In Flying Blind, the feature film debut by Polish director Katarzyna Klimkiewicz, Helen McCrory plays Frankie, a woman who has built her life around her career as a designer of military UAVs. That life threatens to come crashing down around her when she falls for a young French-Algerian engineering student whose secrets may extend to more than just his immigration status.
The movie is currently touring the UK for a series of screenings and Q&As, playing tonight (Saturday 27th) at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh and tomorrow at the Glasgow Film Theatre. I had the chance to chat with Katarzyna about the film itself, its distribution, and her plans for the future.
What was it that actually convinced you to make this film your feature debut as opposed to anything else you might have been working on?
I wanted to portray a strong woman who is independent and very intelligent and bright, and she’s confronted with her emotions and with all the doubts and fears and prejudices, and how she deals with it. And confront the audience with the question “How would you deal with the situation?”. On one hand it’s the fear and on the other hand it’s the prejudice, and we try to be right but it’s very hard. And also there’s the perspective of the illegal immigrant and how does it influence the way you are with other people if you are an illegal immigrant.
How involved were you with the development of the script?
I spent a year, year and a half on development. The whole production took about two and a half years.
How does Flying Blind connect thematically with your previous shorts and documentaries, or is it more of a departure for you?
Yeah it’s a departure in the sense that is a bigger film, it’s my first feature, but in terms of the topics I’m interested in, it’s kind of a development. My short film Hanoi/Warsaw, my first short fiction film, also referenced the situation of someone coming from a different country, trying to communicate and find yourself in a different country. I’ve always been interested in how the situation in which you are born can influence the rest of your life, and how people see you through this. It defines you, and also it defines your chances in life. All of my films have this in some way or another.
In Flying Blind you really take advantage of the setting in Bristol, in the various locations and the architecture of the city and the scenery. Was the story always built around Bristol or was that a decision that came later?
The starting point was Bristol. The whole tradition of engineering is very much connected to Bristol; it has the Filton site and a very long history of engineering. I think everyone in Bristol has some family or some friend who is working in engineering. And also it was developed by iFeatures which was funded by South West Screen and Bristol City Council, so Bristol was at the heart of it from the beginning. But we didn’t try to make it like a tourist brochure! It was more trying to understand the heart of the city and the traditions there; it was very connected to Bristol.
And you shot the film in about 4 weeks?
Yeah it was very tough. There was really no margin for error. We had to shoot very quick. We prepared a lot and I spent at least two months with my friends in Poland. We were just in Warsaw in my flat and just planning out, so when we came on set we basically had it all figured out. There was no room to kind of improvise much, it was all very fast.
So you did a lot of storyboards and a lot of pre-planning?
We did a lot of storyboards, yes. About 80% of the film is exactly how we storyboarded it. Of course there are some moments when you have to change and be flexible but there was not too much margin of security with the time that we had.
IMDb has the budget listed at about £325,000 but it looks like more than that. It’s very visually impressive and large scale but with a small scale story at the centre of it.
We tried to use all the constraints and creative inspiration when we needed it, with the locations, and we tried to be creative about it. And also Alison [Sterling] the producer, she’s a really great producer.
There was one particular sequence, Frankie’s introduction sequence where she’s going into work at the wind tunnel, there is a big crane shot looking down over the site. It’s the kind of shot that you don’t really expect in a low budget film.
What was great is that we shot it at the Filton site and in the beginning they didn’t want to let us in, but since the City Council was supporting the film we had them lean on Filton! The City Council let us film in there for free so that was great. We tried to make use of all the support the city had to make things easy for us. It was very important.
As far as the casting goes, I can’t really picture anyone else other than Helen McCrory in the lead. Was she always your first choice or did she come to you?
She was always our choice and I was glad that she liked the script and she liked me and she wanted to join us and she’s been a great asset. And when we approached her and she said yes, that was like “Okay now we are in business for real”. And she’s great because the part is of a strong independent woman who is very kind of cold and closed and what’s great about her is that she’s so human. She can be very tough and vulnerable in the same shot. It makes it very real and I think people will really identify with her. I was really, really happy when she said yes.
