When I look at the title of this piece, I feel overwhelmed myself. I mean, it would be pretty wonderful to sit in on just one of the these two men who are such Maestros in each of their professions as they give a Masterclass. But when you get them both, within 24 hours of each other, on a stage, talking to the equally wondrous Richard Peña, well, you have cinematic magic.
Or more precisely, what you have is the Doha Film Institute’s annual Qumra event.
Within the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is where the Qumra Masters Classes take place and each one so far, from Peña’s revisiting of Agnès Varda’s work, to Caballero’s disclosures of some of the tricks of his trade — production design of course — to Pawlikowski’s reflections on his multi-faceted career — the filmmaker worked on several documentaries before moving on to award winners like ‘Ida’ and more recently ‘Cold War’ — has been a revelation. Whether I’ve walked away with a newfound admiration for Varda, or some life hacks on the power of silence from Caballero, or even Pawlikowski’s thoughts on a favorite filmmaker of mine, fellow Italian Alice Rohrwacher who’ll give a talk at Qumra later this week, the discoveries have been life changing for me.
The highlights of Caballero’s Masterclass included the definition of the work he does, which he called “exciting,” and said that production design in a film helps “explain a lot of things that are difficult to explain with words.”
He also admitted that “production design is not a visual tool but a narrative tool,” and that it’s a shame it is not really taught in film school. His ideal course study for a production designer in the making would include “history of cinema, some basic technical tools, art history and construction,” to help develop a strong conceptual approach. He also added that you need to be a “good communicator” to be able to show the rest of your crew the vision you are striving to achieve.
While one thinks of production design as a stationary set, Caballero warned against forgetting “the physicality” of a location, because, he added “you have to let the director and actors get their dance.” A well designed set should inspire them without interrupting their vision or performance. Among some of his most challenging, and utterly beautiful projects, there is the Tsunami disaster story ‘The Impossible’, Jim Jarmusch’s ‘The Limits of Control’, the fantastical ‘A Monster Calls’, Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Roma’ and Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ which garnered Caballero an Oscar for Art Direction in 2007.
Caballero believes wholeheartedly that a “location can really enhance the visual storytelling,” and that “choosing a location is not a random decision.” He also admitted that these days his criteria for choosing a film is quite simple. “I take films if they challenge me and inspire me — and I don’t know how it will end up.”
Pawlikowski — whose work ranges from his existentialist documentaries in the late 80s and early 90s, to ‘Last Resort’ in 2000, to the Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas starrer ‘The Woman in the Fifth’, until his latter work ‘Ida’ which won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2015 and ‘Cold War’ which was nominated this year — described himself to the audience in poetic terms, sprinkled with self deprecating humor. He used expressions like “I was mysteriously interested” in the subjects of his documentaries and then added that the docs helped him “a lot — got me out of my pretentious short films.”
‘Last Resort’, when watched today, appears almost two decades ahead of its time as it deals with a mother and son from Russia who become stuck in England as refugees, with no papers, no money and no rights. And yet Pawlikowski admitted that although “to journalists the movie was about immigration, to me it is about these two people,” Tanya, the mother and Alfie, the British man she strikes up a friendship with. “When you don’t tackle a subject head on,” in a film, he commented, “it becomes much stronger.”
About ‘The Woman in the Fifth’ which for all intents and purposes was meant to be a genre film, taken from a kind of “airport novel,” the sort of disposable writing that travels well, Pawlikowski disclosed that “getting away from my stuff,” the films he’d always written himself up until that point, “became strangely personal.” For the Polish filmmaker writing is always fluid, never fixed and the best things “come out in dialogue, through conversations.” While his initial script will always have a fixed beginning, middle and end, everything else continues to be built on until he begins shooting. And sometimes beyond.
In a final very fortunate choice of words, after admitting that he likes watching some of his past work and fast forwards at times, to get to “the good bits,” the filmmaker said that “when a film finds its form, it rejects things that are wrong.”
As a final bit of trivia on Pawlikowski, did you know that most, if not all his films run “82 to 83 minutes, plus the credits”? I didn’t. So now we know. Stay tuned for more Qumra Diaries.