Written By — September|October 2012
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Writer In The Water
Tobias Grey

Jerzy SkolimoWSki’S life of StruGGle And ScreenplAyS

From his first steps as a screenwriter in Communist- era Poland, Jerzy Skolimowski was an iconoclast who refused to toe the party line. “It’s my personality,” he says in a low, rumbling voice. “I try to be as free as I can. I hate to have some ties that force me to do something against my will.”

Thickset and broad-shouldered, with sweptback silver hair, the 73-year-old writer-director ushers me onto the balcony of his hotel room. We have arranged to meet in the southern French city of Cannes where Skolimowski is attending the annual film festival.

Skolimowski’s international fame as a screenwriter stretches back to Knife in the Water, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. Premiering in Poland on March 9, 1962, Knife created a sensation on film festival circuits, especially in the United States where it became the first Polish movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film, even earning a shot on the cover of Time magazine.

Knife in the Water marked another feature debut for a Polish filmmaker destined for international acclaim, Roman Polanski, who co-wrote and directed. Unusual for Communist bloc artists of the era, the two shared a passion for hard bop jazz and Western trappings. Set almost entirely aboard a claustrophobic sloop during a Sunday sailing, the film’s portrayal of a smug sports journalist, his trophy wife, and a rebellious young hitchhiker picked up along the way to the Marina pulsed with power games and primal urges.

For many young Americans, including feminist author Camille Paglia who caught Knife during her first week of college in 1964, the film was unlike anything they had seen before. “Knife in the Water made a stunning impact on me and completed my liberation from the perky tyrannies of the ubiquitous Doris Day, who ruled mainstream U.S. culture Like a basilisk,” recalled Paglia in an essay for Salon.

Back home in Skolimowski’s native Poland, there was also a belief that the starkly monochromatic Knife was marching to its own jazzy beat.There was Communist politics, but also sexual politics, exposed by the movie’s dark meditation on erotic violence.

Move Over, Darling Lenin

“It was certainly different,” confirms Skolimowski during our lengthy, far-ranging discussion overlooking the sunny beaches of Cannes. “It was one of the first Polish films to underline, for example, the fact that people spoke in a real—as opposed to literary—language. The dialogue was very well received by the critics and by audiences.”

Indeed, it was while working on Knife that Skolimowski’s talent as an exacting wordsmith first became apparent. (The writing credits indicate this. In addition to script credit, he received a separate one for dialogi.) He would spend hours carefully paring down lines of dialogue to their essential meaning. “I tend to find there is too much talk in most modern films,” he says, “too much unnecessary dialogue and too many words. I don’t like talking heads. From the very beginning I was against that.”

Two years prior to Knife, Skolimoski had received his first credit as a screenwriter with Innocent Sorcerers (1960), a black-and-white feature directed by Poland’s seminal postwar filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. A published poet and the youngest member of the Polish Union of Writers, Skolimowski had been invited to a writing retreat where Wajda had begun working on a screenplay with Polish novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski. Its subject of alienated Polish youth caused Wadja to ask Skolimowski to factcheck the script for authenticity.

“I didn’t have any interest in filmmaking or films at that time,” recalls Skolimowski, “Wajda and Andrzejewski were already great authorities in Poland, but I didn’t care. I told them that their script was bullshit. Their description of young people was totally wrong.They didn’t understand the way we behaved or the way we talked. Wajda challenged me: ‘Why don’t you write something of your own?’ That very night I wrote about 25 pages of my own story. I gave it to Wajda and that became Innocent Sorcerers.”

Wajda offered Skolimowski the small but key role of a raw-boned boxer. Though he had never acted before, Skolimowski was no stranger to the boxing ring, having fought and won several bouts as an amateur welterweight.He encouraged Wajda to offer a small part to his friend Polanski, whom Skolimowski knew from frequenting the same underground jazz clubs in Lodz and Kraków. The casting proved serendipitous.

