Review Fix chats with “Atlas” Director Maciej Kawalski to find out what inspired the flick and what’s next.
Review Fix: Why is the topic of this film important today?
Maciej Kawalski: It is now easier than ever to get swept away by other people’s story, to have our identity hijacked by other people’s preconceived ideas about us. To get put into a box, without anyone ever asking whether we like it or not. Whether it’s the right box. And to this end, to me, Atlas is a story about reclaiming your identity. About finding the courage to drop the burden of other people’s notions of you and to make your story your own; to stand your ground.
This is a matter of life and non-existence. A matter of being true to your own
path, or having your path formed by outside circumstances, without initiative or agency.
Nowhere is it truer than in mental health patients, who are the least likely to defend their own story. But it doesn’t stop there. I believe it is a challenge we all face. Atlas is a comedy, and it deals with the issue in an oblique, humorous way, but I believe its core message comes across despite (and perhaps ‘thanks to’) its playful approach. When we finally muster the grit to make our story out own, the effects can be seismic — but nothing shakes things up better than a good earthquake.
Review Fix: What inspired this film?
Kawalski: When I was writing the script of Atlas, I studied medicine. In my third year, I had a course in Clinical Psychiatry, which involved shifts in real hospitals, meeting actual patients. The patient meeting whom impressed me the most was a catatonic man, who spent his entire days standing motionless. Nobody knew why he did that.
What fascinated me was how quickly people around — the other patient, the
medical personnel, the students — started to write up his missing story with their own guesses. After a week, a plethora of informed gossip already filled the place. It was as if people could not stand not knowing his story, and since he didn’t provide one, people invented it. It was a powerful experience, which stayed with me for years.
Review Fix: How difficult was this film to put together?
Kawalski: It took a long, long time to make this movie. From the initial idea to the finished film, almost a decade has passed. Wow, I didn’t realize it was that long until you asked that question. The thing is that I wrote Atlas when applying to film school. Submitting a script of a story about 30 minutes long was a requirement, and this is how I wrote Atlas.
Because it was my ‘application script’ I never even considered filming it in reality! Years later, I came across a program called “Thirty Minutes,’ run by Munk Studio. The program called for thirty minutes long feature scripts. I learned of it only a day before the applications were due, and I had but one script of the kind — Atlas.
It got accepted and financed by Munk Studio, and thus the film got made.
Review Fix: Tell me about the cast.
Kawalski: When it came to casting Atlas, the first actor I had in mind was Tomasz Kot. We didn’t know each other beforehand, but my casting director passed him the script, and he liked it enough to arrange a meeting. We met at a restaurant and were supposed to talk it over over lunch. Half an hour, forty-five minutes tops. We ended up talking for over three hours! It was then that I was sure if that film was to be made, Atlas had to be Tomasz. His schedule was full to bursting, so my production was faced with about a year-long wait for Tomasz. It was worth it. Tomasz had a short window open before he started working on Cold War with Pawel Pawlikowski, and we managed to shoot Atlas then. The next talent on my dream list was Marian Opania, a legendary Polish actor, who starred in over 90 films. When he agreed to do it, I knew we were going to be okay. And we were! The entire cast was a delight to work with! We had a great time on set, and I am sure they elevated Atlas way above what I would be able to think up alone. They breathed life into this story, and I believe it shows on the silver screen.
Review Fix: What was the feeling like on set?
Kawalski: Filming Atlas was very, very tough! Most of the shooting took place in an unheated XII century monastery, which, in March had this eerie, piercing cold about it. Despite all our heaters, it was colder inside than outside, and that cold somehow bore through you despite all the four jackets you would have on. So, in essence, it was a filmmakers’ version of Navy Seals ‘Hell Week.’
The comparison is apt since the harder it was to survive, the more bound together the crew became. There was a sense of overcoming a physical and creative challenge together, and it created a lot of good vibe despite all the hardship.
Moreover, there was something magical about filming inside an eight hundred year old monastery. Only on set did we learn, that at some point there was a psychiatric hospital inside its walls, which gave our endeavor even more uncanny beauty.
Review Fix: How have the audiences been reacting to Atlas?
Kawalski: I am overjoyed by the audiences’ reception of the film! Everywhere it was shown, people not only laughed out loud but also found a meaning hidden inside. And the most satisfying thing of all is when the audience sees a meaning which you haven’t thought of! To me, this is when a work of art comes to life, and this has been the case with Atlas. I remember watching it with a theatre full of people on Flickerfest in Australia. I was terrified if they would get it. But then the screen came to life and after a few minutes, to my astonishment — the people started to giggle. It was one of the greatest reliefs of my life.
Review Fix: What films have inspired it the most?
Kawalski: I’m not sure I have a particular film which inspired Atlas. I love Fellini, so surely 8 1/2 wound its way in there somehow, but I wouldn’t be able to put my finger on it.
Review Fix: What have you learned about yourself through this
Kawalski: Making Atlas was like an entire Joseph Cambell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ to me — the road of trials and tribulations, meeting allies and wise old guides, together with descending to the artistic netherworld of frustration and misery that the project is never going to end. All the way to resurrection and coming back with the ‘elixir,’ which is the finished film. It was a journey!
Most of all, it taught me to trust the process. But what did it teach me about
myself? I cannot live without storytelling. No matter how difficult it is to make a film, and to make a living from it as well, I know after Atlas that it is as essential as oxygen to me. It is both humbling and empowering to learn that.
Review Fix: Describe Atlas in one word.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Kawalski: Currently, I’m developing two feature films. One in Poland, with the backing of the Polish Film Institute, and one in the US. Can’t wait to invite you for a screening of either one!