Lech Majewski • Director of Valley of the Gods
“There is always a touch of the unexpected when making art”
by Marta Bałaga
- As he was honoured with a Special Camerimage Directing Award, Cineuropa met up with Polish director Lech Majewski to discuss his latest star-studded collaboration, Valley of the Gods
With a cast including John Malkovich, Josh Hartnett, Bérénice Marlohe and even 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Keir Dullea, in Valley of the Gods [+see also:
interview: Lech Majewski
film profile], Polish helmer Lech Majewski interweaves the stories of the world’s richest man and a struggling writer with Navajo legends, only to emerge with, to quote Monty Python, something completely different. We caught up with the director, who is receiving a Special Camerimage Directing Award at the ongoing Camerimage International Film Festival (9-16 November).
Cineuropa: You said that even though people tend to overanalyse this film, it’s really a very simple story. Is it really?
Lech Majewski: Obviously, this film has many levels. The recurring theme is love and loss, but it has sweeping images and sounds, and layers of meanings. There are actual filmmaking mechanisms you can apply to make people feel whatever you want them to feel: to scare them or make them laugh. It’s a hydraulic system: you press a lever and the result pops up, but I don’t go for the hydraulics. I go for the underground flow, so to speak. I believe there is a way of communicating on a subconscious level. I came across the description of my films as “visual poetry”, and they certainly don’t go off with a big bang like blockbusters, exploding and then vanishing. They have continuity and stay in viewers’ memories for a long time.
During an interview with Keir Dullea about 2001: A Space Odyssey, he immediately compared you to Kubrick. How did you assemble this eclectic cast, from 1990s heartthrob Josh Hartnett to John Malkovich?
I wouldn’t call it eclectic; I’d call it natural. When I was writing the story, I just saw them. Josh was my first choice, and I just thought that Keir would make a fantastic butler because of the nature of my story. It’s a bit futuristic. In The Mill and the Cross [+see also:
interview: Lech Majewski
film profile], with Rutger Hauer and his face that looked like a carved mountain, it was a natural choice, too, and it was the same with Michael York, Charlotte Rampling and Viggo Mortensen, whom I gave his first leading part [in Gospel According to Harry]. My writing is minimalistic. I am a poet, so I have training in abbreviation, but at the same time, I am a painter. I see what I write, and I don’t want to disturb those visions prior to the shoot. There is always a touch of the unexpected when making art. We throw a stone into the water, and it produces a ripple effect. One of these effects is that reality starts responding to you. You can block yourself off from that, or you can be open.
One character pokes fun at all of the current blockbusters – all the Tom Cruises and the Bonds – where you know the characters are going to be just fine. But your story is directed at adults.
Spielberg and Lucas killed adult filmmaking with their mechanical toys. People saw that kids are the best audience – they see films multiple times, and they bring their parents. It’s the engine for money-making, and it destroyed the whole industry. Suddenly, movies for grown-ups were gone, replaced by films treating special effects like pornography – with effect on top of effect. I think the mature audience somehow retreated. Maybe it’s a natural step – it’s a youth-orientated culture. Everything is youth-orientated!
You decided to show Native Americans, fighting for their land. Weren’t you afraid to do so, with so much talk about cultural appropriation nowadays?
It’s this idea of someone raping the holy land. We all know they were victimised, digging out uranium dust, which they called the “yellow monster”. It was killing them, making them sick, and the government didn’t help. They still live in unbelievable poverty on their grounds, hiding mineral treasures that everyone wants to lay their hands on. They have a completely different approach to the land – you shouldn’t exploit it or abuse it. It’s a fantastic culture, and we know so little about it. One of the Navajo tribesmen said that Valley of the Gods is the only film that adopts their perspective. Usually, they are made from a white man’s point of view. “You are like us, Lech,” he said to me. “We, like you, don’t see the world through facts and figures, but through its soul.” There is this unknown, metaphysical aspect to it that I care about. When The Washington Post wrote about my films, the title was: “Lech Majewski is the Surreal McCoy”.
No wonder that when Hartnett’s character is given a task to do something different, he takes the pots for a hike. Literally!
The world is absurd, so go and do absurd things! It’s very liberating. But it’s not easy to produce something new. When I was staging Carmen, I discovered that Bizet died just weeks after it premiered. He was exhausted from writing the score, and the critics just pulverised it – he died of rejection. Cinema is a visual language, and we forget about it, with festivals taking on a function akin to socio-political rallies, looking for scandals and outrageous acts that we need to perform to be noticed. But nothing is shocking any more! Once, when I was making Wojaczek, I was invited to join a group of Polish poets in a pub. A part of it had been rented out for that event, there was a stage, and they were reading their poems. But once other people started to drink, it got louder, and the poets started to yell out their poems as well, ultimately selecting the ones with the most curse words. There were “fucks” flying around, but the beer drinkers still disregarded the poets. That’s the situation for artists today. They yell, and try to shock and scandalise people, but people are largely oblivious to their acts.
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