A version of this story first appeared in the International issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski made his first film in 1960, but his new “EO” was one of the most adventurous and freshest films to premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The central character is a wandering donkey who takes a road trip across Europe and has adventures that can be charming, frightening and heartbreaking. But “EO” doesn’t sit back and observe its protagonist — instead, Skolimowski uses drones, effects and a jarring sound design to put viewers in the donkey’s head.
He spoke to TheWrap through a translator.
When your film premiered in Cannes, lots of people commented on how it had a boldness and youthful energy to it. At the age of 84, do you feel like a youthful filmmaker?
No, I am fully aware of my age and my limits. But I’m glad that the film is taken this way. The difference between this film and my previous films is the fact that I really pushed my collaborators to make as large an impact into the film as possible. On the previous occasions, I was much more selfish and I was favoring my own ideas. Here I was really trying to get (input) from my composer, from my cinematographer, from my editor, from my co-writer. Maybe this youthful quality which you mention is because the average age of my team is lower than my own age.
Was there something about the material that made you want to push your collaborators?
I guess it is the importance of the general message of the film. The film is made out of love for animals and nature. And by choosing my collaborators, that was the most important criterion — their attitude toward animals. We were all animal lovers and we were trying to do something for those so-called little brothers with whom we are supposed to share this planet in a much more democratic way than it is done.
Unfortunately, human beings misuse animals in sometimes very dramatic, very cruel ways. I mean, things like the industrial production of meat is something which humans should be ashamed of. This is barbarian activity. And maybe those drastic, dramatic, macabre things could cease eventually.
You saw Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar,” another film in which the protagonist is a donkey, back in 1966. Have you been thinking of doing your own take on that idea for a long time?
Not really, no, although the impact of Robert Bresson’s film on my career was enormous. I was so moved by the death of the donkey that I simply cried. Robert Bresson managed to reduce me from the cynical professional to the normal viewer; Robert Bresson proved to me that the animal character can be much more moving to the audience than any human character.
Any human character performed by the actor, you know that whatever he performs, it would be always with the subconscious suspicion of the audience that it’s only an act, a performance. Moments later, the actor would return to his private life laughing and drinking, joking, et cetera. While the death of the donkey was real — it moved me enormously because I knew that animals cannot act. There is truth in an animal’s performance, which is not a performance, actually — it is them being natural.
When I was looking for a subject for the new film with my wife and co-writer and co-producer Ewa Piaskowska, we were both fed up with linear narration. Millions of films were made this way, and the audience must be fed up with the same three-act structure. So we were looking for a different
way of narrating the film, and we decided that if we use the animal character in a main part, that would at least reduce the dialogue heard in the film. And dialogues are always the weakest part of the film, not only because they are quite frequently badly written, but also that the performances of the actors are not always that great.
And by pure chance, during Christmas we were in Sicily and in the neighboring village was a performance of a living manger. The biggest attraction was the barn with Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus, and full of animals – chickens, geese, pigs, sheep, cows, all making incredible noise. And I noticed in the far corner, away from all the other animals, is one silent animal who doesn’t move, who doesn’t produce any sound. It was a donkey, with wide-open eyes observing what’s going on. And I thought, I can tell my story through donkey’s eyes.
In the way you shot the film and in the sound design, you’re taking us into the donkey’s point of view. How do you accomplish that?
Normally, I arrange the scene and shoot it in the objective way by the so-called master shot covering the whole situation. And then I concentrate on my main character, which is [the] donkey. Whatever he does in the scene, I follow every one of his movements. And I follow with the camera the same movements I was photographing. And to my surprise, looking at the monitor on the set, I noticed enormous difference between my objective shots and the same situation shot as donkey’s point of view. They had additional value, almost like being looked at by an alien, by somebody from a different world. I understood that this is the strength of telling the story through donkey’s eyes. Those could be just fragments, but by the fact that it is a donkey who pays attention to certain details, it tells the whole story in a completely different way.
So what’s it like working with donkey actors?
Sometimes actors are very useful, sometimes they are annoying because actors tend to ask questions which are not necessary. But donkey doesn’t ask any questions and also doesn’t understand what the director wants him to do. So the method of working is, first of all, trying to establish the bond between the animal and the director. When the rest of the crew was either eating lunch or preparing another shot, I spent time with the donkey, establishing the fact that the animal and myself are having a special bond. (Laughs) And, of course, I had my greatest weapon — carrots. In difficult moments, the carrots work miracles.