My Great Estonian Adventure: An Interview with Marek Piestrak

By Ewa Mazierska (University of Central Lancashire, UK)

© Ewa Mazierska, 2010

Ewa Mazierska: What was the genesis of The Test of Pilot Pirx?

Marek Piestrak: It coincided with the beginning of my directing career. At the time, before making a film for cinema, a young director had to do two films for television. For one of them, I chose Stanisław Lem’s short story Interrogation (Śledztwo, 1973), which is a horror story set in London. I wrote a script and took it to Lem, who liked it. He also liked the film and told me that if I ever wanted to screen his works again, he would be happy to release the copyright. So, I was waiting for the opportunity to arise.

EM: Why did you choose Pirx?

MP: I was well aware that not all of his books were possible to film in the technical and economic conditions in which Polish directors were working at the time. Some were not even possible in the whole socialist bloc due to technical poverty. Hence, I opted for a story which did not require building elaborate sets. The stories included in the volume about Pirx fit this bill, unlike, for example Solaris and Eden. Trial (Rozprawa) was especially well suited, because it was largely set in a court and inside a space ship, which it is possible to build and shoot in the studio. At the same time, I realised that even Pirx might have to be an international coproduction because Polish film studios did not have special effect units, which would be needed. However, I hoped that we would find partners in East Germany, Czechoslovakia or the Soviet Union. To involve Western producers was practically out of the question at the time.

EM: How did you go about making the film?

pirxMP: First I wrote a script. I based it mostly on Trial, but also utilised elements of other stories from the aforementioned volume and sent it to Lem. After a short time he sent it back with ten pages of detailed comments and instructions. Many of them I incorporated into my own version. Some, however, I rejected because they did not concur with my vision or because the circumstances of the production did not permit me to include them. For example, I wanted to begin the film with the scene of a catastrophe of a spaceship, but it turned out to be too difficult to shoot with our modest financial and technical means.

When the script was ready, a decision had to be made where to shoot the film. Such a decision, in these times, had to be made not by the film unit (Pryzmat, in my case, under the leadership of Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski), but by the Committee of Cinema (Komitet Kinematografii), the highest film institution in Poland. It was the Committee which decided to make Pirx as a Polish-Soviet coproduction.

EM: Why was the Soviet Union chosen rather than, for example, Czechoslovakia?

MP: I am not completely sure, but the most likely explanation was that Poland had an agreement with the Soviet Union about coproduction and the plans were yet not fulfilled for this specific period. Hence, it was handy to shoot a film there. On the other hand, Lem was very popular in the Soviet Union, and therefore there was a high probability that a film based on his work would be popular too. This explains the positive attitude to the project on the Soviet side.

I flew to Moscow to discuss the project more concretely in order to decide, first of all, where the film should be shot. The first choice was Georgia because we were thinking that the Georgian landscape would be very suitable, so I went to Tbilisi, but returned with nothing. It turned out that the production conditions in the main film studio in Tbilisi were too primitive to guarantee a successful outcome. More importantly, the mentality of the people whom I met did not suggest that we would work well together. Tallinn was the second option, so I flew there next and the situation there was entirely different. All the colleagues whom I met there, including the director of Tallinnfilm, Enn Rekkor, were both enthusiastic and professional, so without hesitation I decided to make Pirx as, effectively, a Polish-Estonian coproduction, although officially a Polish-Soviet coproduction. This verbal agreement was followed by the exchange of numerous legal documents but as the director I was not involved in that—the privilege of working under the communist system was to be somewhat detached from the institutional side of filmmaking.

EM: Was the whole film made in Estonia?

MP: No, because Tallinnfilm also lacked all the resources needed for such a complicated film. However, people there had very good contacts with other studios in the Soviet Union, including the Dovzhenko Studio in Kiev, which was one of best equipped in the East and had specialist equipment for special effects. Accordingly, Tallinnfilm subcontracted part of the production to this studio.

EM: Did you use any actual buildings in Tallinn?

pirxMP: Yes, we used principally the Viru hotel. It was a luxurious hotel, built for Western guests, especially from Finland, who often came to Tallinn for holidays or weekends. Not only did it look contemporary, but futuristic, somewhat ten–twenty years ahead of the West, which was the effect we wanted to create in this film. Most of the indoor scenes were shot there. We found other interesting buildings, for example the office of some fishing company where Pirx signs an important document. Poland at the time was lacking in such buildings. The only one which was suitable was the Victoria hotel in Warsaw, where we shot one or two scenes. We also shot some scenes in the then newly built Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. By and large, in terms of creating settings, we used a "patchwork" method.

