Memories from Cannes: Jerzy Skolimowski

Marcin Zawiśliński interviews director Jerzy Skolimowski for the special issue of biweekly Viva! Polish Cinema at the 70th Cannes International Film Festival.

Marcin Zawiśliński: It is quite incredible, but the first time you showed one of your films at the Cannes Film Festival was over half a century ago!

Jerzy Skolimowski: The film was Walkover, and it was presented in the Semaine de la Critique in 1965. I was in my twenties at the time and so was Jack Nicholson who was also showing his western The Shooting in the same section. The friendship which we established then continues until today.

What brought you close?

We met through Roman Polański. We saw each other’s films and liked them. We spent a couple of days together in Cannes, having a great time. In the meantime, I learned that the festival in Pesaro was due to start in a few days’ time. With what little money I had, I bought a third-class ticket and went there by train. I got off, taking my film cans with me, and then I saw coming out of the next carriage… Jack Nicholson, carrying his own cans containing his western. As a result, we spent another week together. I also met Miloš Forman, Ivan Passer and Volker Schlöndorff there. That was even more important for me than my stay in Cannes. It made me realise that even though they came from different countries, they were all making similar films.

Didn’t you think then about staying in the West?

On the contrary! I returned to Poland hoping to shoot more movies. In the meantime, after Walkover, the first obstacles were being placed in front of me. I was not allowed to appear in my next film – Barrier. That was after Władysław Gomułka’s famous speech, when he said, “We do not need any more films like Knife in the Water or Identification Marks: None. These are not the heroes we want to see on our screens”. Nevertheless, the following year I was able to appear in Hands Up! but the film was banned anyway and withdrawn from the festival in Venice. I fought for that production. I went to comrade Zenon Kliszko, number two on the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party. When I entered his office at eight in the morning, his secretary warned me that I only had five minutes. I frantically tried to convince Kliszko to change his mind. When I had used up my last argument, saying that if the movie did not make it into movie theatres, then I didn’t see myself making another film in Poland, comrade Kliszko got up from behind his desk and said just a few simple words: “Have a good journey”. The next day, a passport was delivered to my home. What was I supposed to do? I left.

Four of your films have been shown in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival. All of them were made abroad and two of them received awards.

In 1978, I received the Grand Prix de Jury for The Shout. After the Golden Bear in West Berlin, which I received for a film I made in France, The Departure, and the Golden Lion in Venice which I got as a lifetime achievement award, that was my biggest festival success.

In 1982, Moonlighting, another British film of yours, won the Jury Prize for best screenplay.

That was a kind of disappointment for me. The film was favourite for the Golden Palm but it turned out that the only person on the jury who was against it was the chairman, the leftist writer Gabriel García Márquez. He believed, and argued, that it was an anti-Communist film. And I must admit that to some extent he was right.

Five years later, you were on the jury chaired by Yves Montand which awarded the Golden Palm. How did those deliberations go?

Until a certain moment, we made all the decisions jointly with a simple majority of votes. That was until we had to vote for the best actress award. One of the festival representatives, who had been listening to our discussions, informed us that Faye Dunaway was still in Cannes, suggesting that she should receive the award. Yves Montand quickly asked: “Who is in favour?” A few hands rose and immediately it was written in the minutes: “Award for Faye Dunaway”. Then I protested that there had been no discussion of any alternative candidates. I proposed Barbara Hershey, who had been phenomenal in Andrei Konchalovsky’s Shy People. It turned out that this proposal unexpectedly gained the support of the other jurors. One of them, the American writer Norman Mailer, told me afterwards, “Jerzy, you have turned the course of history”.

In 2008, after a 17-year break from making films, you came to Cannes with your film Four Nights with Anna. Why did you come back here?

It was a Polish-French co-production. My producer, Paolo Branco, submitted this film for the main competition but we were offered the Un Certain Regard section. We were expecting something more and, in the end, Four Nights with Anna opened the 40th edition of the prestigious Quinzaine des Réalisateurs section. Before the screening, I told the audience: “I’m happy to be here again. For my friends I have a message: I’m back. And for my enemies I also have a message: I’m back.”