Inside Katarzyna Gondek’s Grown-Up Fairy Tales

One of the pleasures of programming a new short-and-feature pairing every week on the Criterion Channel is getting to celebrate the artistic freedom that short films offer emerging artists. With tighter run times and smaller budgets, the form comes with a lower level of risk that allows filmmakers to flex their creative muscles and experiment with their wildest ideas.

This is undoubtedly the case with Katarzyna Gondek, a young Polish director who first came to my attention with a documentary short called Figure (2015). Beautifully photographed and slyly humorous, that film chronicles the furor that the construction of a giant fiberglass statue of Pope John Paul II ignited in Gondek’s native country. A few years later, I was excited to see her bring her distinctively absurdist vision to a narrative short. Deer Boy is a dark fairy tale about a young boy in a family of hunters, who was born with antlers growing out of his skull. Torn between his need to fit in and the call of his true animal nature, he chooses his own path but at a cost. Gondek mixes squalid, highly stylized interiors and menacing scenes of the protagonist’s domestic life with breathtaking footage of deer in the wild, creating a heightened fantasy world in the space of just fifteen minutes.

This week, Deer Boy is paired on the Channel with another twisted story of fear and desire, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. I talked with Gondek about her approach to photography and special effects, and her abiding love for the Quay Brothers. 

Tell me a little bit about your background. Where did you study, and what drew you to filmmaking?

When I was seventeen, I was convinced that I would one day write a book, or even a hundred of them. I needed another art form to support my writing, so that while a book was resting in my head, another creative force could take over and play. It was like I was looking for a second leg for my brain to walk on. One day I saw an illegal screening of Street of Crocodiles [an adaptation of the classic Bruno Schulz short story by the Quay Brothers] at a dusty old cinema. Heading home, I found myself at a pedestrian crossing, completely incapable of moving. I couldn’t concentrate enough to cross the street safely. I was standing there on the grey pavement in the night, feeling like I had been taken to another world and had not fully returned yet. After that, I tried to figure out how to make these magical creations called films, so I bought a cheap video camera, attached it to my bike with a winter scarf, and started shooting!

What drew you to creating a fairy tale like Deer Boy?

I like to tell stories stretched between beauty and horror. I consider them fairy tales for grown-ups, and I strongly feel we need them now more than ever, though we tend to forget how real they are—perhaps even more real than the news nowadays. We live among ghosts, myths, symbols, and metaphors, yet we tend to lose sight of them because we’re blinded by politics, opinions, and Coca-Cola commercials. I want to pull my viewers into a perspective where they can calmly observe the weirdness of the world. I want to put them on an empty street where they’re wondering about crocodiles.

How did you cast the boy who plays the title character?

The key was my great casting director, Marta Wojciechowicz. I received a catalogue of pictures of boys who could possibly play the part, and I opened it randomly to the middle. When I saw Eryk Maj, I immediately called Marta and told her that either I was being silly or this was a miracle and we’d found him, that Eryk was our “deer.” She said indeed it was a miracle and that she was hoping I would make that choice. Eryk had no experience, but he had something that made us choose him—something about his face and the way he physically expresses emotions. Some deep understanding that comes with a touch of sadness and is visible in people who know pain but also know love. 

How did you create his antlers?

The antlers were attached to the heads of the actors. Each morning we fixed a bundle of strings, wires, and rubber cords to their skulls. Marysia Ciernioch, who was responsible for their creation and installation, worked with a couple of sculptors to create antlers light enough not to hurt the actors. She must have done a good job, because even the deer were wondering if our actors were actually human! I still have a big set of antlers in my attic, and I’m sometimes tempted to take a walk in the forest with this amazing crown on my head.

The film features some stunning shots of deer in the wild. Was that hard to coordinate?

We found the location through our production designer, Aleksandra Barlik. She introduced us to the deer and said to go watch them and learn. They’re timid creatures, so they immediately ran away from us. But then I spent a couple of evenings in a forest with the cinematographer. We were observing those beautiful animals and we came to the conclusion that they like to move in circles throughout the day. During the shoot we wandered around the forest, leading them to come our way. Our actor had to be almost naked in the freezing cold while he waited for the hoard of deer to appear.

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing a couple of short documentaries. One of them is called Couple in a Room Smoking Cigarettes, which is a love story. I’m also working on a script for my feature debut, The Root Crown, with a lot of help from the Torino Film Lab. And, finally, I’m finishing up a script for an animated feature film for kids, called Heart of a Tower. It’s a wonderful project I was invited to work on last year. Since starting on it, I’ve had dreams about talking ravens and lovely things like that. Wish luck to the crew, as we’re starting production right now!

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