By Nicholas Jackson
Some college professors have to write academic papers. Others get to make movies. Back in October, Ohio University film faculty, Rafal Sokolowski, presented his directorial feature debut, 22 Chaser, at the Athena Cinema on Court Street. 22 Chaser is an action-thriller that follows a down-on-his-luck family man as he must make enough money in one night to keep is family financially afloat and to fulfill a promise that he made to his son for his birthday. His path to do so involves crossing over to the more unethical side of tow truck driving called, “chasing.” It involves manipulating victims at the site of automobile accidents to pay out more for towing fees. Professor Sokolowski shared some of his experiences and wisdom from making this work with us.
How did you become familiar with ‘chasing?’
I’ve spent a lot of time cruising the highways with Toronto chasers. It’s a fascinating sub-culture and their job is really interesting, challenging and, at times, horrifying. Most of them are great drivers – they must be, in order to be the ‘first on the scene.’ They need to know how to step on it, how to take shortcuts, and, yes, how to break the law when necessary. Sometimes, it felt like sitting inside this predatory vehicle in stealth mode, listening to the scanners, watching your prey on the move, waiting for its mistake, the accident. And then, the chase starts that often leads to a very unexpected scene. And that’s just it. The driving is an important part of it, but not the most fascinating. What happens between the people on the road, some trapped in the car, some broken. That is very unpredictable and, for me, most interesting dramatically. I’ve spoken to some of these guys chocked up as they recall finding dead bodies strewn on the road, sometimes bodies of children. But the job must be done, so they suppress that and work with the people in the midst of tragedy, so that they can animate a blocked highway and allow other drivers to go on. The strategies they use to seal a deal are equally fascinating. You can see scenes inspired by those in the film.
How did you become acquainted with the project? Did you know any of the people working on the project beforehand?
Yes, I had worked before with Daniel Bekerman at Scythia Films. Daniel is the producer of The Witch, winner of the Directing Award (and nominated for the Grand Jury Prize) at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. He was one of the producers responsible for putting together the team and for securing the finances. Daniel produced all of my shorts. My best advice to upcoming directors is to partner with equally driven creative producers and to build lasting relationships. Producers must know directors really well before they can trust them with spearheading their feature projects. This is never based on the pitch or a treatment, which are of course a part of the process, but their trust needs to be impeccable and based on experience of working together over time. A lot depends on this trust, there is the money, but there is also the project and the commitment of a lot of people. It helps their decision that you’ve gone to trenches together, hopefully more than once, and that you proved yourself in the heat of the battle. Only then will they listen to your vision for the project.
What aspects of shooting a feature were the most challenging? What were the most rewarding?
All aspects of shooting a feature are challenging. You have to engage in preparation that will take you through long weeks or months of filming. You need to put together a cast that will carry the film and hire a crew that will work with you until the last take of each day, until the entire film is in the box, and it’s as best as it can be. You need to be able to articulate your vision on many levels to the heads of all departments. This includes: your intention, the philosophical context, the practical needs, and the aesthetic nuances. All this needs to be delegated, so the precision of your language is very important. That is challenging, especially if this is the twentieth hour of work without a break and there is still a long cue of people who need to know what you want from them. And it’s not just about informing people about what you want. It’s about inspiring them to see the film the way you see it: as important and special and worth putting in the extra effort. This will ensure that you have a team that will go beyond what you’re asking for and nourishing that kind of team work while in the midst of overcoming gigantic production challenges is very difficult. Lastly, you need to step in on set as if none of this was at play, as if you were this master of reality, effortlessly controlling the filming, which is totally not the case. You are the most vulnerable being attempting to control something that is most capricious and throws in Murphy’s law any moment you turn around. In the end, it all really boils down to your knowledge of the story that you want to tell and your uncompromised commitment to executing it just the way you see it in your head. And that isn’t easy in a short form, but becomes increasingly more difficult as you extend the narrative into a feature form.
What is the most practical piece of advice that you could give to students who aspire to make their own feature?
Don’t get entitled to your ideas. Don’t be fixed on the one way to tell the story. You can’t control the universe and the universe will always enforce a plan B. It’s important not to throw in the towel because your best idea is impossible. It’s more important to be able to let go of plan A and find brilliance in plan B, and C if needs be – not a compromise, but an alternative way that is even better than the original plan.
