Between Order and Chaos: An Interview with Jerzy Skolimowski on 11 Minutes
By Amir Ganjavie.
An out-of-control jealous husband, his sexy performer wife, an immoral Hollywood director, a careless drug messenger, a perplexed young woman, an ex-con hot dog seller, a struggling student on a obscure mission, an elderly sketch artist, a hectic paramedic team, a high-rise window cleaner on an illicit break, and a group of hungry nuns all make appearances as characters in 11 Minutes, the lastest work of the polish master Jerzy Skolimowski (who debuted in feature filmmaking as a writer on Polanski’s Knife in the Water in 1962). Together, the stories of 11 Minutes form a network of contemporary urbanites whose lives and loves intertwine in a risky world where anything might happen at any time. What follows is an interview with the director following the screening of 11 Minutes at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Is there any relationship between this movie and the 9/11 terrorist attacks? I ask because of the emphasis on the number 11: the title of movie is 11 Minutes, the sleazy Hollywood director who wants to seduce a married woman lives in the 11th floor, and there is an airplane that appears to hit a tower.
No, the movie doesn’t relate to the event of 9/11. It uses the common images of representing the danger of modern life. This is not a reference to the specifics events with the twin towers. I only wanted to create a certain atmosphere.
So, why did you choose the number 11?
Pure mathematical calculation. When I decided, it all started with the finale in mind. That was the first thing I had in my mind. I didn’t know the characters, I didn’t know the place, nothing, just the disaster, the avalanche, and I worked backwards. There were people coming from different parts of town to this very place at that very moment. So I started to create the characters – courier, the painter, all of that. Then I started to count them and ask myself how many stories of several minutes I should have because I knew that I should limit myself to anything between 10 to 15 minutes. I thought to myself, shall I tell six stories of 15 minutes or shall I tell 10 stories of 10 minutes? Then I thought, what’s the nicest number? Ten is too rounded, 12 is associated with the 12 twelve apostles, and 13 is an unlucky number. So I thought 11 is a very nice number, aesthetically speaking. Also, at that moment I had 8 stories so I counted 8 times 11 minutes – 88 minutes plus the finale would be perfect for the film.
You mentioned the dangers of modern life. What exactly did you mean by that?
It referred to everything. I think we live in a dangerous period. Politically speaking, it’s explosive. Just think of the immigration of such a number of people. It’s all very, very uncertain and I am not hesitating to use the word dangerous. I think the world is heading towards some kind of catastrophe. This is why this film is maybe a little bit of metaphor for heading towards catastrophe. In a very unexpected way you never know what will happen. The unexpected is just around the corner. We walk towards the edge of the abyss between order and chaos. Around every corner lurks the unforeseen, the unimaginable. Nothing is certain – the next day, the next hour, or even the next minute. Everything could end abruptly, in the least expected way.
You shot the opening sequence using common tools: a phone camera, a computer camera, and a closed-circuit camera. Can you say more about this?
I just thought that they might help the audience to get more involved in the characters they will meet very briefly because the maximum time of watching a certain character would be 11 minutes. Really, there is not much to learn about it. I thought that I should give little hints in the prologue for at least a few of the most important characters. For example, have to learn that the hot dog seller is not a real hot dog seller but that he is probably a teacher who committed some crime like molesting a young girl and so he therefore went to prison and now he is selling hot dogs. How ironic that he then meets one of his pupils on the street and she spits in his face. You know, little things like 30 seconds of prologue pay off and that half a minute of the young girl spitting in the guy’s face says, “You’re out of jail now, professor?” In order to build those few characters like the husband, wife, director, hot dog seller, and the boy, I had to use this whole prologue of only four minutes but that makes it different from the film which is shot beautifully on the widescreen. I wanted to make it as casual as possible so this is why we used the phone camera, the CCTV camera, and Skype on a laptop. With the existence of social media everywhere today we could say that a significant portion of our afterlife is realized in the form of photographs or video footage existing independently in cyberspace.
Given what you have just said, it appears that new technology has value for you and you are very open to using it.
No, whatever can create the image is valuable. We are used to some out-of-focus things, some accidental shots. They have the energy; they have the national impact of something real. I’m completely free to use anything.
This is a type of network story. Here different stories somehow relate to each other, especially through a central accident that later brings together these stories. In your network story some of the stories are more appealing, such as that about the director, husband, and wife, but other stories are less developed. How did you find the experience of working with so many stories?
