Polish auteur filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski is joined by his co-writer, co-producer, and wife Ewa Piaskowska for a conversation about their latest film, EO, told through the eyes of a donkey as he experiences the trials and tribulations of the human world.
When Jerzy Skolimowski and Ewa Piaskowska set out to make their fourth film together they knew what they didn’t want— a story told in a traditional three-act, narrative structure. Deeply inspired by Robert Bresson’s classic French drama, Au Hasard Balthazar, their love of nature, and four years of research and development gave way to EO, named after the donkey who serves as their film’s main character.
The couple hoped that cutting back on dialogue would enable audiences to engage their other senses, eliciting an emotional and enveloping experience—a mission thoroughly and beautifully accomplished.
EO is a uniquely visceral cinematic journey. Vivid colors, a soaring score, and intense closeups allow you to experience each new interaction and location through EO’s eyes and from his point-of-view, giving way to a deep empathy for EO and all animals. Give yourself fully over to EO, its strangeness, wonder, and heartbreak, and you’ll come away with, if not a new perspective, then a new appreciation for how we move about the world.
Here in an interview with Awards Daily, Skolimowski and Piaskowska discuss how boredom with conventional filmmaking led them to EO and discuss the making of the deeply personal film.
Awards Daily: I have to start with the most pressing question that came to me as I was watching the film. And that is, how did you decide to make this? What drew you to it?
Jerzy Skolimowski: Well, it’s a little bit of a complex situation, but I’ll try to make it as short and simple as possible. There were two deciding aspects of it. First of all, EO is number four of our collaborations with Ewa, who is my co-writer, co-producer, and my wife. And we made three films before EO, and the last one of them was called 11 Minutes and we made it seven years ago. And, of course, since then, we had started to think, ‘What could be our next project?’ And the only idea we had was what it shouldn’t be – our next project. And the conclusion was that it shouldn’t be any story that would be told in this over-exploited, linear narration manner. You know, the classical script writing technique [of] three acts, introducing the characters, telling the story from A to zed. We were bored with it, and we just couldn’t follow it any longer. So we were looking for a subject that would allow us to look for another type of narration, which we actually tried with our last film, 11 minutes. We didn’t fully succeed, but at least we made the first step in that direction and we decided to continue to look for a better result.
The idea of using the animal as the main character of the picture looked like a wonderful step in that direction. Because first of all, it would eliminate a lot of dialogue, which is obviously the most boring thing.
Ewa Piaskowska: No, it can be most boring. It’s not always most boring.
JS: Yeah. It usually is.
EP: It often is.
JS: So, as you see, Ewa is much more diplomatic in choosing words.
EP: No, I’m more truthful. [Laughs].
JS: Anyways. We decided, ‘okay, animal character.’
EP: We live in a forest in Poland. In the middle of nowhere. We have an apartment in Warsaw, which is in the very center of the city. But, we also have a house in this lake district in Poland, which we spend most of the time in with our dog. And it’s just like a pristine location in the middle of a huge, huge, huge forest. So whenever we go for walks, we meet animals, and we see the trees, but we just don’t see anything created or erected by human beings. And when you live there for a long time, it sort of does something to your brain. It just expands your other senses. You experience nature and appreciate it more and more the longer you have a chance to observe it closely. So this, I think, also played a big role. And then, there was a third thing…
JS: And then maybe my memories of Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s film, which I had seen the year it was made, 1966, [also influenced EO]. And that was the only film I ever cried in the cinema. Never before, never after. At the end of that film, when the donkey in Robert Bresson’s film was dying, I believed in that death. You know, since animals don’t know what acting is. They are just being; they are real. So the image of the motionless body of the donkey lying on the slope of grass and surrounded by the herd of sheep with their little bells dinging from their necks, very Catholic dinging— it’s a breathtaking scene. Very, very sad; very moving. And no wonder I found myself with a river of tears running down my cheeks. And that was a big, big lesson I got from the old master. And the lesson was that when you believe in the truth on the screen, the emotions are so much stronger than when you are watching the greatest performance by the human actor. You could just be in awe of the brilliance of executing the craft and think, ‘Oh my God, how is it done? This is fantastic. But it doesn’t move you as strongly as, for example, Au Hasard Balthazar. So we decided that perhaps if we had the animal character in the main part, it would help us to create a very emotional feeling, which we wanted to do out of love for animals and out of love for nature.
