Małgorzata Szumowska
Photo by Aleksandra Zaborowska

Małgorzata Szumowska: “It’s so unpredictable”

Short Profile

Name: Małgorzata Szumowska
DOB: 26 February 1973
Place of birth: Kraków, Poland
Occupation: Film director, screenwriter, film producer

Małgorzata Szumowska's new film, Woman Of will be distributed around Europe in 2024.

Ms. Szumowska, you once said that a filmmaker needs to be persistent and uncompromising in order to survive in this industry. Do you still believe that?

Yes, I think so. I’ve always had the feeling that film is a very brutal world. You are worth exactly as much as your last film, and if it has no festival value or no commercial value, people will forget about you. You have to be really tough to, year after year, say, “Okay, I’m going to try again, I’m going to convince people to give me money, I’m going to persuade actors to be part of my film.” This job is not for everyone! All the film directors I’ve met are people who are very strong, who have very strong personalities. I never met a filmmaker who is super delicate and gentle. You have to be a bit like Napoleon to lead 150 people on set, to get them to trust you, to make these decisions moment by moment. It’s all about confidence.

Alejandro Iñárritu describes it like this: “As a filmmaker, sometimes you are God, and sometimes you are simply a creature surviving your own creation.”

Oh, yes, that resonates very much. I started when I was 25, and there's a lot to go in front of me, I have a feeling there is a lot to be done and learned!  Sometimes you’ll be making a film, and for some reason, it’s just not resonating. Maybe you get mixed reviews, maybe people are not responding to your vision — and then you are extremely disappointed. You feel like it gave so much, but that you failed somehow. For me, that’s when you are the creature. Sometimes it just comes down to the timing, the film simply doesn’t catch the right moment in time, it misses the political or social or cultural context, and it can be completely forgotten. It's so unpredictable.

“You can find a solution because the cast follows you. We don’t have this star system like in the US, where everything is about the actor.”

It’s also incredibly fragile — you can put years of work and money into this art form, only for it to fail because, for example, your lead actor drops out at the last minute.

Of course, this is terrible. It’s almost like a lottery somehow! I have friends who made films and something happened and it was a disaster — so now actually they are not making films anymore. But I’m from Poland, so the industry in Europe is also a very different system: the director is very important, and the writer is very important. With the scenario you mentioned, you can find a solution because the cast follows you. We don't have this star system like in the US, where everything is about the actor.

Apparently when you transitioned from the Polish film industry to making your first English-language film, and eventually your first big studio film, you were called a “newcomer” even though you’d been making movies for almost 20 years. Was that frustrating?

My reps at the time told me things like that when I was making The Other Lamb, yes! “You’re a newcomer so you cannot ask for big money, you are a newcomer so you have to do this and that…” But I’d been working as a filmmaker for 18 years, you know? You’ve got to be kidding me! And you’re right, it was the same when I did my first studio film, Infinite Storm. Eventually I was asked to do a TV series, and in the end, I said, “No, thank you,” because I just don’t want to go through being a newcomer again.

Did it feel like a new kind of success or breakthrough when you did your first studio film though?

Actually with InfiniteStorm, it was right after the pandemic, and my distributor, Bleecker Street brought it to cinemas, but it didn't work. At the time, people were so afraid to come back to cinemas after the pandemic… So in my case, I actually feel like my independent cinema — films like Mug, or Body, which premiered at Berlinale… I found these experiences much more satisfying. I felt they gave me a certain prestige or recognition, more so than the Hollywood films. And now when an actor wants to work with me, I ask my reps to show them these films, the ones which have competed in Venice, the films from my soul, which are made in my own language, rather than my American films. I love those films but I don’t think this is something I fully connected with, you know?

“I feel much more satisfied doing my own things, being a leader, working with actors who are interested in my individual voice.”

So you’re not chasing to do another Hollywood film?

No. But if I were to make another one, I would do it by my own rules! My own script, shooting in Europe, things like that. So, no, I don't feel myself fighting to be a part of Hollywood. Not at all.

Where do you envision yourself heading? Will you continue to make independent cinema even if it’s not necessarily as lucrative as Hollywood filmmaking?

Of course, if a super cool streaming project or huge Hollywood film came along, I wouldn’t reject it. I’m not stupid! But my latest film, Woman Of… has been at Venice, it’s got great reviews, it’s been showing in cinemas everywhere in the world. It’s a huge success. This is a prestige for me, and that’s the model I really appreciate. But as far as where I envision myself, I am planning to develop my production company and maybe be able to produce some short films, documentaries, to help build up the industry for young filmmakers. I feel much more satisfied doing my own things, being a leader, working with actors who are interested in my individual voice.

Does that mean you are hopeful for the future of independent cinema?

Not really! I was very hopeful even half a year ago that there would be a niche for independent cinema. And I do see that people in Poland, for instance, they are coming back to cinemas, but only for those very huge entertainment shows. I mean, it’s really hard to survive in cinema. Maybe things will be different in a few years… But I'm not sure yet how or when that will happen. The only hope is that we are doing our own stuff. These days you have no clear answers, everything is totally unstable and changing super quick because of social media, AI, everything… I think the only thing you can do is stick to your own feelings and needs and desires. It’s the only thing you can do as a filmmaker.