Providing one of the most intense viewing experiences of the Sundance Film Festival, Jakub Piatek’s Prime Time was one of the highlights of the World Cinema Dramatic Competion. It stars Bartosz Bielenia as a troubled man who takes a TV studio hostage in order to deliver message to the world. Following the film’s premiere, Awards Radar spoke with Piatek and Bielenia to discuss their own intentions for the film. Below is an edited transcript of that interview.
Shane Slater: Where did the idea for the film come from? Is it a true story?
Jakub Piatek: We started with a fantasy about revolution and the lack of revolution now. And that we need a change in the world. We don’t rebel any more. Then we found the case of a hijacking of a TV station in the US in 1996/1997 by two guys with guns. From researching that story, we heard about a similar story in Poland. It was about 18 years ago. What we really loved about it was that to this day, nobody knows what that guy wanted to say.
It triggered us as screenwriters and we thought that maybe it would be a nice mechanism to use in a film. Sebastian is combined from this perspective and the fantasy of change and revolution. What we wanted to achieve while writing the script was to leave it open for the audience.
SS: A lot of the suspense comes from not knowing why Sebastian is doing this. How did you get into the character’s mindset? Did you create a backstory?
Bartosz Bielenia: We did create a backstory together but we never had any intention of putting it in the film.
JP: We even had our art director build Sebastian’s room. In between shooting days, Bartosz spent some time there and there were CDs, records and VHS tapes. We recorded some improvisations with a small Mini DV camera. I’m always open to letting actors choose whether they want to use build backstory or just want to rely on what is written. If actors want to dig into a character and need that, then I’m there for them. In this case, we tried to build Sebastian beforehand.
SS: Thanks to the success of films like Ida and Corpus Christi, there’s a perception that Polish films are heavy and austere. This film, however, has a very mainstream genre appeal. Were there any films or filmmakers that influenced the style?
BB: Jakub is just younger than those guys. [Laughs].
JP: We knew at the beginning that we were flirting with genre. So we tried (the cast and crew) to watch a lot films in two categories – hostage movies and also small condensed dramas that happen in one location. On the one hand there was Dog Day Afternoon. That was our principal must-watch film before rehearsals. And of course, Network by Lumet and American Animals. On the other hand, there were films like The Guilty by Gustav Möller and Locke.
SS: The film is set during the Y2K paranoia and the news footage really brings a strong sense of the time and place. What was the thinking behind exploring that time period and what was the process of selecting the archival footage?
JP: The decision to set it at the end of 1999 was to have a protagonist who does not have a smartphone. Back then, there was this hierarchy, and being on television was like being at the highest level. And of course, the Y2K situation was a nice setup for this small drama written for a couple of characters and to use it as a landscape for the cinematography.
In terms of the archival footage, we were already looking for them during the script writing. For example, when we started rehearsals we watched them to get the mood. We used archival materials from major TV stations and also from really small stations that don’t exist anymore. So for example, there were cases where you went to a smaller town and there was a TV station. And there’s this old guy who opens his garage and there are thousands of VHS tapes with the whole archive of the city. It’s like doing a found footage documentary. You have an idea but sometimes, the archives take you somewhere else.
SS: The film reminds us of the power of media to influence people. Do you consciously think of a film or performance’s impact when you are choosing your projects?
BB: Yes, this is really important for me. It’s not the main thing that I think of, but when the script really wants to achieve something, I try to read through it and see what is possible. Where the intention comes from. When I feel that it’s pure, as Jakub’s was, then I’m happy to be a part of the project.
JP: This took two to three years of my life so far. I think that it’s been a year and a half for Bartosz. It’s my first film, so I think I can be naive. So you want to do something that is important for you. You’re just driven by this feeling that you need to tell the story.
SS: We don’t get a full sense of what message Sebastian wants to send. What is one takeaway message you hope the audience gets from the film?
BB: My dream is that everyone would take what is most important for them. Not to take the idea from us, but rather to think about themselves. The intention is to reflect on your own ideas.
JP: I was once asked this question by one of the financiers. Back then, I said that I want people to leave the cinema and bring their molotov cocktails and start a revolution. Now I’m a little more of a pacifist. But we wanted to create some space for the audience. Every audience member will get a different Sebastian at the end of the film. And we consciously left some crumbs of what we think about the world. But we are not in a position to tell you how to think. We just want to raise questions.
SS: Was it the process of making this film that made you more pacifist?
JP: It’s what is happening in the world. Like in the Capitol and what’s happening in the streets in Poland. People are arrested by the police while peacefully protesting and trying to fight for their rights. So the circumstances around this make me think that maybe the revolution can be achieved differently.