Director Jerzy Skolimowski talks about Essential Killing, Nazis, Nature and Norway. The film follows the story of Mohammed, a Middle Eastern man who is captured by American troops and taken to a prison camp somewhere in Eastern Europe. But when his transport vehicle swerves off the road to avoid wild pigs and crashes, he escapes - and so begins his epic journey through an entirely alien terrain relentlessly pursued by helicopters, men with guns, and bloodthirsty dogs. In order to survive he is forced to eat ants, tree bark and hallucinogenic berries (giving him visions of the wife and child he has left back home). It is a beautiful film with some stunning imagery and a powerhouse central performance from Vincent Gallo.
Skolimowski is a kind, humble man of seventy-two, with a ready smile and a fierce intelligence behind eyes that have seen a great deal for one lifetime. He has been an actor, a writer, a painter and has lived in London, Los Angeles and his native Poland. As a small child he lived in Nazi occupied Warsaw where his mother hid a Jewish family in their home and his father was later executed by the Gestapo.
Do you think your early childhood experiences may have informed the overall tone of your work?
Essential Killing is a very special film for me. Not only because I think it is my best film, but because I was able to express feeling that have been suppressed for a long time. My parents were in the Polish Resistance movement. In our apartment there was a printing machine hidden beneath the mattress of my little bed. Many times the Gestapo entered our apartment in the middle of the night. I was trained as a three year old to jump up and down on the little bed - smiling. The Gestapo were always giving me cookies and patting my head. I felt the oppression, the danger.
So the film is very personal. Is there a political message too?
For me it is not a political story. I don’t care if the beginning is Afghanistan or Iraq or any other place. I purposely chose the idea that the main character would not open his mouth - except for the screams of pain. I didn’t want to give any extra information as to who the character is. It is a universal story that could be set any time, any place.
The landscapes in the film, both the desert at the beginning and the snow-covered mountains, are very visually powerful. And beautifully shot by Adam Sikoro.
I think landscape is very important. When I moved back to Poland a couple of years ago, I bought a house in a deep wild forest away from people - so I live with nature. In the film the landscape plays yet another enemy. Don’t forget we shot portions of the film in Norway in -30 C. That is cold enough to kill you.
And Gallo has no shoes on?
Vincent would say, “I’m from Buffalo. I’m used to the cold.” He’s a very physical actor, very committed.
How did you come to cast him?
Maybe I was just lucky. I went to Cannes film festival with a script and I showed it to my friend, the producer, Jeremy Thomas. He said, “This script, if you cast it right, will get you out of the Art House Ghetto.” The same night I went to see Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro. Walking out of the cinema I spotted Vincent. On instinct I approached him and gave him the script. Two hours later he called me and he said he wanted to do it. I said, “It’s May now, we have to shoot in winter. If you’re serious, start growing your beard.” He would ring me every two weeks and say, “I have another two inches of beard!”