The Last Family is director Jan P. Matuszynski’s first dramatic feature after the documentary Deep Love (2013). The 32 year-old has proven his versatility as a director with shorts like Afterparty (2009), Niebo (2011), and Offline (2012), but his new film demonstrates this as his most complete work to date. We caught up with Matuszynski at Locarno Film Festival to talk about his preference for directing without a script, his growth as a filmmaker, and his process of finding and casting the stories he wants to direct.
Where did the idea behind The Last Family come from?
There were several things. Firstly, I was looking for a great script to have, because I don’t write. I’m just a director. I prefer to have somebody on the other side of the table to talk through the text. That’s my idea of the whole thing. I was looking for a script with a lot of things to do in one time. With this project, it has this whole background of Beksiński family, which I call the best-documented family ever because the father started to record them in 1957, so a year before Tomasz was born.
So that was one thing, which was really, really inspiring in so many ways—for the actors, for me to find the visual reference for it; I would say this is one thing. The other this is that, you mentioned the plot. The plot is a strange documentary because we made it as much as a fiction film as it could be, because I met the character Janusz and Asia before the big finish of the film. You know the story, the disabled diver wants to his big, great dive—and we met him just before his first dive after the accident. So we could follow him, step by step and he was planning the whole thing. So we can actually shoot the film in the way that a fiction film is shot. With The Last Family it’s the reverse of it. I was really curious if it’s possible to do a fiction film as a documentary, because all this background, all this history, all these archives we’re working in, and the most important thing was to find the creative way to show all those aspects.
We have a lot of things in the film which are not like in the first row. For example, we have the grandmothers which are on the side, just next to the camera. You don’t really see them. You have the whole technical stuff which is changing during the years, but we are not actually telling a story about how Tomasz got his first Walkman. We see how Zdzisław is changing his equipment. He has a camera, then he has shots with photos, then he moves into VHS and then he goes back to digital camera. I didn’t want to show details, so the viewer can have his freedom to choose his way of going through the film. From today’s perspective I would say this is really great. Everyone is getting a different perspective. This is what we wanted to achieve and I’m really happy that it works.
Do you think the film has had a good reception at festivals so far?
Well, it’s hard to say for me. That’s my first fiction film, and we’re in Locarno in the main competition, so this is really, really a huge thing for me and for all the crew. It’s hard for me to say about the viewers actually because we had the Q&A, but the Q&A was like just afterbirth for everyone, because the film is not really an easy one, so you have to think it over. What I can say is that the two main actors, Andrzej Seweryn and Dawid Ogrodnik… they saw the film a second time, and it was their first time watching the finished film. I don’t know if you were on those Q&A sessions, but they were totally destroyed by this film. They’re actors, right? They should recover quickly, because that’s such a formal situation. From the other perspective, that was a really, really nice experience. I can say that people are really moved. There’s something that stays in their head. For everyone probably a different thing, but it’s what I wanted to achieve. I’m really glad that it worked that way.
I guess you’re also lucky to screen in a competition like Locarno, where there’s almost an expectation that a lot of the films are going to be quite confronting for audiences, alongside a pretty broad range.
You know, there’s one absolutely great thing, which I realised yesterday actually. I didn’t have time to go through the program. I’m a fan of some arthouse films. I love Michael Haneke’s stuff. I love a lot of good films, but I’m also a fan of Michael Mann’s films, and Paul Greengrass films, and some other action films also. Because for me a good film is a good spectacle. There’s a definition of both The White Ribbon and The Bourne Ultimatum. Totally different films, but the whole package is… there’s some similarities for me. When I realised that we were screening, the world premiere is between The Conformist, Videodrome by David Cronenberg, and Jason Bourne… I said, “Yeah, that’s my place. That’s a place for this film.”
A while ago I watched Afterparty, the one shot with very low light. What were the inspirations there?
I treat every short film that I did as kind of a tryout. It’s funny that you mentioned Afterparty—that was actually the last film in film school. The thing which is really important for me is that this was the film in which I tried to work with actors in a different way. When I met Majiec, who is one of the characters in the film, in Afterparty, I sent her the script and she told me, “you know, the story is fine, but you have to rewrite the whole thing if you want me on board.” I said, “well, okay, let’s do that… but let’s do that in a different way.” I took all the free actors that play in the film and we were sitting for like… a few nights, just going through the whole thing. I’m not really happy about how this film looks, because the whole story is not for those whole fifteen minutes. It should be longer, but I’m really glad that the way of working with actors. That was like the beginning of what was developed in The Last Family. Because we went through those whole archives. We went with the actors for a couple of months. The pre-production process [went for] almost a year, so we could go through every aspect of every scene over and over again to cover it with right emotions, right motivations and so on and so on. That’s something that truly started with Afterparty.
