"WE FOLLOWED A STORY OF A FASCNATING RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TWO PEOPLE" - AN INTERVIEW WITH TOMASZ DRZDOWICZ
Tomasz Drozdowicz, director of the film "Concerto for Two", talks to Daniel Stopa about making the film, "directing" Jerzy Maksymiuk, the incredible strength of the relationship between the artist and his wife and the long editing process. Enjoy the interview!
Daniel Stopa: "Concerto for Two" is a documentary portrait of Jerzy Maksymiuk. How is it to direct such an outstanding, charismatic person?
Tomasz Drozdowicz: It will sound like a cliché, but you just direct! (laughs) Maestro is the last person that would ever allow anyone to direct him. "Concerto for Two" is a film employing the "observational documentary" method. We follow Maestro, we look into his professional and private life. Of course we create some situations which are a starting point of a particular scene, but when the event unfolds we try to influence it as little as possible.
Yet music always offers a chance to create a film. Weren't you tempted to try this approach?
I like a lot creative documentaries, yet creating Maestro wouldn't make sense. I don't really know what the effect of this method would supposed to be. I'm interested in Maestro the way he is, not the Maestro created by Drozdowicz. Of course, I don't go to extremes and I don't try to pretend that I made a film which is an objective picture of Maestro's life and work. There are no films like that, and even if they were, I don't think I would like to watch them. However, I intentionally restrict my role to deciding which situations from Maksymiuks' life we register and where do we put the camera. Then there is editing, the stage that I'm an avid fan of. I edit most of my films myself because I believe that's where the film is created. Yet in the editing room I'm just by myself, Maestro is not with me, so I've got a certain chance to use the scenes we registered with the camera to create my own vision of the protagonist without engaging in a conflict with him. So it is in the editing room, not on the set, that I direct Maestro.
The other protagonist of the film is Mr Maksymiuk's wife. She follows him everywhere - in his professional and private life...
At first it was supposed to be a film about Maksymiuk only. Fundacja Kultury Polskiej (Foundation for Polish Culture) secured some funding, Maria Nockowska suggested the protagonist and it seemed that we will quickly and efficiently make a film resembling a typical biography of an artist. Fortunately, everything went differently than we had planned. After the first day of shooting we knew that there's no way of making it a classic biography. After the second day it turned out that Maksymiuk may conduct quickly, but the film about him we'll be made slowly. It took us five years. After the third day we got rid of all our initial assumptions as Maksymiuk's wife became a character as important as Maestro himself.
That's how a documentary about Jerzy Maksymiuk turned into a universal films about relationship...
We followed a story of a fascinating relationship between two people. This marital symbiosis is almost perfect, as Ewa and Jerzy complete each other brilliantly, though if doesn't mean it's idyllic. Being a genius is not easy. It's not easy for a genius to accept the restrictions imposed by this relationship. This dynamic relation is satisfactory for both sides for one simple reason: Ewa and Jerzy are constantly giving something to each other, both in a spiritual and more prosaic material sense. Jerzy showers Ewa with flowers and small gifts for no occasion. Ewa takes care of the affairs that boggle Jerzy's mind, resolves his conflicts with musicians, reminds him of the rehearsals. Adding the second main character - Ewa - made the film interesting not only for the fans of Maestro, not only for the music lovers, but also for the viewer who is not passionate about art. The story became universal and comprehensible not only for the Polish audience.
The audience can see Maksymiuks' "normal" life: the prosaic, often humorous, everyday affairs. How did you manage to gain their trust?
Working in a documentary requires gaining your protagonist's trust, no matter if he is a charismatic artist or a prisoner, a patient dying of cancer, a gang or religious sect member. Without this trust all we can do is to shoot with a hidden camera, but it is a completely different film genre. We had a lot of time to gain mutual acceptance. Of course, we started the foreplay in the situations that were quite neutral for our main characters, that means during the rehearsals and concerts. Later on we barged into Maestro's dressing room. Then we walked with him around Żoliborz, the district where Maksymiuks live, and we get to know his "walking buddies". Next step was to meet Maksymiuks' friends, who might bear a grudge against us as I didn't find a place for them in the film. The scenes with them simply did not suit the form and structure of this film. Later there was our tour around Europe, after which we became for Maksymiuks a certain kind of a family that is allowed to enter their living-room, kitchen our bedroom. It was important that this family is very small and usually consists of three people: Maria Nockowska - the screenwriter, Andrzej Wojciechowski - the DOP and myself.
I assume there was a lot of footage, including the archives. How was the editing process?
