Mystery, Instinct & Cinema
The making of “Breathe” with director/writer, Paul Kowalski
All my films start with a feeling — the inkling of a familiar, but fleeting, sentiment. It’s a fragile form that mysteriously percolates up from the subconscious, but flees as soon as you try to mold it into words — as futile as trying to describe a piece of music. The theme, or what a film is about, is important, too, but that primal flutter is, for me, the most intimate and profound part of the process. It’s less to do with story, and much more about cinema. It transcends words, and is wrapped up in color, light, music, composition, dreams, timing, sound, and memory. It is my trusted guide throughout the filmmaking journey. I have never started a film without it, and think I would be lost if I did.
In my first film, “Battersea”, it was a wall. Years ago, in southwest London, the iconic and disused Battersea Power Station bore the repeated image of a sunny, landscaped garden plastered around a perimeter fence. Walking along this surreal backdrop one day, I reached a clearing and, in stark juxtaposition, saw the monolithic building sitting like an upended industrial behemoth under gray English skies. That single moment catalyzed the entire film, about a woman who becomes lost in a surreality brought on by grief, and gets comfort by anthropomorphizing the building.
Often it’s a piece of music. The seed for my short film, “Shadows”, was a unique vocal arrangement of the second movement of Vivaldi’s G-major concerto. For reasons buried deep in my psyche (and that remain unknown to me), the sweet, sad interplay of voice and cello conjured up a childlike woman playing with a sliver of light, while sitting in an empty house covered in painter’s cloth.
In my most recent film, “Breathe”, the spark ignited one night while I was swimming at a pool. I became transfixed by light reflections flickering off the surface onto a tiled wall. Something about the ethereal mixture of water, light, and the color blue laid the metaphorical foundations of my psychological thriller, about a neurosurgeon derailed by the haunting memories of his wife’s drowning.
As the film took shape, it became clear that water was working as a cinematic correlative to the protagonist’s grief and guilt — the nightmarish drowning sequence, then swimming in the spot of his wife’s death, submerging himself in a bathtub, and a pivotal scene in which he quarrels with his wife in the middle of a rainstorm. Similarly, the color blue kept reappearing — the green-blue pool lit from underwater, a cobalt blue tiled wall, brain scans illuminated by a light box, and the medical scrubs and masks. These recurring motifs were all echoes of the original inspiration, and synesthetic to the protagonist’s haunting, internal struggle.
The actual production of a film is an entirely different process. A film set often feels like the worst imaginable environment for breeding any kind of poetry. At every turn, schedules and budgets threaten to derail cinema and smother the mystical ghost guide. I envy the real poets who labor in solitude with religious resolve, taking years to find the right word or turn the right phrase. Most filmmakers are not allowed such luxuries. So, what is one to do?
Preparation is vital, as are a script refined to its essentials, and a shooting schedule that allows time to explore and execute scenes. Also, filmmaking is not a solitary pursuit, and requires skillful collaborators who can understand and complement the director’s unifying vision. Casting appropriately — nothing is possible without the right faces, physicality and personas that work within the unique world to vivify the original sentiment. Working with actors in the right way matters, too — under-rehearsing can lead to squandering precious time, money and light on set, while over-rehearsing may yield stilted performances that lack the spontaneity of a captured event (though sometimes this is desirable).
In the end, however, even the best-laid plans can amount to nought. The immediacy and unpredictability of film production means carefully planned storyboards, floor plans, camera angles, locations, color schemes, casting choices, or desired weather, often get thrown out of the window in the last minute. In such situations, it helps for the filmmaker to be like a chess player, able to project several moves into the future. But cinema is more than continuity, plot, realizing character arcs and “making days”. A much more difficult challenge is being resilient enough to follow through with the original cinematic idea. In truth, the filmmaker must be more like a shaman, a conduit for that higher plane and the intermediary between primal inspiration and everyday necessity. When cast and crew ask questions that demand practical answers, the original sentiment can serve the director as an artistic ground zero. When the costume designer on “Breathe”, for instance, asked if medical scrubs should be green or blue, I could answer instinctually. When my request for rain in a pivotal scene meant downgrading our camera to cover the extra effects costs, I knew it was an essential compromise. And when things started to reek of “movie making” or “acting”, the original instinct became an antidote to the poisons of literality and cliché.
As an art form, cinema is a paradox. Its history and grammar are infantile, only a little over a century old. Anyone can study film, and practice stringing their own shots and sequences together to elicit various effects; one can go to film school to help perfect their craft, or learn their way around a set or a camera, and become a masterful technician. This is all significant.
But the raw material of cinema is much, much older. Moving images in juxtaposition, the mysteries of dreaming and how we perceive the world, a dark cave and flickers of light against a wall — these are ancient rites — pre-human, even. And it is this sacredness that the greatest films tap into. After all, it is not words or plots that linger in our psyches, but a film’s sentiment — the way a film feels. With its primary, non-verbal impetus, I have found the original instinct to be like an invisible script that guides me back into those deep, mysterious wells. And if a film’s poetry depends on how well the director succeeds in cultivating and shielding this instinct across every stage of production — then perhaps the greatest lesson for the filmmaker hell-bent on making any real cinema is learning how to keep that flame alight throughout the storm.
UNDER THE SURFACE
Below is a video chronicling the making of “Breathe”, featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with key cast and crew.
Paul Kowalski is a British-Polish director/writer based in Los Angeles. He is a graduate Directing Fellow of the American Film Institute (AFI) Conservatory, and a BAFTA Newcomer. His style tends towards dark psychologies, hypnotic imagery, and themes of exile, obsession and the supernatural.
His latest film, “Breathe”, has won jury and audience prizes at the Beverly Hills Film Festival, Sunscreen Film Festival, Derby Film Festival, Big Island Film Festival, USA Film Festival and Cine Gear Expo, among others.