MICHAŁ WALKIEWICZ talks to JAN KOMASA, the director of Suicide Room.
MICHAŁ WALKIEWICZ: First of all, I’d like to congratulate you on debuting before 30.
JAN KOMASA: Thank you. I’m happy about that as well.
The film took three years to make. That’s a long time, even for a Polish production. Was it just a case of bad luck?
There were many factors involved. The first script, for which we secured Polish Film Institute funding, is different from the one we ended up using. A year passed from the moment the script was written until we actually started shooting the movie.
What happened in the meantime?
We were researching the film. I was familiar with the world I was going to talk about, but I wanted to get a real understanding of this social group. I would drop by my sister’s school to observe how kids behaved. Then people started coming to me with help and suggestions. One place we went to was the Ministry of Finance, where we learned about a variety of issues that played an important role in Polish history. I wanted to understand how the financial crisis affected people’s lives, for example, how it changed their schedules. How much time did they spend at home, and home much did they spend at work? When Lehman Brothers failed, people practically vanished from their houses and left their families. It took us a year to write Dominik’s role. He’s the key to the film. We were careful not to “overdo” it in either direction.
Since you mentioned Dominik, let me ask you about the homosexual motif. Many critics have played up the movie’s gay theme, but I find the whole homoerotic storyline to be more of a narrative detonator.
Jan Komasa is a graduate of the National Film School in Łódź and holds a degree in philosophy from the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw. The short film Fajnie, że jesteś (Nice to See You), his second year film school project, was chosen from among over a thousand titles to compete in the Cinefondation section at the Cannes Film Festival (2004). His filmography includes advertisements and music videos for such artists as Pezet and Noon. He is a co-author of Oda do radości (Ode to Joy), a series of short films for which he received the Special Jury Prize at the Gdynia Film Festival, along with Maciej Migas and Anna Kazejak-Dawid. Sala samobójców (Suicide Room) is his feature debut.
This isn’t a film about a boy finding his sexual identity. The point of the gay subplot was to show how attitudes towards sexuality are changing in the young generation. And they’re changing quickly. Things are completely different than they were when I was eighteen, and that wasn’t even all that long ago. Movies ― and culture in general ― all seemed much more sexist back then. We now know of such concepts as “gender fluidity”, and we can see that a clearly defined “sexuality” is a thing of the past. There are boys who look anorectic, have long bangs, and can sometimes be mistaken for girls. Most teenagers have had homoerotic experiences. I think the main character has it much easier when it comes to exploring sexuality ― sexuality that has been liberated from the narrow-mindedness of the past.
Dominik is part of a milieu that is constantly experimenting. His problem is that he is unable to stop. There is a kind of sadness in him that he tries to mask with jadedness, carelessness, and insolence. But there’s also something about him that vies for our attention. He escapes into pain because he wants to feel something, anything. Like in the scene where he starts a fight with some guys on the bus. The example set by his parents can also have an effect on his concept of sexuality ― after all, the lack of an example is also an example.
Your film certainly isn’t about a boy who’s having trouble coming out of the closet. What did you find most interesting in his story?
We live in a society where the number of suicides is rising in direct proportion to the number of psychologists. Illnesses of the mind have become just as common as the most common diseases of the body. I wear contacts because I grew up in front of a computer screen playing “Prince of Persia”. Depression can be just as typical for my generation.
I like films that talk about the condition of society. In that regard, I think Michael Clayton was a great movie. While I grew up on Mad Max, Blade Runner, and Terminator ― mostly science fiction ― as a director I find myself interested in cinema that discusses certain concerns in Western civilization, like Michael Mann’s The Insider, or films by Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark. I was shocked when I saw Kids in the 90s. I must have watched that movie dozens of times.
Is Clark on your list of greatest inspirations?
I realized that Clark was a grown man who made a movie with kids thirty years younger than him. It was a form of artistic “pedophilia”, but I wanted to do the same thing. It took me a year to meet with all the young people I wanted to talk to. We would show up at parties and proms, and we would enter the world of online avatars. We wanted to find things we had no idea about in a world we were familiar with. It turned out that most of these kids had had problems with their mothers. Their moms were often powerful executives who didn’t have time for them. It’s a whole generation of disappearing mothers. That’s why the whole mother/son dynamic plays such an important role in my movie. The whole concept of the “tolerant parent” is just an excuse not to take care of your child.
It seems these “social conditions” are something that only rich kids suffer from in your film.
If this problem affects wealthier families, which is common, I find that all the more interesting. I wonder why this happens in families that have everything, families which ― at first glance ― have everything they could ask for. Take Saviour’s Square. That film talks about a similar social problem, but the events have been moved to downtown Warsaw, while the real story took place in the neighborhood of Wola and involved people who were much poorer. It struck me as somewhat false. I could feel that the cancer existed, just that it wasn’t eating the people on the screen.
Your film seems to be a bit late. Emo culture, Second Life, Culture 2.0, Facebook ― all of this has been going on for a while, and cinema has already dispelled the mysterious aura around it.
I didn’t set out to diagnose reality. I didn’t want to say: “This is how it is, and this is how we live.” I wanted to bring out something universal in the story, something that isn’t going to change in five, ten, fifteen years. No one knows whether Facebook will last forever ― maybe the world will find something else to get excited over, something that will change how people use the internet. Hence my attempt to find universal themes, my attempt to place this story in a wider context, a cultural context as well. And hence my choice of Shakespeare and Goethe.
Hence the opera?
