While she may not be as well known here in the United States, director Malgorzata Zsumowska is considered one of the most prominent Polish film directors today. She’s wracked up the awards for her films, with her most recent film Mug winning the Jury Grand Prix in 2018 at the Berlin International Film Festival. Her films generally explore what Polish society is still uncomfortable discussing, with her film Ono tackling the topic of abortion, Elles tackling the topic of prostitution, and In The Name of tackling the topic of homosexuality. Now she is making her English-language debut with the thriller THE OTHER LAMB, which stars Raffey Cassidy, Michiel Huisman, and Denise Gough.
For the upcoming release of THE OTHER LAMB, Malgorzata and I discussed what initially drew her to Catherine McMullen‘s script, how shooting the film in such an isolated area ended up changing her filming approach, and the themes surrounding womanhood and feminity within the film.
To start things off, what drew you to [Catherine] McMullen’s script?
Malgorzata Szumowska: First of all, I was surprised at the time where I was reading a script where I saw a mostly female cast. It’s very very rare. To have an opportunity to work with an all-female cast and one man. Evidently, I found the dynamic between the man and the women very interesting because he’s only one. But the second and maybe the most important is that it’s a journey of Selah. From being a child and somewhat innocent to becoming a woman and becoming someone who is revealing the nature of a man who is to be to her a father and a potential lover, which is a very strange combination and kind of pervy. It was very interesting to me to observe this girl, what she does, and what is happening to her and that I can tell the story from her perspective. That’s also very important when you’re reading a script to find the right perspective and the right angle and the right perspective was already in the script through her eyes.
And one of my favorite aspects of the film was how certain things were framed in the shot. Like sometimes it felt like we were close to the character, but the background looked far away. I’m not sure how to explain it, but it looked cool. You had a lot of unique shots. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Malgorzata Szumowska: The film is very visual, right? Then I think, we didn’t have time with the cinematographer. The cinematographer, Michal [Englert], who also writes. He’s usually my co-writer and we make films together. It has to be, we have to create a specific language to tell the story, something unique and exceptional and something muted. We didn’t want to use too many words. Even in the script, there’s not much dialogue. We had to try to reduce it to almost zero to try to tell the story when the camera is close to her, to see through her eyes, but many aspects are in the background to create things that work without words. I mean, the work without words. It was our kind of key, to try to say as much as possible with the visuals.
Speaking more about the visuals, the production design, especially the location, kind of felt like a character within itself. How difficult was it finding those different areas the film takes place in?
Malgorzata Szumowska: The question is a paradox because, in the script originally, the story is based in Australia. It’s dry. No rain. Hot. Why go? Everything is totally opposite. Barbarian symbols. Zero Christianity symbolism. And then, it was like [unintelligible] million dollars. Twenty-five shooting days. Four weeks of prep and they say we have to shoot this film in Ireland because Ireland, they are giving us some money. But then we are obligated to shoot in the location. Then we travel the cinematographer to Ireland. That’s not very romantic. But, when we saw the nature out there, we were completely amazed. And then we immediately tried to adapt the script to that place. But, I mean, it was so crazy. We didn’t have a lot of time. We were obligated to shoot in a specific region of Ireland on top of it. Then we had to plan. In four weeks, we had to choose all of these locations. We had to adapt the script to the places. It was a little upside down, you know? The nature of the place, it gave us the changes in the story. I like it. It was kind of a spiritual experience, where nature leads us to all of these changes to be done. It was interesting.
Yeah. It just was incredible how the outdoors just really amplified the film. In regards to acting, everyone across the board was phenomenal. However, Raffey Cassidy, as well as Michiel Huisman, really stole the show. Can you talk about the casting process a little bit?
Malgorzata Szumowska: From the beginning, I was 100% for Raffey. I saw her in The Killing of the Sacred Deer and Vox Lux. I thought she was very striking and she has such a truth in her eyes. She’s so natural and an amazing face and movement. Then we had some difficulties finding Denise. I mean, we looked at some other actresses and then I saw two actresses. And then I found Denise Gough and I said, “Oh my God. She’s amazing.” She is a very good theatrical actress, but also she’s been in movies. But she’s more of a theater actress and I knew she has these cues and I know I would be very good with her too. I mean, the casting was kind of in my head, especially of all of the flock. I met each girl personally in Ireland. I did the casting by myself. I never used any tape recording, etc. I literally did everything by myself.
With the man, with Michiel, again it was more complicated because there were some other ideas. In the end, we ended up with Michiel. He kind of dictated the style also. I always try to adapt to the situation. You’ve got to know that I don’t have a twenty million dollar budget. It’s like the opposite, right? I have to adapt myself to the situation. I found him very good looking. I immediately changed the story to the way he looked like. I must react all the time, you know, according to the casting, to the location, everything. Then I am always repeating that there were a lot of limitations you have to face. But, on the other hand, those limitations also bring a kind of freedom that, at the end of the day because you must limit yourself, you are doing something really good. It’ll change, but it was an amazing experience. I think I’m going to use in my future projects that you have to really be there. Be present. Do it very hard. Do this. Do that. Adapt the story. Yeah. It was like this. [laughs]
What’s amazing about the film is that there are so many themes at play, especially in regard to womanhood, femininity, and all that. Is there anything you particularly wish people take away from the film after they see it?
Malgorzata Szumowska: It’s hard. It’s always hard from the outside to say one theme you have to…you know what I mean. It’s kind of complicated for me. I have a feeling like her, Raffey, Selah, this young character who has this moment over a huge change. That journey in becoming a woman is probably something young, or maybe not young but women can take from the story and see it again. Or see a part of themselves in her character. But also, I was just saying as a joke to someone else, but if there is one thing, it is to be careful of good-looking men.
[laughs] That should be the lesson.
Malgorzata Szumowska: Be careful. I found this a very funny joke, but it’s true. [laughs]
THE OTHER LAMB is now available on VOD and digital platforms. If you want to learn more about the film, check out our review HERE.
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