It is the type of role that you don’t really see for women in bigger budget films or in Hollywood pictures these days; an intelligent, single woman who isn’t judged or demonised for having any kind of a sex life .
For her also it was interesting that she could develop a character who is not a supporting character. She’s not playing a love object, not secondary to someone else in the story. She was really a great person to work with, and because of her experience and it was my first picture she was very supportive and great.
Was she involved in developing the character herself much or was it played mostly as written?
No she had some ideas about her character and interpreting the script and we listened to her concepts. She was very clear about it; she liked this person to be very edgy. I think she really liked the line when she talks about her ex-lover, she says “He cried and said “thank you” after sex”. That was one of her favourite lines. That was a quality she really liked about the character and I think it’s great. Frankie is kind of edgy and tough and funny.
And she had a very impressive supporting cast around her too, people like Kenneth Cranham and Lorcan Cranitch.
Ken Cranham joined us because he always wanted to work with Helen, so when he approached him he said “Yes, of course!”. He was a big fan of Helen so that was great.
How did you get involved with this particular distribution model for the film? Taking it on tour like this; how did that come about?
Well because it’s kind of a small film it would be hard to get a big release. I think it’s a great model because of the small budget that we had, to spend the money focusing on finding the audience that would be looking for this type of film. And for me as a first-time director it’s great to go to the Q&As because I can hear people’s reactions and it helps with my development and to see how it works when the film is finished and it goes out on screens. And to meet cinema programmers and meet audiences… I think it’s a great model.
Have you screened the film in Poland yet?
No, the Polish premiere will be 24th May.
Are there plans for a wider UK release after the tour is finished?
No I think NBCQ* will do this release here and then it will probably be on BBC because BBC Films were the co-producers of the film, and then DVD and VOD and those types of channels.
Do you think that’s where the future lies for distributing smaller films, with VOD and tours like this?
I don’t know where the future lies! That’s a really difficult question. When I talk on tour with Flying Blind I talk with cinema programmers and how hard it is to attract audiences to smaller films, but really I don’t know what the answer is for the future of cinema release.
So what’s next for you now? Do you have any other projects that you’re working on at the moment?
Yeah I’m working on a couple of things. I’m in post production of a short film that is a Danish/Chilean/Polish co-production! It’s a film commissioned by a Danish film festival and we directed it with a Chilean director. It’s a kind of experimental project. And I’m developing two films: one in England with the same producer, with Ignition Films and one in Poland. And I’m also directing a TV drama in Poland.
You can find my review of Flying Blind over at The Edinburgh Reporter. After this weekend in Scotland, there are just two tour dates left: Tuesday April 30th at the Manchester Cornerhouse, and Thursday May 2nd at Brighton’s Komedia.
UPDATE: If you’re in Brighton, I’m afraid you’ve missed the show due to a late change, but another screening has been arranged for Saturday May 11th at the Quad in Derby. The Derby and Manchester shows will include a filmmaker Q&A, and there will be screenings only (no Q&A) at these locations:
May 10th to May 13th – Ipswich Film Theatre
May 14th – London, the Soho Curzon
May 15th and 16th – Hebden Bridge Picturehouse
May 31st to June 6th – Plymouth Arts Centre
* The NBCQ (New British Cinema Quarterly) initiative showcases the work of British filmmakers, with distinctive and original films selected to screen at partner cinemas across the UK, accompanied by a Q&A from the director, cast member or technician. The programme has been created to connect audiences with the craft of British filmmaking, in conjunction with exhibition partners including Curzon Cinemas, Picturehouse and the ICO, and with the support of BFI. Since its inception in 2010, NBCQ has toured four British films each year, with past films including Bafta nominee Skeletons, Jamie Thraves’ Treacle Jr., The Gospel Of Us starring Michael Sheen and most recently Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday.