Polish-born Pawel Pawlikowski moved to the UK in his teens and is now regarded as one of Britain's leading filmmakers. He got his start in film by making documentaries for the BBC, and his move into a fiction has proved to be a critical success. My Summer Of Love followed his previous feature, Last Resort, by taking the Best British Film award at the Edinburgh Film Festival. The film tells the story of an intense relationship between two teenage girls, the working class Mona (Natalie Press) and the privileged Tamsin (Emily Blunt).
Where did the idea for the film come from?
The original story came from a book, with the same title, My Summer Of Love [by Helen Cross], which someone gave me to read about two years ago. The book was very hectic, but there was a heroine in it who I really liked. For me usually the starting point for a film is a good complex character that one can fall in love with on screen... [The book is] set in the 80s, full of the miners' strike, the Yorkshire Ripper, all sorts of stuff, really. So we stripped it down to the two characters at the centre of the story, and invented the born-again brother [Paddy Considine] because I wanted to give a slightly different context to the whole thing, to balance out the theme of this amour fou with a love of an absolute by the heroine's brother. It was a process of stripping it down to its bare essentials, finding the main twists and turns, then casting it, and rewriting it with the cast in mind.
It took ages to find a heroine who could be Mona, who could be a gritty, funny, local girl from the estate but who would also have an old-fashioned yearning, and be at odds with herself and the world. Most teenagers nowadays are totally sucked into this virtual world created by television, so it's very difficult to find an actress, or non-professional actress, who could carry that off. It took us quite a few months to find Natalie [Press]. And when I saw her I was really thrilled, and I knew this was a bit of firm ground on which we could start building the film.
Did you know when she walked in that she was right for the role?
Not when she walked in but when we started talking to her, I could see there was something really interesting about her. She's definitely not a Yorkshire girl, and she wasn't 16 either, but you could see she's got a lot of intelligence and intensity about her that you could work from. When I saw her, I felt very reassured that this character could be translated onto the screen, and enriched interestingly. Then the big task was to find Tamsin. We started looking high and low at established actresses - quite famous ones - until we came across Emily [Blunt]. When Emily came and tried out a couple of scenes, there was a real spark between them, and they were so fundamentally different as characters, actresses, everything, that it got very interesting immediately. There was a sort of magnetism on screen. And I always thought of Paddy Considine as the born-again brother.
So once I had the three key elements in place, I knew I could go to the next stage in terms of what these actors could do, what their strengths were. I also spent quite a lot of time driving around Britain looking for the locations. I had a thing about that corner of West Yorkshire for a long time, but because it's the rainiest place in England everyone was trying to dissuade me from filming [there]. So I drove everywhere, and in the end I got back to that particular corner, where all the key locations are, and I just said, "Let's take the risk, maybe it will be the summer of the century and we'll be lucky, because this place, given the right light, will look really strange and unusual." And in the end it worked out.
Do you think that because you were not born and bred in Britain, you have brought a more European feel to the film, that you see the country in from a different viewpoint?
Possibly. I tend to be an outsider in most places. Once I left Poland in my teens, I'd been in that position - looking from outside and looking at things without understanding what people are saying, and seeing it without being inside the flow of life. Not any more, but for a period. But also I like the cinema I like. I am not a great fan of British cinema at the moment, of the last 30 years or so.
Why is that - for the last 30 years?
Well there are some - Trainspotting was tremendous but [generally] it's not my sort of cinema. No, I loved British films of the 60s. When my mother was a lecturer in English at Warsaw University, she had a free pass to the British Council, so I used to go to see all these films without understanding a word of them - Billy Liar, The Charge Of The Light Brigade, kitchen sink films... I couldn't work out anything in the film but the images did stay [and] some kind of abstract idea of England.
So I was a great fan of British cinema then, but [for My Summer Of Love] I was trying to not think in terms of sociology... British cinema is drowning in sociology - how people speak, everyone is so self-conscious. In this story it is clear: one is working class, one isn't. That goes without saying, it's no big deal. Let's now concentrate on the story and the psychology, let's make it universal and slightly abstract. Every good film is a bit like a dream, when you come away from it. That's what you should aspire to, rather than some social document. I want to create a little world that will stay with the audience.
The film has a timeless feel to it...
That's good to hear, because that's what we wanted. If you wanted to make a film about British teenagers it would be... well, it wouldn't interest me, let's put it like that. They'd be listening to music I hate, watching TV all the time, and talking about Big Brother. I needed to remove it, to get to the essence of adolescence without the paraphernalia of today. In a way I am arrested in my adolescent emotions, like most of us I think are, so [the film is] very personal, funnily enough, despite it being about two girls. I identify with Mona to an unhealthy degree [laughs], so the main thing was to make these teenagers the sort of teenagers I could relate to myself, slightly more timeless and removed from now.
So did you know a girl like Tamsin in the past?
Well we all have - a person like Tamsin, so to speak. Not literally, but an interestingly complicated, manipulative, very intelligent but pointlessly so, person. They do exist and they're good for drama.
Did you feel that, making a film about young women, you had to be careful about how you shot it, that there was a danger of it being voyeuristic?
Yes, especially when it came to the scenes which enter that intimate territory, you have to tread very carefully. Most of the time I wasn't aware it was about women, to be honest. I just tried to be in Mona's head, and Tamsin's. I never thought, "I'm making a film about an erotic relationship between two girls," that was never an issue. But when it came to [filming] these difficult scenes, we did have to tread very lightly. I did whatever was comfortable for them, I kept the crew out, and we tried not to show anything in a graphic way - to hint, rather than show. We were aware that it was a danger area, that it could be misrepresented or misused somehow.
But my general theory is that if you get the characters, if you get into their heads, then there's no danger of feeling exploitative. The real exploitation is when you use characters in a film as pawns for the sake of some plot, and that's one thing I don't like... if you manage to get into the heads of people and see the world slightly against the grain, then I think it's a very moral exercise. I think that's the best that cinema can do these days - to immortalise good characters who are not average, who are not media constructs. If you are truthful and try to cultivate the authentic, you're fine.
My Summer Of Love is out now in London's West End, and the rest of the UK on 5th November.