No film reflecting our current quarantined era has connected with me as profoundly as “Curiouser and Curiouser,” the mesmerizing new debut short film directed by and starring Polish actress/writer Weronika Maria Szalas. As part of her Collaborative and Devised Theatre course at London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Szalas was assigned by her teacher to produce a work of theatre that was based on a line from Lewis Carroll’s immortal Alice in Wonderland. Once the COVID-19 pandemic caused her schooling to move online, Szalas decided to turn the class project into her first solo directorial cinematic work. The duality in her assigned line, “Curiouser and curiouser,” prompted Szalas to explore the interplay between dreams and reality, and how they have become practically indiscernible from one another during a prolonged lockdown. With her boyfriend Samuel Ryland serving as her cinematographer—and briefly, her camera subject—Szalas spent her months in quarantine creating this deeply personal gem.
I found the experience of watching her film akin to undergoing a spiritually cleansing session of guided meditation, courtesy of its haunting poetry that is both visual and verbal. Out of a strong line-up of twenty finalists at my girlfriend Rebecca Martin’s inaugural Cinema Femme Short Film Festival—held earlier this month—I selected Szalas as this year’s recipient of the Critic’s Choice Award. The filmmaker was also featured alongside the four other directors in her block of shorts during an excellent virtual Q&A moderated by Alice Waddington (“Paradise Hills”), which you can view in its entirety below. Last week, I was thrilled to speak with Szalas about how she enabled her dreams to serve as her artistic guide through the making of this film, and how it ultimately helped her survive these uncertain days.
What has life during the pandemic been like in your corner of the world?
I’m currently in Poland visiting my family. I hadn’t seen them since the COVID-19 pandemic began so I just wanted to spend the summertime with them, though I normally live and study in London. Things are still limited here, but it’s slightly better than it was before. It used to be too dangerous to fly. I finished my second term in mid-March when the lockdown started. For two months, my boyfriend and I were literally confined to our flat and our garden. The safety measures were very strict, so we literally spent every single 24-hour day in that space, which was really difficult. The only advantage was that our flat is located near Hampstead, which is a huge forested area where I could walk. It was very important for me to maintain my connection with nature during this period of isolation.
That level of discipline is essential when fighting this virus.
Exactly. The very beginning of it was challenging, and then I found the beauty in actually spending time together in one space. There is so much you can discover by taking time to think without any distraction. It reawakens your curiosity about the world.
I was reminded of my recent chat with Halina Dyrschka, the German director of “Beyond the Visible—Hilma af Klint,” who spoke of the inner freedom we can achieve by traveling internally. Did you feel as if you were tapping into a greater intuitive consciousness or truth regarding life’s duality while making this film?
One hundred percent. I personally practice meditation and Reiki. When something like a pandemic occurs, mankind tends to question the meaning of it all. It pushed me to search for answers to the questions of why we are here and what higher energy truly exists. Those questions are always present, but how often do we actually ask them? My family is very religious, especially my grandparents, and I wanted to be free to explore different belief systems. But at the time I shot my film, it was during Easter, which is a very special holiday in my culture that brings about hope after a period of suffering.
So I started to read the Bible again, and I was so inspired by its descriptions of creation and water. There were loads of symbolism in the book that got me thinking of the vivid dreams I had been having lately. I began wondering what was going on in my subconscious mind. Though it may appear as if I had been inspired by the work of philosophers, the only book I was reading while making this film was the Bible.
What aspects of Pierre Bonnard’s artistry did you want to reflect in this film’s visual landscape?
I remember standing in front of a painting Bonnard made of a woman in a bath, and I just started to cry. After watching a documentary about him, I realized that he had painted different versions of bath scenes that spiritually linked the changing of light with the transformation of life itself. When his wife Marthe was dying, she took a few baths a day to ease the pain, and earlier, his lover Renee had committed suicide in a bathtub. I loved how Bonnard portrayed his female subject in these bath paintings, and how the light changed and affected the space. This is why I also like exploring with my film the duality of the day and the night, and the sun and the moon. These two energies are forever with us, and I am fascinated by how this duality changes the atmosphere around us as well as ourselves. We all have the shadow side of ourselves, the light and the shadow.
What inspired your use of shadows and scrim to visualize the creation of life?
Each image was inspired by my dreams. There was no plan for it. Everything just came naturally and evolved into this story. I knew how I wanted to portray the act of creation, and it came from the heart. The English word “womb” fascinates me in how it is linked to the word “woman,” who carries this life in her womb. I wanted to visualize that as well as the part of a man that makes creation possible, all the while exploring light. I could talk about this for hours. [laughs]
I loved how you poetically addressed the pandemic’s environmental impact with your line, “On a sunny day when everyone has to hide, nature sings a song of freedom trapped for so many years.”
