Interview with Director Maciej Kawalski: “I hoped to make a film which would make people laugh, but which would also leave a reflection behind, something to ponder”

The comedic short film Atlas was written and directed by Polish filmmaker Maciej Kawalski. After having a busy festival run with over 10 appearances, the quirky film walked away with the first prize in shorts at the Bermuda International Film Festival amongst others. In this interview Kawalski gives insight into the real life story that inspired Atlas, his experience working with actors and future projects in the pipeline after the success of this short.

What was your inspiration?

I wrote Atlas as a submission piece to get accepted into film school. At the time I had been studying Medicine and had a course in Clinical Psychiatry. It involved shifts in real hospitals, meeting actual patients and there I met a man who became my inspiration for the entire film. It was a catatonic patient who didn’t move nor speak, but spent his entire days standing upright. Nobody knew why he did that.

What fascinated me was how drawn people were to fill the gaps in his story. After a week or so after his admission, the other patients, the medical personnel, and the students all started to spread ‘informed gossip’ about him. It was as if people could not stand someone being a blank page, and since he didn’t write up his, people invented it.

It was both funny and thought provoking to see how flimsy the structure of our identity is — it’s just a story we tell ourselves, or which others tell about us.

In the course of writing the script, I started with playing around the real-life scenes I had experienced, the snippets of dialogue I had heard, and then remodelled these to a larger-than-life version.

Secondly, ‘Candide’ by Voltaire was a strong influence on me. That little book was a life-altering experience for me. It changed my perspective on the stories by which we explain our lives to ourselves. Never before have I encountered something as deep and philosophical which would at the same time be so funny. A marvel little piece!

When writing the script, what was your overall goal for this film?

I was always attracted to comedy, so first of all I wanted it to be funny, but not dumb-funny. Rather a sort of smart-funny, which in terms of literature would be Kurt-Vonnegut-funny for me. I hoped to make a film which would make people laugh, but which would also leave a reflection behind, something to ponder.

I wanted to make a film about getting unstuck. I believe we all need to get unblocked from out internal limitations from time to time, and to me Atlas was such an influence.

Do you think this story is important in 2019? Why?

Universal stories don’t go out of date and I believe Atlas, though a funny little piece, has touched on the universal theme of identity and health.

We’re in 2019 at the moment, and it is now easier than ever to get swept away by other people’s story; to have our identity hijacked by other people’s preconceived ideas about us. To get put into a box, without anyone ever asking whether we like it or not. Whether it’s the right box. That was always the case, but the tools to make it happen as fast as nowadays didn’t exist previously.

To me, Atlas is a story about reclaiming your identity. About finding the courage to drop the burden of other people’s notions of you and to make your story your own; to stand your ground.

This is a matter of life and non-existence. A matter of being true to your own path, or having your path formed by outside circumstances, without initiative or agency.

Nowhere is it more true than in mental patients, who are the least likely to defend their own story. But it doesn’t stop there. I believe it is a challenge we all face.

Atlas is a comedy, and it deals with the issue in an oblique, humorous way, but I believe its core message comes across despite (and perhaps ‘thanks to’) its playful approach.

When we finally muster the grit to make our story our own, the effects can be seismic — but nothing shakes things up better than a good earthquake.

How do you think the actors influenced the film?

The actors breathed life into this story in ways I wouldn’t be able to think up alone. We discussed the characters they were to create, but they took them and made them their own. What I find particularly striking on set is how interconnected all performances are — if one actor finds a strong interpretation to the role it immediately spreads across the set and influences other roles as well. It was incredibly gratifying to see.

So the main thing the actors did was they took my crazy script and made it real. They made all the crazy characters real and that made it both funnier and more striking.

Did you have any fears while making the film? If so, what were they and why?

Filming the final sequence was particularity trying and this is when I had to conquer the fear that the film will not come together after all this effort.

