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Working on impulses. An interview with Michał Buszewicz

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It has been 75 years since the world’s most complicated book was published. Finnegans Wake is an esoteric construction, an oneiric travel to the sources of experience, and a radical breakthrough in the history of literature. For the anniversary of the novel, each of the seven UNESCO Cities of Literature has turned a short excerpt into film. The Krakow episode is based on the translation by Krzysztof Bartnicki (Finneganów tren) published in 2012. Jan Bińczycki interviews Michał Buszewicz, the director of the Polish film.

Reading Malopolska: You are an artist standing at the threshold of your career. Yet you have selected the most difficult text in the history of world literature for your début in directing.

Michał Buszewicz: I am a dramatist by education. Moreover I have never worked with film. I don’t believe I would dare to dream out such an idea myself, yet I was given a challenge, so I accepted it. You either enter such a project head, heart and all, or you flee from it. I know I’m fond of risk, and I will jump into the centre of this labyrinth. When my friends learnt about the proposal, they found it impossible. This got me even more enthusiastic. Just to tease. (Laughs.)

RM: Were there any moments of doubt?

MB: Of course! They arrived when I first sat down to read the text. It is a universe with a logic that is difficult to discover early on. The longer I study it, the more evident the internal system becomes. You begin to notice the repetitions, variant repetitions, references to other languages, associations spanning certain gaps, mathematical constructs, and exceedingly precise composition. The more you read, the more logical that universe becomes. The melody of the text comes on top of that, and a certain interesting structure begins to emerge.

RM: Finnegans Wake seems to be unadaptable.

MB: The excerpt I received was in the form of a script. Surprisingly, you could elicit quite a clear story from it. Breaking certain initial representation of the text, we tried to draw as much plot from the excerpt as possible, quite teasingly. We wanted to check its capacity, the mutual relations between the text and the plot. Are they congruent, do they complement each other? We treated the text as the object of an experiment. I wanted to create a “magical” reality, where the protagonists can influence the narrative to a certain extent, and the events liberate themselves from a linear order.

RM: This movie is hard to pigeonhole according to genre conventions. On the one hand, it shows a linear history, on the other – it contains elements of a collage: text boards and TV test signal. Where do you think your film belongs? Is it poetic, experimental, psychedelic?

MB: I don’t know where to catalogue it. For me the only inspiration and context was the way Marry Ellen Bute put fragments of Finnegans Wake on the screen in the 1960s. We watched it together with the whole crew. I was keen on showing how the mind works while reading this text, on breaking it up as the starting point, and showing the associations and the first, rough encounter with the text. I felt I had to break down the linear narrative as well. To me, those “disturbances” signal that what we deal with is translation into film. I also wanted to set the audience against the phenomenon that we had to stand up to.

RM: I am curious to know about the way you worked with the actors. Did you need long to talk them into this daring project?

MB: The Jancki brothers did not need any talking into. They are uncannily intuitive. Given a single hint they are capable of creating an infinite number of gestures, micro-scenes. I also had a feeling that they share a common self, which leads them along the same algorithm.

I met Jaśmina Polak already in 2012. While working on the staging of Crime at the Polski Theatre in Bielsko-Biała. The figure of Prankquean is capricious and impish. So I considered Jaśmina ideal for such games. She has an exuberant personality as an actress, downright unpredictable and improvising. It was working on impulses, small situations that we developed on the set. The method proved efficient, although it required much effort in editing.

I very much wanted the Janicki brothers to be accompanied by a pair of female twins. The fragment we worked on features the moment of transformation: Prankquean turns the twins Tristopher and Hilary into Tophertrees and Laryhill. I also really wanted the swap “her for him” to happen. Krystian Lupa posted a photograph of Teresa and Maryla Wojciechowski, twin sisters and former circus artists, on Instagram. So I called him looking for contact. He remembered that they live somewhere in the old part of Krowodrza. I walked the district door-to-door, asking neighbours through intercoms if there were any twins living around. I finally found the place. The Wojciechowskis were not home. Like a proper spy, I assumed my observation post in the café opposite their home, and watched the entrance to the house above the rim of my newspaper. Finally, two ladies like peas in a pod wearing identical clothes got out of a taxi. In no more than an hour and a half, I persuaded them to cooperate, and we went to the set.

RM: Let’s speak about the music. Krzysztof Bartnicki, the author of the Polish version of Finnegans devotes plenty of attention to the musical aspects of the book. The film features non-musical, harsh sounds matched with quite a conventional melody.

MB: We went looking for a piece of music that came to be around the same time as Finnegans Wake. We decided to use it as an inside joke, but also confront it against the noise that we got from a friend. Such a contrast is something we found interesting.

I say we, because this was a collective work. I gathered a team of fantastic people. That was the most important decision while shooting the film. The cinematographer, Kuba Laskowski, has an uncanny intuition and is highly aware of the language of film; his knowledge makes up for my lack of knowledge. Magda Szpecht, who we worked with on the concept of the whole piece, has dealt with Joyce for quite a time, and was a perfect partner for discussion and an internal critic. We worked in great tension, discussing what was going around all the time. Then we spent four days on the set together. We would sleep three hours a day while shooting. We had all the functions you can imagine: set managers, props masters, etc. I felt great in that whirlwind.

RM: There is also Kraków, which played a “character” in the film. Moreover, set in a role that is not typical for the city. It would be vain to look for well-trodden paths here, or hackneyed tourist sights.

MB: I am a native of Krakow, and I’ve already gotten bored with some places. I wanted to see them anew. I got the chance to visit places that I never have been to before – for example, the top of Szkieletor. Working there was fantastic, even despite the need to “freeze” the actors due to the low temperatures. The place has an unbelievable energy. Being there, I thought that the idea to embellish this construction, to transform it into something functional is a bad one. It should be protected, properly lit, and turned into an urban installation with a panoramic point! For many reasons, the place is more characteristic of Kraków than the Market Square and the horse-drawn carriages. Because this city has a tendency to continue in suspension, to be an unfinished project.

Wawel Cathedral turns up as a projection of Jarl’s internal condition. He does not go there. He pleads to Prankquean for a return. I dreamt about enclosing the cathedral interior inside the Szkieletor. Another place is the workshop of the Janicki brothers. A place that has its tradition, although is lesser known. It made its way into the script as the brothers’ “natural habitat”.

RM: Since you made an adaptation of one of the world’s most difficult books, and in a record time at that, what is going to be the next challenge for you?

MB: Theatre. My play Ciąg will soon premiere at the Wybrzeże Theatre in Gdańsk. I can’t reveal any more, but I will be involved in more seemingly impossible adaptations. (Laughs.)