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Oscars 2015: 'Ida' filmmaker auditioned 400 actresses before finding his star in a Warsaw cafe

Agata Trzebuchowska stars in Pawel Pawlikowski's,
Agata Trzebuchowska stars in Pawel Pawlikowski's, "Ida."
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Agata Trzebuchowska stars in Pawel Pawlikowski's,
Pawel Pawlikowski, director of "Ida."
Music Box Films
Agata Trzebuchowska stars in Pawel Pawlikowski's,
Agata Trzebuchowska stars in Pawel Pawlikowski's "Ida."
Music Box Films

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Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski has spent most of his professional life working in the United Kingdom, but he’s always wanted to direct a film set in his home country.

The realization of that lifelong goal is “Ida,” his latest and perhaps most critically-lauded film of his career. The film, which follows an aspiring 18-year-old Polish nun on a journey of self discovery, is up for two Academy Awards, one for best foreign language film and one for cinematography.

In the film, the titular character discovers that she is actually Jewish and that her parents were murdered during World War II. She sets off on a quest with an aunt to find where her parents are buried and to discover the truth about her own identity.

Pawlikowski stopped by The Frame's studio recently and spoke with host John Horn about his unique method of filmmaking, the struggle to get "Ida" made and how he discovered the star of his film. 

Interview Highlights:

Most films are well-planned and scripted down to the most minute detail. But you have a different way of working. Can you describe your filmmaking process?

I'd love to work from a 25-page treatment, where I just get the story, write some scenes, the characters, and then try to mix reality with literature in an organic way. So in the case of "Ida," we managed to scrape together 64 pages, which is a bit skimpy, while knowing I'm going to lose half of the scenes in the process and while doing my own kind of thing. The writing never stops — that's the truth of it. I kind of start with a primordial soup of ideas. And with "Ida," it was eight years ago. Then you start the process of actually building the film, finding locations, taking photographs, finding the actors, rehearsing a bit. And then I keep writing, rewriting, and I still do it while I'm shooting the film, sadly. 

You said at a lecture at a film school: "The film I wanted to make was less a story and more of a meditation." What does that mean to your mind? 

What I enjoy in cinema these days — I enjoy a good story of course, but I love films which create a world which allows you to imagine things, which allows you to fill in the gaps, which suggests rather than tell you stuff. So, I wanted this to be one of those films that I actually personally enjoy watching, a film that we don't feel the buttons being pressed, a narrative device is being planted, where everything just happens magically in front of you for the first time. So the viewer doesn't think, What next? What next? — but they [are] kind of totally inside it and experience it as a present tense all the time.

We would assume wrongly in the States that in Europe and in Poland, the idea of making a movie that's in black-and-white, in Polish, with unknown actors, about the Holocaust is easy. But not so much, correct? 

No, it was a bit of a nightmare. There was this public funding in Poland, which was a good starting point. The film wasn't very expensive — it was like $1.8 million. I have a track record with some films that made some money or pay their money back. So, it was a slow process, but in the end we got there. And in fact, we kind of started the film without having the budget in place. We [were] just hoping for the best, that things would fall into place while we're doing it, and that's what happened. 

The opening scene is three women in a convent working with a statue of Christ. Can you talk about how that shot came together and whether it was planned or discovered during filming?

That's my process. I always leave certain space for the poetry to occur — to occur to me or to occur in reality. So, the film opens with something rather generic — scenes of life in the convent. And I always knew they were very perfunctory, it's just a way of starting the film, they weren't really brilliant. While preparing the design in the convent, I saw my production designer touching up the face of the statute of Jesus and she got totally rapt in the process of touching up Jesus' face. And she looked so in love and caring that I thought this is a much stronger opening image for the film. So I had Ida do exactly the same. But that's the kind of beauty of working in a slightly loose, intuitive way — creating a certain situation, location, set-up, where you can still scope within what's there. And I always try to give myself the chance to do that. 

You are Polish born and yet this is the first narrative feature that you shot in Poland, correct?

I am Polish, not just Polish born. But yes, I've lived most of my life in Britain. It has something to do with the fact that I'm in my 50s. I started to kind of wonder who I am and where I'm from. And I also just wanted to go back, not just to Poland, but in time to the early '60s. And I saw the world was different, more simpler, less crammed and less heavy with information and stuff. 

One of your principal collaborators is the actress who plays Ida. Can you talk a little bit about where you found her and why she was the right person to play this part?

Ida is played by Agata Trzebuchowska, who is a student at Warsaw University. I found her after looking for months and months among professional actresses and we auditioned like 400 for the part and I didn't believe in any of them. It was really difficult. I knew I was in trouble. And I knew this character was sketchy on paper, but we found Agata in a cafe just downstairs from where I live in Warsaw, reading a book and minding her own business. And she didn't want to act. She was very surprised.

How do you begin that conversation. You go up and say, "I'm a film director, I've been admiring you." That seems like an awkward conversation to initiate. 

She disappeared by the time we wanted to talk to her, so we had to find her [via] the barman. But she had seen my films, so she was curious and I kind of pushed her into an audition situation. She was great. She was also interested in the film and she was very bright about it. She asked all the right questions, she had the right qualities, so the whole thing was another happy accident, another miracle. 

Ida is one of the most critically-acclaimed films in the world right now. When you're making a film do you know you're making something that might connect to people?

I knew we were making something special because there was a kind of courage about the whole thing. The crew was really excited about the way I was working, that it wasn't just doing it by numbers. But the reason why I was so free with it — framing, with the acting, with obliqueness — the whole thing was under the assumption that the film has absolutely no commercial hope at all. That it's a Polish film with unknown actors that was fantastically liberating and we can just get away with anything. The idea of Oscars and all that was the last thing on our minds, it felt like the opposite of an Oscar-winning film. I knew it would be a film that I might enjoy, and a lot of my friends [would also]. But that it might actually connect with audiences and people [would] pay to buy tickets — I wasn't sure about that at all. Miracles happen occasionally. 

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