EP: And I feel it is more contemplative, poetic, and attuned to other senses rather than just your brain. You know, the deletion of the dialogue opens up all this space for images, for sound, for music. You know, it’s more of an experience rather than just a film. But also there is this trivia element in which, you know, [Jerzy’s Walkover], in 1966 was also on a list of Cahiers du Cinema’s top films as position number two. And position number one was Au Hasard Balthazar. And this is how Jerzy discovered this film. It works on so many different levels. You know, this association of the film with both the donkey in film and also with nature.
JS: Especially that it was caused by the Cahiers du Cinema, which was already established as the major leading film magazine in the whole world.
EP: Yeah, there wasn’t internet back then, so there were not too many of them at that time.
JS: Yes. And you know, it was run by Jean Godard and Francois Truffaut [and other legendary individuals]. So appreciation from them was, for me, like a huge push. It was like a huge push to try to be as ambitious as I could, and therefore those things created the need to make a film like EO. It has a big cause in the background; this film is obviously made out of love for animals and nature and because we really care about those things.
EP: Yeah. And also, it’s not just an exercise in a workshop, you know. Whenever we make a film, we commit two or three, four years to it, so it has to mean something; it has to be meaningful.
JS: Yes. investing our time and effort into something important, and for us, nature. Ewa told you that we live in the forest.
EP: Yeah. It’s really meaningful.
JS: And there are such barbarian issues created by human beings, like so-called industrial farming; you know, mass-producing meat for our consumption or palates. In our case, without talking about it, without making a decision, we reduced the consumption of meat by a solid two-thirds in a natural way [in our daily lives]. And we are hoping that we are on a good path to becoming total vegetarians.
EP: While not being activists of any sort. This is just a very natural process for us when we realize what kind of injustice happens and then how bad it is for the planet. And I mean, there are so many issues related to it, and we wanted to just give our voice.
JS: While we were shooting this film, more than half of my crew stopped eating meat completely.
EP: Yesterday we had a dinner [in L.A.] with some sort of industry people. And there was a person sitting next to me who’s a documentary film director, and she also said that she was a vegetarian for many, many years. Then she stopped being a vegetarian. Then she watched EO like three weeks ago and she stopped eating meat.
AD: When you begin to write the script and make the film, and you have so many competing ideas and things that you want to put into it, how do you begin? You mentioned that when you cut back the dialogue, it allows you to enhance those other senses. Is that something that you put into your script?
JS: Yes, of course. Of course, we start with huge research. We have read practically all important pieces of literature where the donkey is present, starting with Apuleius.
EP: [He wrote] this book called The Golden Ass but also Metamorphosis of Apuleius. [And we’ve read] also Jimenez, who wrote this fantastic book called Platero y Yo, the Spanish Nobel Prize winner from 1956. And then, of course, you remember Winnie the Pooh, you remember Don Quixote, you watch Shrek again, Pinocchio, to just immerse yourself in the subject matter, high-brow and low-brow; wherever possible. And the Georgian film from the fifties, Magdana’s Donkey — just everything possible. This is basically how we always work. We read, as we look at things, we talk, we discuss, we kind of do a brainstorming of ideas for a very, very long time. It’s also very good for us to sort of talk and come up with ideas when we are walking the dog in the forest, which has always worked wonders for us. You know, the process of writing itself is always very brief, very dynamic, kind of like a burst of energy —
JS: — like we are throwing out what has accumulated in our brains and hearts.
