Read an exclusive interview with Polish filmmaker Słavomir Batyra, director of THE GREAT THEATRE. He will guide you through the recesses of his short film just like his film guides the viewers through the recesses of the largest opera house in the world. Would you like some opera tickets or rather cinema ones? What about taking both?
Why did you decide to make a film about the Grand Theatre in Warsaw?
I studied Directing at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts in Warsaw. One of the classes I had to take there was Technology of Theatre, run by Professor Bojar, who has been in the theatre since it was rebuilt after the war in the 1960’s. Professor Bojar knows everything about the Grand Theatre, every inch of it. As the students of Directing, we would spend there two hours each week, walking around the theatre and getting to know it. We spent there one semester, discovering new and new parts of it each time, and still, we didn’t manage to get to know it all.
About many things there I only learned while shooting the film. For example, I hadn’t known that there was a health facility, or a first aid room where a nurse has a shift during each performance. There is also a fire unit, a fiction library, apart from the theatre library and music library, etc.
Did you have to take an exam at the end of this course?
Yes. We even had to learn some physics formulae for it. Of course, the most important was the theoretical and historical knowledge, but also the technological expertise.
Did you come up with the idea to make a movie about it before you graduated?
I came up with the idea later but that space was inspiring from the very first day. We were all walking around the place, our jaws dropped, and our heads full of ideas what we could do with all that. The concrete idea for the film developed a few years later, however.
How come you made your film with the producer Adam Sokołowski and deLord Studio?
I contacted Adam through my friends. We met, I told him shortly about my idea for the film, Adam listened to me and after thirty minutes I left with a confirmation that we would do it together. I was really lucky, because Adam understood immediately what kind of film I wanted to make and he became genuinely interested. I was telling him about the Grand Theatre in quite a vivid way. He also knew the place and its scale, so my role was to translate our common idea into the film language. I am really happy he let me make the film the way I wanted it to be made: in a contemplative, poetic manner. No interviews, talking heads or voice-over narration.
You are a theatre director, which is very different from being a film director. Was it a difficult change for you?
I learned through practice, while shooting the film. Adam Sokołowski gave me a free hand. The cinematographer Krzysztof Gromek and I were unrestricted in terms of the number of shooting days. And we shot for a long time. But thanks to this, we had enough time to get to know each other, discuss a common vision and work out the best way to cooperate.
At first, when you get in the Grand Theatre, you get into all those spectacular activities: for instance, you can watch a team of about fifteen people who move a few-metre-tall bull, a dozen ladies, carrying some costumes or wigs, pass you by. It is really picturesquely there, on the many floors the corridors never seem to end. We almost got fever: we were recording everything. Soon we realized that what was happening there was repetitive. So we decided not to turn on the camera for the first hour, no matter what. We wanted to get ready, set frames, etc. If needed, we would come back in the same place on a different day and record the fragment we had missed. We knew that what we were waiting for would be repeated, because each day in the Grand Theatre is the Groundhog Day.
How was the script for your film developed?
A treatment was created, which was an attempt at capturing the place’s poetic mood through the theatrum mundi topos. If we treated Madama Butterfly as the real world, then all those people who work backstage would be the keepers of fate, the fate that is written in the score. Teresa Krasnodębska, the stage manager, is the main keeper, who knows how exactly it is going to end and starts this huge machine. We found this metaphor inspiring and we followed it.
How long did it take you to make the film?
Very long. In the Grand Theatre, everyday something new happens. We were afraid that if we focused on one performance only, we would make a making-of film. We didn’t want to include too many shows, as this would be a hotchpotch. After the theatre gave us the green light, scouting took many months: I went to performances, met people, and took photos, trying to get the people used to me. I also wanted to check what I could do as a documentary film-maker. I realized that they had to get used to me, and that I had to show the nature of their job. Then we shot for nine months. After that, the editing took quite long too. Finally, we were trying to get the rights to use Maria Callas’ recording from her La Scala concert in 1955. The whole process took quite a few years.
It must have been a good school of directing.
A baptism of fire. At the first stage after shooting, I was alone with the footage. I edited some forty minutes and played it to Daniel Sokołowski. It wasn’t a film, I just wanted to show him what rhythms I was thinking about. Then Daniel took the footage over and after some time, he came back with a version very similar to the final effect.
What was your inspiration for making The Great Theatre?
I keep getting inspired by the art-house cinema of the 60’s and 70’s. Great masters. When it comes to documentaries, most often I switch them off after a few minutes. I usually consider boring stories based on watching a person’s life. Paradoxically, what I seek in documentaries is creation, and what I am interested in the most in theatre is bringing a life story down to the level of theatrical convention.
As you put it yourself, your film is poetic. Do you communicate in a similar way in your plays?
If I direct a theatre performance, most often its structure is rather scrambled. But there is always a hint, some kind of linearity. Even in the film, there is an integrating element: the story of Madame Butterfly is shown chronologically, not to the full post-dramatic extent. Here, the time frame is somewhat scrambled, but there is a thread to follow throughout the film. Usually, it is the same in theatre I make.
Have you decided to abandon theatre in film’s behalf?
I work less and less in theatre. The emotional cost and the time I have to spend working out new contracts is too much for me. I am more interested in the form of communal theatre, such as the Warsaw Revolutionary Theatre, created by the community and fighting for a specific idea. I believe this is the future of theatre.
Are you going to stick with documentary film-making?
I am, for now. At the moment, I’m making a film about Spitsbergen. It’s great to be a documentary film-maker in a place like this, with the scientists. And it’s even better to be a documentary film-maker who works with the form I try to apply. I entered this place somewhat like a poet. The scientists had seen my film about the Grand Theatre, so they knew what to expect. They gave me a chance to stay with them, observe them and use their presence for metaphoric and poetic purpose. I am very happy I can stay in the Polish research station as a documentary film-maker.
Don’t the scientists treat you as an intruder?
They do, to some extent. At the beginning it was terrible: the scientists expected sensation-thirsty reporters from a commercial TV station. They are completely isolated there, together for many months: they must have gone through a lot of good and bad together, they spent a polar night there. They are to go back to Poland in a month, after a year of not using a car, or pavement, or money. Tension builds up and then, suddenly some “journalists” arrive. Fortunately, we managed to get used to each other very quickly. Most importantly, I showed them my previous film. They realized it wasn’t going to be anything intimate, and that we weren’t going to cross their comfort zone in any way.
How do you imagine your audience?
When I make a film, I don’t have a specified target group in the back of my head. But I do visualize how my film might be watched: I see a person, seated in a comfortable seat in front of a huge screen, breathing slower, calmer. The journey begins. I want my audience to ride the same vehicle with me.
Watch the trailer on our YouTube channel.
Doc Alliance is a creative partnership of 7 key European documentary film festivals. Our aim is to advance the documentary genre, support its diversity and promote quality creative documentary films.