After only two or three weeks of being trapped inside, people were already complaining about how difficult it was to stay safe, look after each other and improve our circumstances while just figuring out how to deal with the pandemic. But when the environment and animals are suffering, no one seems to care. We voice our support of environmental preservation on social media, but we’re doing nothing about it, and our inaction required things to be balanced. When I saw forests burning in America, then in Australia and finally in my own country, I realized this was a sign that something profound was going to happen.
Because I was trapped like that bird in a cage, the only place I could go outside was the back garden of my building, so in the film, you can see the garden. That was where my daily moment of freedom took place, and I remember one day when I went there, it was so quiet that it was the first time I could hear birds. I saw a little boy, who was my neighbor, and he was just playing in his yard while stroking a daisy. I saw how tender he was with nature, and it gave me hope. Even though the world today is so uncertain and full of suffering and we don’t know where we are heading, there is hope and new life we can find in nature and the sun. I felt like I was in a safe bubble there, and that’s what influenced the scene. All those thoughts were in my head because I had time to have this conversation with myself.
What has your collaboration been like with Samuel Ryland? His black and white photography on Instagram is quite haunting.
There were loads of conversations between Sam and I about how to capture my vision, and because he is my partner, we had a lot of time to dig deep into it. I told him what I dreamed about and painted it all out, frame-by-frame, on a storyboard. He made sure he knew what I wanted in order to recreate the images as I saw them. The shadow sequence where I say, “Mother, father, granny, grandpa,” was improvised. We just set up the camera and played with the light. I also offered him some freedom to bring his masculine energy into the process. It was lovely to be given time to explore and talk. This is my first film, and it’s so important to have a cinematographer who will understand your soul language so that you can create something beautiful together. He worked to ensure that my voice guided every shot.
What ultimately led you to the realm of cinema?
I did a foundation course years ago at the Oxford School of Drama where I learned about film acting for screen subjects. Krakow is famous for theatre culture, and I never thought I wanted anything to do with film. But my teacher for the screen acting course was phenomenal. We watched films and he’d explain why a particular scene was shot a certain way. That excited me. My classmates and I were tasked with directing short videos, and our first task was simple: perform a short dialogue scene from “The King’s Speech.” Straightaway when I read it, I got an idea for images and colors, because when my heart is beating for something, I see color. So I decided to remove all the lines and words in order to explore lighting, body movement and body language.
My teacher said it was a small masterpiece, and encouraged me to further explore film. Our next task was to create a short based in horror or suspense, and I decided that it had to be filmed in black and white. Then I had a long break where I applied for acting schools, and because I had time, the idea came back to me for trying my hand at making a film. I feel very free while working on a film, whereas in everyday life, I don’t know how to talk to people sometimes because I am shy. Spoken language is often limiting, whereas the language of images is easier for me to access. It’s stronger and it can reach more people.
How do you prepare emotionally for scenes such as the one where you appear to be praying while being moved to tears?
That’s a difficult question because in acting, there is a process of giving and receiving that takes place when you open your heart. It was important for me to take into consideration all of the circumstances of what is going on in the world as well as the content of my film. The morning when my boyfriend and I shot that scene was so quiet. We didn’t say anything, we just prepared the setting. It was also Good Friday, and I was spending it far away from my family. I said, “I don’t know what to expect. It’s just this openness. You give and through the act of giving, you receive.” Of course, there are many methods I’ve been taught during my acting courses that have stayed somehow inside of me, but I didn’t go back to the methods. It’s just my personal choice of what works for me.
I think that scene came from that openness. I believe that in acting, it is so important to be a vessel. I went to a British museum a few years ago where there was a huge white moon jar. When I saw it, I thought, ‘This is the definition of acting for me.’ Actors are like jars, in a way. You’ve got so much inside but you have to stay open so that it can all flow through easily. It’s all about being present and in the moment. During my training, when I overthought or overworked something, it didn’t work. But the moment that you just let it go and you trust yourself, then you are free and your performance becomes human-like.
What was the first image that came to you for this film?
When I dreamed about the war in China, that was when it all started. I had a strong dream where I was trapped, and whenever I closed my eyes, I would see it again. It was so triggering that when I woke up, I went to the living room and I would start to write. After seeing that image and writing down the words that came to me, I started to write it as a play consisting of a long monologue. The next morning, I woke up picturing the image of a door and a key, and I thought that perhaps this idea would be easier to envision as a film.
The images and words came together at the same time. I knew the story of the images and what order they should be in. I wanted each door to represent another level of the subconscious, inviting the viewer to go deep inside. Water also has a dreamlike quality. It gives you a sense of being present and yet not fully being here at the same time. It’s the feeling you have when you are waking up, and the images in your mind are still stronger than any words.
Were there certain films you grew up with that left a deep impression on you?