Impressed by the Innocent Sorcerers screenplay, Polanski proposed they form a writing partnership.Recently graduated from the prestigious National Film School in Lodz (where Skolimowski would soon become a student), Polanski had already written and directed awardwinning shorts. Keen to make the leap to features, he had conceived a story, supposedly inspired by Polanski’s experience of sharing a girlfriend with an older man, a sailor, who took every chance to humiliate him. But he did not feel ready to write the film’s script by himself.

Despite a passion for jazz improvisation and rebellious iconoclasm, Skolimowski believed in the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. He proposed they narrow the script’s focus to sharpen the realism of the situation and interplay of the characters. “My literary training was writing poetry and playwriting,” Skolimowski explains. “Roman had come up with this story that originally took place over an entire summer and in several different places. I suggested it would be better instead if it happened over 24 hours and in only one place [the Masurian Lake District]. I also proposed to reduce the number of characters down to three people to avoid [extraneous] episodes.”

Sharpening Knives

Fueled by orange juice, beer, and coffee, Skolimowski and Polanski shut themselves away in a friend’s bedroom. There they remained for four days and nights, writing the main thrust of their story. The tiny room was an ideal place for them to imagine the kind of cramped boat-like conditions they wanted to depict in their screenplay. But the claustrophobia of the room, combined with the oppressive heat of a Polish summer, soon had them arguing.

“I’m the prize-winning filmmaker!” screamed Polanski (referring to his black-and-white short Two Men and a Wardrobe, which received a prize at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1958).

“But I’m the writer!” shouted back Skolimowski, waving his union card.

“It was then that I saw that in a dialogue the ans, buts, wells, all of this is really crap,” Polanski told French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema in 1966. “Good dialogue does without this kind of clutter. Skolimowski compelled me to organize myself very strictly for the construction, at the same time that he compelled me to give up some ideas that appeared interesting, brilliant, wildly funny, in favor of perfecting that construction.”

The bedroom where they wrote belonged to one of Polanski’s film school buddies, Jakub Goldberg. Before Skolimoski came into the room, Polanski had been unsuccessfully working on the Knife script with Goldberg but grew increasingly dissatisfied by his friend’s lack of serious participation.Nonetheless, Goldberg ultimately received a thank you for supplying Polanski and Skolimowski with orange juice from his refrigerator and writing down their dictation while they took over his bedroom. In gratitude for room and board, he shared screenwriting credit with them.

Poland’s Communist Party provided funding for films, as long as a script met certain criteria. Without Party blessing, movies were not permitted to shoot in the country. When Polanski and Skolimowski first submitted their finished script to the country’s Commission of the Ministry of Culture, it was rejected on the grounds that it had no social value and was overly westernized in its outlook.

Disillusioned, Polanski traveled to Paris where his sister was living and remained there for a year, depressed and soaking up French cinema, including René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960). To his alarm, the film depicted a quarrelsome trio aboard a small sailboat.

Meanwhile, Skolimowski was attending the Lodz film school and continued to tinker with their script. He added a couple of scenes to give the script more social resonance, including one where the young woman talks to the hitchhiker about her experience sharing quarters as a student. More important, by 1960-61 communist Poland had begun its long thaw and was attempting to distance itself from the Soviet Union; a state-run production company interested in making Knife telephoned Polanski in Paris and asked him to return to Poland and try again. The script was resubmitted and became a “go project.”

However, the final product proved revolutionary in a non- Party way. It was the first in Poland to feature female nudity And to be accompanied by a “racy” jazz score (especially written for the screen by Krzysztof Komeda). Knife in the Water became more seductive and subversive than the Polish authorities could have imagined. “They were confused by the fact that here was a contemporary story with believable characters,” says Skolimowski. “They weren’t sure how a film like this would be read by the general public. Is it a critical study of wealthy people? Or is it praising that style of life?”

Knife in the Water, despite its international acclaim, was the first and last time that Skolimowski and Polanski would collaborate on a film, although they’ve remained close friends. “We see each other whenever we have the opportunity,” says Skolimowski. But: “Our ways parted a long time ago. He’s making different kinds of films than the ones I do.”

