I DIED (ZDECHŁAM) first came on my radar as one of my Best of Fest picks from the Berlin Music Video Awards, making it an absolute pleasure to see it land in the Directors Notes submissions list! I was taken then by its gothic atmosphere, stunning black and white images, smart use of negative space and subtle manipulation of horror tropes. And it gets better with each watch. Telling the story of a heavily pregnant unmarried woman arriving in a convent before having her baby taken away from her, its deliciously violent rebuke of Catholic mores makes it a satisfying, yet unsettling experience. At once austere in its composition, while striking and provocative in its fleet narrative development, it is an elevated music video that works as a piece of art in its own right. Joining us today Director Zuzanna Plisz talks about being affected by the current abortion debate in Poland, working with artist Kuba Kawalec and singer Ana Andrzejewska, and creating a completely dialogue-free experience.
Demon babies and the Catholic Church seem to go hand-in-hand in horror films! What attracted you to this idea? Was it fun to play around with classic tropes?
When I started working on the idea for the video, I didn’t have any genre in mind. Although I expected that what I would come up with would oscillate between genres such as drama, fantasy or horror because I usually write in that style, I didn’t plan to make a classic horror. When drafting ideas for music videos, I usually listen to a song over and over again, awaken my imagination and wait to see what images or characters it will bring. Then, from what emerges, I create a narrative story. In the case of I DIED, it felt that some darker moods were appropriate and that the beat and dark vibe of the song would go well with a horror-themed story.
Of course, something that is also extremely important and what inspires the creation of the story and characters are the lyrics. In I DIED we have a female lyrical subject. She sings poetically about her suffering, the cause of which we do not know. What we can be sure of is that a great evil has befallen her and now she’s left vulnerable and hopeless. The lyrics and my reflections on their meaning led me to create the main character – an unmarried pregnant girl living in a conservative society where such a condition means suffering for both the child and the woman. It’s worth mentioning that when the song was written and when I was writing that story, we were experiencing strong civil unrest in Poland due to the tightening of the already restrictive abortion law. The film is not a commentary on what was happening. It would be irresponsible to use a horror genre to make a commentary on such matters. But I was affected by all of that at the time and some of that unrest could have made it into the story.
I didn’t want the film to be classically scary. I rather wanted it to be unsettling.
With that starting point, the story could have unfolded as a regular drama but instead, I decided to start building tension. I like creating dark tales so it wasn’t just the music that led me to horror but also my personal preferences. The moment I enjoyed playing around with horror motifs was when together with the Cinematographer Kacper Fertacz (who also did all the VFX for the video) we were working out the visual language of the film. The task wasn’t easy. We had only four minutes and 22 seconds to tell the whole story and provide enough information for the viewer to understand it while at the same time building tension and creating the atmosphere. I decided to be slow with introducing horror motifs or supernatural elements and didn’t want to shock with the macabre. Also, I didn’t want the film to be classically scary. I rather wanted it to be unsettling. What I wanted the most was for the film to have its unique style, despite the classic themes of demon babies or the church. I hope I managed to achieve it at least a little bit.
How did you collaborate with Kuba Kawalec and Ana Andrzejewska?
Kuba Kawalec is a good friend of mine. He’s the author of the music, alongside Patryk Kienast, Arek Kopera and Mariusz Obijalski, while Ana Andrzejewska was invited to sing. I was very grateful that they trusted me with I DIED. They gave me the freedom I needed to write the script and luckily, they loved the idea. As the musicians do not appear in the music video, they weren’t involved in pre-production or shooting but supported me and the crew every step of the way.
How much did the music influence the edit as both sound and image seem to be so well in sync here?
The music was crucial in pacing the edit. I believe that working on editing begins already at the stage of writing the script. While creating a story specifically for a music video you always need to have in mind the song’s rhythm, pace and lyrics. With all of that in mind, you develop the story and later the structure and length of the scenes. When making a narrative video it’s very important to have a plan before shooting — like the part of the song where the turning point comes, or the climax. At least, that is what I do.
Of course, you can always tweak things during the postproduction and editing. I consider having a precise plan which includes drawing simple shooting boards and making homemade animatics crucial to succeed in classic storytelling. What is also essential is the editing itself. I was lucky to work with the brilliant Editor Aleksandra Gowin who shaped the pace and tension of the final video.
While creating a story specifically for a music video you always need to have in mind the song’s rhythm, pace and lyrics.
