Pawlikowksi: The film is inspired by Helen Cross's novel “My Summer of Love. It had these two great characters that immediately engaged me, Mona and Tamsin. I especially loved Mona. She was just my sort of character, cynical, lyrical, funny, unpredictable, always at odds with the world and with herself.
One other important source was an encounter I had with born-again Christians in 1987, when I was shooting a documentary in Lancashire about an evangelist preacher who was actually trying to plant a cross on top of Pendle Hill, where, famously, some witches were hanged in the 17th Century, to claim it for Christianity. Ive never forgotten him and it.
Screenplay Vs. Novel
P: What I kept was mainly the characters of the two girls. The book was a much busier, more populated affair. I remember Mona had a proper family; a father, a stepmother, a sensible older sister, and an obese stepbrother. Their pub was very lively, very Northern, with a crowd of characters. There was also a creepy pedophile lusting after Mona, there were two murders, and the whole place was in the grip of the Miners Strike–the year was 1984. And the Yorkshire Ripper was on the prowl terrorizing the population. None of this survived into the film.
So the novel was more sociologically specific and also quite plot-oriented. The world in our film is much more spare, almost a little abstract. I wanted to tell the story through images and create a more timeless and elemental landscape, one in which the sort of emotions Im interested in could occur, where someone can look into anothers eyes and get obsessed. What I really wanted to avoid on “My Summer of Love” was making one of these so-called gritty realist films which claim to reflect contemporary Britain or contemporary youth neither of which interest me very much.
P: At the center was this multi-layered obsessive relationship between the two girls and then I added the character of Phil, Monas brother, who has become infatuated with religion and seeks transcendence that way. The brother and sister are similar in some ways–they both have this need to lose themselves in something bigger than themselves–but are pitted against each other. Im not English and the sort of characters who live in my head are not necessarily from the U.K. If I had totally free rein, I would probably be making films in Polish or Russian, but thats not possible, so I keep looking for characters and stories in the English-speaking world, which could ring a bell with me. This isnt easy. In Britain, people are extremely self-conscious. They 'know their place' and tend to hide behind standard behavior, or protect themselves with this nervous hand-me-down irony. Any hint of passion or engagement tends to look ridiculous.
P: Paddy Considine was tremendous on “Last Resort,” a real find. I really enjoyed working with him on that. But I felt there was something more to him that one could explore. When I came up with the idea of Monas born-again Christian brother, Paddy immediately jumped to mind. Hes got this inner energy and hes very good at steeping himself in a different reality. His mind and body engage in a particular kind of way.
Looking for Mona, we spent quite a few months looking at unknown young actresses and non-professionals. I didnt want a known actor. We went to Leeds and Manchester and saw hundreds and hundreds of girls. I suppose I was hoping to find a genuine Yorkshire girl, capable of these complex emotions while also being quite earthy and rooted. This was a tall order. Also, I realized that because of the raw emotions involved and the erotic content of the film, I couldnt cast a non-professional actress, especially not of that age.
Then we came across Natalie Press, whos as far away from being a Yorkshire as I am from being Chinese. She immediately stood out. She had this inwardness and intensity, an amazing face and great elasticity of character. We did a few test scenes and she was brilliant; always offbeat, inventive, and surprising. I knew wed found our heroine.
It also took quite long to find the girl to play Tamsin. Britain seems to produce a lot of girls who can do posh, but I needed someone quite original, complicated, and interestingly devious. We auditioned a lot of young actresses some rather famous ones, too but no one stood out. We also trawled through non-professionals and posh public schools, where we did come across some real originals but again it was clear that we couldnt push non-professional actresses quite to the degree that Id been planning to do.
Then Emily Blunt cropped up and there was something striking and lively about her eyes. They were full of mischief, there was always something lurking behind them. She had energy, a quick mind, and a theatricality that really suited Tamsin.
Obviously I had to test people as couples, and when I put these two together, there was a real opposites-attract sort of spark. They looked and sounded good together, and moved well as a pair.
