Floating Skyscrapers – Director Interview

floating skyscrapers
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Floating Skyscrapers is the second film from Tomasz Wasilewski, following his debut In the Bedroom last year. It’s an LGBT film from Poland – one of the country’s very first to address the subject – and it represents a new movement emanating from Eastern Europe.

It follows Kuba, a swimmer involved in a heterosexual relationship at the film’s beginning, who begins to discover new feelings and attempts to incorporate these into his identity and his life. 

I recently chatted with the film’s director about sound and silence, its sell-out screenings at the London Film Festival, Michael Haneke and much more…

tomasz wasilewski

Vada

Hi Tomasz! If we could start with the title… it appears in the film itself, but is there a particular reason for using it?

Tomasz 

When I was 13 I went to New York on vacation and we were sightseeing, facing the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and I had the words ‘floating skyscrapers’ stuck in my head from then. I was 12 or 13 – it might sound strange but I remember that image very strongly. I said to myself ‘someday I’ll write a movie with that title’, and then when I was writing the script I was looking for a metaphor… for happiness, for this place where everything will be okay…

Vada

So this happy place for the characters… is this how you see them portrayed in the film? Or is that more of an idealistic thing?

Tomasz

This is my 2nd film – In the Bedroom is my first movie – and I like these kind of characters in my movies. They’re loved in their life in some way, but they’re also broken inside. And they don’t yet have this place of their own. They’re totally lost in the world around, but at the same time they’re okay… you know? Everything was supposed to be perfect, but inside of them it isn’t.

floating skyscrapers

Vada

So there’s somewhere for them to go…

Tomasz

Yeah, because the most important thing for me is the journey – not a physical one, but mentally. A trip they have to take, problems they have to get over, to find themselves.

Vada

So in making films, do you have particular influences that you look to – directors, writers, etc.? Or do you have your own style?

Tomasz

For sure I have my own style, but of course I have directors and writers that I totally adore. Like David Hare – he’s British, right? The films he wrote: The Reader and The Hours for example. These aren’t the type of movies I make, but I’m fascinated by his writing. I travel to New York often and I buy screenplays every time I’m there… I have these two films and I’ve read them both so many times!

As for directors… Ulrich Seidl… he directed Paradise: Love, Paradise: Hope, Paradise: Faith… I’ve watched those movies so many times! Also Michael Haneke, another Austrian. He did Love recently, I don’t know what you call it..?

Vada

Amour! Also Funny Games, Hidden…

Tomasz

Funny Games, yes… oh my god, I love Hidden! But on the other hand, I love Darren Aronofsky, Sofia Coppola, Cristian Mungiu from Romania… 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is one of my favourite movies ever…

I was thinking about it for quite some time, and I think there’s one thing they have in common. They try to look at characters in the same way that I do: the truth of the character is the most important thing for me.

floating skyscrapers

Vada

I think there’s something you do with the camera that observes the characters in a similar way to these directors…

Tomasz

Yeah maybe, I don’t know – it’s so difficult to say! I think with this type of cinema – this artistic cinema… not commercial – it would never work if we tried to copy something. It has to be our own sensibility towards a subject because the audience will tell if it’s fake or not very easily.

Vada

So let’s talk a little bit more about Floating Skyscrapers itself. One thing I noticed is that plenty happens off-screen, particularly in the first act. Things aren’t made clear or really obvious to the audience. Was that intentional, or simply the way the script unfolded?

Tomasz

Totally intentional – it’s my way of filming. I’ve done this in both of my films, in my first one even more. It’s more interesting for the audience if they don’t have everything shown or said. I work with my intuition; with actors, with the script, and directing. I believe that characters in films might be irrational, but for some other directors it’s impossible to have those sort of characters.

I try to take the audience into the movie, like some kind of game… I hate movies where they tell me everything in dialogue. As you saw, I don’t use much dialogue… I love silence. It’s fascinating – but trust me, in this film they talk a lot! In my last film, it took 20 minutes…

Vada

Do you have an interest in short films or silent cinema then?

Tomasz

Totally not! It’s just my language of the film. I’m rewriting my 3rd film – working title The United States of Love – and half of the scenes have no dialogue at all. I think it’s my way as a writer and director… it’s a combined process, so it’s natural for me to already be directing in my head when I’m writing. I already know the intentions and emotions of the characters.

floating skyscrapers

Vada

Does it have to be both? Would you consider writing but not directing, or vice versa?

Tomasz

Oh come on, imagine David Hare calling me tomorrow?! I could direct, or write for someone, but for me it’s easier this way. I haven’t had the opportunity yet, but maybe if I got a very nice script then I would consider it for sure…

Vada

You’ve kinda touched upon it but sound appears to play an important part in the film. Not so much music – although there is some – but breathing, gasping and other minimalist sounds. Is that something you think about a lot when constructing the film?

Tomasz

In the beginning, I didn’t want to use music at all. I’d rather have silence than music – I think silence is more powerful. I hate illustrating music! If someone’s sad and there’s sad music playing… I’m not stupid, you know? Show me that they’re sad! You can’t treat the viewer as somebody who doesn’t understand these things, and so for me it’s more powerful with complete silence in the scene.

Those real noises, I have them in my films all the time. You might not even see them, but you can hear them, and all of these normal sounds are very natural in some ways. But they’re also uncomfortable – for the audience – because these real sounds make the viewer closer to the characters. To make the film stay with them, we have to try and do something they can connect with…

Vada

And something they can relate to…?

