A couple of years ago, 72-year-old Polish film director Jerzy Skolimowski's car skidded off a forest road and he found himself "alone in nature," surrounded by animals. He realized the same thing could happen to a van carrying dangerous prisoners, and that's pretty much the premise of Essential Killing, a beautiful, bonkers, man-versus-nature slugfest starring Vincent Gallo as a man of implicitly Middle Eastern origins who is tortured for exploding some American soldiers before escaping into the forest.
Out there in the snow, all morality hurls itself through an open window as he attempts to survive, battling anything and anyone that gets in his way, eating ants and stealing fish while being chased by dogs and crushed by trees.
The precise origins of Gallo's character are never determined, but his name is 'Mohammad.' The casting decision furrowed a few brows, but everyone's favourite sperm-selling Italian-American plays his role expertly--which is high praise considering he's given no dialogue whatsoever to work with.
I met the director (who co-wrote Roman Polanski's Knife In The Water and acted in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises) in London to talk about Gallo, politics and waterboarding.
Vice: When it was announced that you'd chosen Vincent Gallo to play a Middle Eastern fundamentalist, were you surprised that people said it was provocative casting?
Jerzy Skolimowski: Well it was kind of extravagant casting. Wouldn't you say?
Yes. But when you're watching the film he looks right. You don't question it. Was he excited about playing the part?
Yes, he wanted to play it very much. When I approached him he got very enthusiastic, and he was even saying that he's so used to the cold weather because he's from Buffalo where it's always cold. He said he was willing to run barefoot in the snow. Which in practice wasn't that easy.
Did you always have him in mind for the character?
No, that was pure accident. I met him in Cannes in 2009 after a screening of Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro, and I liked him in the film. I saw him walking in front of me and I observed certain animalistic movements of his body, and I thought that would be good for the part. I was walking behind him for a while wondering whether to approach him or not, and then just instinctively I tapped his shoulder and I said, "Hi Vincent, I've got an idea for a film you might be interested in," and I gave him five pages of treatment. He called me literally two hours later and he said, "This is phenomenal, I want to be in it, I MUST be in it! I'm physical, this is the ideal part for me!" So I said, "OK, grow a beard, grow your hair," and six months later we were shooting the film.
Did you talk to him about the political aspect to the character?
I told him that I'm not interested in politics and that I was going to treat the situation at the start of the story as ambiguously as possible. I don't point out where we are, which war it is, which year it is, it could be many different places. We know on one side there's a well-equipped American army, and on the other side there are some guys in turbans. It could be anywhere: Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan.
Did he talk about his own politics?
No... you know, we were not on very friendly terms. Let me explain something. Vincent is a method actor. So he accumulates all the negative things to play that character. He was actually antagonising everybody just to feel like that character. This is the method.
What was he doing?
Making scenes about every little detail. He wanted to have berries for breakfast, and we were in a remote place in Poland where the nearest civilised shop was hundreds of miles away. So we said: "We cannot get you berries for breakfast, we can have it maybe tomorrow or the day after." We got him berries the next day and he didn't want them any more. So the crew ate the berries. But he was looking for reasons to explode, to be angry, he wanted to be--he needed to be--angry. And he was! But, look. What really counts is the final result on the screen, and he's just sensational, he's phenomenal! So whatever price we and Vincent had to pay it doesn't matter.
Did you clash with him? Did he go too far?
Yeah, we had difficult times. Let me give you an example – the scene where he kills the logger, this giant guy, I brought him aside and said, "Look, you jump on his back, you roll down and you struggle." He looked at the guy and said to me, "Err, it has to be a body double, not me." I wanted to have it in one shot, because I wanted to show his face, not cut to a double's body and then desperately cut to a glimpse of his face. You have to see the real fight. So I said, "Listen, it's not such a dangerous thing, you're a physical man, you said that you could do anything, and jumping on the guy and rolling down, it's nothing that would harm you." And he said, "Would you do it?" I said "Sure." I jumped on the guy, I rolled down with him, I got up, the crew was silent. I got the snow out of my clothes and the crew started to applaud. So he didn't have any choice. But things like this happened every day, many times a day.
Was it harder than you expected, being out there in the cold?
It was. The cold temperature really got to us. It was -35ºC when we were night shooting,, night after night after night. Most of the film was shot at night.
Where were you staying?
We shot for 40 days in three countries. In Norway, because I had to have snow, in Poland, and in Israel. So it was a lot of travelling, it was probably the most difficult film I've ever shot.
How did Gallo deal with the weather?
Well the scenes where he's barefoot – he was brave, doing this, but at the same time, he was demanding so much care. Immediately after I said "Cut" each time, there was an army of people running towards him with everything, blankets, hot tea, this and that. And if anybody was a split second late he was immediately angry, shouting, "How do you treat me! I am the star of the picture!" Things like this.
How heavily did you research the film, in terms of people surviving in the wild?
No research at all. It's pure fantasy. I didn't study anything about the political situation either. Let me give you an example: Everybody knows what waterboarding is and that the US military applied it. But no one knows how it looks. There are no witnesses. So I had to make my own waterboarding torture how I imagine it. How to get the water drops into the nose. I said, "Ok, the guy has to lie down, there has to be some kind of apparatus, maybe very primitive." I didn't need to research anything, because this is not a documentary, it's not even realistic. It's a brutal, modern fairy tale. A poem.
Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing will be in UK cinemas the 1st of April. US release dates coming soon.