Żuławski by Żuławski: The Making of ‘Bird Talk’
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The Making of Bird Talk, Still from 'Bird Talk' directed by Xavery Żuławski, 2019. Pictured: Sebastian Fabijański, photo: Velvet Spoon, center, mowa_ptakow_zulawski_3.jpg
A movie that’s a meeting beyond the grave between a father and son, and a tribute to one of Poland’s most prominent filmmakers: Xavery Żuławski’s ‘Bird Talk’ is a filmic letter to his father with a behind-the-scenes story that’s just as intriguing as the onscreen action.
Many years ago, when asked why he took up directing, Xavery Żuławski answered that he chose this path to better understand his father. He entered the film world branded as the son of a genius director, a man who was a great artist and the enfant terrible of Polish cinema.
Bird Talk, written by Andrzej Żuławski and directed by his son, is Xavery’s artistic journey toward freedom, a meeting with his father that has allowed him to say goodbye and find his own path.
In his father’s words
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MOWA PTAKÓW - pierwszy zwiastun
The film’s backstory begins in 2015. Andrzej Żuławski had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and his son supported him during his fight. They met with each other nearly every day. In a conversation with Gazeta Wyborcza, Żuławski reminisced about one of these meetings:
My father suddenly left the room. After a moment, he shuffled over to me and stuck something under my nose that resembled a screenplay. He said: ‘Take it. You can throw it away or read it. Whatever you prefer.’ That was ‘Bird Talk’.
The younger Żuławski threw the screenplay into the back of his car, where it languished for a few weeks. The film wasn’t important at that moment – only his father’s life mattered.
In February 2016, Andrzej Żuławski passed away. A month passed before Marcin Wierzchosławski, a producer who’d dreamed of working with Żuławski senior, phoned his son with a proposition. He wanted Xavery to direct the last screenplay ever written by the creator of La Fidélité. In a conversation with Culture.pl, Xavery Żuławski said:
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When I started reading, the letters swam around the page. The emotions were too fresh. I couldn’t understand what I was reading.
He didn’t want to step into his father’s shoes or battle against him.
I was afraid that the project was doomed to be laughable. That it would become a failed attempt at copying my father’s style.
Only later did he change his mind. The title intrigued him. Bird Talk (Mowa Ptaków in Polish) seemed like a celebration of diversity and a tribute to freedom of thought. The words written by his father felt like an invitation to a further conversation, but Xavery didn’t want to continue the conversation alone. He came upon the idea of a filmic homage, which would be directed by young artists. Each artist would direct 10-20 minutes, in their own style, with their own cinematographer.
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The producer came around to the idea, and soon collected four directors: Piotr Kielar, Jan Komasa, Jacek Borcuch and Xavery Żuławski himself. During their meetings and discussions, a new film came into being. The director remembers their work:
All of us saw the original text differently, which allowed me to open myself up to the writing and allow for different readings.
Soon the producer secured the necessary funds. Two million złoty from the Polish Film Institute allowed for filming to start, but the sum required a lot of discipline and creative producing. Meanwhile, Borcuch started work on Dolce Fine Giornata, and Jan Komasa began Corpus Christi. Soon both directors dropped out of the project.
For Żuławski, this was a sign he should direct the film by himself. He used a few scenes directed by Piotr Kielar, but the rest of the material he directed himself, surrounding himself with people who knew his father and used to work with him.
Behind the camera stood the 80-year-old Andrzej J. Jaroszewicz, a life-long collaborator of Andrzej Żuławski, and the composer was yet another one of his late father’s good friends – Andrzej Korzyński. The other side of the camera didn’t lack Żuławski co-workers either – Monika Niemczyk, Alicja Jackiewicz and Michał Grudziński all took part in Bird Talk. Xavery Żuławski found a role for Marta Żmuda-Trzebiatowska, someone his father had also wanted to film, as well as Daniel Olbrychski, who from the very beginning told the director:
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I’ll play the role, just don’t explain anything to me, because I may even understand it.
Despite choosing a crew like his father’s, Żuławski junior decided to face the text on his own terms. He knew well that the work was full of quotations and literary, philosophical and filmic references, but he chose to film it from a naïve view. In conversation with Culture.pl, he said:
I know that every scene in the film could be the basis of a PhD thesis. But it would have taken me two years. I preferred to read the script and discuss it with my crew.
Crewmembers quickly identified the references sewn into the text. Sebastian Pawlak found a Różewicz quote about how ‘spilling blood is a foundational act’ and Andrzej Jaroszewicz kept finding references to scenes he had filmed with Żuławski in Possession and other films.
