I’ve never ran as fast as Usain Bolt until I was told that I would be conducting a 1:1 interview with Jan P. Matuszyński, a Polish filmmaker and producer, responsible for films such as The Last Family (2016) and Deep Love (2013) at the BFI London Film Festival.
After months of not being able to attend film festivals, the British capital has finally been blessed with its first physically organised event. Although I would have liked there to have been more Asian and Eastern European films on the menu, the festival was filled with an exciting programme regardless, like Matuszyński’s latest work, Leave No Traces. The film is a truly heart-rending and profound story of a 19-year-old high school graduate, Grzegorz, who dies after being beaten up by the Civilians’ Militia in 1983 communist Poland, and the aftermath.
Truth be told, I have never been the most confident person when it comes to conducting face-to-face interviews as you never know what sort of person you might meet prior to the conversation. However, when I arrived at the Mayfair hotel in London, I was greeted by Matuszyński himself. Although very tired, the director’s politeness made the whole interview worthwhile, and knowing that Matuszyński comes from the same region in Poland as I do made the meeting into something even more exciting.
Image © La Biennale di Venezia – Foto ASAC/G. Zucchiatti
Before starting the interview, I just had to say what I thought of the film, I had to let go of all the emotions trapped in me. “I am glad you liked the film,” Matuszyński smiles while trying to sit on the highest chair at the Mayfair’s restaurant. We are speaking over sparkling water – because that is how professionals work – and I began our conversation by asking the director about the creative process behind the script, his work with the writer, Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk, and how the project came to life.
“Well, you know, in the filmmaking process, creative differences will occur, that’s a part of the job. When you make a film, it’s not a one-man job, but it is a cooperation [with other people]. Sometimes, it is a burden but it’s mainly the beauty [of filmmaking],” the director admits. “Leave No Traces is an adaptation of Cezary Łazarewicz’s reportage and that was the spine of the whole narrative structure. I met Kaja a couple of years back when we were working together on a TV series that wasn’t produced and [at that time] I already knew that Kaja was a good person to talk to about the script.”
After approaching Krawczyk-Wnuk and having several meetings with Cezary and film producers, the process began: “[Kaja] wrote the treatment, and then we discussed the prospective and videos. She later took everything with her, including the archives.”
“But then she didn’t respond to my messages for like 9 months. Although, she did tell me it would be like this. I don’t work like that myself, but again, everyone has their own way of working,” Matuszyński says with a chuckle. Even though the wait was excruciating, it was worth it in the end. “When we received her first draft, we all liked it straight away, it was really good.”
Image © Aurum Films
Writing a script is a long process and a scriptwriter often goes through dozens or more drafts, but after 4 or 5 drafts [the director couldn’t recall the exact number], and with only minimal changes done by Matuszyński, Leave No Traces was done on paper. Though the director adds that there was a lot of work with “the structure of the storyline,”and he adds: “But, now that I am thinking of it, it was done fast for such a massive story.”
Matuszyński often says that the film was made out of fear, but while we speak he admits it isn’t something he’s willing to discuss further: “I don’t want to point out any specific things, I think the film should speak for itself. [But that said] when I was reading the book for the first time I had this strange feeling, not a good one. The story that happened in 1983 sounds very similar to the things that I see around me: the feeling of oppression. Not only in Poland, but around the world.”
“Even when I was working with Ibrahim Maalouf [the film’s composer] on the film, I wanted to underline that oppression.”
Sitting in a busy restaurant, surrounded by a very loud crowd, our conversation has quickly turned into a very relaxed chat rather than an interview. In between questions, we chatted about our cities, how they have changed over the years, particularly after communism collapsed. There is something about our generation that still thinks closely about those times, even though we were just children in the 1980s.
Image © Aurum Films
The director is very candid about how he felt during the making of the film, the fear of filming it and the thought of not being able to release it, fortunately, Matuszyński finally found some relief when the Venice Film Festival invited Leave No Traces to be screened in the Competition. However, after everything that the filmmaker experienced, he admits: “My next project will not be that politically related.”
