The European Independent Film Festival 2022
8th - 10th April 2022
Once a wealthy family, the Kowalsky’s fortune is gradually falling apart. When the only son comes begging his widowed mother for help, an ugly row escalates between the two – that forces both of them to absurd choices and cruel deeds.
Hey Emile, thank you for talking to The New Current again. How have you been holding up during these very strange times?
It’s scary but fascinating. It feels like we’re going through a period where everything needs to change. Many things have to be reconsidered, on a global scale as well as in our personal lives. During the last two years, a lot of crazy shit happened – not all of it was bad. I like to observe how it all unfolds. If we make it out alive, taking the right turns, I think we’ll be looking back at this as a deeply formative time.
Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration or opportunities?
Oh, yes. For one, it forced me to make a tough decision about which path of action I should take. Coming from an art background, having studied painting at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, my goal has always been to be both a visual artist and a filmmaker. And I really wanted to be great at both. It’s not impossible, but very hard to pull off with only 24 hours a day. Filmmaking in itself is overwhelmingly time-consuming. The introspection forced on all of us by the pandemic made me realise that in order to master either, I would need to focus my energy on one thing right now. That felt like having to cut off my left arm. Then, unexpectedly, I won this award for my last short film, “Superhero”, which gave me that motivational push when I needed it most. My infatuation with filmmaking and storytelling eventually won the battle. I gave up my studio and started writing scripts, like in a creative frenzy. It all makes sense now.
The last time we spoke was for your powerful award-winning short film “Superhero” which played a lot of festivals. What do you think it was about this film that connected with audiences so much?
Without a doubt, I think it’s the performance of Nico Randel, our lead. Finding an actor with Down Syndrome who could pull off this demanding role was a tough quest, but I am so glad we found each other. Nico is a fascinating man and a versatile artist in his own right. The way he was willing to open himself up in front of the camera, his eagerness to get it right and his courage to overcome his fears was touching. I think audiences worldwide really connected with his honest emotional rawness.
Did you envision you would get this type of reaction to “Superhero”?
I did not. Also, I didn’t want to envision anything. I think you have to free yourself from expectations. That’s just your ego saying hi, wanting to be loved. I knew Nico delivered a knockout performance, but you never know how things will go or how audiences will react. Of course, you secretly hope they’ll see what you’re seeing – but in the end, the only thing you have control over is putting your heart and soul into the work, and not letting go until you feel you gave it your all.
Congratulations on being back for the 17th ÉCU Film Festival with your latest short, “Kowalsky”, what does it mean to you to be back at the festival?
Thanks! It’s an honour to be back. The journey of “Superhero” started here, so I take it as a good sign. I’m glad the lovely guys at ÉCU gave me another chance to show my work, especially since “Kowalsky” is something so completely different from my previous films.
“I WANTED TO PLAY WITH STYLE, HAVE FUN WITH TEXTURES AND PALETTES, AND ESPECIALLY TRY AND MASH TOGETHER A TASTY BLEND OF GENRES. I USED TO WORK AS A CARTOONIST FOR NEWSPAPERS WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER, SO I HAVE A THING FOR DARK HUMOUR.”
Can you tell me how “Kowalsky” came together, what was the inspiration behind your screenplay, and what was the message you wanted to convey with this film?
From a formal aspect, the impulse was to explore a different flavour, another visual language. I wanted to create a world that’s completely artificial, staged and theatrical – and then tear the facades down, so to speak. I wanted to play with style, have fun with textures and palettes, and especially try and mash together a tasty blend of genres. I used to work as a cartoonist for newspapers when I was a teenager, so I have a thing for dark humour. At the same time, that Hitchcockian orchestrated approach to suspense is something that excites me enormously, so I wanted to try that, ("Psycho" had a huge impact on me. I think it shows). So, you might call it an exercise de style.
On a deeper level, the story and characters come from a very personal place. Most of what happens in this film is rooted in my own life, my family, people near and dear to me, and actual tragic-comic occurrences. I know these characters and their situations very well. Until recently, that’s what I thought they were – caricatures of my relatives. But as it turns out, they’re all me.