We watched many hours of archival footage of the concerts conducted by Maestro and just a few films with him. It is astonishing that a conductor of such high class, who for years have been loved my media, never had a big film made about his work. We shot over 70 hours of tape. Of course most of them will never see the light of day not because they are not interesting, but because they do not fit into my idea for this film. Perhaps one days some TV channel will consider producing a series in which Maksymiuk amusingly popularizes the art of conducting, recounts his world successes, but also hangs out with the homeless, composes and performs a piece for a dentist, falls asleep under a piano during an extremely formal dinner with a very elegant crowd. These are just a few scenes that were not included in the film. The editing took a terribly long time, while we had to take a few years off to find necessary funding to finish our work. A situation in which the director himself edits the film, and is also the author of some of the shots, is not easy. You need time to get some perspective. Fortunately, unlike money, we had plenty of time. No one urged us to finish this film. No TV channel tired to include it in their program. So I was a little bit pretending that I'm editing, knowing that even if I had finished, the film could not have been shown.
The reason was very simple. We underestimated the cost of music licensing fees. Even though all the performers agreed to transfer the right to their performances free of charge, for what once more we'd like to profusely thank them, the copyrights only significantly exceeded our budget.
The project started gaining momentum after "Concerto for Two" took part in Doc Lab Poland workshops. We applied for and received a grant from the Polish Film Institute and the city of Białystok, which allowed us to continue shooting and pay for the rights to music and forced me to finish editing (laughs).
And what was the biggest challenge while editing?
A question to what degree follow the Maestro in his addiction to constant digression, and to what degree tidy up this mess, so the viewer would not go completely nuts. Maestro is "multithreaded" in every situation. What's worse, it spreads in time and space, which results in the film having a very limited number of "classic" documentary scenes. The ones loved by the critics, the ones with the beginning, the middle and the end, inner drama, clear keynote, etc. One of the scenes like this is e.g. measuring the vest at the stylist or the rehearsal in Teatr Wielki. Whereas, most of the scenes were made as a "mixture" of situations that occurred at different times and places. In effect the scenes look seemingly incoherent and I had to sometimes, though fortunately rarely yet still, make use of the protagonist's voiceover. In this way I can tell the viewer what the protagonist had in mind in particular situation. Another problem was to decide what should create the film's narrative, what should the film be constructed around. From the start it was clear to me that we do not preserve the chronology of the events, as it is not a film about Maestro Maksymiuk but about Ewa and Jerzy. That's why the few archives that we use are included in middle of the film. Respecting the viewer's intelligence I believe there's no point in analyzing in detail the structure of the film. The audience knows what the author intended, and if it doesn't - the problem is in the author not the audience.
"Concerto for Two" has many layers...
The film is based on the relation between Jerzy and Ewa. By exposing consecutive situations from their life we reveal their characters. Knowing that there's no hidden trauma in this relationship, we chose a comedic approach. The second thread is Prokofiev, or rather the Maestro's problems with preparing the concert. This story comes back many times in the film and culminates in the final - the performing of the piece. Another subject is the relation between the Maestro and the musicians - full of emotions, sometimes, as in the case of Sinfonia Varsovia, friendly, sometimes not very elegant. Some kind of a recurring chorus is the thread of the Maestro's lack of acceptance of himself. A man who accomplished everything as a conductor, feels unfulfilled because in reality he always wanted to be a composer. If we had closely followed this thread the film should have ended with the scene in which Maestro cries out that he's done with conducting. It would be a spectacular ending yet completely untrue, as Maestro ends with it yet at the same time constantly conducts successive concerts and he's calendar is always full. That's why we came with the idea to end the film with a triumphal performance of Prokofiev. Yet to be honest, all those structural digressions are secondary to the simple premise. The audience is supposed to see an optimistic film in which one of the characters fulfilled an American Dream: from a boy from a poor family in Białystok to a conductor performing at royal courts; while two characters make a fine couple, don't treat themselves too seriously, have a sense of humour and prove that they are unfamiliar with the word "retirement".
And how was Mr and Mrs Maksymiuks' reaction after they watched the film?
We had a spoken agreement that we can film whatever we want. In return for a total freedom I promised Maksymiuks to show them the final cut before showing it to the audience. Maestro wasn't at all interested in such a screening. He said that since I made the film I know what I did and he won't interfere. Trying to keep our promise we somehow forced Ewa to a preview. She didn't watch the film too carefully, complained that she could have looked better in some scenes and confirmed what Maksymiuk had said: "it is your film and I won't censor it". The premiere of "Concerto for Two", which took place during the opening gala of the 58th Krakow Film Festival, was the protagonists' first contact with the film. I must admit that I felt a bit uneasy during the screening not knowing how Maksymiuks will react while a large audience laughed heartily at their behaviour on the screen and several times even disrupted the screening with applause providing a punchline for the most humorous scenes. The unease turned out to be groundless. Maksymiuks don't treat themselves seriously and have a fantastic sense of humour and during the screening they had as much fun as the audience.
Thank you for the interview.