Was it a long process to find the actors for The Last Family?
It wasn’t that long, but it was quite hard. In Poland the story is really big. Zdzislaw died almost a decade ago, so that’s still fresh. Here, people don’t know him, but in Poland that’s a cult figure. The same as Zdzislaw’s sons. I knew that with this story we can get really good actors, but we have to be really, really careful with the ones that I choose. I didn’t have any faces when I was reading the script. I didn’t have any names. The idea for the actor of this role—which is the main thing for me as a debut director—was to find an actor with great experience, huge knowledge, but who didn’t get a lot of titles in the last season or the season before. I was looking for somebody, in a way, fresh, and at the same time a very experienced one. Andrzej Seweryn was the one who covered those few things.
We had our first tryouts for half a year almost. Then I took the decision that this is the family. With Dawid Ogrodnik it would be different, because everybody thought that he’s the right one. I thought, “no, we have to check everyone else,” because it’s a big thing in Poland, so I knew that those actors will come and fight for it. So we took a while with the whole casting process for Zdzislaw and for Tomasz. And Davado got it because he was the best. The same with Andrej. What I love about them is every one of them is from a different kind of angle of acting. The power is in them mixing together; getting each other’s perspectives. Sometimes that was a bit messy, but it works through the film.
Was it easy in terms of funding the film within the country, or was that still quiet?
I would say it wasn’t that hard, but we knew that there will be some difficulties with not only funding, but with rights, because we needed rights to the paintings. This story works only with the Beksiński family and with Beksiński’s paintings. So we had to…
…get those rights?
Get an agreement with the owners of the rights, which is the museum. The Museum of History in Sanok, which is Zdzislaw Beksiński’s birth place. So there were also some consultations with them while we were preparing the streets production, so that was one thing. The other thing is that when I got the script, it was more less the same time when Magdalena Grzebałkowska wrote a book about his family. So she actually brought the topic out of nowhere. Well, maybe not nowhere, but she got the whole thing together, so when we were talking to the producers or any people the book was already out, so more people knew the story. That helped, but there was also a tricky part, because we’re not doing the adaptation of his book. That’s the same story, but the script was long before the book. But the book, it’s easier to put it out, so that was tricky.
But it all worked, and I’m happy that in Poland the film is opening on the 30th of September. There is a book coming about Tomasz. There are several other things that are already published or will be published about his family, so we get the whole package of different perspectives about the family.
You’ve made short films, music videos, and documentaries. Now that you’ve made a feature film, is that where you want to stay or do you see yourself going in a diffferent direction?
Well, I decided that I want to be a director when I was like 10 or 11. That was 20 years ago, right? Since that time I was looking for the moment when I will have my first feature fiction film, and I’m here, right? That’s one thing. The other thing is that I want to do good movies, good films that I would love to watch as a viewer. This is really important for me, and I’m pretty sure you can feel it with The Last Family. It doesn’t really matter for me if it’s a documentary or a fiction film. If there is a good base for it, a book, a screenplay, a real story… I’m just focusing on the right form. Sometimes it might be documentaries. Sometimes it might be a fiction film.
I guess you can blur them as well.
Yeah. For me the job is similar. It’s not the same, of course. But especially of those experienced with Deep Love and The Last Family. That’s a crossover in a way… so, I don’t know. I have some projects in development. I would say “etap jajecznica”, this expression, it’s “in scrambled-eggs stage”.
So we need some time to develop those projects. I have a thing in autumn, but it’s something different. I can’t really talk about it right now, but it’s not a film. We’ll see. We’re talking a day after the world premiere. I was focusing on The Last Family for the last three years, more than three years. Now I will actually have some time for my real family, because I have a three year old kid. I have a wife. I like to spend some time with them and then to start another interesting project. And I think it will be … it won’t be that easy, because I was looking for the script for my debut film for over four years. I hope I will get the screenplay to put in production in a shorter period of time than this one.
Yeah, though it’s definitely worked out pretty well to debut your first feature at Locarno in the competition.
Yeah. I have this fear that my expectations from everything are really, really, really high. I hate a lot of films, so I’m that high with my expectations and I can say that The Last Family is a film that meets those expectations almost 100%. I knew that probably that will work. Here, we’re in the main competition. For me that’s like the finishing line for the film in a way, because now there is a jury. I don’t know them. I don’t know the other films. There’s always some kind of … You don’t know that. If maybe something will happen at the festival, but that’s not me. That’s not my decision. I want to take a rest a bit, probably not that much. Then go to the next one, because that’s the job.
Good luck with the rest of the screenings. I really enjoyed the film, so I’m excited to see how it goes in the competition. Nice to meet you.
Nice to meet you.