Krzysztof Kieslowski: A Masterclass for Young Directors

In the summer of 1994 the legendary Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941-1996) gave a workshop in Amsterdam for young directors. The theme of the workshop was the direction of actors. For a fortnight, various groups worked every day on a scene from Ingmar Bergman’s screenplay for Scenes from a Marriage. The sessions with the directors Leif Magnusson and Francesco Ranieri Martinotti were filmed for the documentary, and an interview with Kieślowski was filmed before the sessions. The workshop was entitled “Six Actors in Seach of a Director.” The actors were Reinout Bussemaker, Pamela Knaack, Shaun Lawton, Matthias Maat, Dulcie Smart and Nelleke Zitman.

It was Kieślowski’s last try at teaching.

The following text is an interview given by Kieślowski during this workshop, courtesy of

Today I write screenplays mainly for West European producers. Just the way I did before in Poland. That worked for both the censor and for those writing the screenplays. Of course everyone is right saying censorship is bad. But you can benefit from it as well. Looking at Eastern European cinema; Hungarian, Russian, Czech or Polish you see that existence of censorship forced them to search for possibilities that they did not know about. Communication with the audience above the level of the censor created possibilities which collegues in the West never had. Contrary to what one might think censorship was not located in one building and one group of clerks. It was present everywhere and allover. From the censor’s office, the ministry of culture, television and film to those who decided about scripts. And finally at our writing tables and on the filmset. Everyone was aware of what was allowed and tried to play the game of balancing on the razor’s edge. Not to fall where the censor forbids, prevents, cuts out and eliminates. And on the other hand not to surrender to the censor… not to fall into meaninglessness which nobody understands nor wants to listen to. This system was constructed with a specific purpose. The people deciding about the money belonging to the state could control what everyone was doing. So one signed a contract for each phase of the process of screenwriting.

The first phase was called a theme. That is one page and a half, containing the general idea about the film without any details, characters or even action. It is more the idea about what the film is about. The second phase is the treatment. That is ten to twenty pages according to what the author wants. With more or less specific details about action, characters and set. So you could have an idea about what the film may cost. Next phase is the screenplay and finally a kind of shotlist… shot 1, shot 2, shot 379… from the start until the end just exactly what will be. On the one hand this was to enable those who decided about the money to control what was going to be. On the other hand it gave writers a chance to survive because they got paid for every phase, for the theme, treatment, screenplay and shotlist. Of course you can say censorship is bad. But there was a benefit for me, it was a very simple one. It is very good if, at every phase during the process of working on a film I can construct a complete thing. It doesn’t matter whether this is short or long. So at any time, thanks to these demandings, I am dealing with the complete thing. And this provides me with a solid ground from which I can jump to the next phase.

Just like in this seminar: construct a complete scene and see what it means. I continued this Polish way of working when I went abroad. It is: to formulate at any time the essence of what you have got. To construct an entirety with a beginning, a middle and an end and if Godards says, not necessarliy in this order I think he’s talking nonsense. The beginning must come first, then the middle and finally the end. I work stepwise although I don’t get paid anymore for these steps. But I don’t complain, I earn in the West much more then ever in Poland. It is because I write quite fashionable. First there is a theme, what is called the idea for the film; what the film is all about. Next I write three or four versions of a treatment. This tells in about thirty pages what exactly happens in the film. Then I write three to five versions of the screenplay. This should enable everyone working on the film to find out what to do. The production manager, sound engineer, props and of cours actors, photographer and composer. So that everyone knows what to do. Reading the screenplay should enable us to see the film. Everyone should be able to imagine what is to be seen on the screen.

This is the common way all over the world. Screenplays are written everywhere. But I really try at every step to consider the entirety. Also during the editing which is just as important as the screenplay. Then I also try to get as quick as possible at an image of the whole film. I never look at fragments. I prefer to see the first version even if it is as badly as it usually is. Then I can jump forward to the next phase. Personally I think that for me editing has two functions. First, here the film really comes into being. To me everything which is done before is just gathering material. That’s one aspect of editing. Second, only during editing and not before an only to a certain extent, I enjoy a feeling of being free. A feeling I do not have while I write the screenplay nor during casting. There is absolutely no freedom in the shooting process. During casting and shooting there are thousands of limitations. The actors have their moods, the cameraman feels good or bad. People forget about their duties. The weather is not what I want, it is raining an I need a bright day. There are thousands conditions restricting my possibilities demanding compromises which I accept as a part of the job and as a part of our life because we have to cope with that all the time. That’s not bad as such, but it takes away the feeling of free manouvering. Only in the editing this feeling comes back and I like it. I like the consequences which result from this freedom. I mean, when I edit I am aware that very soon it is possible to edit out of the same material, which is gathered in all these boxes completly different films. Very often I do make different versions. Quite a few and much more then there are versions of the screenplay. Usually at least five to ten.

