Prize ass: Jerzy Skolimowski on his donkey film that wowed Cannes

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In his rolling, sonorous, Polish-accented English, seasoned manager Jerzy Skolimowski explains however helium became a donkey whisperer. “I marque a precise adjacent enslaved with the animal,” helium says. “Every clip I was not doing thing else, I beryllium with donkey. I look precise intimately astatine him, oculus to eye. I talk to donkey, talking successful his ears gently. All my escaped clip I spent with donkey.” There is simply a crushed for describing this inter-species bonding: Skolimowski is astir to merchandise his astonishing caller movie that features a donkey arsenic the main – indeed, lone important – character; its rubric is simply EO, designed to imitate a donkey’s bray.

Skolimowski, 84, obliges – “Ee-oh! Ee-oh!” – but seems unaware of the afloat grade of donkey-related sentiment that volition undoubtedly beryllium rolling his film’s way, successful the UK astatine least. He and his woman – EO’s co-writer and shaper Ewa Piaskowska – mightiness cognize a small astir the British adoration for donkeys, but they whitethorn beryllium unaware that £60m (mostly successful wills) was fixed to the Donkey Sanctuary successful Devon past year. If adjacent a tiny fraction of that wealth transmits to the container office, Skolimowski could person a deed connected his hands.

‘Ee-oh!” … 1  of the equine stars of EO.
‘Ee-oh!” … 1 of the equine stars of EO. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

If helium does, it volition beryllium a agelong clip coming. The past clip Skolimowski made a comparable level of commercialized sound was successful the aboriginal 1980s with Moonlighting, erstwhile helium persuaded Jeremy Irons to play a (slightly unlikely) Polish builder doing a reverse Auf Wiedersehen Pet, starring a unit of amerciable workmen who get stuck successful the UK aft martial instrumentality is declared backmost home. No uncertainty the governmental backdrop, with Poland convulsed by anti-communist protest, gave the movie its other charge. But it formed portion of Skolimowski’s amazingly affluent mid-career play spent successful the UK that included aboriginal cult classics Deep End and The Shout. And each this aft helium made his sanction successful the 60s Polish caller wave, penning and acting successful films for compatriots Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski, earlier making his ain bid of loose-limbed, Truffaut-ish films astir a young antheral intimately resembling Skolimowski grappling with beingness successful acold warfare epoch Poland.

In fact, arsenic Skolimowski tells it, it was his aboriginal Polish films that got him connected the donkey way successful the archetypal place, by pushing him to spell and spot the movie that EO astir intimately resembles: Robert Bresson’s 1966 donkey-centred meditation connected quality cruelty, Au Hasard Balthazar. His 2nd film Walkover, helium says, had been picked by Cahiers du Cinéma arsenic the 2nd champion movie of 1966; truthful helium went to spot the 1 that bushed him. “It was the lone clip I had tears successful my eyes seeing a film,” helium says. “Never before, ne'er after. Normally I ticker things arsenic a professional, seeing however they are made, and I don’t let the emotions to manoeuvre me. But the large acquisition Bresson taught maine is that the carnal quality tin determination the spectator much powerfully than large quality drama.”

Skolimowski and Piaskowska question distant suggestions that – donkey oregon not – EO has overmuch of a narration with Au Hasard Balthazar. “As a substance of fact,” says Skolimowski, “we were doing everything to get distant from it. Bresson’s movie is acceptable each successful 1 place, portion ours has the operation of a roadworthy movie. Bresson was a minimalist, the full movie was changeable with 1 lens. I couldn’t bash that: I person colour, camera moves, antithetic locations.” Piaskowska talk’s up EO’s affectional content: “Bresson’s movie was an intelligence exercise, a acquisition successful morality; present we are each astir feelings.”

Jeremy Irons withy Skolimowski connected  the acceptable   of Moonlighting.
Jeremy Irons with Skolimowski connected the acceptable of Moonlighting. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

But how, I wonder, bash you get a show retired of a donkey? “It’s not acting, that’s the large thing,” says Piaskowska. Every scene, Skolimowski says, was changeable from the donkey’s constituent of view, arsenic good arsenic the much nonsubjective “master”. “It was astonishing to spot connected the monitor, portion we were shooting, however antithetic it looks done the donkey’s eyes. It enactment an further magnitude into the meaning.” Four near-identical Sicilian donkeys were employed, on with immoderate basal animal-wrangling techniques: if they wanted a changeable of a donkey moving from A to B, says Skolimowski, they’d enactment a pistillate donkey connected constituent B, and a antheral donkey connected constituent A, and definite capable the antheral would rotation over. “Donkeys person the estimation of being stubborn and anserine – stubborn yes, and sometimes precise stubborn – but stupid, no.”

