Q and A
DIRECTOR Q AND A
How did you get involved with this film?
What was it about the story that appealed to you?
First of all I was very inspired by the lead character – a strong, bright woman making her way in a man’s world, she is confident, and never lets go. When Alison was pitching the idea to me she used the image of a woman who has the rug pulled out from under her feet. I had never heard the phrase before but it was very evocative, I could see it and get the emotion of it.
What inspired me was the element of darkness and ambiguity in the relationship. We never really know very much about Kahil – he just appears in Frankie’s life, apparently out of nowhere. She falls in love but soon starts to doubt him. So we have the potency of love, placed in conflict with the power of fear and distrust, which begin to seep into the cracks in the relationship.
I also felt there was an interesting parallel between this intimate story and wider world of politics: how distrust and fear leads to conflict and destruction both on the intimate human level as well as in politics; how we are all affected by global conflicts and how we are part of them; how our social, cultural and racial background determines our actions and feelings; and how we are trapped in it. Those are themes that fascinate me and in “Flying Blind” and I felt I could explore them through the love story.
How was the process of developing the script?
We spent a long time in development. This was the first time I had worked in collaboration with a writer. Up until this film, I had always written my own (short film) scripts, so I found it new and exciting but quite challenging at the same time, knowing when to step forward as a director and when to let the writer just have their space. Alison and I worked very closely with two sets of writers, always sharing ideas and firing off each other. We were developing the script as part of a scheme for up-and-coming filmmakers so we had a lot of input from our three executive producers. For a first time feature director, working in a foreign language, it was a steep learning curve.
This was your first time working with a cast of professional actors – how did you prepare for this?
In Hanoi-Warsaw I worked almost entirely with non-professional actors, and I had to work very closely with them on their characters. The most important thing was to teach them not to think they have to ACT! With professional actors it’s a completely different approach because they already know very well how to appear as if they aren’t acting. So in some ways my job is much easier, but in other ways much harder. I prepared by reading a lot and I took part in some workshops; I also had a really good mentor who helped me prepare a rehearsal process. But it was quite intimidating nevertheless to work with such an experienced cast – I always felt that the actors knew much more than I did about filmmaking. But at the same time it was a massive adventure. I really loved exploring the emotional journey of each character and to see those characters grow. In the beginning I felt I needed to talk to actor and discuss all the details, but as we went on I learned that sometimes it’s a good idea to shut up and let them do their thing. The challenge for me in my first feature length film was to hold on to the bigger picture.
Why did you choose the actors?
Coming from Poland I had very few pre-conceived ideas about who I wanted for the parts, as I didn’t really know many British actors. This was a strength in some ways as I could look at all the actors with fresh eyes, but I also relied very heavily on Alison, who had started her career as an actress so knew a lot about actors and how they work. Helen McCrory has this amazing intelligence and strength, but it is coupled with an extraordinary vulnerability, and she can change so fluently and quickly. She can be hard and soft in one shot. It’s incredible. She is also completely immediate, in the moment, so every take always seemed fresh. It’s very much Frankie’s film – she is in every single scene, and the story unfolds from her point of view – so it was obviously the first part to cast. Once Helen was on board, it was much easier to cast the rest of the parts, as other actors really wanted to work with her. Kenneth Cranham plays Frankie’s father, Victor: Alison really wanted Ken to play the part, right from the start as I know she has always been a huge fan of his. So we set out to woo him…luckily it wasn’t too hard: he liked the script and he was very excited about the prospect of working with Helen. We knew that it would be hard to find an Algerian actor in the UK so quite early we planned to go to Paris to meet actors there. It was really simple – our casting director lined up about a dozen actors to meet and Najib was the first one to walk in. We instantly knew that he was perfect for the part. He wasn’t precisely the image we had in our heads but he brought this amazing charisma as well as the sense that he held some kind of secret. It’s a feeling that pulls you in, it holds you. I found him fascinating to work with and even now I still feel that there is so much I don’t yet know about him.
Tell me about Frankie’s journey through the film.