Tomasz

Yes, but not necessarily relating to a person so much – some people won’t relate to the 40-year-old woman from my first film, or a bi/guy gay, but they need to be able to find the emotions of these people. Everyone has been hurt, or hurt someone else; these are universal emotions, so you find these and connect with them, rather than the characters…

floating skyscrapers

Vada

Just one more on the way the film’s written/directed. Water seems to be a motif here – scenes involving swimming, showers, and many more. Is that a device you often use?

Tomasz

I always use water a lot. In this film, it was important that Kuba was an athlete.  When I was thinking about the character, he had to – not lie – but not say who he was in these places. So the swimming pool was the most important thing in his life… it’s the environment where he feels totally free and safe. But when he’s underneath the water, there’s also no air, so he’s still trying to escape.

I had an interview once in Poland where the journalist asked me about why I use so much water and I was like ‘do I really?!’ I had no idea at the time because I hadn’t thought about it. I wonder what Freud would say. I do like these forms though: water, concrete, natural light… they’re all marks of me. In my third film I think I will use snow instead… but it’s also a kind of water…

Vada

Yeah, frozen water, you’re not getting off that easily. Anyway, we can’t ignore the themes of the film, particularly since it’s coming out of Poland. We’ve heard things about this being perhaps the first LGBT film coming out of the country. Can we talk about that, and also about your motivation for making the film?

Tomasz

It’s funny – it was supposed to be about something else: a 50-year-old woman working at a bus station… seriously, this was the first draft… it was her relationship with her daughter… Floating Skyscrapers 2008-ish.

But it was very important for me not to make a socially-involved movie… I needed something heavier… I was talking to producers… some of them prefer the lesbian story, some of them the gay story… they thought it would be heavier for two men falling in love than two women, this is why I changed it.

It’s said that it’s the first LGBT movie in Poland- it’s not quite, it’s one of the first for sure… it’s also why I used this subject because it’s really not used in Polish cinema. It’s one of the first that shows this in Poland in a serious way because very often, before, they were total stereotypes – funny or comical – and also the LGBT characters weren’t at the forefront/main characters.

So it might be the first, you could say that, but it’s one of the first for sure… it’s something new and different for Polish audiences… like not focusing on the homosexuality – of course it’s a big thing and a big meaning in the film – but Kuba is a son, he is a swimmer, a boyfriend, a human being… and he has his own sexuality, and this is important for me.

When we made the film, homosexuality itself wasn’t the most important thing – it wasn’t the subject – the human being was the subject, and this is the difference… portraying this kind of relationship in cinema…

floating skyscrapers

Vada

I understand – again you’re talking about creating something original for the audience…

Tomasz

You know, we went to a film festival and I talked to some distributors from other ex-communist countries and they said they don’t have these type of movies either. And they said maybe it’s because of communism itself. Us Eastern-European countries are like 15-20 years behind you guys…

Vada

So I know you mentioned an international film festival there – you’ve also recently been in London promoting the film and Floating Skyscrapers played there last month. How was the reaction?

Tomasz

Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to London in the end, but I’ve been in contact with my distributor, Matchbox films. A guy called me a month before the festival and said ‘both of the screenings are sold out!’ and it was so amazing. I make movies for people, you know… I know it might sound clichéd – you write for people as well probably – and it’s great to see that there are no borders: my film will be distributed in the UK, USA, France, Switzerland, Austria, etc. and that’s incredible.

Not many Polish movies have international distribution, and my first film was also shown all over the world. We didn’t have a regular distribution deal – we travelled for the whole year. With Floating Skyscrapers we had the world premiere in New York; I started back in April. This movie is universal… I had Q&As in Poland, Germany and USA after the film…

Vada

And did you find a similar response across all of those countries?

Tomasz

Yes: they’re always sad, and they say ‘it’s a movie about love!’ And they felt it! Of course, it doesn’t mean that everyone has to like it; it’s never like this. But no matter what age, gender, sexual orientation, etc. – they come to me and the actors and they said that we made them feel something. It’s not important what it was – but it was something in their souls, something inside. It was a movie about love – they don’t care whether it’s two guys, two girls, a guy and a girl… and it was a huge compliment for us, I guess…

floating skyscrapers

Vada

Also people wanting to see the film, turning up, getting sell-outs, doing Q&As in different countries all in festival environments with lots of competition… that must be a huge compliment…

Tomasz

Yes it really is, because at festivals the audience is like a small child when it doesn’t want to eat. Because they watch a lot of great movies and if they don’t see one then they leave the cinema – there’s no bullshit. It has to be really good, or interest them in some way, and people are staying for my films. It’s fascinating for me to watch people’s reactions.

Vada

Two very quick questions to wrap up: you mentioned the distribution – how are our readers going to see the film – is it in cinemas…?

Tomasz

It’s in theatres, yes! 6th December 2013 in the UK (selected venues) – then on DVD afterwards. I guess it shows that I’m doing something right as the director – it’s an amazing sensation for me. Making movies is like… making dreams come true, so I’d like to invite all the British people to see my movie!

Vada

We have readers around the world so I’m sure they’ll be glad to hear about it playing all over. Lastly, you mentioned your next film… have you got any more details for us about that?

Tomasz

I’m rewriting the script right now, so we’re hoping to start shooting in a year or so. It’s hard to be specific when you’re talking about making movies… the most important thing is the budget, so we’re looking at that next. It’s a portrait of five women after the collapse of communism in Poland… it’s probably too early to say more…

Vada

Yeah, if Floating Skyscrapers started as two women then maybe this will finish as three guys or something…

Tomasz

Exactly! We’ll see, we’ll see…

Vada

Hopefully we’ll have you back in the UK then. Thanks for talking to us Tomasz, it’s been a real pleasure.

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Floating Skyscrapers plays in selected UK Cinemas from this coming Friday, 6th December 2013.

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