This is wherever Skolimowski’s donkey whispering came successful useful. “My directing method was to beryllium arsenic adjacent arsenic imaginable to the animal.” The mode helium tells it, it was practically a spiritual experience. “I went done a precise unusual sensation. I felt that the donkey felt the aforesaid arsenic I bash – I would telephone it a consciousness of co-existence. In that moment, determination are 2 of us: present we are, you and myself, myself and you. I spot thing precise circumstantial successful donkey’s eye, and this is wherefore we usage it a batch successful the film.”

EO’s occurrence – which truthful acold includes the assemblage prize astatine Cannes, a champion manager information for the European movie awards, and Poland’s introduction for the champion planetary movie Oscar – is each the much singular fixed Skolimowski walked distant from film-making successful the aboriginal 90s, lone to instrumentality to directing17 years aboriginal successful 2008, with Piaskowska connected committee arsenic co-writer and producer. “It was simple,” helium says. “I made a movie I was truthful unhappy with that I felt I betrayed myself. It was the incorrect choice, severely executed. We don’t request to notation the title.” (It doesn’t instrumentality overmuch detective enactment to found the movie successful question is Ferdydurke, his 1991 adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s cult novel.) “I didn’t enactment my bosom into it and the effect was precise poor.” Skolimowski says helium lone intended to instrumentality a twelvemonth oregon 2 off, but recovered coating rewarding capable to make it arsenic an alternate career: “I made truly accelerated progress: I commencement to person exhibitions, commencement to merchantability paintings. That truly encouraged maine to enactment hard and I renew my creator freshness. Then I spell backmost to film-making.”

Heavy for prosecute   … Skolimowski (right) with Isabella Rossellini and Mikhail Baryshnikov successful  White Nights (1985).
Heavy for prosecute … Skolimowski (right) with Isabella Rossellini and Mikhail Baryshnikov successful White Nights (1985). Photograph: Cinematic Collection/Alamy

Skolimowski doesn’t look excessively funny connected elaborating however his striking paintings whitethorn person influenced EO’s distinctive visuals – bold colours, fluidly improvisatory camera moves, hallucinatory dream-images – but helium is keen to speech astir 1 of his much improbable ventures, a relation arsenic a Russian nasty successful superhero blockbuster The Avengers. “It was similar an exotic travel for me, similar a travel to the Himalayas,” helium says. He thinks helium was offered the occupation – successful which helium gets to preside implicit the attempted torture of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, and is thoroughly beaten up for his occupation – due to the fact that of his mid-80s acting relation arsenic a KGB serviceman successful White Nights, the ballet-defector play starring Mikhail Baryshnikov (“they indispensable person maine connected immoderate Russian villain list”).

He says helium took the relation arsenic “as an enactment of curiosity”. “I was ne'er earlier adjacent connected the acceptable of specified a large production. I was alternatively funny to observe the method of working, the procedures, the discipline. Different scale, astir antithetic attitude. It was a mill – a mill producing cleanable merchandise that was truly planned down to the past element, and executed precisely. I could ne'er bash this: I americium ever unfastened to thing happening, to improvisation.”

Apart from thing else, EO is simply a monument to Skolimowski’s committedness to improvisation, to his quality to grip the animals and travel up with bonzer ocular passages seemingly connected the fly. His main plan, helium says, was to usage the movie to “discreetly smuggle” the connection astir his fearfulness of carnal maltreatment (though not rather capable to crook him afloat vegetarian, it turns out). “I think,” helium says, “the movie proves it was made with a afloat heart. We were truly progressive with it emotionally, and these emotions are determination connected the screen. that would beryllium the occurrence for this film: not the fig of viewers oregon the container office, but that radical volition beryllium touched by the information those are surviving creatures, and beauteous creatures.”

  • EO is released successful the UK connected 3 February 2023. A retrospective of Skolimowski’s films runs from 27 March to 30 April 2023 astatine the BFI Southbank.

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