I find it unfathomable that seemingly every day there is another news story about the continued erosion of women’s reproductive rights in countries we consider to be modern, innovative and forward thinking – an experience shared by filmmaker Bren Cukier. Her short Thursday (Czwartek), made possible by the strength and bravery of the women who recounted their experiences in Poland in response to the 2020 changes in law which for all intent and purposes banned virtually all abortions, encapsulates so many shared lonely and alienated experiences which shouldn’t be commonplace but we need to hear about. We follow Maria, a young independent actress as she has to maintain the charade of normalcy while in reality, she is gripped by agonising pain and fear which she cannot share even with those closest to her. Shot on 35mm with soul searching close-ups that enhance her palpable loneliness, Thursday serves as a testament to what these women have all gone through. After her filmic version of a battlecry caused a stir amongst audiences at festivals, we are delighted to premiere Thursday on DN today and speak to Cukier about her approach to the delicate research that informed the film, harnessing loneliness both visually and narratively and building a miniature cardboard set to ensure they didn’t waste a minute of precious shooting time..

With so much absurd regression globally of female reproductive rights, why did you want to tell this story in this place?

I moved to Poland in October 2020 via an apprenticeship program at the National Film School of Łódź. Almost immediately after my arrival, Poland passed some of the most draconian abortion laws in history, effectively banning abortion in all circumstances and implementing criminal punishment for anyone who has or helps with an abortion. Coming from NYC, where one can simply walk into Planned Parenthood for the procedure, this was understandably shocking, especially as a young woman. The ban catalyzed a movement called ‘Strajk Kobiet’ in Polish and along with it a cultural shift, where suddenly women who had previously kept silent about their stories wanted to come forward and speak about their abortions. This was what gave me the idea initially to begin interviewing women, first friends, then friends of friends, then complete strangers, about their medical abortions (via pills), which is essentially the only means available to Polish women. The pills are sent in the mail via covert organizations or individuals, and often the women are forced to take time off of work, school, etc. in order to do the abortions at home. They cannot contact medical assistance for fear of prosecution, and even confiding in loved ones can be risky.

I took these stories, so similar yet so different in many ways, and amalgamated them into one woman’s story. Maria, a 30-something actress who simply does not want to be a mother. While the film is not meant to serve as pro-abortion propaganda, it certainly emphasizes the inseparability of the personal and the political and the necessity of choice. This was something my producer Stanisław Zaborowski and I had to be mindful of before, during and after production, as even art made about abortion in Poland can be met with extreme critique and consequences.

What were your main aims moving into production?

We took as many measures as possible to create a safe space/set, where everyone understood the gravity of the topic at hand and treated the process with the utmost respect. Shooting on 3-perf 35mm film also heightened the focus and dedication on the day, given that we only had 2-3 maximum takes per shot. To prepare for this, my cinematographer Nadia Szymanska and I storyboarded every frame and designed each shot to mirror Maria’s internal conflict and loneliness. There are multiple long Steadicam shots that also required immense preparation; I actually created a model of the set out of cardboard with small dolls and a Steadicam laser pointer that we used to track the camera. It was a huge help on the day and allowed for us to not waste time/film. The shoot itself was 5 days, shot on locations completely reworked by my incredible set designer Oliwia Waligóra to match our very specific color palette. We had a 30-person crew and all of the department heads were women.

Did you take a particular approach in the research phase to reassure everyone about how you were broaching the subject?

Perhaps because of my documentary background, the research and development part of a project is so crucial creatively to me. In this case, I had an extra incentive to seek out as many stories from individuals as possible, since I was trying to portray an experience I haven’t had. I initially reached out to women I knew personally who were willing to share their stories, with the understanding of my intention to use them as inspiration for a fictional script. I was then connected with more women of different ages and backgrounds mostly via social media. All interviewees remained anonymous, we even altered the voices of a few featured interviews during the credits for safety concerns.

The commonality between them was an overwhelming sense of being alone in the experience, both literally and emotionally.

Every woman who spoke to me did so from a deep place of wanting to be heard. For some of them, it was the first time they had told their story to anyone. These interviews massively informed the script and, when I could, I incorporated specific anecdotal elements. The moment when Maria looks in the mirror after taking the pills, “There’s no going back now”, is straight out of an interview. Of course, every individual’s story is different, but the commonality between them was an overwhelming sense of being alone in the experience, both literally and emotionally. That feeling is what I sought to convey through Maria’s story and it heavily guided my directing decisions.

I love that beautiful dance scene at the start and her embodying the free soul she is.

This is one of my favorite parts. I also think it’s one of the most important expositional moments for Maria. We see the closest embodiment of ‘freedom’ she will have for the entirety of the film, and of course it is interrupted by reality – her husband calling. This is one of the more personal elements I injected into Maria’s character, as I heavily rely on dance as an anxiety release. That’s what the scene is meant to read as, not a celebration of her decision, but a cathartic moment of processing. We didn’t do any rehearsals of the dance, but Marianna and I talked about the character’s emotional state and looked at a couple of references (the Flashdance warm up scene being the most notable!) Additionally, Marianna has an incredible sense of movement and can emote so much with just her body, so I trusted her completely to nail the tone of Maria’s internal state on the day.

That’s what the scene is meant to read as, not a celebration of her decision, but a cathartic moment of processing.

We didn’t have a song lined up at the time of production, so I had Marianna pick a track she played in real time through her AirPods. In the film, that song is Dorothy by Polo and Pan, which was generously gifted to us by Cécile Baccou at the group’s label as she believed in the message of the film. I think it perfectly embodies the sense of escape Maria is looking for at that moment, coupled with incredible and improvised camera work from our Steadicam operator Maciej Tomków. We’re fully immersed in Maria’s world and yet we still know virtually nothing about her as a character.