Leave No Traces consist of well-established actors, including Agnieszka Grochowska, Robert Wieckiewicz, Tomasz Kot as well as Tomasz Zietek, and new talent – Mateusz Górski.
While the character of Grzegorz is the subject of the film, Jurek somewhat becomes the protagonist, but this can be interpreted differently depending on how you watch Leave No Traces.
“[It’s] interesting what you are saying,” says Matuszyński. He carries on: “I was thinking, maybe Barbara, Grzegorz’s mother, should be the main character in the film. But, quite quickly, we realised – me, the producer and the script writer – that she is a passive character and that she doesn’t have enough good potential to be the protagonist. For me, the most important thing was to show the whole case, with all those layers and the different plots that are in the film. Jurek was a good way to show it all, however, he is not the main character, he is an eyewitness, a viewer.”
“Also, I was questioning myself about what is most important in the story, then I realised, it is injustice and other issues.”
In the book, you have three different descriptions of what happened on that day in 1983. You see different moments coming, it’s like some sort of puzzle. You have one event, but that event can have different outcomes. It is like Matuszyński says: “The big question about the story is who killed Grzegorz? What killed the student? Which moment of that incident caused the boy’s death? The situation at the police station was quite complicated, he got beaten up, taken to one hospital, then he came back home, then he went to another hospital, but it was already too late for Grzegorz.”
“That is what I like about films and filmmaking, it’s vital to see those different elements as they arise questions worth looking for answers to.”
Matuszyński describes his latest project passionately. And when we got to the part of discussing Tomasz Zietek’s character, he truly lit up.
“Some characters are real, some had to be slightly taken away from their exact description, as it was very hard to bring them to life. Some of those who lived through the events of 1983 are still alive, and not all were willing to tell their story, including the character of Jurek [the student’s name was changed in the film]. So, when I spoke to Tomasz about how I would approach Jurek’s persona, he was really relieved that it wasn’t the direct portrayal of the student,” says Matuszyński. “We rehearsed a lot with Tomasz, reading every line of the script, he liked to analyse everything. Not necessarily when it comes to acting but when it comes to lines in the script.”
“I don’t like to rehearse acting – I just don’t do that. I don’t see the point in it, I leave all the emotions for the set. So, it was a wonderful cooperation and Tomasz was superb. If I have new material suitable for him, I would definitely like to work with him again.”
Image © New Europe Film Sales
While chatting about actors and the creative process behind the film, I admit I am always curious about the technical side of filmmaking such as cinematography and editing. Matuszyński handed over the cinematography to Kacper Fertacz and the editing to Przemek Chruścielewski.
“Ahh, Kacper,” Matuszyński laughs. “We have known each other for over 14 years and I’ve done most of my projects with Kacper. We really work well together; with regards to Leave No Traces, we prepared a lot, we made a storyboard and a photo board to capture all of our ideas. It is crucial for the director and cinematographer to have a good partnership; with all your crew for that matter,” the director admits. Then, with a big smile on his face, he confesses that “Kacper is a very important person in the creative process, he is not afraid of telling me that he doesn’t agree with me when things are not the way they should be. It is a wonderful creative collaboration, and I feel comfortable with him. He also has a great technical background, in terms of post-production as well. He is very conscious about the things that he is able to do.”
Funny enough, after all that praise, Matuszyński revealed that he and Kacper actually studied together at Katowice Film School, where they studied editing. “We did our own editing in our first and second year of studying, he was always somewhere in the background advising on editing. We did documentaries together, commercial videos and music videos.” And here comes a professional bromance… like Spielberg and Kamiński.
When it comes to editing, Matuszyński is one of those directors who likes to stay in the room and follow the process of editing. Editing for the filmmaker is a collaboration on a daily basis: “Even though I haven’t known Przemek as long as I have known Kacper, working with Przemek was good, however, the whole editing process was one of the hardest I experienced.”
Although Matuszyński wishes to make a less political film next time, he jokes that he said the same thing after making The Last Family. Now, with Leave No Traces being produced for the small screen as a TV series, one can only hope there will one day be even more developed stories about the tragic events of May 12, 1983.
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Featured image © Marek Wesolowski
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