Have you started working on another project and, if so, can you say what it is?
There are always several projects I work on simultaneously. That’s part of the game. If you are a maker, you need to have stories in you, you need to look at the world you live in and recognize the raw material that could be turned into stories. I don’t believe in creative exercises that are supposed to get the stories out of you or inspire you to find them. If you need to work on your imagination to squeeze stories out of it, I think you may want to consider other vocations. I can’t imagine a writer in the writers’ room who can’t find a solid scene by the end of the day to express what the show runner suggested in the morning. In my case, stories seem to come naturally and in abundance. I’m not saying that they are all great, not at the first sight, but there is a volume of creativity that allows me to consider a lot of things. Those that stick move on to development, where they continue to ‘die’ until there is the handful of those who want to ‘live’.
Beautiful Story is a feature narrative that I intend to make next year. It’s a story about a seventy-year-old woman who cannot overcome the tragic death of her daughter. She meets the suspected killer, who against all odds holds the key to her maturation. It isn’t at all clear if it’s him. The film is a continuation of my neo-realist practice. It is a contemporary tragedy inspired by real events that I witnessed as a child. It is a character-driven story. It mimics the set-up of a revenge thriller, but the film subverts it tonally. Instead, it plays out as a slow and meditative observational portrait of a woman at the end of her life who feels compelled to change it. The film focuses on her subtle and often internal psycho-emotional transformation and her enormous effort to embrace it. It proposes a misleading dramatic question: who done it? But, it’s not at all about that. It’s really about her commitment to redeem herself, and the degenerative effect it has on her life. Two producers Daniel Bekerman at Scythia Films and Aeschylus Poulos at Hawkeye Pictures, with whom I worked on 22 Chaser, are interested in developing Beautiful Story for production.
The second project I’m committed to develop this year is Skinny. It’s about the meteoric rise and fall of the founder and CEO of White Eagles. Before his 26th birthday, he stole over 10,000 luxury cars and inadvertently created North America’s most audacious and notorious alliance. It is a character-driven story that uses an action thriller genre to examine his hubris. The script is based on personal interviews with the real members of the group and captures a glimpse of the lives of Polish immigrants in Toronto’s nineties while also portraying their unprecedented criminal genius. I can’t say too much at this point, but Concourse Media based in L.A. may produce the film.
Is there anything that you would like to do differently in your next project?
I would like to find a story that would allow me to work intimately closely with all departments and the cast. I’d like to live on location and shoot in sequence and work with actors and the crew to discover the scene in real life, taking time to feel out how the scene should be made. I don’t know how realistic this is but Beautiful Story could potentially be that. Of course, the more you develop and investigate the material, the more you recognize that it is never that simple. For some reason, the further you go, things get more complicated and the process needs to catch up. So, we’ll see.
What is a common mistake that a lot of people working in the industry make when first starting off?
Films are made by people, not by systems or formulas or technology – we should focus on connecting with partners and on communication. We need those people and they need us. There is a lot of emphasis on the financial or on the hierarchy and I understand it – I’m not naïve. The financiers who invest millions want to protect their investment, but it could swallow the vision and the people who really commit to it.
As the director, how were you involved with post-production?
To me, completing the principal photography does not alter my involvement with the project. I stay on as the active and the central creative driver all the way until the film is done. Even when everything is done, I see the director as a crucial voice in shaping the film’s public identity: what festivals to send to, what distribution channels to tap into, how to design the poster, or how to cut the trailer to preserve the core identity of the film. How to speak about it at the premiere and how to answer questions from the audience are all important things for finding and building the audience base.
What was the process in hiring a second editor?
The process of hiring was fairly straight forward. They read the script and watched the cut and told me what they liked and didn’t like about it. And that was it. Their ideas were exactly what we were hoping for, to bring new solutions to old problems that we were slowly losing perspective on. The work with an editor is always within the realm of the story and the footage – if they are good, they will explore all paths that your bins allow, while keeping in mind what the story and you are trying to accomplish. They are foremost really great story tellers – that’s what you have to remember when looking at hiring an editor. Some new ideas will inevitably destroy the old ones. A lot of it is about letting go. It’s easy to see the worst in a note, or in a different cut. It’s much harder to look at it as a seed for a new way of telling that story. That’s what hiring the new editor was mostly about for me.