Q&A: Director Agnieszka Smoczynska on the Lore of “THE LURE”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Tony Timpone
Poland has never been known as a hotbed of essential genre cinema, but that will likely change as director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s THE LURE continues to attract audiences worldwide on the festival circuit. The outré movie, which plays Queens’ Museum of the Moving Image’s Panorama Europe 2016 fest (May 6-22, where you can also catch Estonia’s GHOST MOUNTAINEER) and also swims into Montreal’s Fantasia film festival this summer, ranks as the best mermaid-vampire-disco musical you will ever see.
The audacious film follows sibling sea creatures Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) as they explore the waters of the human world while toiling as showgirls in a seedy strip club. Things go darker fast when love, sex and violence enter the picture. THE LITTLE MERMAID this ain’t! Fango got the tale of the (fish) tail from first-time feature director Smoczynska.
FANGORIA: THE LURE is a mix of the horror, fantasy and musical genres—a real mashup. Was it difficult to get such a strange film financed in Poland?
AGNIESZKA SMOCZYNSKA: It was definitely a project unlike any other in Poland! After some rejections, we were lucky enough to get part of our financing from the Polish WFDIF, Polish Film Studios—which is an old, legendary institution with a studio-like infrastructure at its disposal—lots of staff on salaries. It was very different from working with a small indie producer, but also not quite like a big studio production due to a still limited budget. Seventy percent of the money came from the Polish Film Institute, the rest from Platige Image and Polish Television. Because they knew my short films and the awards they won, I was allowed to take risks and do something new.
But, most importantly, our producer, Wlodzimierz Niderhaus, believed in our artistic vision, saw a potential in this project and did not interfere or obsess about the budget. And that’s a dream situation for any director. But we still had to fight for our vision during the entire process, mostly because it was so different and new. And the distributor didn’t really know how to handle this “beast” [laughs].
FANG: How did you keep a balance of all the disparate genre elements? Did you ever emphasize one over the others at any point?
SMOCZYNSKA: We definitely focused on the musicality of the film first and foremost. We created a soundscape for it early on. It was like a sound-script that imagined the entire narrative. Also, it was our musicians, the Wronskie Sisters [Siostry Wronskie], whose story inspired our script, so their involvement was an essential part of the film from the beginning. It was very tough to do, because we don’t really make musicals in Poland. And the musical in itself is a very particular genre.
And then, obviously, the horror is what defines the story: the supernatural creatures, mermaids—mythical, bloody representations of awakening womanhood. Later in post, it was the sound design that was the key element—it’s responsible for the style of the film, and it connects fantasy, horror, musical and psychological drama together.
I’m really interested in pushing the boundaries of film genres. Playing and testing their capacities can produce new qualities. This also helps me explore what interests me most in telling stories—the archetypes. Myths, fables, our primal images are incredibly potent in cinema. Genres help you tap into them.
FANG: What attracted you to this script?
SMOCZYNSKA: I was with the project from the very beginning, from the very first idea. It was, in a way, a very personal story to me. And the mermaids are just a mask, in a way.
Firstly, the world—the glamour of the Communist dancehall era from my childhood lured me in. My mother ran a restaurant during those times, and I was always fascinated by the different, strange characters that came into those parties to drink vodka and forget about the gray reality of Communist Poland. Also, our composers’ parents had a band like the one in the film. I also loved the motif of first love and the price you are willing to pay for it.
FANG: The material is pretty ambitious for a first-time director.
SMOCZYNSKA: Yes, but prior to that, I directed many episodes of various TV series in Poland. Sometimes, during the shooting, I’d fantasize that my characters started dancing or biting each other’s throats [laughs]. The idea for the film was so compelling, so strong, that I realized that with your first movie, it’s like with your first time: You have to do it with the one you love. I also didn’t want to commit to something that wouldn’t make me excited every day. I felt inspired and pumped to do something new to collaborate with musicians, choreographers, special effects artists. I really felt that this was going to encompass all my creativity. And it did.