Yes, I am a big fan of Ingmar Bergman. My acting teacher recommended “Scenes from a Marriage” to me. It had been adapted into a play, and when I read the script, it brought me to tears. Then I watched his film “Persona,” and it has an image that resonated with me where a boy is touching a wall upon which we see faces that change. I was so moved by “Wild Strawberries” as well, so I think I am obsessed with him. I also love Fellini and Kieslowski. Andrei Tarkovsky’s philosophy is close to my heart, and his films “The Mirror” and “Stalker” have both influenced me. Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” is another film I love not only for its colors and incredible story, but also the symbolism that resides underneath the narrative.
What was the process like of editing the film while building the sound design?
All the images at the very beginning are like a pre-subconscious dream. It’s like a thing that you see and you remember but you don’t know exactly what it is, and then the meaning will be carried on to the second part, which is the bath scene. I call it a baptism, though I don’t know why. I knew how long I wanted each moment to be, but we improvised and played around with a few parts. I had the order written out, but inside I gave myself freedom because it is so important to have a structure while simultaneously giving yourself some air to breathe. For the scene where I am praying in the chair, Sam said, ‘Maybe we don’t need this chair,’ and I was like, ‘No, we need it!’
As for the music and sound, that’s a very interesting story. Since my film was a project for school, I was looking for music that I could use to accompany my voice-over narration. I found the musician Calm Whale whose work is reminiscent of guided meditations I’ve used in the past, so I decided to send him a cut of my film to ask for his permission to use his track, “Water Shaman.” My film is existential, so I wasn’t sure if anyone would understand it, but he emailed me back, said he loved the film and granted me his permission. It felt like a gift from the universe or from God, letting me know that I was on the right track. Because of that, I was able to submit the film to festivals. The music was the last part we put on top of the film, and all the beats were just perfectly timed with the images. It felt as if the music had been designed for my film. I was so grateful. Sometimes we want something so badly, but it’s only when you don’t force things that they come to you.
Has the process of creating art been therapeutic for you, especially during this time?
Yes. What I learned during my course was how to collaborate and devise all sorts of creative works. When I do something that is wholly my own, it is 100% therapeutic in a positive way. This film is so personal because it helped me to survive this time. My mom and my granny were calling me every day about what was going on in the UK and Poland. They were so scared about not knowing when we were going to meet again or whether we would survive the pandemic. Those were serious questions, and I am always trying to be the one who supports my family.
The women in my family are very strong, but in that moment, I felt I had to be the strongest one. That film was the only way I could express and explain how I felt without crying or shouting or bringing this heaviness on my loved ones’ shoulders. I think that during a crisis, I am the most creative in some sense because it motivates me to bring good energy into the world and change it for the better. It drives me to show people and to show myself that while today may be bad, the future can be bright. You can create your own future.
What has it been like communicating through virtual tools like Zoom?
It has been very difficult for me because I am kind of a traditional human being. [laughs] I like to meet people and talk to them and see their eyes. I am living far away from my family, so we are always in touch but we don’t really use FaceTime or Zoom. We always call or text, and then we promise to reunite. When we do get to spend time together, it is very special. We have had a few video calls just to see each other’s faces because everything is so uncertain. I saw my mom in the kitchen and she was happy but it made me so sad that I could not hug her. On one hand, it’s positive to see the other person, but at the same time, it hurts even more. It would be nice for us to have this conversation in person, but at least Zoom can allow us to be in our separate places and still communicate.
Has this experience made you want to continue making films?
As soon as I finished that short, I had another vision for a film that was inspired by the recent global protests. I started to write spoken word poetry about two girls, a butterfly in transformation and how the Black Lives Matter movement can improve the world. Spirituality will also play a role in this film, which will likely be a short. It’s possible that Sam and I will be working on this together, but in terms of future films, I have no idea.
I would love to do another film because I am enjoying making them, but at the same time, I am coming into my third year in September, so I know that I am going to be quite busy. I want to do acting as well and theatre is my passion, but acting for film is also something that I am passionate about. I would love to continue creating films because it is a totally different way of sharing and giving to others. In the past, I had been fixed on one thing and this film helped me to understand that I do not have to limit myself to just one thing.
If I feel something so strongly in my heart, why not go for it and try? I can fail, and it is okay to fail, but I have to try first to know whether or not I can succeed. I didn’t even think that I could send this film anywhere, but when I found the Cinema Femme Short Film Festival, I had a good feeling about it. As you see in my film, I believe in numerology, and my numbers are six and 33, so when I read that Cinema Femme’s festival started on August 6th, I saw it as a sign that I should submit my short, and I’m so glad I did. This is such a special festival. I am so thankful to Rebecca for creating this platform because it is so wonderful in how it empowers us and brings us hope.