Conversations with his father
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Still from 'Bird Talk' directed by Xawery Żuławski, 2019. Pictured: Andrzej Chyra and Sebastian Fabijański, photo: Velvet Spoon
The original writer’s intellectual parade began taking on life – especially when real life began intruding into the carefully planned scenes. When the crew began filming a conversation between Eryk Kulm and Sebastian Fabijański at the Wiatraczna roundabout in Warsaw’s Grochów district, a drunk woman with a beer in hand approached the actors. She slapped Fabijański, saying: ‘Don’t freak out. Don’t show off. Sit down’. The actors didn’t break character, and the scene made it into the final cut. Life intertwined with literature, creating a new hybrid.
For Xavery Żuławski, dialogue was the most important. Żuławski senior, perhaps the most erudite filmmaker in Polish cinematic history, provided actors with witty material for constant repartee. The vibrant, occasionally intellectually ostentatious dialogue of his father fascinated the director. In an interview with Jacek Szczerba from Gazeta Wyborcza, he described the filming process:
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I heard my father’s voice: Screw the stage directions. The only thing that matters is what they say. Stage it how and where you want.
The financial limitations meant the locations were limited and occasionally had to be changed (a singular scene in an apartment was originally twelve different scenes) but the dialogue was sacred. The challenge was unique for the actors as well, who rarely encounter these kinds of artistic challenges.
A reflected world
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Still from 'Bird Talk' directed by Xawery Żuławski, 2019. Pictured: Sebastian Pawlak, photo: Velvet Spoon
Żuławski’s words brought with them an army of challenges. Even at the story-telling level. Żuławski senior created a kaleidoscopic tale, where musings on the everyday bounce off each other. The story of a teacher haunted by his students, an artist suffering from leprosy, and a girl cleaning a millionaire’s mansion came together to showcase class divides, artistic obligations, love and bottled-up aggression. Especially the aggression that hides behind patriotic slogans.
In a conversation with Culture.pl, Xavery Żuławski said:
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My father predicted an eruption of nationalism. He wrote the screenplay six years ago, but he perfectly sensed the spirit of the times. He knew that nationalist thought, which for many years was weakened by communism and political change, was exploding, and that xenophobia is too often confused with patriotism.
To recreate the funhouse mirror structure of Bird Talk, Andrzej Jaroszewicz created a lens which allowed for the practical effect of Xavery Żuławski’s face melding into his father’s before emerging as Sebastian Fabijański’s face – a scene right at the start of the film that announces its intent to make literary and film realities blend with the realities of its creators.
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Still from 'Bird Talk' directed by Xawery Żuławski, 2019. Pictured: Sebastian Fabijański, photo: Velvet Spoon
Andrzej Żuławski’s script was full of traps. Especially because the venerable director was settling debts of his own within its pages – with his life, his thoughts on art and its purpose, with his heritage, his family’s past and the torpor of modern Polish culture. It’s hardly an accident that the main character, a genius pianist and musician, ponders writing a song titled Bad Girl (Dziewczyna Zła), a work so kitschy and lifeless that it’s a certified hit.
In this way, Żuławski was referencing real life. In the 1960s, he and Andrzej Korzyński, his favourite composer, attended a Czarno-Czerwoni concert and decided to write a song for the band. Korzyński composed and Żuławski wrote the words: ‘A bad girl stole my free will and time, nights and days’.
The band rejected the song, claiming it ‘sucked’. Żuławski was offended. Now he was returning to the song nearly half a century later, turning it into a symbolic tale of fallen Polish culture. Fittingly, Korzyński was even the film’s composer.
In Bird Talk, Żuławski wrote many of these allusions to his own life, like to his family’s past as well as his own relationships with them: full of toxic love, but also knit together through its art.
Bringing Andrzej Żuławski’s words to the screen, Xavery and his collaborators have carried on a conversation with the dead artist. Andrzej Jaroszewicz said in conversation with Culture.pl:
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For me, this film was an homage to Andrzej. Because Żuławski is a man who helped me achieve the best I could in life. Everyday on set I said to myself: ‘Andrzej would’ve liked this’, or ‘We screwed that up, Andrzej would be furious’.
Jaroszewicz purposely reached for the same wide-angle lenses he used for On the Silver Globe, and his camera followed the characters the same way it did in Possession, while in one scene Jaśmina Polak fell into a fury worthy of Isabelle Adjani.
Making Bird Talk was a meeting with an old master of his craft, who had made a filmic goodbye written for his son. For the young director, who spent his whole life measuring up to his father’s legend, Bird Talk was a unique experience. In conversation with Culture.pl, Xavery Żuławski summed it up:
This film freed something in me. My spiritual connection to my father grew stronger, and we stood face to face like equal people and artists.
Andrzej J. Jaroszewicz
The premiere of Bird Talk took place at the New Horizons Film Festival on 1 August 2019. It is available on Netflix in different regions.
Originally written in Polish, July 2019; translated by AZ, Nov 2019