EP: And it is an interesting combination of [two approaches]. [There’s a] calculation, because of course we have in mind some sort of a structure, [and] what kind of characters, and who and what, and how the story will ebb and flow. But then, because we try to do it in a sort of concentrated dynamic fashion, it also allows for spontaneity, and to sort of have a flow as though it was organic, or just sort of ‘out there;’ not too preordained, pre-calculated.
JS: And what is interesting as a form, as a technique, we don’t write a script in chronological order. We write the scene which we actually have in mind; whatever it is — the early scene or late scene or maybe the finale or some scene in the middle — we just throw it out on the paper. And then, when we have piles of pages, we can shuffle them.
EP: Always beginning with the strongest element and then going backward or forwards.
JS: And then building the bridges between the scenes if necessary, or avoiding those bridges, remembering that we are fighting the formula of playing from A to Z. So maybe purposely we use the element which could look like a finale of the film, but we use it earlier, which forces us to look for the new finale, maybe even stronger than what we were planning. So [there] is a huge element of improvisation, even in the work of writing the script. Because you were asking a question like this, so this is why the answer is so detailed.
AD: I love detailed answers! This is so fascinating. I wanted to ask you about the visual manifestation of the film, especially going back to that idea of strengthening the other senses. I mean, it’s so punchy at times, including [things like] the lighting. So how did you decide what you wanted EO to look like, and how did you capture the spirit of the script visually?
EP: I think the first idea that was very apparent was that ‘this is not going to be just a film about a donkey’. It was that ‘we want the audience to be the donkey or feel like the donkey’ at times, which produced interesting discussions between Jerzy and the cinematographer [Michal Dymek]. And [that] also made it very obvious that the camera has to be very close to the donkey all the time. We want to feel, you know, each hair on, you know, his shoulder. We want to see the eyes in close shots. We want to just kind of go into his brain at times.
JS: And then keeping in mind that the lack of dialogue can [allow things to be communicated] in a different form. [One example of this] was my work with the composer, Pawel Mykietyn, who is a famous Polish classical music composer—a really famous one, played all over the world. And when he’s composing the film score, it is not a step down for him from his most ambitious compositions, but he’s still using his full talent and sensibility [in creating] the score. And our key was that I was asking him, ‘Pawel, when you look at the film, please look for the moment when you can use your sound to reach what’s going on inside the brain of the donkey; like, register his inner monologue’. So Pawel did it. He is expressing the moods and the emotions of the donkey in a perfect way, you know?
EP: Yeah. But [it] also gives a grand stage to these, you know, very bizarre, strange little happenings, because he gives the film also a sense of pathos and [the] sense like a Greek tragedy almost, with this big, huge, fantastic, grand score. Don’t you agree?
JS: Yes. Pawel was using the whole symphonic orchestra, 78 people playing a little thought, a little mood of the donkey. So that’s impressive already.
EP: I think all the musicians were laughing very much when they were on stage. [With] this huge ensemble orchestra, there’s also always an image on screen. So, looking at this little donkey looking left and right. It’s hilarious. Everybody was just cracking up the [whole] time. [Laughter]. It was really funny.
AD: To wrap up, you mentioned wanting to push the boundaries of structure, has your experience with EO led you to want to be even more ambitious in your next film? Do you have other ideas brewing?
EP: Not really.
JS: That’s hard to predict. The film is really achieving a lot of interest, but we are still in the middle of the battle for eventual success. So you don’t know the result of it, but we are happy with what we have done.
EP: And especially with the reception of the general audiences. What we enjoy most, I think, is talking to the people afterward, to the general audience. And it’s really heartwarming to hear them talk about how moved they are and comment upon all the different elements of the film. And we feel that this is a genuine emotion coming from them, which is, of course, something we’re hoping to achieve. But it’s so rare that what you hope for is actually happening. So we feel very privileged and humbled and appreciative of the entire process. And the greatest award for the film, I think, as Jerzy always says, [is if] just part of the audience changes how they think about animals, [can] find within themselves more empathy for animals, and think about, I don’t know, the bacon on their plate every morning.
JS: Maybe a little bit more of cottage cheese and eggs instead of bacon, you know?
EO is now playing in select theaters.