There is a wonderful vintage Hollywood-type feel to her trip to the supermarket, we feel it’s covert but absurd at the same time.

It’s interesting you say that because I heard more than once from Polish viewers that the scene in the supermarket specifically feels American. That wasn’t necessarily the intention cinematographer Nadia Szy and I had when designing those shots. However, we did know we wanted it to feel tonally and visually different from the rest of the film as it is Maria’s main interaction in the outside world. The fluorescent lighting and even cooler palette added to this, along with an incredible job by set designer Oliwia Waligóra, who created fake products (including the diapers) in our color scheme. Maria’s interaction with the cashier (which by the way is me!) emphasizes how alone Maria truly is, to the point that she can’t even trust the judgement of another woman. It was also inspired by an anecdote shared with me by a woman who lived in a town so small that she chose to go two villages away to buy diapers at a different store where she wouldn’t raise suspicion amongst people who know her.

She has a deep understanding of the complexities of internal conflict when pitted against the external expectations of society.

Marianna Zydek is outstanding, what were you looking for in the role and how did you know she was right?

Firstly, yes, she is absolutely incredible. I knew as soon as I met Marianna that she had to play Maria. She’s incomparably intelligent, stunningly self-aware, and has a deep understanding of the complexities of internal conflict when pitted against the external expectations of society. Her upbringing in a very religious Catholic family perhaps contributed to this as she had to reconcile her own ideologies and beliefs with those she was taught. This is a similar struggle to what Maria faces, even in her own home and family, she’s bombarded by constant reminders of the pressures placed upon her as a woman, specifically when it comes to being a mother. The religious, societal and even personal weight she carries would be enough to crush any sense of what we actually want for ourselves. But this is exactly what Maria’s character explores, and Marianna intrinsically knew how to convey this.

We would meet often leading up to production to discuss our very different backgrounds and viewpoints about abortion of course, but also motherhood and womanhood at large. These conversations only further confirmed my confidence in casting Marianna. She embodied everything I strived for in the film and led us through Maria’s journey in such an effortlessly emotional performance.

Her loneliness is palpable even as she embodies strength and independence.

Maria’s loneliness was a guiding force when crafting the film, both narratively and visually. We are always with Maria, but we are not with her. We are still a fly on the wall, but the observation feels less voyeuristic and more parasocial in a sense. Marianna’s performance elevated the shots Nadia and I carefully crafted to amplify the feeling of isolation. The extreme close ups feel intimate with but distant from Maria at the same time, we are helpless in witnessing her pain, emotionally and physically, yet unable to look away from it. The Steadicam shots and some of the wider static compositions also helped frame Maria as alone in the world, whether it be in her own home or out in public.

We are helpless in witnessing her pain, emotionally and physically, yet unable to look away from it.

Can you elaborate on capturing those long intense Steadicam shots?

Intense is the right word. Firstly, Maciej was wearing an exceptionally heavy amount of camera equipment since we shot on 35mm, which made everything all the more impressive as some of the takes were between 2-3 min long. In order to best conserve time and Maciej’s back, our aforementioned model set was incredibly helpful. We mapped out every shot using the model and it saved us a lot of stress on the day as a result. The dance scene as I mentioned was a shining moment for Steadicam work, as is the final shot when the camera leaves Maria for the first time and moves through the house to the calendar.

Did you anticipate the reaction that the film has garnered and what does it mean to you?

Truthfully, I had no idea what to expect. My producer Stanisław Zaborowski and I decided to focus on applying to Polish and American film festivals. Our world premiere was at Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which was an amazing experience. It was also somewhat surreal to have the film first screen to not only an American audience but a California one at that, where we weren’t sure if it would resonate. What we couldn’t have anticipated was Roe v. Wade being overturned just as we finished the film, which I’m sure had an impact on the audience’s reception.

For a while I was anxious about the film not getting to play in its home country, as I thought the risky subject matter might prevent Polish festivals from programming it. Fortunately, that fear was resolved when we were selected for Kraków Film Festival, which is Poland’s oldest and most prestigious international festival. The film was so warmly received there, albeit there was an anti-abortion protest happening just a block down from the theater we were screening at. After the attention garnered from KFF, the film went on to get press coverage in major Polish media in huge thanks to Gosia Bodecka, our incredible publicist whose passion for the film was a driving force in journalists and publications bravely pledging their support. Now having played at festivals in different cities, states and countries, it has been so humbling and motivating to see women from all backgrounds stand in solidarity with Maria’s story, which is ultimately universal. This is the most meaningful part of sharing the film for me.

While I come from Polish roots, I absolutely cannot speak to the experiences of these women, and I wanted to reinforce this by including their actual voices.

Why was it important for you to have those women’s voices in the credits?

I very much wanted it to be clear that the events in the film were not figments of my imagination or a dramatization of the reality in Poland. While I come from Polish roots, I absolutely cannot speak to the experiences of these women, and I wanted to reinforce this by including their actual voices. Another intention was to emphasize the significance of the title and the final shot, which lands on the calendar with a day circled in red – Thursday. The first few voices in the credits reveal how they had to intentionally plan and set aside time to do their abortions; to choose a specific day.

What are you working on next?

I am in development for my debut feature which, maybe unsurprisingly, explores more motifs of motherhood. It is a psychological thriller exploring the inner conflict of the protagonist – a woman at the height of her career and past the point of being able to have children – who becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to an egg she donated more than 20 years ago. Beyond motherhood, the story heavily explores the concepts of legacy and achievement and their role in why we as humans are driven to produce, whether it be work or children.

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