Grzegorz Jonkajtys Discusses His Mind-Blowing New Film, 36 STAIRS
Review by: MiamiMovieCritic
Added: 4 years ago
36 Stairs is the first live-action short by Grzegorz Jonkajtys, the award-winning creator of ARK and Legacy. The movie is set in a polluted, megalopolis world in which humans utterly depend on bio-mechanical alterations to withstand the climate. The film has generated a lot of interest since the release of the trailer, which shows off some astonishing FX work and hints that Jonkajtys might have a sci-fi masterpiece on his hands.
When he’s not making indie movies, he works as a CG artist for Industrial Light and Magic. His credits include PAN’S LABYRINTH, THE MIST and TERMINATOR: SALVATION. Originally from Poland, he now lives in San Francisco. FilmNet recently caught up with the filmmaker to discuss his ambitious new project.
Hi Greg! Congratulations on the trailer – I think the movie is going to be fantastic. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this looks like a “virtual backlot” movie, like SKY CAPTAIN and SIN CITY. Did you build sets or was everything done digitally?
Thank you! I'm glad you liked the trailer. So far what you have seen in the trailer – there are only two green screen shots. All the rest is either shot on the set that I built myself in my basement or against real architecture, or real bathroom walls. Of course, I’m extending the sets virtually (the outdoor shots), but I'm trying to keep as much of a real background as possible.
Last time we spoke, I asked you about the writing process and you said: “I tend to write down very rough ideas, and jump into the animatics. Since I can very quickly visualize the story, using very rough sketches, some low quality audio samples, and editing software, I tend to immediately create a sequence, rather than go through iterations of written story.” Since this was your first live-action movie, how did that process change?
This time, I also started with sketches and animatics, but then moved on to written script and previz that we shot using a $100 camera with producer/co-writer Philip Koch. As we were editing the previz shots, we would add parts of the script, re-shoot, add more, etc. It was a very creative process.
36 Stairs is set in a future world where humans depend on bio-mechanical alterations to withstand the climate. We see a few of these alterations in the trailer. Were you inspired by the work of David Cronenberg or other biological horror movies?
Definitely. The creature you see at the very end of the trailer is somewhat inspired by Cronenberg's EXISTENZ, but in my film it has a completely different function and meaning. Also, this is not the cell phone that you see inside it – although many people think so, possibly because of sound design, with lots of phone calls, etc. I don't mind it, though; this trailer is supposed to make you ask questions. You'll get all the answers when you see the film.
Tell us how you designed this distinctive dystopian world. It looks like a bureaucratic nightmare – like something out of 1984 or THE TRIAL.
I wanted to bring certain aspects of what’s happening in the contemporary society and push it a bit further. The world Jeffrey, the main character, lives in is not set in any particular time or place. We will see a lot of stylistically and periodically mismatched designs, equipments and architecture. With this approach, on an extremely limited budget, it’s easier to find the props and sets rather than build everything from scratch. Plus, it serves the story, creating a kind of conglomerate of periodical and modern elements. Jeffrey’s haircut and clothing (designed by Gus Harput) is very much inspired by Winston’s character from the film 1984.
Of course, the movie is also very relevant. It deals with things like the health insurance industry. How do you avoid becoming too preachy?
The movie is all about Jeffery's case. The most important aspect of the story is how he will react in the situation he has found himself in – what his choice will be. The insurance situation is only a setting that serves this story. I think it's good that it is so relevant. More people can relate to it.
Which camera did you use?
Finally, after waiting for so long for the firmware update, we used Canon 5D Mark II. Apart from being cheap, this camera gives a great picture, is light, portable, easy to use and the files are very easy to manage once we shot scenes. On the downside, of course, is the fact that the footage is compressed and only 8 bit. I have had some experience with 8 bit footage before. Working on ARK, I color corrected the whole film in 8 bit, output it to 35 mm, saw it in a really big theater at Cannes and it looked just great. So I'm not too scared of it. If the story will hold up, no one will care about high and low ends being clamped a bit.
Tell us about casting your lead, Rodrigo Lopresti, in the role of Jeffrey Brief and working with him.
I met Rodrigo a couple of years ago, when working at CafeFX. He visited a friend there, and we talked for a couple of minutes. It was after he released his film Lucia. When casting for 36 Stairs, I e-mailed the script to Rodrigo, and he sent back a 5-minute video of the most intense scene in the film. It was so moving and authentic that we had no doubt that was it. Working with him was a great pleasure. He contributed a lot to the project, and I would love to make another film with him.
Is the movie finished? When will it be released?
I’m still working on the edit. We (Philip and I) did the trailer almost all by ourselves, and it took a long time. The initial plan to finish the film was February 2010. It really depends on how much help we get with VFX.
What’s the status of your feature screenplay, THE SNOW KING?
SNOW KING is a very personal project. It’s the story of an old painter, who’s considered a genius. He lives in contemporary New York, in his own nightmarish world of demons and twisted caricatures that he paints. He is neglecting the outside world, his fame and his friends. A young art student helps him with his day-to-day chores; she is fascinated by his art. One day, when the artist is asleep, she finds his memoir – a book that explains why he became what he is. She starts reading it and together we go back to the beginning of World War II, in Poland in 1940.
This story is loosely based on real events. My father, Marian Jonkajtys, was deported with his family to North Kazakhstan in 1940. His father – my grandfather – was arrested by Soviet military police, and they never heard from him again. After six years, my father came back to Poland with his brothers and sisters and my grandmother. Not until the late 1980s did my father start writing about this period in his life. His books became a great inspiration for this project.
The scope of this film will be pretty big. I'm slowly adding ideas and scenes to the story, but for now I'm concentrating more on current projects. I will need a big budget to conceive SNOW KING the way I really want it.