The Haunted Heart of a Screenwriter

Born in Lodz, Poland, on May 5, 1938, Skolimowski spent his childhood years under Germany’s occupation of Poland during World War II, which shaped his gift for dissemination.One of his earliest memories was being pulled from the rubble of a bombed-out house in Warsaw. During the war his parents, both members of the Polish resistance, hid a Jewish family (a mother and her two daughters) in their apartment. They also published an illegal news bulletin for resistance members.

“I remember the Gestapo’s night raids on our apartment, their banging on the door with carbines,” says Skolimowski. “They entered the apartment and searched it. Under my little bed was a secret printer.If the printer had been discovered, it would have been enough for my parents to be killed. But I was trained to jump up and down on my little bed whenever a Gestapo came in my room. I made smiling faces to distract their attention from what was underneath.”

His father was eventually captured on a Warsaw street after a spy in the group of resistance fighters he commanded ratted him out to the Nazis. Jailed and tortured, Skolimowski’s father was then deported to the Flossenburg concentration camp in Germany where he was gassed on March 31, 1943.

I ask Skolimowski if he has ever considered making a film About that terrible period, as another had whose family was decimated by the Nazi occupation, Roman Polanski with The Pianist. (Polanski’s mother perished in Auschwitz.) “No, no, no, I don’t want to go into this,” he mutters. “I also cannot watch films about the concentration camps because it is too personal. I don’t want to evoke those images.”

When Skolimowski was 12, his mother, a diplomat, was posted to Czechoslovakia, where he attended an elite boarding school in Prague and met such future luminaries of Czech culture as Václav Havel, Miloš Forman, and Ivan Passer.“I shared my school desk with Václav Havel,” Skolimowski remembers of his childhood friend who one day would become president as well as Czechoslovakia’s foremost playwright. “He helped me with my Greek and Latin, and I helped him with his drawing.”

Suffering from malnutrition, he sought ways to revive his physical health and tried boxing, which taught him “not to close your eyes in moments of danger. When you see the punch coming, you have to watch it until the very end, even if it knocks you out.” This kind of unblinking, straight ahead attitude came in handy at the Lodz Film School where Skolimowski’s unparalleled chutzpah enabled him to bypass a lengthy short-film apprenticeship.

Instead of using his supply of film stock for the course work he had been assigned, Skolimowski opted to make one long feature shot over four years. Released in 1964, Identification Marks: None was Skolimowski’s freewheeling reaction to the repressive, reactionary political climate that reigned in Poland. The film starred Skolimowski as a draft-dodger enjoying one last day of freedom.His script wedded elliptical storytelling with inventive absurdity, ushering in the Polish New Wave and earning praise from kindred spirits like Jean-Luc Godard.

With his next two semi-autobiographical films, Walkover (1965) and Barrier (1966), Skolimowski continued his critique of Polish society, though mindful that the criticism had to be camouflaged. “I couldn’t openly criticize anything about the communist regime,” he says.“All I could do was smuggle into my pictures some kind of reflections, images, allusions of what was going on. As a poet I had always been sensitive to significations and the double meaning of words.”

These coded messages became more exaggerated in SkoliMowski’s next film, Hands Up! (1967), satirizing the hypocrisy of the Polish middle class while slyly reflecting on his country’s inhumane treatment of Jews during WWII.“It’s the film I’m most proud of, and at the same time it was the most tragic picture I made because it practically ruined my life,” says Skolimowski. “I was forced to emigrate, and I had to start a gypsy-like life that I endured for many years. I went from place to place, changing countries, picking up accidental jobs as a filmmaker.They were not easy times. Some films I made just to survive.”

On the Razor’s Edge

Forced to live in exile, Skolimowski proved his versatility as a screenwriter in London during the 1970s, despite difficulties with the English language.
He had been renting an apartment in West Kensington for several weeks, next door to Jimi Hendrix, when he conceived the idea for Deep End (1970). Somebody told him a true story about a diamond that had been lost in the snow and how the only way to find it had been to melt the snow where it had been lost. At around the same time, there had also been a mysterious death in a swimming pool in London, and he came up with the idea of a teenage boy killing a girl because of her unbearable teasing. His screenplay worked up to these fateful events.