EM: However, the result was a distinctive universe, comparable to that created in Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Godard’s Alphaville.

MP: This was an effect we strove for, knowing that if we attempted to imitate, for example, Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey (1968), we would invite ridicule. We had to come up with something original which would stand the test of time. For this reason, we decided to model the spaceship interiors on army vehicles because, from an outside perspective, what the army uses changes less rapidly than the equipment used by civilians because it is less dependent on trends. An Estonian designer, Aleksander Peek, proved very resourceful in this respect; all the interiors are the product of his imagination. The way we dealt with the setting and props looks funny from today’s perspective. For example, our futuristic, "digital" telephones were made from wood and the sound when the characters pressed them was added later.

EM: One of the most distinctive aspects of Pirx is the music. Its author is Arvo Pärt, the most famous Estonian composer. How was Pärt persuaded to write the score?

MP: He did not need persuasion—he was very happy to do it, perhaps because he was not as famous then as he is now. But we should begin by saying that the score was the responsibility of the Estonian partners and they simply suggested Pärt to me and I was more than happy with their choice. Consequently, Pärt and I met to discuss the score. I did not want to—and neither did I need to—give him precise instructions. However, we agreed at the very beginning that the music needs to be "electronic" to have an "out of this world" feel, but at the same time have a distinct melody, unlike, for example, dodecaphonic experiments of the early Krzysztof Penderecki. And Pärt fulfilled his assignment brilliantly.

EM: How did you choose the actor for the main role?

pirxMP: Initially I wanted to have for the role of Pirx a Polish star, such as Daniel Olbrychski. We met and he was interested in the role, but we could not reconcile our plans because at the time I wanted to shoot my film he was engaged in some French production. I was also thinking about Andrzej Seweryn, who later played in On the Silver Globe (Na srebrnym globie, 1988) by Andrzej Żuławski, but again, he could not make it. Then I realised that perhaps it would be better to have somebody with a less well known face (at least in Poland) as it would better convey the mystery surrounding this character. So I decided to use a Russian actor and went to Moscow for casting. But there I could not find what I was looking for either. Then my Estonian second director, Airi Kasera, suggested Sergei Desnitskii. Although he did not suit Lem’s description of Pirx, he perfectly fitted my vision of Pirx, and was free at the time, so we offered him the part. In due course, he also played in my second Estonian film, Curse of Snakes Valley (Klątwa doliny węży, 1987). The secondary roles were easier to fill. I chose Aleksandr Kaidanovskii, who is best known for his role in Stalker, for the part of Tom Nowak, and in the role of Harry Brown I cast Vladimir Ivashov, who was then a kind of Russian Gregory Peck. In due course the casting of Russian actors caused a lot of problems, because arranging passports and visas for them was always a challenge. This is especially true of Kaidanovskii who was then almost a dissident in Russia. He lived in Moscow without proper registration and met people who were not approved by the authorities. Because of these problems we had to shoot some scenes in Poland without him and when he eventually arrived, we added some extra material with Kaidanovskii in close-up, because the sets had already been dismantled. It should be also added that thanks to this film Desnitskii went to the West for the first time, to Paris, and he was so happy when he emerged from a metro station into the Champs-Elysées that he swore "Russian style."

EM: Was Pirx a box office success?

MP: Unlike now, in the 1970s there were no exact data, so I can’t say that with precision. However, I know that audiences in Poland and in the Soviet Union were in millions and the film was also a tremendous export success, as it was sold to over twenty countries.

EM: Your film deals with the issue of the humanity of non-humans and non-humanity of people, a theme which is regarded as very important in postmodern discourse. Was this aspect of the film appreciated by the critics at the time of your film premiere?

MP: Yes, but only in the West. Pirx received the main prize at the International Science Fiction Film Festival in Trieste in 1979. Moreover, it got an enthusiastic review in Variety and the Italian press. Unfortunately, nothing like that happened in Poland, where critics were always very prejudiced against popular cinema, and science fiction especially. But I believe that Pirx has resisted the pressure of time. It is often shown on television in different countries and has a cult following in Poland and Estonia. For me it was also a happy adventure, as it led to two more films made as Estonian-Polish co-productions and to lasting friendship with Estonian people.