Director Pawel Pawlikowski on His Oscar-Nominated Film Ida and Shooting in Black and White

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Photo: Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty

This morning, Ida, last year's critically acclaimed black-and-white film about a young woman training to be a nun in 1960s Poland, received nominations for Best Foreign Film, and, in a pleasant surprise, Best Cinematography. (It's streaming on Netflix right now, and you should definitely watch it.) We spoke with director Pawel Pawlikowski (prior to the nominations) about choosing not to shoot in color and the film's memorable lack of camera movement.

You’ve worked for most of your career in the U.K. What was at the heart of your decision to shoot a film in Poland?
Usually, it’s a question of where I am in my head. And in my 50s, I certainly felt a desire to go back into the past and to view the things that were the basis of my life. So, the early '60s Poland — it’s not about language and stuff for me. Poland in that time was the best territory to explore certain issues of faith, identity, individual guilt, and the human soul. It’s just a perfect location, and it’s also a world [that] I thought about a lot and imagined a lot, and it suddenly became very compulsive that I do it. 

Your use of black and white is interesting. At first, the film feels so austere. It speaks to a kind of repression. But then, as it proceeds, the film becomes much more sensuous, and the black-and-white enhances that, too. There’s this very textured quality to those scenes with the pop songs.
There were many reasons I used black and white. You mentioned one or two of them. It’s austere, but not an oppressive kind of austerity. You just have to strip things down, the essentials. It wasn’t just [the use of] black and white but [also removing] unnecessary props and film extras. Just focusing on a few elements really thoroughly, and just reducing the number of things. But also I find black and white really cool, really sexy, so to speak. There are other reasons. I remember that time in black and white. I think people of my generation all do. The albums, photographs, from that year are all black and white. I imagined it in black and white, so there wasn’t any question about whether to do it [in] black and white. But also, that desire to make a film that floats above reality a bit, that’s a little bit abstract and a little bit timeless. If you want meditation in a story, black and white helps with that if you use it in a certain way. You certainly can’t use black and white by just switching off the color. I decided to make the most of black and white, and use the costumes for that, and the kind of color scheme that’s behind the black and white is also important, as well as the lighting arrangement.

Watching the film, I remember thinking that if you showed me this film without any context, I couldn’t tell you when it was made.
Yeah. Although, people who lived in that time, they can tell because of the look. But you know that some people get obsessed with all sorts of detail to authenticate a time period. I wouldn’t waste any time on that. I just wanted key things in the frame, which are kind of of the period but also universally resonant. 

Was it difficult making this film? Shooting in Poland, tackling these subjects, shooting in black and white?
Well, black and white isn’t really commercial. People run away when they hear you want to do it in black and white. And we already had a film that’s in Polish, which usually just kind of undermines all commercial goals. And we had unknown actors. The lead actress has never acted in her life in that world. Thematically, it’s not a problem at all. On the contrary, there have been quite a few things made in a similar area. They’re very different films, but the Polish/Jewish relations and the guilt of Poles, of certain Poles, during the Second World War — you know, there’s been a whole wave of stuff, much of it quite crude, rhetorical and breast-beating and almost like a horror movie, you know. What I have done is try not [to] make such a film. 

There are several issues in this film if you want to talk of issues, but I didn’t want to make an issue film at all. We wanted to lift it to a level of reflection on guilt in life, on forgiveness, too. On the paradoxes of one’s soul, or paradoxes of history, on the tragedy of it all, and redemption. So I didn’t treat it as an illustration, or a theory that explains history. That’s not what I’m good at, as far as I’m concerned. If I wanted to do that, I would have written a historical book or an essay or something. Paradoxically, it’s these films that don’t treat subjects as issues that actually are illuminating about these issues. If I can see I’m being taught a lesson ... it emotionally leaves me cold. But if you show a historical moment through complicated characters who all have their demons and paradoxes, I just feel that this is how life is. Suddenly, the drama hits me even harder. 