Described by British film historian David Thomson as “funny, touching, sexy, surreal, and tragic—and all with the sting of a punch in the nose,” Deep End is also a remarkable (for having Been shot in Munich) portrait of swinging London. Rich in symbolism and deceptively haphazard in structure, Skolimowski’s finished screenplay was highly wrought and like Knife in the Water bore the hallmark of Aristotelian unity.

The screenplay was co-written by Jerzy Gruza, a Pole with a dry sense of humor (according to Skolimowski), and another countryman, Boleslaw Sulik who also provided an English-language translation. Sulik’s memory of the experience was not altogether positive.He described Skolimowski to an interviewer “as a nervy egotist, (who) treats everybody and everything as foils to his own talents.”

Written to take place over exactly seven days, from Monday to Sunday, with each day serving as a different act, Deep End characterized Skolimowski’s measured approach to screenwriting.“The important thing about writing scripts is to work out what’s going to be shown on the screen,” he says. “Unlike poetry, which can address many hidden issues at the same time, the language of screenwriting is much more precise.”

For his next film, the cultural codes of A game of cricket—a sport utterly foreign to him—provided a solid framework.Adapted from a horror-tinged Robert Graves short story about a mysterious drifter who alights in an English country village after returning from the Australian outback, The Shout was an opportunity for Skolimowski to come on board a project he had not originated.

The screenplay had already been written by a first-timer, Michael Austin, when English producer Jeremy Thomas approached Skolimowski to explore his possible interest in directing the film. “Jerzy loved the screenplay but wanted there to be more of a focus on the cricket game,” says Thomas. “He did a rewrite, and that got me to thinking about other cricket matches I’d seen in films, like Joseph Losey’s Accident and how interesting that would be to develop visually.”

The Shout opens with a young doctor who gets roped into keeping the score of a cricket match between the inmates and the staff of an insane asylum.Also keeping score is an inmate called Crossley (a mesmerising Alan Bates), who tells the doctor how he ended up in the asylum. The cricket match serves to bookend a story told in lengthy flashbacks. The game’s masquerade of civility nicely sets the tone for a haunting backstory about a married couple whose lives are upset by Crossley’s gift For aboriginal black magic.

“This was the era of the late-night cinema, and you could make a good living out of cult movies because there were a lot of people who wanted to see movies like that, which were out of the mainstream,” says Thomas. “Jerzy was very comfortable making those kind of films.He is able to make something powerful and strong out of a story that is often quite slight.”

Skolimowski wrote the screenplay for his next English-language film, Moonlighting, in little more than a month. He’d been inspired by the experience of renovating his house in West London with a team of expatriate Polish workers when Martial law was declared in Poland on December 13, 1981, bringing an end to the Solidarity movement.

“I was fighting against the clock,” he recalls. “I wanted the film to come out not long after Martial law had been declared.I decided to use a special technique.I already had the whole idea for the film, all the scenes and structure in my head but to write it down technically would have taken me a long time. So what I did was put four of my friends on different floors of my house. I ran up and down the floors dictating different scenes. Each of my friends was working on a different scene without knowing what the others were doing.I had full control throughout, and it worked.”

For many critics, Moonlighting remains Skolimowski’s crowning achievement, a film that’s both an absurd yet deeply serious reflection of a life lived in exile.The central character, a Polish English-speaking foreman played by Jeremy Irons, tries to hide the reality of the political situation back in Poland from his men by treating them like children. He becomes a tragicomic figure of Shakespearean proportions.

Moonlighting earned the best screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982.

A Different Kind of Exile

Skolimowski has often been less comfortable adapting other people’s work where “it is hard to insert a personal tone.” Indeed, a failed adaptation of Ferdydurke, the cult novel by Polish author Witold Gobrowicz (recommended to him by Polanski), persuaded Skolimowski to put his filmmaking career on hold.
Released in 1991, its source material badly translated into English, Ferdydurke was a classic example of the dreaded europudding.“It became a very mediocre film that I actually hate,” says Skolimowski. “I told myself if I ever make another film, it cannot be mediocre. That is why I decided to take a break from cinema. I thought maybe four or five years would be enough.”