When we meet Frankie she is a strong, bright woman making her way in a man’s world – she works as an aerospace engineer, designing military drones. She is tough and dedicated and never lets go. And then she meets a handsome young engineering student of Algerian background and before she knows it, she is in love. Her ordered and controlled life, which was limited to work and her relationship with her Dad (an engineer on Concorde), starts to become passionate but chaotic and scary at the same time. And then she is told by MI5 that her lover is a person of interest to them. Now Frankie has to face the suspicions and decide who she can trust. And this is where her whole being is put to the test: she should she listen to her logical mind or her heart?
Tell me about your key collaborators.
Since our first meeting at the Encounters Film Festival Alison Sterling has proven to be a really great collaborator. We have been through many difficult moments together but throughout I always felt that we shared the same vision for the film. We have very similar tastes and ambitions and even when we occasionally disagreed, it was about doing the best for the film. If there was any moment when Alison didn’t understand with what I was saying or doing then I knew I needed to work harder be sharper, more precise. Because if she didn’t get it, then nobody would. I totally trust her analytic mind and her artistic sensitivity. She was like a litmus paper that I felt I could always rely on to tell me the truth.
From very early on we knew that Andrzej Wojciechowski would shoot the film. I worked with him on most of my films – documentaries as well as fiction – and we have developed a great working relationship. We spend months during pre-production and before, discussing the story and the meanings behind each scene and each moment. Only then do we start to talk about images and how we might use the camera to communicate that feeling. Sometimes we spend a whole day discussing just one scene. It’s great to do in the comfort of home with a glass of wine, because you have time to think, to reflect, to dwell, to open up, watch things on youtube, watch paintings and photos. Go beyond the obvious. Once we get on set, we know what we are trying to achieve so even if things don’t go according to the storyboard, we can adapt very quickly with the minimum of discussion. This was especially important on this film because the low budget meant that we were very tight for time and there was no margin for error, or spare time to go hunting for ideas when we were on set.
I really like to feel a strong connection with my close collaborators and I’m quite instinctual. For instance when we first met our editor Ewa Lind, there was something very immediate about my liking for her. She is very strong and always says exactly what she thinks and never sugar coats things. And I know that I can be the same with her. Sometimes in the edit we might disagree but we always discussed things in a very detailed and conceptual way, and we had a lot of respect for each other’s opinion. It was never about ego – always about what was best for the film.
How did you find it working in the UK?
Right from the beginning I knew that Alison was looking for a European director, and as it is a very female story, she decided very early on that it should have a woman at the helm. For me coming to the UK to work was not a totally new adventure as I had studied at the Northern Film School in Leeds as an exchange student as part of my training at the Lodz Polish Film School.
But I must say that I am really grateful for the opportunity. It’s my first feature film so I can’t really compare the experience. In fact, this was the first feature film set I had ever been on so I didn’t really know how things worked – in any part of the world! So I really had to learn on my feet. But we had a great crew, who worked very hard for very little fee.
What did you make of Bristol?
Coming from Warsaw, which was completely flattened in the second World War, I was amazed to see Bristol’s rows of beautiful Georgian houses with the sense of continuity going back centuries. It is a city full of contrast: cliffs and valleys, very dramatic views which look great on camera. There is also the contrast between the grand vistas of Georgian Clifton, with its sense of light and air and wealth, and the claustrophobic, scruffy, graffiti-covered area under the motorway of Easton where we filmed Kahil’s world.
Bristol has a particularly anarchic artistic energy, which is really being allowed to flourish at the moment. I have lived in Bristol on and off now for two years and I have really grown to love and appreciate it.
How long was the shoot?
We shot for 24 days – 4 six-day weeks in November 2011. All our locations were in Bristol (except for one – our wind tunnel.) We were quite worried about filming at that time of year because we would be so vulnerable to the weather. But the gods must have been with us, because mostly it stayed dry. Except for one scene in particular, when our two lovers find themselves in an alleyway and have a very intimate moment. We arrived at the location and I wanted the alleyway to have wet pavements so that the surfaces would reflect. So our wonderful location manager Andy started running backwards and forwards with buckets of water. Suddenly the skies opened and it started pouring with rain. We had to completely re-think the scene, but it was perfect – it had such energy and urgency, better than we could ever imagine. Alison was thrilled to have such production value, all free! We were soaked to the skin at the end of this scene, but everybody knew that something very special had happened. This is one of my favorite scenes in the film.