Let’s talk about Ida for a second, or, rather, the actress who plays her, Agata Trzebuchowska. This is her first film, right?
She was just sitting in a café downstairs from where I live, but I found her after months and months of looking all over among professional actors and drama students. And in the end, I asked all my friends to look for just anyone. They couldn’t find the right actress. It’s a very specific character that’s kind of difficult to perform if you don’t have that quality. She felt timeless and she felt grounded. She’s one of these people who can really observe without talking. Speak only when she has thought about what she can say. I wouldn’t have started the film without being convinced that I’d gotten at the center of that character, although she’s not the one who’s driving the story. The one who is driving the story is Wanda, but I needed both of them to be spot-on for the film to work.

How did you work with two such diverse actors? How involved are you as a director of actors?
I’m totally involved, but not as a puppeteer. I’m just trying to get them involved and just create the kind of magic circle where we’re all sculpting the thing together. And both of them are very intelligent at the starting point and not vain. Bright. They ask the right questions. I don’t know what directing actors is all about apart from just casting well and then shaping their performances a bit, you know. So, with Agata Kulesza, who plays Wanda, because she’s got a lot of energy and a lot of strength, I just had to kind of channel that here and there, and add things or subtract things more often. With Ida, Agata Trzebuchowska, I had to sort of do the opposite sometimes. But it wasn’t a problem. I was rewriting the script all the time anyways, so I had to have them really close to me not to go crazy. It wasn’t like a normal film, where you have a script and the actors act out the script, you know? They knew that they’re in some kind of weird documentary with me about this situation and I’m molding it as I go along, and they were happy with that. 

I also imagine that the location figured into this a lot. I think the film has remarkable location work. The milieu is both in the city and in the rural areas of the town. Was that a challenge, finding these locales?
Not a huge challenge. Nothing that can’t be solved with a lot of driving around and spending time. It was months and months of driving and crisscrossing Poland and looking for these visual elements. And we shot it in three different areas of Poland, which for a small-budget film was a bit of a stretch. I think we only constructed like one location. But otherwise, it was sort of ready-made things that were stylized and improved, which, of course, changes a lot. It’s a very colorful, lively, capitalist little country. There’s a lot of adverts everywhere, and colors. It was difficult to unearth this Poland from the '60s. 

When he was giving you the New York Film Critics Circle award earlier this month, Paul Schrader said something interesting. "It takes a lot of guts not to move a camera." And I wanted to ask you: Did it take a lot of guts not to move the camera? Were you tempted ever to kind of go for, let’s say, for lack of a better word, easier emotions? Or was that just kind of an intuitive thing on your part?
It was intuitive, but at some point you think, Oh God, we’re pushing it a bit. It did feel kind of absurd at times not moving it. In these things, you have to stick to your guns, and then, even if that doesn’t work, at least you stuck to your guns. It is like quoting Churchill to myself. During the war, Churchill said, "If you’re going to hell, keep going." A bit like that. It was all kind of difficult to direct for me without the camera to move, so both actors have to be good at the same time, and there’s no way to cut your way out of trouble. You knew everything had to be spot-on with every take. So that was tricky, but at the same time, exciting. It’s got a sense of danger. It could all go horribly wrong. And that adds a little bit to the general excitement.

You’re now at this point where you made films in Britain that were very, very widely acclaimed. Ida has been a remarkable success. You mentioned that you’ve moved to Warsaw, but I’m curious. It seems like you’re kind of at that point where you could potentially do anything. What do you do?
I always do what’s in my mind at any given time. I never had an idea of a career. So I live for a while, and I kind of write as I live, and usually just [work on] three stories at the same time. And none of them work for a while. So I’m kind of moving from one to the next. And I live. Read a lot, travel, have family. For me, filmmaking is not exactly a career. I was never in it for Hollywood or anything. My films are markers of where I am in life, where I am in my head. So that’s what I'm working on, and I try to keep things in proportion — life and filmmaking. One feeds into the other.