EO – Interview with director Jerzy Skolimowski

Nominated for Best International Feature at the 2023 Academy Awards, ‘EO’ tells the story a donkey from a Polish circus who is separated from the only life he has ever known. The film follows him as he traverses three separate countries meeting various eccentric figures along the way and offers an impartial viewpoint as he sees snapshots of their lives. We were lucky enough to sit down and chat with director Jerzy Skolimowski about finding his lead and seeing the eyes through the impartial lens of an animal.

Congratulations on ‘EO’, it’s a fascinating film. What inspired you to tell this story as your next film?
Well, first of all, you know, I’m working with my co-writer, my co-producer, and my wife already on, on our fourth or fifth or sixth script, we found out that we are both fed up with the linear structure of narration that’s being repeated so many times. I personally experience in the cinema, when I go to see a film after 15 or 20 minutes, I can predict what is going to happen, and how the whole thing is going to end. Unfortunately, in most instances, I am right. So, I believe that repetition of those patterns of telling the human stories, there are very few of them, and they were told so many times, that we really should seek more surprise in a film. So, breaking this linear narration was my main task.

And one of the ideas was that if we cast one of the leading characters, or the leading character, an animal, that would be a step in that direction. So, we decided that we will include in our newest script, an animal character.

So, was it particularly important for yourself to find a cinematographer that understood your vision to be able to tell this story through an impartial lens?
Yes, then I created a canvas on which I could paint whatever I wished. And I decided that I will treat the so-called human stories in a minimal way, in a kind of vignettes only, because after all, I will be showing the very common situations between people, illustrating the most popular emotions of humans – love, jealousy, anger, the need to kill and revenge. And I don’t need to elaborate on those very much because those are very typical human situations. And glimpses of these fragments of what’s going on would be enough.

So, using the donkey’s point of view allowed me to get those fragments, which would be rich enough for the audience to understand what’s going on. So, the film has a structure of a road the movie with a donkey changing hands, from one owner to the other, and some of them are good, some of them are bad, some situations are quite funny. I put a lot of effort into the sense of humour in the film, just to make it light. Although it is a story which has some tragic moments as well.

Was there difficulty in choosing your actor? You spoke on the fact that EO is six donkeys. Did each donkey particularly capture a mood? Or did you mix them throughout the scenes?
No. The main reason to use many donkeys is the fact that it’s a road movie. It goes through the three countries. It’s a journey from Poland, through Austria, to Italy, and the distance you know, all together from the Baltic Sea to the middle of Italy is like 5000 kilometres. So, we were shooting in locations which are far apart from each other. So, for the wellbeing of the animals, we were always trying to find exactly the same breed which is called Sardinian donkeys. We managed to find along the way, six donkeys which look identical and each of them playing on its own turf.

You’re a seasoned director and you’ve worked with many actors over the years. Did you learn anything working with an animal, as this production was two years of your life after all?
I guess I learned an amount of patience. I devoted this to my main actor because that was the only way of really reaching and achieving the bonds between us. With human actors who can have those intellectual arguments you can quarrel, you can persuade, you can analyse the part. You can find associations in the literature, in art and in everything else. Sometimes this is a process which takes time and it’s not necessary because practically everything should be written in the script and the actor accepting the script should really have the full picture of a character which he’s going to play. However, it happens and sometimes it’s very productive and useful.

With a donkey that aspect is completely gone there is no verbal communication, there is only creating that bond which I said. Many times, when my crew had free time, I don’t know they were eating lunch or they were maybe preparing the new shot, I spent time alone with a donkey and practically whispered tender words into his ear and it created a kind of mysterious attitude.

I call it coexistence. If you have a pet or had a pet, and you look at your dog’s eyes, you’ve probably experienced from time to time these moments of mutual feelings that two living creatures are looking at each other and they are like a separate entity from the rest of the world. This is what I managed to create with the donkey, and we were the two of us alone and the rest of the world was somewhere else.

Interview by Graham Day

EO is released in cinemas 3rd February