By • Sep 28th, 2011 •

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Lech Majewski is a Polish visual artist, novelist, stage director, screen writer, film director, cinematographer–in short, a 21st century Renaissance man. His mostly wordless films are strange and stylish, from the Gospel According to Harry, a slick, absurdist comedy starring Vigo Mortensen, about domesticity, discontent, and death in a suburban desert (literally); to the lush and nightmarish Glass Lips, a series of hallucinatory vignettes ripped from the experiences of a dysfunctional young man. I spoke to him at the Kino Lorber offices in NYC. Below is a portion of our conversation.

Nicole Potter: Maybe you could talk to me about how this project started; how it came together.

Lech Majewski: I fell in love with Bruegel when I was a kid. My uncle was teaching in a conservatory in Venice, but he lived in Milan, so during the summer we were this poor family from Poland that could use my Uncle’s apartment in Venice. That was always a trip that went from where I was born, to Vienna, and in Vienna we switched trains and then on to Venice. And I always had this day in Vienna, which I mostly spent in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. There is a particular room there, room number 10, devoted to Bruegel. The immense world that he created, it was like a magnet that he created, and I was living inside his paintings.

Gradually I was able to peel the layers of this painting, and find all the underlying symbols and philosophy and the great wisdom of this man–apart from the obvious, the craftsmanship.

NP: So, you had this interest in Bruegel in your background, but would you have done a Bruegel project had the former writer for the Herald Tribune not approached you?

LM: Well, funnily enough, I made a number of Bruegel projects. I used his philosophy. I have to say a few words about his philosophy. Very often he shows the hero of his paintings almost drowned in the crowd of people. And you really have to look very closely in order to discover where the main character is.

For example, look at “The Fall of Icarus” and “The Road to Calvary,” because in a certain way these paintings are very similar. Both show very famous subjects. Usually the painters of that day made those subjects very dramatic. You saw the painful face. You see the fall of Icarus as the beautiful body of this young, godlike man falling from the sky; convulsions, disintegrating wings, and the wax melting. Obviously when you have Jesus Christ on the way to Calvary, you have all this pain and wounds and all that. If you look at the Bruegel paintings, you don’t see these characters. You have to search for them.

So what is he saying to us? What was he saying to his contemporaries? He is saying something multilayered. First of all, he was saying, look, when those acts were happening, the people didn’t notice it. And if it would happen today, you wouldn’t notice it as well. Because you are concerned with the tiny little problems of your everyday life.

That’s on one level. On a second, deeper level, he says look, I am showing them at the nadir, at the lowest possible physical position. Because in “The Fall of Icarus,” you basically don’t see Icarus, you see the farmer in the foreground plowing the soil, and a little bit in the background, you see a shepherd with a flock of sheep, and to the right you see a fisherman, catching fish. And there is a big frigate coming into the bay, and then, to the right you see this little splash of water and two legs sticking abstractly out of this green water. So you don’t see the main character, he is already disintegrating in the water.

And the Christ in “The Road to Calvary”, he is fallen under the burden of the cross. So, they [the main characters] are defeated.

And yet, Bruegel says, they are defeated, they are vanishing, they are at the lowest, and yet for some reason their acts are the salt of our civilization. How strange. Nobody even noticed what has happened, and yet it is so important.

NP: You’re saying that it’s not just the statement that everybody disappears and nobody cares–okay, that is also part of it–but there is also this part of it being about very special people who do have resonance, yet who also disappear.

LM: Yes, but also Bruegel says, look, maybe these normal, daily routines are also heroic. Showing the plowing action, the shepherding action, and the fishing action. These people are taking the fruit of earth and they sustain our life from that. So they are heroes in their own way. So he also, mythologizes, or enhances, the importance of a daily life. This is, the daily life gets more weight out of this situation because it is concurrent with these mythical scenes.

NP: So, how did you get the chance to make this film?