P: Ive found, in my experience, that there is no absolute formula for working with actors. Each actor is different, and you have to work out the best methods for each one. The main thing is that they give me something to work from and that they trust me. People go on about how natural the performances are in my films, how real the characters are, but to be honest naturalistic acting is not really what Im after. Of course one should avoid false notes and clunky exposition, but what I like to see on-screen are people who are expressive and original, in situations that are not entirely predictable. By naturalistic acting, people often mean characters emoting away with trembling lips, or shouting and swearing at each other.
While doing workshops and also spending time with your actors, you get to know the sort of qualities you can layer into their characters. For example, Natalie has this intensity about her that shades into obsession, which you can then tap into for dramatic effect. I also noticed that she was always drawing, that she doodles all the time faces, all sorts of angular shapes. So, in the scene where Mona gets imprisoned in her bedroom by her brother, I was racking my brain for what she could be doing while in the room. I thought, Of course, she would be doodling something significant on the wall.
I decided not to rehearse the scene, and explained to Natalie that we should just launch into it and do it in real time. I asked her to be intense, but very focused, calm and tender in love with her drawing. So we set up the lights, created the atmosphere, and let Natalie draw the portrait of Tamsin/Emily in her own time. And she got it–wonderfully. Our cinematographer got into her rhythms with his hand-held camera. There was unbelievable electricity in the room. I had shivers running down my spine, and I knew we had a powerful scene with just the girl, the pencil, and the wall in an empty silent room.
With Emily, I knew that she played the cello, so during workshops I asked her to play it in her characters (Tamsins) bedroom. Natalie was there too and I could see she was moved by Emilys playing, close to tears. So I asked Emily if she would play Saint Saens Swan, which tied in with the fact that Phils pub is called The Swan.
Emily had already been in front of a camera, so she was more experienced and confident. This was Natalies first film, so she was a bit more raw and worried, but fantastically gifted and full of possibilities and wonderful left-field ideas which were very Mona.
Researching Born-Again Christianity
P: The rhetoric of born-again Christianity is pretty repetitive, and it doesnt add up to great dialogue unless you want to parody it. But you do meet some very interesting people with very dramatic personal histories, full of radical swings and existential choices. We befriended one born-again Christian who had been a bit of a loose cannon in his previous life–a dangerous, impulsive criminal. He then was saved by Christianity and became reconciled to the world, very nice and very relaxed. He was one of our inspirations. Paddys character of Phil is much less sorted out. Theres something manic and forced about Phils Christianity he hasnt quite got there, his faith is fragile. Paddy spent a lot of time researching with the born-agains. I think hes possibly turned into a born-again Christian himself, but Im not totally sure. He is an actor, after all.
Directing Style and Creative Collaboration
P: I love working with people who are open and brave; people who are not just competent, but who will get excited and with whom you can engage in a sort of dance. Because what I do is not exactly a scientific process where you just have a script and everyone sticks to his job.
The director of photography, Ryszard Lenczewski, played a major part on “My Summer of Love.” We made “Last Resort” together; hes a good friend and a kindred spirit. Hes an old hand who knows all the tricks of the trade, but hes also managed to retain his childlike enthusiasm and sense of adventure. During filming, we spent evenings together talking about not just specific shots but about the whole nature of the project. He knows that I like to tell the story visually, that I am obsessed with landscape and the human face, so he likes working with me. We spur each other on.
Ryszard has not only worked in feature films, but also documentaries, so hes still got this flexibility, this ability to quickly respond to people and situations. I know that when I say this moment is important, he trusts me that it is important; he wont waste time on some ideal lighting arrangement, but will do his best to squeeze every drop of truth from the performance. When we do have the odd quarrel we usually switch to Polish for that its never anything personal and its always for the good of the film.
