As much as we would all like to assure ourselves that we’re enlightened enough to not fall into the shallow, small minded assumptions which feed into prejudices about others, far too often that just simply isn’t the case. And while the best of us strive to correct the biases of these snap judgements, for many those initial ideas take root, colouring all future interactions. So has been the experience of Julia, the woman of short stature at the centre of Tadeusz Łysiak’s drama The Dress (Sukienka), who has found her entire life dictated by her height with the local community unwilling to see beyond her appearance. Challenging societal notions of beauty and who is worthy of expressing and experiencing desire, The Dress opens up the possibilities of Julia’s world when a handsome truck driver takes an interest in her. Created during his time at the Warsaw Film School and sitting on this year’s live action short film Oscar shortlist, DN spoke to Łysiak about the organic formation of the film’s central concepts, working through the emotionally demanding scenes with his captivating lead and crafting the cinematography to maximise audience engagement.
How did the idea for the script come to you in the first place?
I cannot pinpoint one specific moment when all of the story came together for me, I think it was a long process of asking myself what interests me in the world and society and what is the general idea I want to share with viewers. I always work like that – I search for my personal feelings before I decide to put it on paper. In the case of The Dress, I wanted to tell a story about beauty and ask what beauty is in general. Why do we perceive something or someone as being good looking and others not so? We live in an era of the body – we are forced to constantly confront ourselves with the “ideal beauty” and those who don’t lust after this are mistreated, rejected and doomed for loneliness. Among all of these thoughts, I then came across an eye-opening article about people of short stature and I thought to myself – this is a great idea for a short movie and a character like that would be the perfect conduit for these general ideas I had.
When you are making a film that is somehow socially engaged, it is really important to never let it be too straightforward, too focused on the issue. That’s why together with my Cinematographer Konrad Bloch we decided to never think of The Dress as a film about the biological condition of achondroplasia or one too focused on the protagonist’s height. We knew that this was a very special story that needed to be told in a very intimate and delicate way.
I wanted to tell a story about beauty and ask what beauty is in general. Why do we perceive something or someone as being good looking and others not so?
The film has an incredibly authentic feel to it, how was this achieved?
Through discussions with Konrad it was always our goal to make The Dress feel real and almost like a documentary. We knew that this emotional and socially engaging script needed a visual look that would keep the viewers captivated at all times. That’s why we decided to have the camera handheld to focus on the protagonist’s face, we also never use too much artificial lighting and you will notice very few wide shots. We also wanted the viewer to forget about Julia’s height and to see her as a woman that has the same desires, fears and emotions as all of us. That was our mission – to show you that all of the social boundaries, misconceptions and prejudice are being forced upon you by society and that it should never matter how tall you are, how much you weigh, the color of your skin or the clothes you wear. This dictated the whole look of the movie and that is the reason behind why we decided to never go over the top in terms of the visuals.
Furthermore, since our lead Anna Dzieduszycka was not a professional actress we wanted her to feel relaxed while shooting every scene so we used a lot of natural lighting and we never surrounded her with too much equipment, to let her be herself and feel free to move, change position or do whatever she feels like doing.
Anna’s performance is so wholehearted; did you encounter any particular pitfalls working with a non-professional and how did you go about casting to find the right actress for Julia?
When I was writing the script I knew that casting would be the most important stage of the project. Without the right person to play Julia, the movie simply wouldn’t exist. I had come across her earlier in my studies and was just so happy that Anna Dzieduszycka fell in love with the script and decided to play in it. Of course, the fact that it was the first major role in Anna’s life was a bit stressful. Fortunately during the course of the rehearsals and especially during the shooting of the film, it turned out that Anna is an excellent actress and you can work with her on a professional level.
There are very difficult scenes in the film, scenes of nudity, emotionally demanding scenes, sex scenes – Anna took on all of these with incredible sensitivity. She was also helped by her co-actors – Dorota Pomykała and Szymon Warszawski, who created a comfortable working atmosphere for her and shared many valuable tips about the actor’s work.
Do you feel that the longer length of the film has posed any issues for The Dress?
Originally my script was too long for a short movie and we really suffered from that. It was over 30 pages long and it had around 50 scenes in it, so with our student budget and limited time it was really difficult to make it all happen. We had to do around 8 or 9 scenes a day and it was really challenging for us. Fortunately we had an amazing crew of young talented filmmakers from Poland and our production manager Monika Ossowska along with our co-producer DOBRO managed to make it all work.
The thirty-minute format is the maximum format of most short film festivals – that’s why we decided to keep it. It is known that people often prefer shorter, fifteen-minute films, but we were absolutely sure that the story we presented is captivating and would never feel too long or boring, which turned out to be true. Many people would like to see even more of Julia. I think it’s good to leave the viewer with this feeling.
Entire threads have been cut out of the film. For example that of the hotel director who was a very interesting character, fond of Julia, but at the same time desperate to make a good impression on the hotel guests and those who did not like the fact that such an “ugly” person was working there. There were also a few additional scenes with Renata and Bogdan, however after cutting it all out, it turned out that the film did not lose much and the main story continued with a good rhythm. Perhaps these ideas could be developed into a full-length film in the future, but so far I have put this project aside, it would need a completely fresh perspective.
It is known that people often prefer shorter, fifteen-minute films, but we were absolutely sure that the story we presented is captivating and would never feel too long or boring.
How do you think the experience would have differed if you hadn’t had the support of the Warsaw Film School behind you?
We had a lot of help from the film school who produced the movie. They helped me with a script and pre-production process and also what happened afterwards – the whole promotion and distribution of the movie. I cannot describe my gratitude to the school. It is an amazing place that not only teaches its students the techniques of filmmaking but also supports them during promotion and shipping to festivals. I owe them literally everything. You probably wouldn’t have heard about this film if Chancellor Maciej Ślesicki, Veronica Andersson and the entire team from the Warsaw Film School had not been working every day to raise people’s awareness of this film. I sincerely recommend these studies to every young filmmaker.
What can we expect from you next in your career?
I am currently working on my full-length debut. The working title is Obsession. It will be a psychological thriller set in contemporary Poland, but it will be universal throughout. In it, I look at the pain a parent feels after losing a child, and the madness they can fall into after experiencing such a terrible trauma.