Could you tell us what was the inspiration for the film?
It all started with the medieval customary law. Michal Grochowiak, who is a co-writer on Eastern, told me about the Albanian law known as Kanun. Of course, it wasn’t Albania that mattered but this peculiar vendetta law with its own equally peculiar rituals. That was our starting point. To this day, in some parts of Albania people carry out killings in that manner. We thought about Kanun for a while and did a lot of research but did not really know what to do with it until at one point we came up with the idea of applying it to contemporary Poland. From this moment it all was set in motion. It wasn’t really a calculated idea and I didn’t know why I was drawn to it. It’s a more experimental and conceptual idea to build from two opposite cultural poles this new non-existing world. We weren’t sure what would come out of this. But it was so inspiring and fascinating that we became drawn into it.
So, the concept inspired by Kanun came first and then you juxtaposed it with Polish reality and the whole process ensued.
Yes, it might sound bizarre, but I would call Eastern a conceptual feature film.
The impression one is left with after watching your film is that of hopelessness and fatalism as if the cycle of violence couldn’t be broken. Do you think that violence is inevitable and intrinsic to human nature?
Yes, when I look back at history no matter how we try to manage and get along in this world or whether we live in better or worse times, envy, revenge, and violence are always with us on every level, individual, social and international. Perhaps, that’s where this fatalism is coming from. I’m no longer at the age when I believe in revolution or that we’ll all of a sudden come up with something new that will change this world. There’s something libidinal and instinctive in human nature. We are hardwired by evolution to fight for ourselves first. Of course, in the contemporary world, we do have this common agreement governing our social space where we cooperate and care for others. Yet, those instincts still live in us. I think that’s why democracy can be so fragile. It’s the best system we have so far, but it’s against our nature in certain aspects. In a democratic order, you should still invite to the table enemies whom you defeated – there is no such thing in nature. Looking at what’s happening now, it’s really important to talk about it.
Your film looks as if it had been thoroughly planned, frames are carefully composed and there’s a smoothness in camera work. Do you envision the film in your mind and meticulously plan each shot?
In the case of Eastern, we had a detailed storyboard almost every take was planned. It’s the film language I had chosen that left little space for improvisation. Partially it was dictated by the limited budget and time. With Bartosz Nalazek, camera operator, we had to think in minimalist terms and always look at what could be culled or reduced when it came to camera work. Initially, we had a lot of takes planned but then we looked at how much time we had to shoot and it turned out we had to remove many of them. We kept only these essential meaty takes that would convey the film we had in our heads. We didn’t have a freehand to do whatever we wanted.
Could you talk a little bit about the limitation you encountered? The film is a part of Munk Studio and Canal+ 60min program for first-time filmmakers. Did you find the creative process curbed by these restraints or was it rather stimulating?
When we started writing the screenplay, we kept in mind that the film should last 60min. Then we managed to shoot more scenes and we even had a 90min version in post-production. The constraints become obvious when you start planning your budget and production schedule. You realize how much money you have when you see how much time it buys you to actually work on a set. It is absolutely crucial to get as much done as possible during pre-production. The time on a set is extremely important and, even though we did plenty of preparation in the pre-production phase, including rehearsals with actors, we still struggled to convey the whole story during the time we had on a set.
Eastern is your feature debut. What is the most valuable lesson you learned while working on your directorial debut and is there anything you would have done differently?
I’d say you shouldn’t expect too much because you’ll be disappointed. It was a valuable lesson. Especially when you work on your first feature you might think you are almost making a Hollywood movie and that you can make something that others could not. Then you quickly start to see that film language is extremely complex and complicated. Everything should work out on almost every level if you want to have a film that is accomplished. It was my first big project. My previous film was 30min short shot in just one location in the art gallery. Eastern on the other hand was a full cinematic challenge. There was a unique challenge at every step. When during writing, shooting, and editing you begin to believe that things look good, you should add another 30% of your energy to have the results that you really want. It’s very easy to become lost in a process and lose clarity. In my case, it could be also a lack of experience.
What did you find most challenging about filmmaking?
The writing was a huge challenge for me. It is not even about writing a great dialog as you can develop dialog with actors on a set. But the conflict and tension must be ingrained in scenes from the outset and it must exist in a screenplay already. Some directors can improvise on a set and it goes well but I believe that if the script is good it is more likely that the film will work out in the end. That is where the huge challenge lies and during the production, it is money and time. People working on a set are usually passionate and dedicated so it’s easy to manage that part, but you really do need a good script and money.
Script and well-told story are undoubtedly half of the success the other half is how you translate that story into screen. Werner Herzog in one of his interviews said that it should not take longer than a week to write a script. Did it take you longer?
Not much longer. It took us less than a month. I do not agree with this kind of rules and that is why I do not like to listen to all those masters of cinema. There are scripts that you can write within a week but there are also brilliant scripts written over the years. Instead of listening to these principles, you should really listen to yourself. I think we live in a culture and times when the real challenge is not to be repetitive. We have seen so much and so much has been done that not to be repetitive you have to connect with yourself and reject all these rules and ideas. To create something original, you must find your own method. I think there are two possibilities here, you can copy which is not good, or you can steal which is ok. But if you steal you have to make it better and make sure that stealing doesn’t become copying in the end.
What were your cinematic influences when making Eastern?
Well, they say I stole from Yorgos Lanthimos. We actually did not think about his films, but I understand that if you create a strong concept of a hybrid world this kind of association might come to mind since that is what he does. To me, this is a very natural way of thinking that comes from my visual art background. That is how I constructed my artworks and then it turned out that my film brings to mind Lanthimos’s films.
Could you tell us about your future filmmaking plans?
I am in the middle of writing a script about the first Polish settlement in the United States. The place was called Virgin Mary and was set up in the 19th century in Texas. It is going to be a story of Polish villeins who have just got away from a feudal service. They still have the feudal mentality, and they embark on a journey to set up this wonderful new world in America. The story and characters are fictional, but the time in history and place are real.