Jerzy Skolimowski: “I’m making films I want to see”
Veteran director Jerzy Skolimowski returns to his native Poland for 11 Minutes, a fragmented thriller concerned with chance and cosmic timing. We find the 77-year-old in good spirits.
Jerzy Skolimowski wants to talk about the ending of 11 Minutes, his new movie. Normally it’s customary to omit such spoilerific chatter from a film interview, but here we can make an exception. Skolimowski is cinema's great cynic, you see; happy endings are not his bag. If we reveal that his cunning thriller ends in a cataclysm, those familiar with the Polish filmmaker’s work won’t bat an eyelid.
It’s also appropriate to begin at the end, as it’s where Skolimowski got started. “The very beginning of this idea was when I visualised the finale,” he says. “Suddenly I had a vision of it really happening step-by-step, exactly as it is in the film, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’d love to end one of my films like this.’” We can see why: it is a doozy.
11 Minutes takes a handful of characters and sets them in motion like atoms in a nuclear reactor, with some passing by each other unperturbed, and some colliding. Composed of intricately-edited vignettes featuring 11 stories, with the shards of each story adding to approximately 11 minutes, the film is a virtuosic orchestration of close shaves and chance encounters, building to an operatic moment of bravura nihilism.
“But of course I didn’t know the protagonists,” says Skolimowski. “Who are the people who are participating in that incredible catastrophe? So I had to work backwards to create a palette of characters, and to find for them the ways to find themselves at the same place at the same time at that given moment.” It’s a virtuosic piece of reverse engineering.
Dawid Ogrodnik in 11 Minutes
It’s great to see the 77-year-old on such sprightly form, but it’s also heartening to see this once-prolific filmmaker back on the scene at all, having only returned to filmmaking relatively recently in 2009 after a 17-year hiatus. “I’d felt that I’d burnt out,” he says of his break from cinema. “I’d started making movies that I didn’t want to make. I wasn’t an artist any longer.”
He charged his batteries by taking up painting – and he proved pretty good at it. “Quickly I reached a level where people were buying my paintings,” he recalls. “When I realised it had been more than 15 years of not making movies I had begun to feel like an artist again, and a young artist, so I went back to filmmaking.”
How did the break change him? “I now work without any compromise,” he says proudly. “From now on, which is already three films done [Four Nights with Anna and Essential Killing being the other two], I’m making films I want to see on the screen.”
If there were some compromises in those earlier films, there was also a lot of artistry too. Skolimowski's circuitous path in filmmaking began when Polish cinema was blowing up in the 60s. He was taken under the wing of Andrzej Wajda (Ashes and Diamonds), and later he co-wrote Knife in the Water with Roman Polanski. He went on to make at least one masterpiece in Poland (Barrier) before the banning of Hands Up! (1967) by Polish authorities forced him abroad, taking his fatalistic sensibility to Belgium, where he made Golden Bear winner Le départ, and the UK, where he made Deep End, The Shout and Moonlighting. All three of those British films are brilliant, and all three are too little-seen.
While Skolimowski’s films might be unfamiliar to a younger generation of film fans, his face, still handsome and tough, certainly is. During his self-imposed exile he’d take the odd acting job, playing small roles in the likes of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. And then, in 2012, he incongruously popped up in Avengers Assemble, one of the biggest money-makers of all time, as a KGB general who gets the tables turned on him by his prisonor Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). How did that come about?
“Well you know,” Skolimowski says with a sly grin, “occasionally I act in a movie, but I do it for one reason and for one reason only: it’s the easiest way for me to make money.”
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Jerzy Skolimowski. Cinema's great cynic.