Instead, Skolimowski absented himself from filmmaking for 17 years while devoting his artistic impulse entirely to painting. His huge board-like works of art, both abstract and figurative, have been exhibited in the U.S. and Europe.They built up a following among Hollywood celebrity collectors like Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, and Helen Mirren; several of his paintings were used to decorate Pierce Brosnan’s prime ministerial retreat in Polanski’s The Ghostwriter.

“I needed to rebuild myself artistically and somehow I did,” says Skolimowski.

He’d been accepting lucrative bit acting roles in films to support his art and rejuvenation. (He plays the Russian officer in the opening sequence of The Avengers.) When he finally felt ready to return to making cinema, it was not as he had originally planned. The Portuguese independent producer Paolo Branco tempted him back with a proposal of directing an adaptation of Susan Sontag’s novel In America. Based upon a true story of how a Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, arrived in California in 1876 and became a star, the novel appealed to Skolimowski on several levels. He began assembling a cast, including Isabelle Huppert to play the lead, but the relatively big-budget project, even buttressed by legendary Frederic Raphael’s screenplay, fell through for money reasons.

“After that, Branco said, ‘Well, why don’t you make a small movie first to prove that you’re capable of still making films.’ So I signed a deal to write a small movie and literally forgot all about it. About four days before the deadline, my wife Ewa [Piaskowska] said to me, ‘If you don’t give Branco a script, then you’ll have to pay back the advance.’ Which I’d already spent a long time ago.”

Skolimowski’s wife remembered a story she had read in the Los Angeles Times several years earlier about a Japanese man whose acute shyness led him to climb in through the bedroom window of the woman he loved and observe her while she was asleep. “Out of desperation, in order not to Pay back the advance, Ewa and I wrote literally in four days and nights Four Nights With Anna. We did it very cynically, just to fulfill the obligation, but when Branco read it, he said, ‘This is wonderful, I want to do it!’”

Above all other considerations for Skolimowski, Four Nights With Anna provided a chance to make another film in his native Poland and in his native language. Skolimowski shot it not far from his home, in an isolated hunting lodge in the Masurian Lake District where Knife in the Water had been filmed more than 40 years earlier.A clever, rather queasy little potboiler, Four Nights With Anna premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008.

Not one to let his return to filmmaking go unmarked, Skolimowski composed a little speech especially for the occasion. “I went up on stage and said, ‘Well, I can see some friends in the room, I would like to tell them I’m back. And I can see some enemies. I also have a message for them: I’m back.’”

His next film, and most recent to date, Essential Killing (2010), again reminded people what a vital talent they had been missing. A thrilling, almost wordless, tale of a political prisoner (a compelling Vincent Gallo), who may or may not be a member of the Taliban, escaping his American captors, it brought into stark relief a little known aspect of the so-called war on terror. For weeks, Skolimowski had been hearing rumors that the CIA established a secret Prisoner camp not far from his home in Poland. Since then. Former U.S. intelligence officials have identified Poland, Romania, and Lithuania as nations that host some of the CIA’s secret prisons.

“I had heard there was one site in each of these three countries,” says Skolimowski.“I read about a prisoner who said he knew where he had been imprisoned because he was given a bottle of mineral water that had the words made in poland printed on it. Apparently the camps in these countries were all identical. They were built the same, had the same interior decoration, the same furniture, and the same pictures on the wall.” He pauses for dramatic effect and adds with a wry chuckle, “Perhaps only the mineral water was different.”

The story for Essential Killing came to Skolimowski as he drove back home to his hunting lodge one winter’s evening and skidded on an icy road, narrowly avoiding a fatal accident. “The shock of nearly being killed triggered something in my mind,” he says. “I was near the airport where those convoys must have been passing, and I thought, What if there was an accident and one of the prisoners managed to escape. I visualized him in this orange jumpsuit with his hands cuffed behind his back. My imagination had been awakened to such a degree that the scenes kept coming one after another.It was like, What next? What next?”

What next indeed? The next act in Skolimowski’s extraordinary career continues being written.