New Directors New Films: On Last Family With Director Jan P. Matuszynski
THE LAST FAMILY, a film directed by Jan P. Matuszynski and written by Robert Bolesto, is based on the true story of Zdzislaw Beksinski, a Polish macabre surrealist artist. The fact that Beksinski’s wife Zosia and son Tomek died one shortly after another, and that Beksinski himself was murdered, sparked rumors of a “Beksinski curse.” While the film is very much a biopic, the meticulous production takes a sobering look at a consummate dreamer, painting a realist picture of a family coming apart at the seams.
Kinoscope spoke with filmmaker Jan P. Matuszynski to discuss aspects of the film during the New Directors New Films festival.
Many viewers in the US are not familiar with Zdzislaw’s paintings or his family story. What aspects of the story did you feel would translate to an international audience?
It’s a case study of the Beksinski family but it’s also more universal. After the premiere, we had great distribution in Poland but knew we had to work to make it international. The whole story is about family, something that everyone can relate to. And I’m really flattered by the international response, because audiences around the world have said thank you. It means the person thought about his own feelings, experience, because of the film.
Looking at Zdzislaw’s life, how did you construct a timeline of events? Was it a linear approach, or would you say there is more of an atemporal quality?
Most of the timeline was in Robert Bolesto’s script. Robert is a screenwriter with style, which is unusual in Poland. You can feel his own way of thinking. He wanted the scenes in the apartment to be really intense. We wanted to show some of the pieces of the puzzle but not the whole story. For example, we only see flashes of Tomek working. Another thing, which is more technical, is that every scene is a master shot, so every cut is a new scene. This means there’s a new time gap. Sometimes it’s minutes, sometimes years. You see them aging, through haircuts, clothing, and it’s all in the editing.
The production design is comprehensive. Can you talk about what materials you had to work with and what you needed to make the vision so detailed?
The Beksinski family is the most documented family ever [in Poland] – Beksinski recorded his thoughts and his family’s thoughts in 1957. He started to do reality shows before reality shows were discovered. So we had audio recordings, VHS tapes, and letters—tons of information that we had to deal with. We needed time, and luckily, we had it. The producers understood that.. We had time to work with actors and to research the archives.
We also had to have space for the technical stuff. We built exact replicas of their two apartments in the studio. Everything outside the window was CGI, but was made before the shooting, because I wanted the actors to be able to interact with the outside environment. We actually had screens outside the windows so it was CGI snow, rain that the actors would look out at. This was only possible because we had technical documentation of those apartments. The production designers created 3D models so we could go through those apartments like a videogame, and that’s how we came up with specific frames for the camera. Finally, we storyboarded the whole thing. Every frame was drawn. That’s how we were able to get that much detail. So the shooting was a realization of the whole plan. We didn’t have to figure anything out on set.
I read that a lot of the scenes are inspired by the videotapes Zdzislaw recorded of himself and his family. What was the process like of adapting those moments into drama? Did the actors watch those tapes?
They all had to go through the main archives, with some guidance from me, but mostly on their own. I had a phone call every day, “I saw this and this and this.” So we discussed not only the script but also their whole life. Not for recreating specific situations, but [for the actors] to get their own feeling of the story. For example, we were watching VHS #31, and the actors said, “This is interesting,” and I noted their thoughts. It’s a really nice way to discover things, for the film and for myself. All three actors have a different acting philosophy and they haven’t really worked with each other before. It was a long process.
Can you talk about the role of music in the film?
From the very beginning, when I read the script and the story of this family I knew music would be a supporting role in the film. The father and the son listened to very different music. I decided that there could be some sort of conflict there, the classical versus the modern. In real life, there were only a few records that the family all liked. Actually, the only song they liked that was documented was the song that’s in the end credits, “Song to the Siren” by This Mortal Coil. It’s an honor, because the only guy who got the rights for it was David Lynch. He wanted it for Blue Velvet, and he didn’t get it, but he tried again and got it for Lost Highway. And Lost Highway was one of the most important films for Tomek in his last years. Every piece of music that is in the film has a story like this. “Nights in White Satin”, one of the songs that Tomek put on his radio program, was a tribute to his mother a couple of days after she passed away. And that’s just one way the music is used. The music is also telling the history. We don’t see any historical moments of Poland. We just hear that the music is changing. And it’s not only sound. It’s also that the guy gets his Walkman to listen to music on for the first time, and then by the end he’s using digital.
Perhaps that’s why there’s a sense of the film taking place inside a frame of mind rather than a specific time. How much of the outside world, the political changes in Poland in the late 70s for example, did you let in?
We don’t see a thing from the political background. 28 years. That’s almost three decades. A lot happened during that time. The Beksinskis didn’t talk much about politics. They didn’t care about it that much. More importantly, the political changes in Poland didn’t really change their life. They were wealthy and not an average family.
I was surprised that the film resisted using Zdzislaw’s paintings as a device to explain the often tragic circumstances the family faced. The dark nature of his paintings could easily have been used to say something about fate or even the supernatural, but the approach is predominantly realist.
Yes, it’s really eerie that he was making these dark, strange paintings and that his family died one by one, or that he was murdered and that they were always talking about death. But fate sounds like too simple an answer.
There’s a scene where you see his wife Zosia crying, and Beksinski is so afraid of the situation that he can only film it. He can’t defend her. He’s just filming it. Because that’s the only way he knows how to control his reality. I find that much more interesting. I also didn’t want to do only a biopic about a painter. I was more curious to ask: How is it possible to live with those images, those red walls in your flat? How would it affect you?