When I started writing the script, I thought it was inspired and based on other people’s dilemmas. In retrospect, I realise that it was actually about my own fears and what I was going through at the time. I had to poke fun of my demons here, in a way. It’s an exorcism of self-doubt and fear of failure. For a long time, I had such high expectations of myself that it became paralysing. I was choking on my own ambitions. Nothing I did was good enough, and my self-criticism could get really mean at times. I could feel my greedy ego wanting, needing perfection and success – but all it engendered was a constant feeling of inaptitude.
I must have been too much of a coward to confront these fears head-on, so it had to happen in a playful manner. It’s like a wacky cathartic nightmare where deep-rooted problems bubble up as characters, symbols, and metaphors. It sounds pretentious, but it’s almost Jungian. It’s about moving out of that toxic relationship with one’s own critic, that rotting house we sometimes live in.
How close were you able to keep to your script once you started filming, did you allow yourself and your cast much flexibility?
I prepared meticulously. Nothing was left to chance. I collected tons of references, created mood boards, look books, and a playlist with mood music. I storyboarded the entire thing, which I then animated and edited together, adding dialogue, sounds, and temp music. So we basically had a finished animation version of the script. It was a good way to get everybody on the same page and get the whole team excited about the shoot.
Then, of course, reality comes in and throws it all out of orbit. I love it. All of a sudden, you see the stuff that seemed to work so beautifully in your mind, looks like shit when you try it out. You need to embrace that. I love to be surprised by the actors and what the crew brings to the table. I always think of a film like a wild animal that you try to tame, but eventually becomes what it needs to be.
When working on a short like “Kowalsky”, due to all the creative roles you take on, what were some of the challenges you faced bringing this short to life?
Obviously, restraints and delays due to the pandemic didn’t make things easier, but I think the biggest challenge was to portray the main characters in a way that the audience would follow them since they’re both so “unlikable”. The protagonists act out of utter selfishness, but we had to show the reasons and motivation behind their despicable actions. That was already a big hurdle at the writing stage. Before and during production, I spent a lot of time with the actors, Raoul and Josiane, to figure out their cadence and behaviour. Their performances were crucial. Much of it was finding the sweet spot between sincerity and fakeness, since the characters are constantly lying and pretending. It was important for us to not judge them, even if you didn’t approve of what they did or said. It eventually came together in the edit. But for a while, I wasn’t too sure if that balancing act was going to work.
This film is all about atmosphere, so the music plays another key part. It was vital for me to find the right tone and mood. The score is like the special adhesive that glues all the other elements together and makes it all feel like one solid piece.
How much has your writing and directing style evolved since your debut short film?
With everything you do, every line you write, every decision you make, you get more assured. You learn to listen to that inner voice and trust your gut feeling. So much of filmmaking is about overcoming that fear of making wrong decisions. You have to keep your eye on the big picture while acknowledging that it might evolve and morph into something else. I learned to trust that the film, this wild animal, knows best what it wants to be. I’d say I now listen more than I did in the beginning.
Do you think filmmakers should continue to push the boundaries of the stories they want to tell?
That’s what it’s all about. Otherwise, why even bother? Of course, it’s very tempting to recreate something that has been done well before, that resonates with you as an audience member. But the trick, I think, is to use this inspiration and build on it, recombine it, turn it on its head to find something fresh. The old engenders the new, that’s basically art history. Everything grows out of what came before it.
What would your top tips or advice be for any emerging writer/director?
Filmmaking (or creating any work of art, for that matter) can be very frightening. You put your heart and soul into something, while constantly being confronted with the limits of your capabilities. And then, when it’s all done – and you’ve barely even recovered from the toil – you put it out into the world, you open yourself up for criticism and judgement. You’re vulnerable. It’s like you put your heart and soul on the line for it to be potentially attacked. But if an audience responds and resonates with what you’ve created, there’s no other feeling in the world that compares to that.
I would say, don’t fear that fear. Don’t even try to get rid of it. It won’t go away. You have to learn to live with it. The trick is to overcome it every day. It shouldn’t be an excuse. Do it nonetheless.
And finally, what do you want people to take away from “Kowalsky”?
I’m sure some will love it, others won’t. It’s not exactly meant to be sweet and pleasing. If we did our job right, people will hopefully enjoy it as a searing satire with unexpected twists and turns, and an engaging mélange of different flavours. For those who want to dig deeper, I added layers to be discovered, details and undercurrents that might only reveal themselves on second viewing. At the very least, I hope people will be entertained, gasp and have a chuckle or two.