Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert, director and co-director of “Never Gonna Snow Again,” Poland’s Academy Awards entry for Best International Feature Film, said a very strange process of negotiation led them to cast “Stranger Things” actor Alec Utgoff in the lead role.
Recounting the story to TheWrap’s Joe McGovern, Szumowska said she first became aware of Utgoff, who came to the cast of Netflix’ horror-mystery series “Stranger Things” in the series’ third season as Russian scientist Dr. Alexei, through her son (Maciej Drosio, who has a small role in “Snow.”)
“(He said) Mom, you have to watch ‘Stranger Things’ and wait for the Alexei character,” Szumowska said. “I started to watch and I said: ‘Yes, that’s the guy, oh my God!'”
Although her son brought Utgoff to Szumowska’s attention, he was also convinced she had no shot of coaxing the star of a successful TV series to play Zenia, an enigmatic masseur who travels from house to house in an affluent suburban housing estate in an Eastern European city, casting a mysterious spell over his troubled, desperately lonely clients and their families.
“I said, ‘I don’t care, he’s going to be in my movie,'” Szumowska said.
True to her son’s prediction, Utgoff at first turned down the role via his agent.
“He said: ‘I’m not acting in art house films, I don’t know what to do with this kind of material,’ ” Szumowska said.
Still, during a FaceTime call Szumowska managed to persuade him with an unusual personal asset: “My voice reminds him of this mother’s,” Szumowska said with a delighted laugh. ” So he said yes, and that’s how our journey started.”
Szumowska and Englert, also co-writers of the film, are on a new journey of their own. Although the pair have frequently worked together as director and cinematographer, as well as co-writers (“Body,” “Mug”), this is Englert’s first time as co-director.
The pair have been been collaborating for more than 20 years since meeting at film school, and in fact were at one time married. They have since divorced but say their longtime collaboration has remained fruitful.
“Now we are just an artistic couple, a filmmaker’s marriage,” Szsumowska said.
Said Englert: “I remembered the sentence by Sven Nykvist, the Swedish cinematographer and long time collaborator with (Ingmar) Bergman, he suggested that each cinematographer is supposed to direct one movie in his life in order to understand the process. I hope it’s not the only one — it reveals the way you treat the whole process of film making.”
As writers, they agreed that they wanted to create story that blends comedy, sadness and a touch of sci fi.
“We really like the contrast,” Englert said. “With each movie, we are trying to find something new, a kind of new film grammar…we focus on contrasting things, funny moments are happeing with the most tragic ones.”
In the film the character of Zenia is revealed to have been a child living near Chernobyl at the time of the nuclear accident. The directors believe Chernobyl represents an apt metaphor for the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“(Chernobyl) happened when we were small children,” Szumowska said. “I remember my parents standing on the balcony, people in many, many blocks standing everywhere on the balcony, and they thought they were going to see a radiating cloud…we want to see COVID, but we cannot see it, and it is extremely dangerous.”