At age 84, Jerzy Skolimowski has helmed arguably the most original film of his career, a career that has spanned the better half of a century and seen the master of New Polish Cinema apply his unfailingly singular vision on an international scale. The film is EO, a lyrical road movie and animal rights manifesto told through the eyes of a donkey.
Loosely inspired by French auteur Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar (another film centered on a donkey), EO begins with our titular protagonist performing in a provincial circus alongside his loving trainer. When the act is shut down, EO (who is portrayed by six donkeys, Ettore, Hola, Marietta, Mela, Rocco, and Tako) finds himself on a journey across Poland and into Italy, during which he pays witness to humanity in all its shades of kindness and cruelty.
EO marks Skolimowski's fourth film since returning to Poland in 2008 after being exiled in the '60s, and his first release in seven years, written and produced with his wife, Ewa Piaskowska. At the 95th Oscars, EO has been nominated for Best International Feature Film.
"It is very satisfying to be recognized for our hard work," Skolimowski says from his home in Poland, "and also for the message which we want to pass discreetly. Because we are not the activists about the nature or animals, but we made this film out of love for the nature and the animals. And we believe that this message which we are trying to smuggle into the audience's head—"
"Not the head," Piaskowska interjects. "To the audience's hearts."
"Yes, you are right, Ewa," the filmmaker corrects himself. "To the heart. And I think the message is so important, because we are giving a voice to the voiceless. And hopefully, it'll be heard."
"Also, the very satisfying thing is the fact that it's so unexpected" Piaskowska says. "Because this is a very small, very modest European production, which was never supposed to get so far as it did, which is just tremendously thrilling for us."
In conversation with A.frame, Skolimowski and Piaskowska discuss their inspiration behind EO and share how, exactly, one directs a donkey.
A.frame: You took inspiration from Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, but this isn't a remake by any means. In what ways were you inspired by that film, and then how did that evolve and grow into what eventually became EO?
Jerzy Skolimowski: Well, in 1966, I was interviewed by Cahiers du Cinéma, because my film, Walkover, took second place in their voting for the list of 10 best films of the year. And Au Hasard Balthazar was number one. I recall when I watched Au Hasard Balthazar, I lost the possibility of watching it in my usual manner of that time, as a young man, as a young filmmaker, just fresh off the film school. I was watching with a semi-cynical, semi-professional eye. Watching why the camera is put that way, why there is a tracking shot. And somewhere in the middle of Au Hasard Balthazar, I completely lost that ability to watch the film like that. I was taken by the emotions of the film. And to my surprise, when at the very end — after that famous scene of Balthazar dying on the slope, surrounded by the herd of sheep with their little bells dangling around their necks — the film ended, the lights went on, and I found myself crying. And that was the very first and the very last time when I had tears in a cinema.
And that was the great lesson taught by Robert Bresson, that the animal character can move [a viewer] even more strongly than any drama being acted by the greatest human performers. The animal doesn't know they're acting. They are just natural. If they move you, they move you in the deepest way. To make the young cynical filmmaker cry, come on! What an achievement. Bravo, Bresson. So, when we decided we wanted to write something which we really care about, we thought about the animals. I thought about the donkey, and I remembered my reaction to Au Hasard Balthazar. In that way, I owe quite a lot to Robert Bresson, although EO doesn't have anything in common with the Au Hasard Balthazar.
Ewa Piaskowska: Except the donkey.
Skolimowski: Except the donkey. But in Robert Bresson's film, he was a supporting part among the humans. Here, we have the road movie with the donkey in a leading role.
Piaskowska: What's important is that this story here is told through the animal. It's not a story that describes animals' adventures from the perspective of a human. It's a story that attempts to tell the story through the animal, and I think that's the main difference between our film and Robert Bresson's masterpiece.
Still, when you could point to this classic film by Bresson, did that make it easier to get people on board with what you wanted to do, which is tell a story from the perspective of the donkey?
Piaskowska: Jerzy is such a convincing film director, that you don't have a hard time convincing people to get onboard. But I think the unusual nature of this project was what kept us excited all throughout the process. And it required some new imagination, some new ideas from all our collaborators. It was something special. Because editing a film in which we are trying to get into the head of the animal is, of course, something different than usual. The same goes for music, for cinematography, and actors, because the donkey was truly the main star and the main protagonist of the film, which required all of us to think fresh.
