LONDON–PAWEL PAWLIKOWSKI HAS a terrible cold, and it’s little wonder. The 57-year-old Polish director and screenwriter has for several months been traveling the world promoting “Ida,” his Oscar-nominated film centered around a young novice nun who was raised as an orphan in a Catholic convent and discovers, on the verge of taking her vows, that she comes from a Jewish family with a tragic past.
The work, released in late 2013, has already picked up several major awards—including the Bafta for Best Film Not in the English Language, the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Language Film and European Film Awards for Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenwriter. The focus now is on the Oscars this weekend. If Mr. Pawlikowski does win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film—“Ida” has also been nominated for Best Cinematography—it will be the first time his home country has received the honor.
“It is a small film, made as noncommercial as you can, not for [a] silly reason, but I wanted to make it clear and not make any compromises with the market,” says Mr. Pawlikowski, who also teaches film at both Warsaw’s Wajda Film School and the National Film School in London. “Strangely, it has become the most commercialized film I have ever made.”
Mr. Pawlikowski, who is currently writing screenplays for three future films, is no stranger to accolades. As a documentary director, he won a variety of awards, including an Emmy for his first film, 1990’s “From Moscow to Pietushki.” When he switched to feature films, he received Baftas for both “Last Resort” (2000) and “My Summer of Love” (2004), starring the then-unknown Emily Blunt. But he says that while the awards season hullabaloo has been great, he’s excited to “disappear into the undergrowth again.”
We spoke to the director about finding his “Ida” star in a Warsaw café, his unique process of filmmaking, and working in Polish again.
I read that Agata Trzebuchowska, who plays Ida, is actually not an actress. How did you find her for this role?
I found her in a café downstairs from where I live, reading a book. She was a philosophy and cultural studies student at Warsaw University and later only came to meet me because “My Summer of Love” was like a film of her teen years. She was kind of perfect for the part. This was after looking at about 500 candidates who were working actors and students. First of all, she did not want to act, which was rare. And she was very grounded, very thoughtful, able to listen and watch, and did not speak before she thought [about] what she was going to say.
Agata just finished university and she is on her gap year, working on some collective in Panama, so we are trying to drag her over to do some promotions. She has her own path in life and that is great. She is interested in cinema now, not in acting but more the process.
Your other feature films were predominantly in English. How was it to work in your native language again?
Polish is my first language and I find it easier to write dialogues in Polish, so it was not a problem. There are great traditions of filmmaking in Poland, so we had a great crew who were very much on our side. We could do each scene not in an industrial way, like, “Let’s knock off a page of the script and move the camera this way and that way.” Most shots were from one angle, so you could reframe it, rewrite the script, use a different light—so it did not feel like an industrial process.
You had critical success as a documentary filmmaker. Why did you switch to making feature films?
My documentaries were not classical; they were not fairy tales, but very constructed and kind of poetic. Lots of people did not think they were proper documentaries anyway, so switching from documentaries to fiction was not a major leap. Also I suddenly had two kids and making documentaries is kind of a cowboy life, you sort of disappear for a long [time] and nobody knows where you are. I am not a documentarian by heart; I do not miss it.
“Ida” has been described as a Holocaust film, but it’s really not. It’s a coming-of-age movie set against the backdrop of postwar Communist Poland. Do you get annoyed that people feel the need to put your films in boxes?
People say that “My Summer of Love” was a coming-of-age film or that “Last Resort” was a refugee film, but films have a life and many, many layers, and hopefully there is something that is universal and timeless about them. The reflection of identity, on paradoxes of individual lives, individual versus history, faith—these are all universal. When I see the reaction of people in Colombia, South Korea, Spain, everyone gets it.
You often have long breaks between films. Why is that?
The simple reason is that I am not a professional filmmaker who makes films all the time. That is not what defines me. I have to live a bit. For a long time I looked after my kids because my wife died. I did not do a film for five years. I do not want to rush into a film. What happens to me in life or what I read or who I meet always impacts what I am doing in some way, and most of my films reflect where I am in life. Plus, I am really physically lazy and making films is a nightmare. So if I can afford to not make a film for two years, that helps me generate more material for [the] film I do make.
You write the screenplay for your films. Tell me about that process.
The idea of just transcribing a script into images is not exciting. The writing and the making is the same process. So I keep writing throughout the rehearsals, even the shooting. And I try to have a break in the shoot where I can rewrite, and proper weekends where I can tweak things and invent new scenes where logistically possible. It is organic and I am fluid in my approach. These are tricks that have evolved over decades. It is too late to change my ways.