A large part of the film’s strength, especially considering there is no dialogue, comes through the actors themselves. Tell me about the casting process?
My approach to making this video was the same as if I was making a movie and just like in movies, the actors here were key to bringing the characters to life. I cast professional actors with a strong natural aura so it could be felt from the screen. I’d already worked with some of the actors before. Beata Zygarlicka, who played the Abbess, and Marta Malikowska, who portrayed the Nun, are exceptional and powerful actresses.
Natalia Lange was my first choice for the role of the Girl. We hadn’t worked together before and I was impressed by her talent for bringing the nuances of her character to the screen. What was also very important was the choice of a boy for the part of the cursed child. This was the only role we organised casting for. Adam Sułek turned out to be just perfect. I was lucky we got him. I also had the pleasure to work on this project with talented actors Ewelina Zawada, Elżbieta Studniarek and Jerzy Nasierowski. I am very grateful to all the actors for the dedication they put into this film.
The use of black and white cinematography really helps to stress the austere nature of the story here. Did you always intend to shoot in black and white? What equipment did you use?
When I was searching for visual inspiration for the video, I looked at a lot of analog B&W photographs from the early twentieth century that were taken in rural communities. I wanted to keep that mood of a black and white, austere countryside. I never imagined the story in colour. DP Kacper Fertacz chose Cooke Speed Panchros to help get that look. He paired them with a Red Gemini camera. Some additional gimbal shots were shot with an older Red Epic.
I DIED is my first black and white project. Choosing black and white is not an obvious matter. You can never be sure if there are real reasons for your film to be like that or if you are tempted to make it look more interesting at first glance. In the case of I DIED, I instinctively felt that this form would help to stress the austere nature of the story and would bring me closer to telling a dark tale rather than a social drama.
How much post-production was there in colouring with regards to bringing out the contrast, which is rather stark here?
We shot in colour but during the pre-production Kacper prepared a LUT to monitor the footage in B&W on set. One of the tasks of the LUT he prepared was to lower the contrast in the camera. On set Kacper worked with contrast lighting (contrary to the LUT) to achieve more interesting tonal transitions. We just followed that in grading, tweaking some things as usual.
Equally striking is the child all in white while everyone else is donned in black at the end. What was it like working on the costuming and make-up in the film, and bringing out those differences between characters?
When making a black and white film we do not get to play with colour nuances. Therefore, creating subtle differences between the characters is more difficult. Of course, the colour of real things on set affects what the shade of white or black will be, but that’s another story. To bring the differences between the characters in B&W it’s best to use natural black and white contrast, which also seems to be the only choice. In the case of the nuns and the clergyman, I opted for black costumes, because it’s natural for these professions. But the child who was born and became a leader had to stand out. With Costume Designer Martyna Cierpisz we decided to give him a white costume that would boldly contrast with the setting. Also, the white colour symbolises innocence: given that the boy is evil, this was a subtle perversity. During pre-production we did camera tests to learn how different colours translate into shades of black and white. Also, with the make-up artist Magdalena Tarka we tested makeup because the nuances of it are less visible in B&W.
I instinctively felt that this form would help to stress the austere nature of the story and would bring me closer to telling a dark tale rather than a social drama.
I love the winter setting. What was it like waiting for the perfect weather?
The dates of the shooting were fixed and couldn’t be changed due to the weather. We knew that we would have to adapt to whatever the weather was going to be like. Luckily for us, it started snowing exactly one day before shooting, making the landscape more cinematic. Unluckily, the snow melted halfway through the shooting and some of the outdoor scenes were snowless. In a few of those scenes, we superimposed falling snow in post-production to make the difference less noticeable.
Was there a long scout to find the right locations?
Due to the small budget, we couldn’t afford to shoot further than the Warsaw area. We wouldn’t be able to pay for the accommodation. Our scouting possibilities were then reduced to areas and locations that are very well known to every active filmmaker from Warsaw. The Masovian district is not very spectacular when it comes to the landscapes. That’s why there are so few in the film but we had to pick a nuns’ farm. As we couldn’t afford to build a set, we decided to shoot in the open-air museum near Warsaw. Luckily, I worked with very talented and experienced Art Directors Anna Marzęda and Martyna Matuszczak. They put a lot of heart and effort into adapting the interiors and exteriors so that they enrich the story and create a proper atmosphere. The results of their work were amazing and the location suited the film very well.
What are you working on next?
I’m finishing writing the script for my feature debut and I will focus on getting that project into production.