Now in his mid-80s, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski proved that age is just a number when his film EO premiered in Cannes last year, earning him the Jury Prize for this picaresque story of a donkey on the move, from good situations to bad. His lucky streak continued this year when the film was Oscar-nominated for Best International Feature — surprisingly, his first nod from the Academy in a career spanning 60 years.
Accompanied by his wife and writing partner Ewa Piaskowska for a panel at Deadline’s Contenders Film: The Nominees event, Skolimowski revealed the inspiration behind his decision to make a film with an animal at its center.
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“I owe quite a lot to Robert Bresson and his  film Au Hasard Balthazar,” he said. “One of the main characters is a donkey, but it’s a completely different story. Bresson’s film tells the story of a few people located in a French village, and the donkey plays a rather supporting part. EO is a road movie where the donkey is the main character. He goes from place to place and meets different people, and we see the world around him through his eyes. Basically, he’s the protagonist of the film, with his own ideas, imagination, dreams, hopes and fears. He’s a fully-fledged character.”
Piaskowska admitted that, while writing the script, they were blissfully unaware of the challenges they would face during the shoot.
“We were terribly optimistic when we were writing it,” she said, “because we had scenes in which the donkey behaved like an ordinary actor — looking at things, appreciating things, fearing things, reacting to things. So it was quite a big surprise to us when we got on set and realized that a donkey actually has a pretty stoic face. There’s not much expression going on! So the emotional potential of the character was actually realized through editing, to a huge extent.”
The film’s powerful music also helps, and Skolimowski was quick to give credit to the person responsible.
“My composer, Pawel Mykietyn, is very well-known classical music composer,” he said, “and fortunately he doesn’t treat scoring films as a kind of lower-class job. He puts all his ambition, and knowledge, and talent into it, and my direction to him was, ‘Pawel, I need you [to] get inside the donkey’s head and present his inner monologue.’ This is what Pawel did, and this is the film’s best achievement, sound-wise. Because it made it possible for the audience to really identify with the animal — they could read his thoughts, or his emotions, in a proper way.”
Check out the panel video above.
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