The film is intentionally ambiguous –- we never find out exactly where the hero, Mohammed, was captured or what his ethnicity is. Skolimowski painstakingly crafted the script to avoid the need for dialogue, which would have given away Mohammed's affiliation. After being forced out of Poland in the '60s following his film 'Hands Up,' (which had anti-Stalinist themes) Skolimowski has steadfastly avoided any political themes in his films ever since.
We caught up with Skolimowski to chat about everything from the secret CIA camps that popped up near his home to why he cast Gallo to what it was like working with Emmaneulle Seigner, the wife of his good friend Roman Polanski.
Cinematical: There's an interesting back-story to the concept. How did it evolve?
Jerzy Skolimowski: I live in a 19th-century hunting lodge in the forest in Poland. I was aware, in my neighborhood, that there was a secret airport called Szymany. And there was a rumor -- which was more and more proven to be true -- that the CIA planes were landing there, bringing in prisoners from the Middle East. I thought well, it's an interesting subject. Unfortunately it is quite a political one. Generally I stay away from politics. I had a lot of trouble and eventually I was forced to emigrate from Poland. I started to live the gypsy life, going from country to country and making some films.
And one winter night I was driving back home on the forest road, very slippery, and my car nearly went over into the ditch. At that moment I realized I was just next to the airport. And I thought if such a near-accident could have happened to me, it could have happened to anyone in the convoy transporting prisoners. And I imagined that the prisoner escaped and sees snow for the first time, having shackles on his feet and handcuffs on his hands and is running away. I thought well, this is my film. I have to do it. To avoid politics I would give it a poetic treatment, I would make it a philosophical tale about survival.
Why did you cast Vincent Gallo?
It was a lucky coincidence. I was at the Cannes Film Festival two years ago, and when I was walking out of a screening I spotted Vincent just in front of me. And I noticed that there was a certain animalistic quality in his movements that would be very good for the character. I gave him the script, and two hours later he called me and said, "I must do it! I am born to do it! I was born in Buffalo, it is always so cold that I'm used to running barefoot in the snow!" I thought well, he's exaggerating a little bit, but his enthusiasm was so great that I didn't think about casting any other actor.
What was it like directing a film with so little dialogue?
It was part of the script. I decided not to have any dialogue mostly for the reason that I want to make it as ambiguous as possible. If Mohammad would speak, his language would give out too much information. Therefore I was planning the whole part with meticulous details to avoid any need for talking. I think I succeeded because there's so much going on without any necessity for dialogue, that it works.
This was shot in Israel and Poland and Norway. How did you scout those locations?
My original plan was to shoot it all around my house, but there was no snow guarantee. So I made an agreement with Norway where there is plenty of snow. I shot partially in Poland and partially in Norway, but I chose locations that look similar so the difference is not visible. In some of the scenes we are jumping from Poland to Norway and back, and it doesn't show.
What about Israel? How did you find that location?
I wanted to make the Middle East location so ambiguous that it wouldn't show where we were. There is a canyon in Israel near the Dead Sea. The canyon of chalk. Not rocks, chalk. Which is very, very fragile. This is why you're never allowed to shoot films there. But it looked so beautiful that we asked the Israeli authorities to let us shoot there.
What was it like shooting in such extreme climates?
Shooting in Norway, the temperature is minus-35 degrees, can you imagine? And poor Vincent is running around barefoot. It was difficult. We were shooting several nights in a row in the Norwegian mountains where even the transportation was difficult –- even the snowmobiles couldn't get into the places where we were shooting. To get there, it took several hours and a lot of effort.
Is there anything else about the film you'd like to mention?
I'd like to mention the part of Emmanuelle Seigner, who is the wife of my close friend Roman Polanski. I always wanted to work with her. I think that she gave a wonderful performance. She expressed very well all of the feelings I wanted her to express.
'Essential Killing' opens in Toronto on March 31, Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg on April 1, Ottawa on April 9, with an Edmonton date to follow. It opens in the US on April 1.