The first version is just all material put together without claps and doubletakes although they might be included. It is necessary to see the entirety to see what happens from the beginning to the end. I don’t pay attention to cuts or directions not even when it is possible to edit things that way. I like to do this during shooting. So when we finish, this version is almost ready and it allows you to see the totality. Why do I edit during shooting and work on it during sundays and at nighttime? In order to create some flexibility during shooting. If I see, that something in a scene doesn’t work, that something is wrong in photography or acting, to have a chance to shoot it again. I try to make the first version as soon as possible. Then I see how many stupid things we wrote in the screenplay, how many needless things, how many dramaturgical faults within the scenes, faults within characters, the dialogues etc. Then I try to eliminate these faults as soon as possible. Usually the first version takes more than three hours. So twice the lenght of the film or almost three times as much. I eliminate the faults and the film takes about one hour twenty minutes. This turns out to be too short. I miss what is necessary. I lost what was important to me. Then I return to the original and try to make a third version. That one comes close to what I intendent to make. Then I start to feel fine about it. I know all the material by heart. What is best said or shot in which version. I know all those things and I can start playing with it. I can try to put the beginning at the end or otherwise in order to check what works better. I always do that.

In a professional production, let’s say in professional life the process of working with an actor is a kind of participation, as I like to call it. This contact between director and actor takes very long. It is impossible to simulate this in a seminar which is too short. Nobody has enough time and of course in reality a director never has time as well. It is a process which takes months. So we can only go through all different phases of the process. It is essential whether a screenplay is written for a specific actor or not. It is different if I know the face, personality and skills of the actor or if I don’t know who is going to play the role. That difference is essential. If I write for a specific person, I must start working much earlier. Long before the screenplay comes into being. Before the treatment or even the idea I start to contact that person to talk and to find out if he has time and likes to work with me. What he thinks about my idea if I know already something myself. Of course writing is much easier when I know for whom I write. I also know his professional skills, his personality, his reactions. If he wants to be casted against his “employ” or rather according to his type. Knowing that makes writing easier. That’s the way it goes half of the time. In the other cases I don’t know anything. I write something without a face. It has a personality because the character has a character but no specific personality based on the personality of the actor. Then everything is different. At a certain moment during writing or after finishing I start to thind about who might play the role. In both cases I would say casting is one of the three most important moments in the process of making a film. I see three important moments: screenplay, casting and editing. Everything else is necessary too and you should do it properly. But result and quality depend on those three decisions. They are basic and they define the direction you’re working in. Casting is the most important one.

Casting well means to me: finding an actor who has time, who is discretionary and who has just as well great professional skills which I can rely upon and appeal to. For example, I can ask him to change the direction for the scene based on a different psychological motive for his action in the scene. Third and most important, even more important than skills: the actors personality, his presence on the screen. Some people have a ‘presence’ on the screen, others don’t. It’s easy to check this. Once I did an experiment filming a crowd of people. There are fifteen, fifty, sixty people in one shoot. For one reason or another the attention of the audience is drawn to one specific person. I don’t know why, but it is true. Then this person turns out to have a personality. I mean, he exists on the screen. We want to get to know him, to see him react, to hear him speak. That person has personality. The second aspect of such a personality is that the audience wants to be with such a person, to share what that person will experience. Usually the audience should sympathize with that person, they should not want to occur something bad. And if this might happen, he should recover from this. The audience should care for him. That’s the second part of a personality. And finally, I see yet another important aspect of a personality. The likeness of the personality of both actor and character. Not his capability of understanding the character, because that’s easy, but the similarity of his attitude towards life and philosophy. And if the film is about religion, his relation with God. If there is no talking about God his attitude towards what is most important in life. Towards children, parents, his country, to the place where he’s living. Towards the people surrounding him. His sympathies and antipathies, everything is very important to me.

It’s a pity, we couldn’t go through all this during this seminar. We even couldn’t make ourselves aware of this way of thinking. Because, even if we think about it theoretically, in practice our younger didn’t have a chance to do such a job. This seminar is about how to work with the actor. We can learn about this as much as we want to learn, as we are prepared to learn. So, we can learn just a little bit about our general attitudes between director and actor and vice versa. About their mutual relation. What is it like? When is it successful? When do we observe a disturbance in their relation? A lack of communication or something that troubles. Everone observing well could notice this. That is one thing. Second, one could probably learn from one’s faults and incompetencies. From a wrong approach to an actor, an unsuitable way of guiding him, an unability of providing him with the right motivation, to make him act the way we want. Third, and I think that was evident, there is a fault. No, it is not right to call this a fault. It’s due to the youth of the directors. The tendency of believing that you will be understood if you say what you want to say. This is not true. I think everyone knows by now there is a difference between what one says and what is heard. There often is a big gap in between which has to be overcome. I don’t think we did this during this seminar. But we succeeded in showing this gab and the need to search for something serving as a bridge to overcome this problem known to all directors all over the world.

