April 8th, 2020
HOT SEAT INTERVIEW- MALGORZATA SZUMOWSKA
Malgorzata Szumowaska, or as everyone calls her, “Malgo”, is a veteran director of cinema, but nobody knows it, and that’s a shame. The Other Lamb is her first English speaking feature, available now on VOD from IFC Films, and this should be the work that catapults her name to be well-known. A native of Krakow, Poland, Szumowaska is in many ways a hero of mine, because I see a lot of her work, and it reminds me of Ridley Scott’s style. She has her hands in every aspect of how the film gets made. She looks over the scripts, she works extremely close with her DOP- Michal Englert (the two have worked together on every film they have made), meets with her cast ahead of time, maps out a shot, and delivers flawless work. I mentioned it in my review, but The Other Lamb is one of the most beautiful films of 2020, and it’s also an intense, dreamlike journey, with a cult leader and his flock of female followers. I had the chance to have a Skype conversation with Malgo to talk all things about The Other Lamb and put her on the Hot Seat for AMovieGuy.com:
AMG.COM: How are you holding up during this Covid-19 Pandemic? Now all of a sudden our horror films feel like reality.
MALGORZATA SZUMOWSKA: I can’t complain, compared to other people, because I am sitting in the village, in the countryside. I am isolated from the terrible mood we have from the virus everywhere. It’s relaxing, there’s a lake, I can walk, go to the forrest, it’s much easier.
AMG.COM: I am home with a 2-year old, so I am trying to wrangle him and stop him from going stir-crazy.
MALGORZATA SZUMOWSKA: My daughter is 7 and my son is 14, but he’s with his friends. He’s stayed with them for 3-weeks now. I am cooking all the time, online lessons, it’s all just crazy.
AMG.COM: I am guessing you didn’t plan for audiences to have to watch The Other Lamb from home, but it could be a good thing, right?
MALGORZATA SZUMOWSKA: I think it’s a good thing, I was disappointed at first, I was proud to have it screen in Los Angeles, and New York at IFC Cinema, but unfortunately it’s not happening, but there’s been such a big response from press, which I wasn’t expecting. There’s a lot of articles being written, people are talking about it, plus the people in isolation, quarantine in their homes can watch something interesting for themselves.
AMG.COM: Talk to me about getting C.S. McMullen’s script for The Other Lamb, how did that come together? I heard this may have started with drinks at a bar?
MALGORZATA SZUMOWSKA: (laughter) Now I think the story is growing. I was at the Cannes film festival about 3-years ago, and at 5 A.M. in the morning, a bit smashed, I am polish you know, it is easy to get a bit smashed, but I was with friends and they said, “come on, you are going to meet our friend, he was the producer of Whiplash, David Lancaster.” I met David and he asked me about my director of photography, I connected them, so my DOP showed him our films to watch. David then came back to both of us, saying, “I need both of you to make The Other Lamb”. He sent me the script and I just loved it. I liked it because C.S. wrote it about women and I saw interesting elements, about a cult, the religious aspect, so I said, why not? I had received some English speaking scripts before, but I passed on them, because I wasn’t interested in those stories. I had a feeling this was the right story for me to get done.
AMG.COM: You put a large cast together, specifically of the ladies, but I wanted to ask you about Michiel Huisman & Raffey Cassidy, did you do auditions for these two roles?
MALGORZATA SZUMOWSKA: With Raffey, no. I didn’t do any auditions with the two of them. With Raffey I had decided from the beginning it had to be her. I saw her in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Vox Lux and she totally convinced me it had to be her. The way she looks, the way she stares, everything. We discussed many actors for the character of Shepherd, originally we wanted it to be an older man, someone older, and less attractive. My idea was to make him attractive. Then when this opportunity arrived to talk with Michiel, then I did not doubt that idea, because it works that he’s good looking and he looks like a Jesus figure. We can work with that. We can make the story more interesting, less obvious, and even more unpredictable that he is such an abusive character. He seems to be nice in the beginning, but that had to work, and organically change. With the rest of the women, I did all of that by myself in Ireland. Amy Rowan, our casting director helped a lot, she sent me some pictures and then I did three days of auditions with Irish actresses to build up the flock.
AMG.COM: I think every interview you have about The Other Lamb will involve questions about how this film looks. It’s beautiful. Can you talk about the plan that you and your cinematographer Michal Englert put together for The Other Lamb?