Shooting groups scenes with over twenty actors is always a challenge, and in this instance we had a single short winter day to accomplish it, and no means whatsoever to re-shoot it if it went south. That was an exercise in not cracking under pressure! Throughout the day I was afraid we won’t film all the material planned for it. There was a lot of coverage to cover, a lot of dialogue, a lot of action. So my first fear was of not making it at all.

Then I had another doubt if working under these conditions will we be able to make it funny and light. I was sure the climactic sequence has to be charged with humor, but under the time pressure and the bitter cold nobody felt like laughing. I was afraid even if we film it the humor won’t work.

You cannot imagine my relief in the editing room when the editor, Marek, started laughing watching the raw footage! It was like receiving a ‘get out of jail’ card in Monopoly when you were five.

What did you enjoy the most whilst making this film?

I love the entire process of making a movie! It’s like playing an adventure game with each level being completely different, but always challenging and rewarding (if you finish it). To that end I enjoy the months spent on screenwriting, when I can work around my schedule, quiet down internally and focus on writing.

But after some time and some drafts I start to long for a change and then moving on to the pre-production feels like a gust of fresh air.

The filming itself is my favourite part (as probably of the majority of directors). Nowhere else do I feel so alive and energised as on a movie set!

In this particular film I loved the making of the flashback scenes. They were done in the most unassuming of places, but somehow, thanks to the magic of cinema, came to look really cinematic. It was a joy to see how the real and quite dull place get transformed on the screen into something mysterious and appealing.

Despite the darn cold, I enjoyed shooting in the ancient monastery, as it gave the entire endeavour an eerie and magical air. Particularly when filming in the chapel, I had moments when I forgot I am on a movie set and felt like I was inside the story altogether. An ultimate VR if you will!

And then, when the post-production strikes it feels like a cool-down after a difficult training. It’s not as exciting as the movie set, but can be equally rewarding in a quiet way.

It feels that the making of every movie is a Cambellian Hero’s Journey, altogether with allies, setbacks, monsters and magic solutions.

Were there any difficulties you’ve experienced whilst making this film? If so, what were they?

The entire filming of ‘Atlas’ was extremely tough. For starters, it took place in an unheated XII century monastery in the late Winter. Short days and biting cold. Thick stone walls and four-meter high ceilings, which made any attempts to heat up the place useless. The place had this eerie cold about it which could get to your bones through four winter jackets. That, in an of itself, made the filming a sort of Navy Seals ‘Hell Week,’ filmmakers edition.

The first and major difficulty was to stay focused while shivering. So on top of your normal struggle to make a film you’ve got the physical challenge of lugging around three layers of heavy clothes and still being cold. After a couple of days it made everything twice as difficult. It was like wading knee deep in mud. It’s hard to stay fresh and inspired in such conditions.

How was the film financed?

The film was financed through the Thirty Minutes program run by Munk Studio. An invaluable experience financed by Polish Filmmakers Association and Polish Film Institute.

This program makes it possible for young filmmakers to create a mid-range film — a sort of stepping stone between film school shorts and making their first feature length film.

At some point, however, our production encountered an unforeseen budget shortage and two weeks before shooting we weren’t certain if the film would get made after all. This is when an entrepreneur and former senator, Tomasz Misiak, stepped in and saved our production. I am so grateful for his help in that crucial moment!

What message would you like your viewers to take from this film?

Don’t be afraid to shake things up.

What other projects are you working on?

I usually write a couple screenplays sort of in the same time. I would dabble in one for a couple of weeks and then move to another while the draft of that earlier things matures in my cupboard. So I have a few in that fashion, but the two most advanced are a feature film I plan to shoot in Poland, called Gentlemen of Zakopane, about notorious artists of the twenties, and a feature in development in the USA.

Atlas’s Social Media 

Instagram: @atlastheshortfilm, #everypatientisastory

Twitter: @Atlas_shortfilm, #everypatientisastory

Atlas Trailer from Atlas The Short Film on Vimeo 

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