In “My Summer of Love,” I didnt have any tracking or crane shots. For one thing, we didnt have a big budget, but also they didnt seem necessary. I wanted to keep things simple and elemental. It was mainly about the interplay between the landscape and the face, between this rather strange world we created and subjective emotion. So the key elements were these wide landscape shots very composed, usually a little off-center–and close-ups of human faces–emotional and subjective. Whenever we did come up with a complicated shot for a very simple scene, we thought the better of it in time. I remember one day looking through the viewfinder and then turning to Ryszard and saying, Bloody hell, this is beginning to look like some movie. We axed the shot immediately.
My producers, Tanya Seghatchian and Christopher Collins, are understanding about my process and open-minded enough to go with the flow when I change my mind; they dont lose their trust in me. Chris and Tanya were a very good double act; one producer (Chris) has a calming influence and great organizational skills, while the other (Tanya) has a great faith and energy with which she inspires people around her. Its an ideal combination.
Shooting on Location in West Yorkshire
P: I had been driving around looking at other places, but all the time I had this nagging feeling that this one corner of West Yorkshire was it. Id previously made a film around that area, and was always somehow drawn back there.
I wanted to shoot this seemingly very English landscape in a new way. Because of the kind of light you get in the U.K., most films tend to capture landscapes in greens, browns and greys. I wanted strong saturated color–no half-tones–and a strong, elemental landscape to create a different, not entirely real world.
There is something ambiguous about that landscape the mixture of post-industrial decay and emptiness, and an elemental beauty thats being messed up by human endeavor and industry. Its beautiful, but somehow disturbing which is what I wanted our film to be. There are also strong religious currents in the area, which helped me imagine things; a whole vibe exists in the area between Yorkshire and Lancashire. A few centuries ago, it was a place of religious wars and witch-hunts, a fault-line between worlds and belief systems, and thats left a mark. West Yorkshire is also renowned as being the rainiest and most miserable place in the U.K., so it was pretty bonkers of us to want to shoot our summer there. But we were lucky.
P: We did do all sorts of things to remove it from the contemporary world, in which–lets face it–passion, imagination, feeling are hard to conceive of. I suppose that I am also just living in denial; I dont want to accept that the world is the way it is at the moment. So, yes, we removed all contemporary life, stripped away the visual clutter, the information, the noise, the bland music.
Scoring the Movie
P: During editing, somebody played me their album Felt Mountain, and I really liked it. It was melodious, but strangely off-key and disturbing. Just like our film, in fact. I put one of the tracks against a finished scene and felt it was very much in the right territory. When I met Goldfrapp, they were great. Our collaboration was very organic. I was surprised that they were not at all precious. Often, with well-known musicians, the attitude is, Here is the score we did for you. Take it or leave it. They were open to shifting material around and trying new things.
We wanted to be at a remove from any recognizable period, to make things seem timeless. We chose the locations and the cars–and there were only two cars–very carefully. And we tried to compose the shots in a way that would be uncluttered; simple, timeless-looking compositions a hill, a house, a horse, a tree, a car.
Living in Denial
P: Modern Britain and the modern world are not exactly inspiring. Economics have effectively ousted every other belief system, and our lives are defined by lifestyle, appearance, and the meaningless promotion of same. How do you get away from all this in cinema How do you find characters–and actors to play them–who are not permeated by this civilization Thats one of my reasons for making this film, and for making films in general. I want to look beyond the present, to rediscover something authentic, to immortalize people who are somehow unique who havent lost the capacity to yearn.
The aim is to salvage a certain image of humanity; to reclaim some territory from the banality and materialism that surround us, and also from the warped, misanthropic faith of the fundamentalists of all persuasions.
Appeal of Narrative Filmmaking
P: The jump to fiction was not such a radical one. All filmmaking is about creating a world through photography, editing, and sound. Its always about finding characters with somewhere to go and meaningful landscapes. The fun part–in both documentary and fiction–is the exploring. Finding things out about people and about yourself; getting under the skin of something and finding the film.