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Piotr, you made your start in film with TV I believe, with MTV in fact. Where did you go after that?
I worked at MTV as an intern in the News Department but, at that point, I didnt really have any aspirations to be a film director because I did not think it was possible for someone with my background and experience to make films. I just wanted to get into film in some capacity. Unfortunately though, I wasnt being paid at MTV so there came a point when I needed to earn some money and so took a job in Media Relations at a construction firm.
After a year, I left that job to try and get into films again. Luckily, a contact from MTV was now Head of Department at The Movie Channel at Sky Television and I got the chance to work as an intern again. I worked at Sky for four months for £20 per week petrol money. During that time, I used to take over from the interstitial directors when they went on holiday. The boss liked what I did and so when one of the directors left the department, I was offered the job.I then got together with three friends I had met at Sky and we made a pilot for a film magazine show called "Xposure". Sky liked it and decided to make it into a series. With that, we succeeded in making jobs for ourselves as we all ended up working on it. It later became "The Movie Show" and I directed it for about a year and a half. While we were all working on the show, we carried on running around making other things like promos, documentaries and short films.Obviously, I enjoyed making the films the most and made three myself. At this point, I was slowly realising that it might just be possible for me to make a feature film and so, when my last short won a student award, I decided to give it a go.A friend of mine had just started his own facilities company and, as I had just learnt how to use AVID at Sky, I offered to be his in-house editor while writing and producing my script. He agreed and so I resigned from Sky in January 1995. Thanks to him, I ended up editing the film myself as well.Piotr you once posed a question to other low budget filmmakers via Shooting People "Why would anyone want to pay five pounds to go and see YOUR film instead of going to see some OTHER film."
So who are Piotr Szkopiaks film heroes? Whos movies do you pay to go and see?
My parents have always loved watching westerns and war films and so thats what I grew up with. Two films that made a big impression on me were The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. I also remember seeing Roger Moore as James Bond in Live and Let Die at a small local cinema in Inverness when I was seven. I remember it because it was raining and miserable and there really was nothing else to do. It was the perfect time to go see a film like that and I loved it.
Later, Star Wars made another big impression, for obvious reasons, and then came Raiders of the Lost Ark. I remember coming out of my local cinema in Streatham and saying to myself "Someone makes films like that for a living. I wonder how you get to do that?" I suppose that is when the seed was sown. I then remember watching The Godfather on TV about four years later and it was just the best thing. I loved the way it was shot, the acting, the music, everything. At this point, I was smitten. Film now became my number one pastime.However, it was only after I went to Sky I realised all my favourite films were pretty much all made by the same directors. As a result, I would say that it was John Sturges, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola who made me want to make films but my real film heroes were actors like Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford.As far as whose films I would pay to see, Im pretty open to everything, I think you have to be. I would definitely look at the director and will watch anything by directors that I like. If I havent heard of the director, I look at the story and the actors involved.
How did you finance the shooting of Small Time Obsession?
The film initially cost £40,000 to make. Half of that was my own money and the other half came from family and friends. My half of the money was savings from my working as a freelance AVID editor for three years. I could save this much because I remained living at home and my family waived the rent. I accepted the fact that no one I didn't know was going to give money to an unknown, first-time director who wanted to use an unknown cast.
I then cut the film myself on AVID and ended up with an online version and got a sound designer to do me a TV quality stereo mix (with foley and everything). He did this because he liked the film and wanted to help.
How did you manage to contain your costs to £40K?
I offered deferral contracts but I did not PROMISE anything. I simply told it how it was and the people made their own decision whether or not to get involved. I think the worse thing you can do is promise people that they will definitely get their money back because that is not true.You cannot promise anything and the reality is that they will probably never get paid. Anyway, you are not making a first film to make money and neither are they, they do it for other reasons and it is those reasons you offer...not money. What you want is to start a career. You make your first film because you want to show what you can do.
How did you come to write the script for Small Time Obsession? What inspired you?
I looked at the films I enjoyed and tried to make my own version. Because I liked things like The Godfather, Mean Streets, State of Grace, Little Odessa, it was obvious to me that I was drawn to them because they all dealt with immigrant communities.
Even though my parents are not immigrants as such, they ARE from Poland and I was born in London. So, when it came to thinking about the kind of film I wanted to make and what to do to make it different, I decided that, instead of Italians, Irish or Jews in New York, I could do Poles in south London.It so turned out that this had never been done before and, whats more, I am the first British-born Polish director to have ever made any kind of feature film in the UK. So it really is a first.
The story is set in the Polish community of South London, where you grew up in fact. Is Britains Polish community still distinctive after more than half a century?
Absolutely. The problem is very few people in the UK are aware of how large and well organised the communities are. There are about 200,000 Poles living in the UK and over 50 communities. Most are in the larger towns and cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham and Bristol. The largest concentration, about 40,000 Poles, is in London.The majority of Poles living in the UK are ex-servicemen and women, who had been deported from Poland during the Second World War after Poland was invaded by the Nazis and then the Russians in 1939. The Germans deported my father to Austria and the Russians deported my mother to Siberia. After the war, they settled in the UK, as they couldnt go back to Poland because it was now occupied by the Soviets, the same people who had deported most of them in the first place. As a result, they sort of became political refugees.
Furthermore, the President of the Republic of Poland and his democratically elected government had been in exile in London during the war and continued to operate from London until 1989 when Poland finally returned to democratic rule. Therefore, the post-war Polish communities in the UK were totally unique in that they were not immigrant communities and, as a result, were heavily geared towards maintaining the Polish culture and way of life.In a way, the Poles wanted to create and uphold a free Poland outside of their own country. Each community had its own church, social club and Saturday school, where children were taught Polish language, history and geography. Most children also belonged to a Polish folk song and dance group or sports club.
So, what is "Small Time Obsession" all about? How will people relate to it?
Small Time Obsession deals with a group of friends who have all grown up together. The lead, Michael, wants to race greyhounds but his Polish dad wants him to take over the running of the family delicatessen.Michaels best mate, Chris, is a bit dodgy and gets in with the wrong crowd. Michael obviously sees where all this is going and makes a stand against his friend. What throws a further spanner in the works is that Michael also fancies Chris girlfriend, Ali.The film is ultimately a coming-of-age drama with some action thrown in but what I think makes it different is the cultural conflict between Michael and his parents that is, ultimately, at the heart of the story.The thing to remember is that I didnt want to make a "Polish" film. It is not a documentary about Poles living in London. The lead characters happen be Polish and born in London but I would not say that this is particularly significant. The story could take place anywhere and in any culture. The themes are universal and, as I have explained, I tried to make the sort of film I enjoy. A film I would want to go and see.
It seems to hint at a bit of lawlessness, but you chose no guns, which is against the current trend in gangster flicks. A more realistic choice perhaps?
Yes. I do not have experience of guns and guns would be utterly wrong in this story. The UK does not have a gun culture like the US. If I was trying to do a full-on gangster film then, yes, I probably would have used guns but this is not a gangster film. I always saw it as playing in parallel to stuff like The Long Good Friday.Because gangsters have sort of become cultural icons, everyone thinks its cool to be a bit dodgy; thats my experience, so I just see this as just one more conflict the boys have to deal with, not the main thrust of the story.
The Godfather is a gangster film because the lead character is a gangster. Mean Streets is NOT a gangster film because its lead character is NOT a gangster. The same goes for Small Time Obsession. If I had wanted to make a "gangster" film, this would not be it. This is a drama.