MALGORZATA SZUMOWSKA: Michal is very experienced. We have done all of our movies together. It’s also funny because he is a co-writer on my films. It’s very professional, because he knows how to write a story, edit, he is a multi-functioning DOP. That is very difficult for Polish DOP’s, but there are many Polish DOP’s that are famous, because they can work with the actors. Michal showed me some artists, we watched some Gregory Crewdson, Cathedral of the Pines, we looked at that album before we started shooting. We were trying to find an artists style, we wanted to use it, but of course create our own style. We decided to only use wide lenses, and it was some radical decisions to take, regarding the colors, the costumes, the tone, if it was cold, or if it was warm. And when we started to shoot, I did not interrupt his work. That is our style. Before everything starts we discuss, then we agree on something, then we just move on.
AMG.COM: Well the long take where Raffey’s character Selah falls asleep on the hill is an amazing shot. I want that as a canvas print.
MALGORZATA SZUMOWSKA: He’s an amazing DP. I hope he is going to work in the United States now, already there is a huge interest. He’s going to make some big films in America.
AMG.COM: The Other Lamb deals with a man who has immense power over a group of women, a cult. This is a bit darker subject matter, was it something that you were fascinated in dissecting?
MALGORZATA SZUMOWSKA: I did. I’m not the type that is totally fascinated by cult stories, because I have a strong personality. To me, I feel a bit disconnected with the people who are following someone in that way, but this interested me from the religious aspect. I used to be religious. I was raised as a catholic, now I’m not anymore. This task was more interesting, he’s like a god to her, but she also feels a sexual attraction, and he’s a father. The mixture of all these strange figures rather than just cults. But that is why I had to do research on cults, I watched, of course, Wild Wild Country, Holy Hell, plus many documentaries on YouTube. I had to see the mechanism, actually, I always found it very strange that all of the guys that are the leaders, I did not find them charismatic. Maybe the guy in Wild Wild Country has a bit of charisma, but some of them are ridiculous, you can’t ever understand why people, or women would even follow them. I think it is about a huge insecurity, deep in the heart of all of us, we are afraid of dying, and we want to hear the voice that will be saying, “everything is going to be alright.” There’s an energy, sure, but I feel it is trying to fill a kind of niche anxiety inside us.
AMG.COM: I wanted to also ask you about Polish cinema. With the rise of what Pawel Pawlikowski has done, Corpus Cristi was nominated for the Oscar last year, and now your work in The Other Lamb, do you feel this is a golden age for Polish cinema?
MALGORZATA SZUMOWSKA: I think it is going to continue. If coronavirus won’t destroy us completely in the industry because it is hard to say. There are a lot of interesting filmmakers in Poland. New titles are coming out, female directors, of course Corpus Christie director Jan Komasa, but also many more. I think at least 12 directors that are extremely interesting and they want to work internationally. And it is hard to get the recognition with Polish cinema, so it is important. I’ve worked more internationally and I am not always considered someone that can do a Polish film. They think I am from a different dimension.
AMG.COM: I loved this film because it sticks a finger into the concept of men controlling women and the patriarchy, but do you see a movie of this nature as a launching point for your career and other female directors as well? I know asking about women directors working is a tired question, but I feel you have been successful without getting enough credit.
MALGORZATA SZUMOWSKA: More in the United States and UK, yes, much more than in Poland. Because in Poland it is not as visible. I am one of the most recognizable polish directors internationally and of course Pawl Pawlikowski, who is an oscar winner, and Agnieszka Holland who is a 3-time oscar nominee and she’s in her 70’s. I have to be honest though, there is always, if there is a man who had any success in Poland, even less success than I, he is much more appreciated. There is a kind of distance to it, where they say, “okay it’s good, but she is a women. She’s a bit strange, or does this.” It is always with an IF or a BUT. I am trying to ignore this all the time. I am pushy and I am a successful person in the entertainment business, so it is hard to identify with a group of female directors that would be complaining about not being able to work, because I am an example that I am able to work. But it has cost me a lot. I have to be very tough and it makes me tired that I have to work twice and push. I want the Polish directors to push for me. There are not many Polish directors that have made American films, so I want them to speak up and say that it is amazing.
AMG.COM: This was also your first English speaking film, and I believe I heard you say you were tired of doing the international circuit, will you be continuing with English language films from now on?
MALGORZATA SZUMOWSKA: Yes, of course, but I think The Other Lamb is giving me the recognition now. I am receiving more and more American projects now and I have the feeling that this is going to work for me…If coronavirus will stay away from the film industry.
AMG.COM: Well, hopefully while we are all stuck inside fans will check out The Other Lamb because it is a fascinating and gorgeous picture, so congratulations.
MALGORZATA SZUMOWSKA: Thank you and stay safe.