FANG: Is there any kind of genre scene in Poland?
SMOCZYNSKA: There are more genre films being made now. It started a few years ago with the film noir REVERSE by Borys Jankosz, a stylish black-and-white crime story. Last year, we had DEMON by Marcin Wrona, a modern spin on the demonic pre-war Yiddish tale about a dybbuk. It was shown in Toronto and Fantastic Fest and then all over the world. Now, Adrian Panek is making WEREWOLF. It’s definitely the beginning of something exciting in Polish cinema, and it’s great to be part of that.
FANG: Did you or the screenwriter, Robert Bolesto, incorporate any existing or traditional mermaid lore into the screenplay?
SMOCZYNSKA: Yes, we researched fables and stories about mermaids. Also, the mermaid is the symbol of Warsaw, so that lore is deeply connected to the story. We were also inspired by Polish 19th-century Romanticism and its interpretation in the paintings of Aleksandra Waliszewska, who paints hybrids. I asked her to paint a modern mermaid, with a long, off-putting and slimy tail, like those found in the early representations in paintings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
FANG: What lore did you invent?
SMOCZYNSKA: We came up with the concept the monster with the long, repulsive tail. It was also our idea that the monstrous mermaid eats human hearts and that it bites deep into the larynx where the victim’s voice is located.
FANG: How have audiences reacted to a story in which mermaids can be an object of fear?
SMOCZYNSKA: They were prepared by all the vampire stories. But I think many felt it was more interesting, sexier, more real. I would hope so, at least.
FANG: What was more difficult for the actresses, the nudity or the makeup and suits they had to wear in their fish state?
SMOCZYNSKA: Yes, the tail mechanisms they had to put on were very heavy and limited a lot of their movements. But they were great. I did all I could to make them feel safe. And we prepared a lot. They really absorbed those characters, and they knew why we were doing what we were doing.
FANG: Did the actresses also know how to sing and swim?
SMOCZYNSKA: They are both good singers. And yes, luckily, they learned how to swim. Choreography was where we spent most of our time.
FANG: Were those roles difficult to cast?
SMOCZYNSKA: It’s always a challenge. I knew what I wanted, though. And I understood that Golden and Silver had to be different in so many ways, and yet deeply connected, like sisters. In the long process of casting, I finally found my mermaids.
FANG: Had those actresses done much work before?
SMOCZYNSKA: When we started, they were still students in acting school. We ended up working on their parts together for several months.
FANG: The film’s production values are excellent, especially the FX and cinematography. Did your budget allow you to hire the best people available?
SMOCZYNSKA: There are many great cinematographers in Poland. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work with Kuba Kijowski. He’s an artist with a vision for the film and is never just there to please anyone. He serves the story, while following his natural talent, and I loved that. Luckily, he had enough budget to bring to life almost all the ideas. And at other times, we were just innovative and came up with simple creative solutions on the spot.
And the special effects were definitely accounted for. We knew it was key. I personally convinced Platige Image to become our co-producer. It’s the best VFX company in Poland, and our supervisor had done great work before, for example on Lars Von Trier’s ANTICHRIST.
FANG: Without giving anything away, why did you end the story on such a dark or tragic note?
SMOCZYNSKA: To me, this ending is more symbolic. It’s more about leaving behind a certain image of what love is. For our mermaid, being human is such a burning desire. She has expectations about that, and does not accept who she is now. A lot of young women feel like they need to be defined by their relationships, whereas exploring who you really are, building your strong self, is not given enough time and thought. And the ending, to me, expresses the consequences of that.
FANG: What’s next for you? More work in the genre?
SMOCZYNSKA: After the award [a Special Jury Prize] at Sundance, we did very well on the festival circuit—winning 17 different awards worldwide—and that opened many doors. I’m humbled and so happy about that! There are many different projects on my plate. Now it’s the time to decide which one comes next.