When you're directing a donkey, how much can you carefully plan out what happens, and at what point do you have to just follow their lead and let the donkey improvise, if you will?
Skolimowski: We had to be ready for anything which could go not the way we were planning. And fortunately, the whole crew was so careful and concentrated and flexible. They were ready for anything, and really, we managed to follow the donkey. Donkey ruled the set. In between the takes or in between the scenes, the camera was always next to the donkey and always ready to shoot if the donkey was actually in a mood to do something, because you have to realize that the donkey is rather passive. They are not very expressive. But the camera was always there, and whenever I felt that the donkey is going to bray, for example, or to do something special, then we were running the camera and getting that material, which was accidental, but eventually became quite useful.
Piaskowska: The main idea was to organize the world around the donkeys in a way in which the desired action would be the most natural thing for a donkey to do. So, Jerzy's main job was to orchestrate the world around the donkeys and to make them respond in a desirable way.
The film is so lyrical in how it unfolds through these vignettes, instead of some major story engine. You spoke about bringing new imagination to the editing. What was the process of finding the pace of this movie?
Skolimowski: First of all, when we assembled the film, it was much, much longer than in his final version. And also, the balance between the human stories and the donkey itself was completely different. The human stories took much, much longer. Since we decided that the donkey is a really main character and we care really about him the most, we cut down the human stories, trimming them to the maximum and losing some wonderful and very expensive scenes with famous names. And the reason for it was that the balance should be in favor of the main protagonist.
This is probably the first and only time Isabelle Huppert will play supporting to a donkey and have scenes cut so that he can shine more.
Skolimowski: Well, you put it into words! I was more discreet! [Laughs] Yes, yes. We trimmed equally. Every human episode, we trimmed to the vignette, really, to the minimum information about the human characters and the situation between them. We saved the screen time for the donkey.
If you learn something new on every movie, what did you learn making EO? Or are there ways in which this process changed you as a filmmaker?
Skolimowski: I believe I became more humble. I felt like I am not the most important person on the film set. [Laughs] The most important was the donkey, really.
Piaskowska: He actually didn't have a trailer on set. The donkeys did.
Skolimowski: We had such a low budget, that we didn't have money for my trailer.
Piaskowska: We gave more to the donkeys, because we care about the well-being of our main stars.
You've worked so nomadically throughout your career. You've directed German films and French films, U.S. films and Swiss films. EO is your fourth film since returning to Poland. Do you think there is something that is quintessentially or uniquely Polish about EO?
Piaskowska: I wouldn't say so. I would say it wouldn't be very different if it was shot in Italy or Nevada.
Skolimowski: No, it was a Polish-Italian co-production, after all. I think it's a quite universal story. There is nothing specifically Polish in that story and in the way we were shooting. One thing comes to my mind: Where else we could get the money to shoot this donkey? Tell me, would that be possible in Hollywood? Would the French go for it? Would the British risk a couple of million euros on such a subject?
You raise a good point.
Skolimowski: I have a doubt. But the Polish Film Institute, which was our main financial support, didn't hesitate. And we managed to do it with a modest but decent enough budget, so the film didn't suffer from lack of additional funds. We made the film we wanted to make. We didn't make any compromises, and we got what we wanted.
This has been the year of the donkey, so I have to ask: Have you had a chance to see The Banshees of Inisherin with their donkey, Jenny, yet?
Skolimowski: Ewa did, I haven't. I'm not in a mood of watching the films now, really. I don't even know how good the competitors in my category are. I don't want to be envious of anybody.
Piaskowska: But there's also one more donkey. There is also a donkey in Triangle of Sadness, of course!
You're right! It was the year of the donkey, but unfortunately, all of them have such tragic fates.
Skolimowski: No, our donkey doesn't have a tragic fate.
Piaskowska: Well, it does. What do you mean?
Skolimowski: It does?
Piaskowska: How does the film end, Jerzy?
Skolimowski: Oh, I see. Yeah. In that way, yes. But I think it's more of a melancholic fate, not a tragic one. I think the donkey is such a humble animal, such an innocent. You know that this animal wouldn't harm anybody, or anything. It's good-natured.
Piaskowska: And one of the sweetest animals imaginable.
Skolimowski: If not for the size of it, I would love to have a donkey as my home pet, really.
Piaskowska: I don't know what our dog would say.
Skolimowski: The dog may not be happy, but the donkey would rule again.
By John Boone