Inspired by the forested expanse of his home in Poland, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing explores one man’s primal journey of survival
Set in the frozen wilderness of an existential nowhere, Vincent Gallo plays Mohammed - a suspected terrorist and US military prisoner who escapes whilst being transported from Afghanistan to a secret detention centre in Eastern Europe. Motivated by an unbridled sense of fear, working his way through memories of a past life slowly becoming more and more incomprehendable, the film Essential Killing explores his feral degeneration in a non-dialogue account of one man’s resistance against all the odds. Dazed talks to the director Jerzy Skolimowski about the film's exploration into the limits of human survival…
Dazed Digital: Can you tell me where the idea for the film came from?
Jerzy Skolimowski: After living many years in California, two years ago I moved to Poland where I have a house deep in the wild forest. Two years ago I shot Four Nights With Anna, and I shot literally all around my house – I just walked out of my door and I was on location and had the convenience of sleeping in my own bed. I wanted to repeat shooting on my doorstep and in my neighbourhood there is this secret military airstrip where the CIA planes were landing bringing prisoners from the Middle East so I thought, ‘this is the seed for the film’. Well, where is the story? What can I do? So I came up with the idea that one prisoner escapes and he is in my forest and maybe he even enters my house... So I start to think along those lines. Eventually I didn’t shot it near my house. We had to go to Norway just to have the snow guaranteed. We were shooting in -35 degrees, can you imagine? And Gallo was running barefoot in the snow in those conditions.
DD: Did you write the film with Vincent in mind?
Jerzy Skolimowski: No, I didn’t know whom I would cast. I just finished writing the script and I went to Cannes Film festival, it was May 2009, and the first night I was there I went to see the Francis Ford Coppola film Tetro where Vincent was playing the lead. I spotted him when I was leaving the cinema and since we knew each other from California and social occasions I said, ‘Vincent, you know, I’ve just finished a script which you should maybe read.’ He read it on the spot. He wanted to do it so the very first idea (which came by total accident to my mind), happened to be the best one. I am very happy with his performance. Nobody would have been better.
DD: Since there was so little dialogue, did you have to sit and develop the character with Vincent or was there a lot of improvisation?
Jerzy Skolimowski: No, of course the characters were precisely written. Especially when you don’t use the dialogue you have to be very precise in the description so not only the behaviour explains what’s in their minds. The body language for example; I had descriptions of the body language in the script so the actors were precisely informed on what they should do. Of course I allow a certain element of improvisation, but it didn’t happen frequently.
What do you think about the western worlds reception to terrorism?
Jerzy Skolimowski: To be honest, I avoid all those questions and I put all the political issues in the background. I am not making any political comments on it because to me, the story is universal. It could be played in many different places and in a different time – it could be in the past or in the future. The subject of the film is the process of the human being turned into the wild animal and that is universal. It doesn’t matter if the story is in Afghanistan, Iraq, or somewhere in the Pakistan border. It doesn’t matter if it ends in Lithuania, Romania, Poland – all those countries were receiving those CIA prisoners. But this all is the background. It’s not important. The important thing is that very character and his fight is a fight for survival.
Do you think that everyone has that animal instinct in them?
Jerzy Skolimowski: Yes, but it’s an individual thing – everyone reacts differently. Not everyone would fight for life as this character did. I doubt I would be able to go through such a thing.
Essential Killing is released 1 April