.
Do you like the post process?
Very much, and I especially love the editing and the grading. I’m basically an editor in my approach to filmmaking, and I usually do all the editing while I shoot, so by the time we get to post it’s practically all edited.
Talk about editing with Jaroslaw Kaminski, who cut Ida for you. What were the big editing challenges?
We sit down after the shoot and go through it all, but there’s not that much to tweak because of the coverage. I like to do one shot from one angle, with a simple, square composition, but I do quite a lot of takes, so it’s more about finding the best one, and he’s very used to the way I work.
This spans some 15 years, and all period films use some VFX. What was involved?
Quite a lot, like the whole transition in Berlin when he crosses the border. We don’t have all the ruins, so we had to use enormous greenscreens and VFX. West Berlin is far brighter and more colorful, which is both symbolic and also realistic. We shot all the Paris interiors in Poland, so everything that happens outside the windows is greenscreen, and that was very hard to get right. I didn’t want it to feel like it was done in post. We scoured Poland for locations, so we could use real elements to build on with the VFX, and the story also takes place in Split, Yugoslavia, so the level of realism had to be very high.
Talk about the importance of sound and music.
It was so important, and it took a long time to do as it’s really a silent movie when there’s no music, and as it’s not an action film, it was really critical that we didn’t overdo it or under-do it. I took a very long time working with my sound mixer — over four months. Before we shot, I went around Poland with my casting director to lots of folk music festivals and selected various faces, voices and tunes for the first part of the film. That took over half a year. Then I chose three tunes performed by Mazowsze, a real ensemble founded after the war and still performing today. A tune could be used in different ways — as a simple folk song at the start of the film, but then also later as a haunting jazz number in the Paris scenes. For me, all this was like the glue holding it all together. Then I chose a lot of other music, like the Russian piece, Gershwin and also a song like “Rock Around The Clock,” which really drives a wedge between Wiktor and Zula. The film ends with Bach, which gives it a whole different feel and perspective.
The grading must have also been very important for the look?
Yes. Michal Herman was the colorist and we spent a long time getting the contrast and grain just right. I love that process.
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It did. It’s more or less everything I felt and imagined about my parents and their story, even though it’s a work of fiction.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.