The ‘Cold War’ Experiment: Stimulating the Viewer’s Imagination to Fill in Gaps

Filmmaker Toolkit Ep. 75: Oscar-winning director Pawel Pawlikowski on the thrill of elliptical storytelling.
Cold War
"Cold War"
Amazon Studios

Cold War” director Pawel Pawlikowski remembers, very distinctly, his experience of watching the British documentary “Up” Series in which director Michael Apted has followed the lives of fourteen children, beginning in 1964. Starting when the subjects were seven years old (“7 Up”), the series has revisited his subjects every seven years, with the most recent installment being in 2012 with “56 Up.”

“The thrill you have finding someone seven years later and seeing how much they’ve changed,” said Pawlikowski when he was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “Sometimes it’s surprising, yet kind of inevitable, and sometimes it’s completely shocking. Sometimes it makes complete sense, but that effect of jumping in time and discovering ‘Where are we now,’ it gives you a real thrill when you watch it.”

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Taking this kind of elliptical approach to storytelling – “stimulating the audience into filling in the gaps” – is something Pawlikowski said he has increasingly tried to do with each of his films.

“Cold War,” inspired by his own parents’ tumultuous relationship, was a story that called on the director to push the boundaries of how much he asked his viewers to fill in – as he himself had to do in piecing together the mystery of his parents’ rollercoaster of a romance. In 90 minutes of screentime, Pawlikowski makes one- to five-year jumps in time, often skipping major life events, in telling the two-decade-long story of a complicated relationship.

“That’s what I like more and more, not having things explained, not having a narrative reduced to cause and effect, where one thing leads to another,” said Pawlikowski. “Reality is messy, actually the closer you look at it, the less sense it makes and imposing sense on it with some kind of logic, some kind of dramatic arc usually leads to very bad biopics. Surely life is too messy for it too make so much sense.”

One of the challenges of this type of screenwriting and storytelling that Pawlikowski enjoys is the discipline required of having to constantly distill key elements of his characters and story down to their essence.

“I try to distill it into something that can be told filmically, that has a universal resonance that works on many levels,” said Pawlikowski. “Not just the personal, psychological, but historical, political, musical, the more you can cram into these distilled pieces the better. That’s what I like in cinema, it’s what gives me a kick when I see it.”

“Cold War”Amazon Studios

The script went through constant revision, with each subsequent draft (159 total) eliminating explanatory transitional scenes and expository dialogue. As key moments became stronger and more distilled, that exposition became redundant.

“At first I thought it might be a bold experiment, but I can see that it’s actually not a problem at all – if the scenes you show are strong, graphic, rich enough, then people will fill in all the rest,” said Pawlikowski. “It’s quite easy to reenact what happened in the gaps and how the characters have changed.”

The key, according the “Cold War” director, was for he and the actors to thoroughly know the real story of what happens in the gaps. Knowing what happens in the transitions leads to a sharpness in nailing the essence of what is happening when the characters are on-screen.

“A friend of mine, a great playwright Enda Walsh, came to see the film and said something really perspective,” said Pawlikowski. “He said, ‘This is a really strange film where the story exists outside the film and it’s just you who decides which bits to show us.’ He thought that was an unusual procedure, but he felt the story had a real consistency outside the film and he was prepared to film in the gaps and enjoy these little [moments] of discovering where are we now.”

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, OvercastStitcherSoundCloud and Google Play MusicThe music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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