I have chosen a Bergman-text because of simple practical reasons. It’ a text that comprises a lot of scenes with different tensions between the characters. There are dramatical scenes and comical ones, lyrical scenes, love scenes. It’s about hate and that life has no sense. About people who cannot face each other and yet sometimes they do. So every director who came to attend this seminar had a chance to choose something personal and meaningful to him. Something so true that he could agree upon with Bergman. The text is so rich in emotions and in situations, because the scenes can take place everywhere. Next there is a practical reason. Most of the scenes, about 95%, are between two people. So we need two actors. In this situation we could easily ask the organisation to prepare three couples. This means nine possible combinations for casting. Nine, because every actress can play with every actor. So. If we take into account everything we have to admit that the text today has evident shortcomings. It sounds often a bit anachronistic in some parts. Sometimes a bit too evident. In the introduction Bergman writes people who will read the text or see the film, will be amazed if they search in this film for a great secret, mysterium or sign. He writes: this text is evident. In some scenes it became visible that for us today this text anachronistic. People take a slight distance towards it. They say: oh, that’s the seventies. We don’t accept a situation like that anymore. That happens several times. But I think that such a critical attitude, which is neccasary, gives directors at the same time a possible motivation to work with. This allows you to comment on the text.

The principle idea the seminar is that everyone is free to choose. Not only in choice of the scene but also in how to film it. To use a theme and write your dialogue. To switch the sex of the characters. To change the roles between the man and the woman. You could do what you like. So we gave them these possibilities. Although it sounded anachronistic for some of them I think that because they could change roles or skip fragments that seemed to be out of date to them this would stimulate their creativity. These are practical reasons for which I have chosen this text. I think there is something else which is essential to me. This text is dear to me. There is so much important in this screenplay. As a matter of fact, there are six plays. I can identify with what Bergman says about life. About what he says about love. I identify more or less with his attitude towards the world, towards men an women and what we do in everyday life forgetting about what is most important. I identify with all that, so I had no problem with this text. I knew that, whatever scene these young directors would choose I would always find something for myself too that would be dear to me in one way or another. It was an easy choice. Talking about the attitude towards Bergman, what attitude do we observe during these days?

Let’s examine Leif, our collegue from that cold country Sweden. We’re used to cold Swedes that do not show their emotions. Leif has chosen the scene in which Johan from the Bergman film tells his wife that he leaves hers for another woman. Leif from this so called cold country and all of a sudden he wants the actors to act in a very emotional way. He wants them to scream and fight. Because they find it so hard to say what they want to say they should try to compensate this by showing their emotions. That is the way his scene works. They scream at each other. They grab each other and start to fight. Francesco has chosen the same scene. Italy is a country of shouting people. And he say’s: “I see this scene completely different”. This is a terrible silent scene. They sit at their table. They don’t move and don’t touch each other. It’s so painful for Johan to say “Marian, I love someone else. I’m leaving you”. The same scene is made by men with such different temperament apparently contrary to what you see in the scene with a different attitude towards the same situation. This shows, that you can take the same lines from a text and direct it very differently depending on your attitude. That is what happend here. There were two interesting examples, one of them was realized. Francesco proposed to shoot the scene twice, but with a double cast. He took two couples. He supposed that he could change the expression of the scene by choosing a couple that was really married to each other. They knew each other very well, so he even changed their dialogue. So they could refer to their professional an private lives with the names of their own friends and relatives different from those in the Bergman text.

This did not add to much to the scene according to me. But one thing was interesting, striking and touching: The different personalities of two actresses playing Marian. One of them was Pamela, a German actress. She showed a weak, delicate and oversensitive woman. When she heard Johan saying: “I love another woman”, her life was finished and nothing made sense anymore. She had tears in her eyes. Only the gentle touch of a good director was needed to make her cry. No fake crying, she would have cried honestly. Unfortunately we did not see this, but never mind. The second actress, named Nelleke, is Dutch. She is a strong woman and we saw her react differently at the same line, although the text was the same: “Marian, I love someone else. I’m leaving you.” She reacted contrary, with power. As it gave her a real strenght, fighting spirits, she despised her husband. She hated him. After all the things he said to her, she says at the end: “I don’t know what to say”, but she means: “I don’t know because I only want to kill you.” This shows very clearly the role of an actors personality. By adding his own personality to a character an actor can change a scene completly, the flow, the person he is and the playing. Probably even the content of the film. —Krysztof Kieślowski: A masterclass for young directors, 1994

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