LM: Michael sent me the book, he saw my film Angelus–and he wrote a review of it–he was an art critic who wrote for the Herald Tribune, although he’s retired now. And, in the review he said that I had a Bruegelian mind. He sent me this book. And I read the book. I had read a lot of history of art and his book was particularly beautiful and incisive. No smoke, but facts. It’s just fantastically clear. I thought I was good with Bruegel but Gibson showed me a real dimension of Bruegel. And instantly I saw the images in my head. And that’s usually what happens is that I get the images in my head, and I am spending whatever years I need to spend in order to bring them to life.

So I met with Gibson in Paris, and he thought I was crazy, wanting to do a feature film based on an art essay. He said, this cannot be done. And after a while he scratched his head, and he said, “the impossible is the matter for gentlemen.” So that is how we started to work.

NP: And so, you wrote the screenplay together with him?

LM: Yes.

NP: Is the original vision that you put down on paper when you wrote the script, is that what we see on the screen, or did it change?

LM: No, no, it evolved, and I don’t know how many times I changed the editing. It was really a process, it was like I grew up with this, because technology grew up at the same time, and all those new plug ins, and the development of special effects, and the camera that I was able to use, the Red, was at the time coming into the industry. It was possible only because the technology at the same time was making a big leap, the technical aspect of it. I didn’t know much about it [the technological developments] before this, I only knew about the esthetic goals that I had.

That was my measuring rod. It has to be told in the language of Bruegel. I am visiting him. I am his guest. He is the master. I am just the medium. So therefore you look closely at his art, you just follow it. He invites you and leads you.

NP: There is this shot in the field, near the end, when Rutger Hauer and Michael York are surrounded by people who are frozen, as if they were in Bruegel’s painting, and those people look almost like two dimensional cutouts, but Hauer and York are moving and look real. How did you do that?

LM: Well that is real life. The people are real. The rock isn’t real. And the background isn’t real.

NP: But the people are real, and the landscape is real?

LM: Well, half of the landscape is real, and half of it is not real. But the people are real, they are just motionless. They are just standing still. But you can see a number of children are actually playing in the back, you cannot get them to hold still. And the horses of course.

This is a completely new technology. Developed for this particular movie. It’s merging the various elements in a very painstaking way. The least amount of layers in our shots is 40 and the maximum is 147.

NP: How is it 40? When there are 40 layers, what does that mean?

LM: Well the first layer is the actors against the blue screen. And then we have a layer of what is basically fog photographed by a moving camera. Because when you are using fog that is electronic it didn’t produce the right effect.

NP: So that’s natural fog?

LM: Yeah.

NP: Why do you need the fog layer?

LM: It creates distance. Because everything is layered. Like it is 3D almost. Because without the fog, it would flatten.

And then you have elements that were painted by Bruegel. And then you have, we shot various landscapes, or pieces of landscapes, going around and looking for something that looks like a Bruegel. Then we created various 3D objects in post-production. Like the rock, like various trees. Like the tree that I extended from the Bruegel painting, and then we had this to be set the leaves and branches and we had to animate the whole tree. So that you had the Bruegel tree moving in the wind.

And then you have various birds that are flying. Some of the birds are real, but some of the birds are created as 3D objects. And then you the clouds, which were shot in New Zealand, they are merged with the clouds that were painted by Bruegel and extended by my hand. The Maori call the place where we shot the clouds the Island of the Long Clouds. So, layers and layers and layers and layers. The most complicated shot comes right after the shot you mentioned, where we shoot up the rock, and then come back down. It has 147 layers. [Assembling] that shot took eight days, on 26 connected computers. And always there was something to correct in at least one of the layers. And then it would take us another 8 days to re run it. And then, we move a person or we move a cloud, and again 8 days. Altogether, nine months. The same as a pregnancy.

NP: Wow, one doesn’t have an idea how much work goes into this.

LM: One doesn’t have an idea how much work Bruegel put into one of his paintings. At least I was working with a large group of people. I was just guiding them, and they were doing the majority of the work. But Bruegel was working alone.I have a real respect for those masters. They didn’t have agents, nonsensical art fairs, or critics. These were men.

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One Response »

  1. Oone of the most outstanding points of this movie is its power is to absorb you into Bruegel’s painting, to experience the atmosphere and environment of the historical period , I assume this is achieved also by the decor and costumes of this magnificent movie.

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