Yes. I wanted to achieve the effect of several different perspectives overlapping. I wanted a play in the theatre watched by a character whom, in turn, we watch in the theatre. My brother, whom I observed very carefully at the research stage, opens up the film by “singing” it. The first scene is about falseness, about a family that only appears to be strong and tightly-knit, but is actually living a lie. The last scene is about the truth, about a family that no longer simulates their feelings, about people who have cast off their false shells.
This isn’t your first foray in the theme of addiction, which was also the subject of your documentary, Spływ. But that film showed the final step in the process shown in Suicide Room.
I’m not going to lie to you: I was brought up in a specific kind of social circle. We were all white boys from artistic families. The topic of addiction and hiding those addictions was as natural as air to my friends. In circles where reputation and image count, that quickly becomes an obsession. Everywhere I looked, there were dramas maturing in silence. If you think about it, it’s how the “middle class” works all over the world. You hide everything, from your income to your addictions. It’s a form of social hypocrisy. Protecting your privacy and your image becomes an obsession, because it’s so easy to lose it all. You might make a single misstep and never be forgiven. Forgiveness generally isn’t a part of contemporary social rituals. I’m interested in themes like that. European cinema has flogged it to death, but it’s still a rarity here in Poland.
Animation is the other major element in Suicide Room. But it seems to me that there’s an unacceptable dissonance in the animation. On the one hand, it’s rather primitive in aesthetic terms, but on the other, you do crazy things with the virtual camera, making the animated narrative more dynamic, taking it to the edge of cheesiness.
We initially talked to Second Life about doing the animation, but they refused, which is something I understand completely. It’s like signing a contract with Coca-Cola to make a movie where the main character gets addicted to cola. But even if we had written our own engine, it wouldn’t have solved the most basic problem: the difference between the user and the audience. We wanted to make the alternative reality seem as attractive as possible to the audience. On the one hand, we wanted to make it a world based on the somewhat infantile visual style of manga and MMPORGs like “World of Warcraft”. On the other hand, we wanted to fill the world with ornaments and symbols of death. The final piece was the opera theme that you mentioned. We wanted the adventures in the virtual world to be theatrical to the point of cheesiness.
Could you tell us about the technical aspects?
Finding the right proportions was the key. We started from scratch several times. The animators and I drew three hundred pages on the shooting boards. At one point, we simply decided that we needed to shoot the whole thing one more time with actors. Animators reconstructed the whole thing using their movements, adding gestures and movements of the hands and head. But you can’t fake human kinesics. That’s what James Cameron was trying to figure out for all those years: emotional capture. You can’t copy the human face. It’s simply impossible to predict how 250 facial muscles will behave. We talked to Alvernia Studios, which had the right equipment, but I think we subconsciously knew from the beginning that no one in their right mind would try to compete with Avatar [laughs]. In sum, the animation was a real roller-coaster. It took us eighteen months to complete. It’s an extremely difficult job that takes several stages and is an ongoing process. Actors are easy ― you shoot a scene and you can see if it’s working right away. Sometimes you just assume you can “work it out” in editing. Everything is hit-or-miss in animation, because you don’t see the results for a week or two.
That can be discouraging.
It can, and it sometimes is. As I said, we started from scratch several times. There were doubts. I asked myself just why I was doing the film. And the animators kept asking me, “Jan, are you sure you want an ocean? Can we make it a desert?” “No, it needs to be an ocean.” “Fine, but you need to wait two weeks.” And those two weeks cost something along the lines of 10,000 złoty. We had a lot of problems like that.
Parts of the game “F.E.A.R. 2” make an appearance in the film, so I assume you have an opinion on the gaming revolution and the surge in the number of electronic gaming neophytes. Do you think of games as a new form of art, or would that be going to far?
The problem with thinking about games as art is their point-oriented character. It can be gracefully masked, like in the game “Fahrenheit”, which definitely has something to do with art. Games can feature wonderful worlds created by real artists. And their appeal is far greater than the cinema. I’m a gamer, and I sometimes find myself completely sucked in by them. I’ve always found games fascinating because they have something that films don’t: the ability to evoke emotion in an interactive way. Like the old classic “Max Payne”, a title that had long hold on me. The moment when the main character’s family is murdered is really powerful. But then I thought to myself: “Hold on, this is just a game. A game with symbols of people made out of pixels, a game where you win points.” The Wachowski brothers have talked about doing an interactive movie project, but from the perspective of the script and the narrative, that’s completely ridiculous. A film can’t step out of its own script, and that’s what makes is complete, what makes it perfect. That’s why it’s art.
Do you feel like you’re a part of any particular generation of Polish filmmakers? I ask because of your part in Ode to Joy, where you debuted alongside your peers Maciej Migas and Anna Kazejak.
Everyone went their own way after Ode to Joy. Many of my friends are directors, but we don’t feel like we’re a part of any milieu. We work to put food on the table. Contrary to popular belief, it’s hard to earn a living as a director in Poland. To make good money, you have to direct TV shows, and then you fall into a routine, and you’re done. It’s why they call it “cranking out TV shows”. Advertisement seems like a better option. It doesn’t lead to burnouts as quickly. It’s the only way to combine making movies with a decent standard of living.
What happened to your plans for making a movie about the Warsaw Uprising?
We hope to start this summer. The script has been approved. It’s a big budget production that has to cost tens of millions of złoty. I wanted to step out of the arthouse zone and attract greater audiences to theatres. We want to make it an honest piece of entertainment film. It’s going to be a solid, production-oriented movie.
Good luck with that ― it’s something we could use more of in Poland.
translated by Arthur Barys