First of all, it’s extremely difficult to tell the story, which takes place in only 11 minutes. Secondly, I didn’t want to have all the stories be of equal importance. That would be like a little bit of artificial conception to say that everything is so important. I thought that some of them could be even a little bit boring. I wanted to give the full palette of society ranging more or less from the richest, such as the Hollywood film director staying in the penthouse of the luxurious hotel, to the poor dying man and the woman giving birth in a shabby flat somewhere. So it’s the whole palette – the nuns, the climber who cannot make money out of climbing and has to earn money doing some jobs on the platform of the hotel. Not everything should be equal since if I put as much intensity into all of the stories as I did for the husband, wife, and director then we would be constantly attacked and it might be too much. So I needed to balance it.
Did any specific films inspire you? Or have you tried to somehow differentiate your work from the body of films that we can call network stories?
Some people mentioned other films which I had never seen. The journalists who interviewed me asked, “Did you have this in mind or have you seen this film?” Most of it I haven’t seen since I’m not a big film watcher, you know. I rarely see movies. I must be honest. I am not film buff. Consider the fact that I am a painter and that’s my original interest so I still much prefer to paint than to make movies. I also much prefer to go to an exhibition of paintings than to go to the cinema and watch somebody else’s film. I would say that if I watch maybe ten films in a year, that will be terrific. But that means I’m very selective and simply don’t know many of films that are mentioned to me.
But did you study or did you conduct research for this type of screenwriting to create a network story?
No, I rarely study. Look, once I had the idea for the finale, I just knew that my task was. So then I had to figure out, who are the people? I had to create them here in order at the beginning. It was purely mechanical work. Okay, I go to selection of, I don’t know, 8, 10, 12 characters. Alright, how to play them? What should be the way they come to this very place? It was purely technical so I didn’t need to study how other people did it. I know that the formula is not new, of course. I didn’t discover anything but some people mentioned that it was never done this way but I didn’t make any theoretical preparations for the work.
In this type of network movie, you have very limited access to the actors in the sense that they play for just a few minutes. So it’s not like a whole movie in which you can understand your actors and convey to them exactly what you want. For only few minutes on screen they do not need to spend lots of time with the production team. Does this create a problem in your relationship with the actors compared to your previous works where the actors were more accessible?
No, I told them and I encouraged them to ask me any questions they wanted about their characters. For example, the actor playing the husband asked me: Am I a rich man? I said well you live in a rather pleasant apartment. Then he asked, but was the apartment bought with my money or was it with the wife’s money? And my answer was, I think it was bought with your money but of course she contributed as well. Questions like this show that actors want to know where they are. Although we don’t see it on the screen we know that it is important for them to understand the character. The director must answer what are sometimes silly questions from the actors. That’s a basic part of the job.
One of the shocking scenes in Essential Killing (2010) is when the Afghan soldier (Vincent Gallo) approaches the lone women in the forest. We think that he wants to rape her but we realize no, he’s here to suck her breast and be fed. So, you play with sexuality but displace it with other things. We have the same mechanism here in 11 Minutes where we see a man and woman watching a porn film when suddenly a pigeon breaks the window. How do you get inspiration for such absurd scenes?
I’m always keen on catching situations which are a little bit absurd as well as having a double meaning and being elusive or ambiguous. I think it is always good when you play with something not so obvious. So those are the results you mentioned. In 11 Minutes, which is a rather somber film, we have such funny moments everywhere. For example, the director asks the recently married women, “Oh, so you got married yesterday? And since yesterday, you have been a faithful wife?” You know, it’s a funny line. I always bring the light moments to even the darkest films.
You collaborated once again with Pawel Mykietyn on music for the film. What makes him so interesting for you?
Pawel Mykietyn is a classical composer and we understand each other so there no need for much talking. He looks at the image and he understands what I have in mind. Then the next thing you know you’re recording. Pawel is just simply a great, great, great composer and he helps the film tremendously.
Where did you shoot the movie?
We shot 11 Minutes primarily in Warsaw plus a week of shooting on the soundstage in Dublin and another week on the soundstage at Alvernia Studios near Cracow. As for the central accident location in Warsaw, we chose Plac Grzybowski because it provided the most jarring contrast between the old and the new, between order and chaos, the beautiful and the ugly. I hope the location somehow conveys the experience of a jagged, dynamic crossroads.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.