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6 Filmmaking Tips from Pawel Pawlikowski

Oscar-nominated director Pawel Pawlikowski’s thoughts on choosing projects, the limits of a screenplay, and why you should never explain your film.
Music Box Films
By  · Published on February 18th, 2019

The Polish-born filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski left his home country for the UK as a teenager, ultimately attending Oxford University to study literature and philosophy. In the 1980s he started dabbling in documentaries, and in 1998 he transitioned to fiction with the 50-minute Twockers. After putting several thought-provoking films through the festival circuit including My Summer of Love (2004) and The Woman in the Fifth (2011), it was Pawlikowski’s first Polish film, Ida (2013), that made him a major name in the international film scene. It took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Langauge Film, the first Polish film to do so. He returned to Poland for his next film, Cold War (2018), a decades-spanning tumultuous romance between two musicians, received three Oscar nominations. Pawlikowski took a winding road toward becoming a filmmaker, and he learned plenty along the way. Here are six of his best filmmaking tips:

Be Flexible with Your Screenplay

When it comes to screenplays, Pawlikowski is arguably a financier’s worst nightmare. His scripts are minimalist, and the director considers significant rewrites and modifications throughout filming a standard part of his process. He does what he has to in order to get financing—for instance, putting together a 64-page script for Ida that “dotted the Is and crossed the Ts”—but, as far as he’s concerned, the standard detailed screenplay is more of a hoop to jump through than anything. It’s best, he told The Guardian in a November 2014 interview, not to take a script too seriously:

“A script can be a useful thing, of course. It gives you the general idea; an approximation of the structure; maybe even some good scenes and usable dialogue. But God forbid taking it too seriously and trying to shoot it as written. I’d much rather work from a 25-page outline that doesn’t narrow down the possibilities or lock you into a self-serving filming schedule. As far as I’m concerned, all you really need is a story, with two or three interesting characters, interestingly entangled in an interesting space. You also need some transcendent idea, emotion or urge to carry you through the whole process. The reason why you are doing it in the first place.”

Filmmaking is a Sculpting Process

Okay. So don’t lock yourself into sticking with the script. So what should you do instead? What happens next? More or less continuing on from the last featured quote, Pawlikowski detailed how he lets his films evolve naturally over time when speaking at the 92Y community center in New York City in 2014:

“A lot of stuff comes out in the process when you’re [making a film], when you expose yourself to the reality of the film, to the actors—and even looking for actors makes you realize stuff that you didn’t quite think of when writing—, looking for locations […] driving around looking for locations makes you relive your film differently, things that occur to you while you’re preparing, it all impacts on the film. Even rehearsals are a kind of thinking time and shaping time.

You can watch the entire interview below (quote begins at 9:35):

Audiences Don’t Need to Understand to be Compelled

Pawlikowski’s two most recent films, Ida and Cold War, have both been period pieces. However, as the filmmaker told the Museum of the Moving Image publication Reverse Shot in a February 2015 interview, a historical setting doesn’t mean you should turn your film into a history lesson:

“Very often when you make a film about history, a lot of the dialogue, or scenes even, are devoted to explaining to audiences that haven’t got a clue about history. And I didn’t want to do that. This is the historical moment, these are the characters, a lot is touched upon, and if you make sense of it, great, and if you don’t make sense of it, it still kind of works in a universal way. I’m not going to try to explain, because there’s no one explanation of history anyway, and it’s not the job of cinema to explain. Cinema is some kind of magical exercise that creates a world and draws the audience in, and they have to experience something emotionally, rather than something for journalists to discuss.”

Consider Academy Ratio

In addition to being in black-and-white, both Ida and Cold War are notable for using Academy ratio instead of a widescreen format. While the former standard has largely fallen out of fashion, Pawlikowski made a good case for bringing it back when doing a Q&A at the Hammer Museum in December 2018:

“But what it helps me [do], already in Ida and here, is to limit the field of vision, to guide exactly where the viewer is looking, and to work by not showing too much, by suggesting what’s out of frame. […] It’s a great format for portraits and double portraits. It gives me more control over what I show. What we lose on the sides very often we compensate in depth.”

You can watch the full Q&A below (the quote begins at 13:27):

Explanations Kill The Poetry

Pawlikowski’s latest film Cold War depicts the mercurial love of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) over 15 years and several countries, depicting the evolution of their relationship in vignettes separated by cuts to black. Inspired by the story of his own parents, the filmmaker explained to RogerEbert.com in December 2018 why he very consciously chose a more fragmented narrative style, and in doing so also gave some useful advice:

“I wasn’t going to make a biopic-type of film where you show how A leads to B leads to C and so on. The whole ’cause and effect’ structure in biopics that span a long period of time is incredibly irritating to me. It seems to suggest that everything in the subject’s life has a clear cause and consequence, when in fact there are so many different causes and consequences that I’d rather just show the tableau through these chunks of time and not explain exactly how we got from here to there. Most people can imagine it for themselves, and if I begin to explain what is left unseen, it would reduce everything. When you start explaining a film, you kill all the poetry, so never explain. Never apologize.”

Get Pulled into a (Psychological) Current

One of the most fundamental filmmaking questions of all is why, as in, why make a film? How should a filmmaker pick the project to which he or she will be dedicating all their time and energy? Pawlikowski addressed a guiding principle of his selection process in a December 2018 interview with Vulture that also doubles as good advice for any other filmmaker pondering the same question:

“When you’re directing, half the time you’re depressed and just trying to make this work in spite of practical issues that keep cropping up. But I need to know that I’m carried by some greater current, something to do with what I know or feel about the world. You’re giving over three years of your life, so there better be a current taking you somewhere. Filmmaking is not like engineering or plumbing. It’s not industrial. It’s psychological.”

What We Learned

Pawel Pawlikowski did not take the usual film school path to end up behind the camera, and in many regards, he’s not a usual filmmaker. He knowingly makes creative choices that alienate potential viewers. As he mentioned in the February 2015 Reverse Shot interview referenced earlier in this piece, “I don’t try to seduce the audience too much, so you know you’re going to lose a lot of them. But those who stay might benefit, or like it more.” Considering how Pawlikowski’s reputation as a filmmaker has only grown with the release of Cold War, this gambit seems to have worked out remarkably well, illustrating what might perhaps be the key lesson that ties together all of the featured filmmaking tips: being successful does not have to mean drawing the biggest crowd. No matter how many viewers you lose, so long as “those who stay” are fans, you can go to some pretty great places.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.