BAFTA Award Nominee Piotr Szkopiak joins us on Close-up Culture to discuss his political thriller The Last Witness.
Based on true events, the film follows journalist Stephen Underwood (Alex Pettyfer) as he wades through a multi-layered conspiracy to try and uncover the truth behind the Katyn Massacre, which saw 22,000 Polish military and civilians executed by Stalin’s secret police in Spring 1940.
Q: I believe the idea for The Last Witness – out on Digital and DVD now – came to you in 1995. To give some perspective, that was one year after I was born. How are you feeling now that the film is finally out?
A: THAT really does put it all into perspective. I saw Paul Szambowki’s play – on which the film is based – in 1995 so it has been a very long road. But somehow now it feels right because even a few years ago the film would not have been what is is today. In 1995, I was not yet working as a professional drama director and it would be another three years until I made my first film Small Time Obsession.
The Last Witness deals with a very important subject which is not only Polish history but British history, European history and World history. It is also personal history because my grandfather was executed in the Katyn Massacre. The responsibility I felt – and still feel – is huge and I did not want to approach the film lightly. As a result, I needed to be as prepared as I could be both personally and professionally. To be confident that I could do the film and the subject justice.
Whether audiences feel I have been successful or not, I do now feel I did my best given my experience to date.
Q: Where did the journey to make this film begin and what were some of the biggest hurdles to getting made?
A: PAUL Szambowski saw Small Time Obsession and liked it. He then put it to me that if I was looking to make a next film then he thought his play Katyn Witness would make a good one. I agreed and I revisited it, but the play was primarily set in one room. I had to figure out how we could expand it out into the wider world of 1947 and structure it as a movie. Also, the play was very much a drama and I was wary of making it purely as a drama because not only are film dramas the hardest genre to sell commercially, I thought a heavy drama about the Katyn Massacre would be a major turn off for any audience – however worthy the intention. When I finally saw it as a murder mystery and a thriller everything changed and I finally thought it could work and be a film I would want to see.
The biggest hurdle to getting any film made however is always financing and because I am not a known director, the film had to then attract actors of a high enough calibre and recognition to attract finance. In the end we managed to do just that.
Q: We are used to seeing patriotic US and British war films, but horrors of the Katyn Massacre and the response of both governments offers something very different for audiences reflect on. How important was it for you to tell this story, the truth, even if it goes against the usual big-screen patriotism we are familiar with?
A: I WAS brought up on war films and loved watching them, but as I got older and found out more about the Second World War and Poland’s role in it, I realised that obviously the reality was not as black and white as it was being portrayed.
There is nothing wrong with patriotism and being proud of your achievements, but it has to reflect reality. For instance, the popular idea that “Britain had won the war” is obviously flawed because without the help of even just the Polish, US and the Commonwealth Forces the outcome could have been very different. The Poles were the fourth largest Allied army after the Soviet, American and the British armies and their contribution cannot be ignored or understated.
In the Battle of Britain, the Polish 303 Squadron shot down the most German planes of any squadron and in 1996 the Queen herself said that “If Poland had not stood with us in those dark days…the candle of freedom might have been snuffed out.” With this in mind, the fact that both Britain and the US allowed the Soviet Union to occupy Poland after the war and covered up the truth about Katyn Massacre should not be dismissed or forgotten. It was clearly a betrayal. The politics of the time may have been difficult and the decision may even be understandable, but that does not make it right and the fact that the truth about the Katyn Massacre was suppressed for so long proves just that.
Q: One of the most impactful moments in the film is the actual footage of the Katyn Massacre mass graves. Do you remember when you first saw that footage and was it a tough decision to include it in the film?
A: WHEN I first saw the actual footage of the mass graves being uncovered in 1943, I realised the true scale of the massacre. That is also why I wanted to include it in the film – because I could never have been able to recreate it. It also shows an audience that we are absolutely dealing with true events.
When I first screened the footage for my producer Carol Harding, we had already been working on the film together for four years. She was still profoundly shocked by the footage and this convinced me even more that we had to use it.
Q: The Last Witness is a courageous tale of journalism and should be mentioned alongside recent films like The Post and Spotlight. Did you feel Stephen Underwood’s story is made even more compelling and admirable in our fake news age?
A: YES. I believe knowing what is true and what is not true is the defining issue of our time. It seems politicians and individuals in positions of power no longer have any shame about lying blatantly about whatever the subject if it secures support or is a threat to their reputation . That means examining and determining the truth is more important than ever.
Journalists and politicians both have a huge responsibility to the public they serve because both politics and journalism can be hugely manipulated to serve the selfish. What we need to counter this is what I hope Stephen finally comes to represent at the end of the film: honest, passionate and non-political investigative journalism. Stephen is selfish but becomes selfless in light of what he discovers.
Q: Alex Pettyfer plays Stephen. Can you talk about the character and what Alex brought to the role?
A: WHEN Alex came to the role, Stephen was a very different character and written as a more naive and younger man. Alex told me straight that he could not play the character as written because he was a man and not a boy. His own life experience had changed him and this is what he wanted to bring to the role.
In his mind, Stephen was a man almost at a point of self-destruction tormented by an insecurity about his role in life. He was drinking too much and becoming increasingly distant from all around him including his family, brother and lover. His experience in the film sobers him up and finally gives him that role to play that he was looking for.
Alex was also very keen to cut as much of Stephen’s dialogue as possible as he did not believe Stephen was a character that would say very much. I was very happy with that because it brought a visual intensity to the character which I much preferred.
Q: This is a remarkable cast with hugely talented actors like Talulah Riley and Michael Gambon. What were they like to work with and was it easy to get them on board when you have such powerful material?
A: I AM hugely grateful to all the actors in the film as in my opinion they all created very believable characters. I am also grateful that they had no hesitation in working on a film dealing with what is still regarded as a controversial subject. All the actors were never less than a pleasure to work with because all were clearly committed to doing the best job they could for the film. I felt hugely privileged to work with all of them.
Q: This is an incredibly moving film that will surely provoke intense responses from audiences. Can you share the any reactions or feedback you have had to the film, both in the UK and in Poland?
The responses from audiences and critics in both the UK and Poland have been extremely positive, but of course there have been negative responses as well. These have tended to focus on the filmmaking choices and whether this was the best way to deal with a subject of this importance.
As a result, there seems to be a clear distinction between those who find the film emotional, well made and engaging and those who find it poorly realised. But having now had the opportunity to see the film in various cinemas with very eclectic audiences, I am very confident it works on the big-screen. However the film is viewed, my hope is that it is seen by as wide an audience as possible and continues to stimulate debate about both the subject matter and the filmmaking.
Q: Have you had a chance to think about what is next after The Last Witness?
A: MY next feature project is contemporary thriller, Winter in July, in which a brother and sister fight for justice on opposite sides of the law in a Europe dealing with new threats to its security and stability including terrorism, corruption and political extremism.
Q: Finally, what does it mean to you on a personal level to have completed this film and have it part of your legacy as a filmmaker?
A: I AM very proud of the film and all who worked on it and am very happy to have it as part of my legacy as a filmmaker. It is truly an independent film made by passionate filmmakers in every department and it was a hugely satisfying experience to bring all their work together. I can honestly say that it is the film I wanted to make. I was hugely influenced by films when I was growing up and this made me want to become a filmmaker so that maybe I could create experiences for audiences that would affect them in the same way.
It is now for those audiences to tell me whether I did a good job or not in the hope I am allowed the privilege of making more films in the future.