Mira Fornay: Rewriting Researched Reality Into the Language of the Imaginary

26 June 2019


Mira Fornay: Rewriting Researched Reality Into the Language of the Imaginary


Mira Fornay: Rewriting Researched Reality Into the Language of the Imaginary


Director Mira Fornay premiered her debut, Foxes (2009), in the International Film Critics’ Week at Venice. Her second film, My Dog Killer (2013), won the Tiger Hivos Award in the main competition at the Rotterdam IFF, received a nomination for the European Film Awards, and was chosen as the Slovak national entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

Article by Pavel Sladký for Czech Film Magazine / Summer

Now Fornay is back with her third film, Cook, F**k, Kill, about a family ruled by violence and terror. Using dark, edgy humor and absurdity, she brings a fresh perspective to issues of intimacy, sexuality, and violence — in particular domestic violence — in our society.

How would you describe your new project? What are you trying to show about human relationships?

The way I see it, my new film isn’t explicitly about domestic violence. It’s more about what leads to unhealthy behavior in families — our “family program,” the way our families program us. It’s also a subject I came to through personal experience: I lost a very good friend of mine I had known almost since childhood, because of her manipulative husband. Basically, he built a wall around her, and anyone who supported her independence wasn’t allowed in.

It was a painful experience: I was angry at my friend for being weak, but at the same time I understood her insecurities, since I knew her family background. I also realized everything her husband did was rooted in his insecurities, his “family program,” so I did some research and decided to tell the story from his point of view — though in the end I do get to the woman’s point of view. This might be a spoiler, but the way I see it, violence has nothing to do with gender — I’ve met plenty of women aggressors too — the problem comes from accepting unacceptable behavior, in families or anywhere else in life.

Despite the serious subject matter, you use a lot of absurd humor and a folktale storytelling style. Could you talk about that?

I spent two long years doing research — listening to stories of men and women. I realized the deeper I went, the more painful and absurd it was. I felt I couldn’t use the material to make a serious drama. It drained me, it was too much, and I knew it would be too much for anyone else. I needed humor to protect me, and to protect my audience, so I pushed it into black humor but tried not to lose the sadness. This led me to folk tales, because of the way they use metaphors. They have this amazing subtle humor, and I love the way they can be playful in their absurd brutality.

You also did research in men’s prisons. Did you incorporate any true stories or real dialogue into the script, or were you just trying to gain greater insight into the pathology of families and individuals?

I did most of my research in therapy groups for domestic violence, with a nearly 50/50 mix of men and women. I went to sessions every Thursday for almost two years. I only went to men’s prison a couple of times, but it was extremely powerful meeting first-time killers who had killed people close to them. The experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to see the dark side of humans from so up close. Then, after my research, I did a lot of work in my own family, because every family’s got skeletons in the closet. But I want to be clear that even though I did research, I don’t think and work like a social scientist or journalist. I’m a storyteller. The story is all I care about, how to tell the story my way, without any moral or sophisticated agenda. I took more risks on this movie, working from my soul instead of from my intellect. I used what I’d call the “analog method,” a language of metaphors and my imagination, based on solid research in the real world. Like I was rewriting researched reality into the language of an imaginary world that exists in parallel to reality. What I was trying to create, and I hope I succeeded, was a tiny layer on top of reality that helps you read reality through unconscious connections, instead of through the logic of social norms. That makes the film very demanding, some would say difficult. It’s also why the film isn’t about social or political topics, but is very personal. Thankfully, I had helpers to keep me from getting lost in the depths: Ivan Arsenyev, who was dramaturge on the first draft of the screenplay, and Ursula Lesjak, who was supervising editor. Both were a great help to me.

You edited the film yourself. What can you tell us about your approach to that process?

I edited the film on my own, but I consulted with Ursula Lesjak, a very experienced editor based in Paris. I did the first rough cut, then discussed it with her. We both agreed the structure worked the way it was in the script. We just needed to make some scenes more understandable, more rhythmic, or more fluent. I enjoyed the process a lot.

In My Dog Killer, you had nonprofessional actors play the main characters. This time you cast Jaroslav Plesl, an actor well known to Czechs, in the lead role. Do you work differently with professionals than you do with nonactors?

Not really. I give them a lot of homework, and we talk a lot about the scenes and the imagery, then we do a lot of rehearsals. Jaroslav Plesl and Regina Rázlová and Petra Fornayová, the only three professionals in the film, were amazing, and so were my nonactors — I truly admire them all. At first I was a bit worried about whether or not they would get along, but the chemistry was great. Plus the nonactors help the actors get that authentic feel, and the professionals are a great support for the nonactors in lots of ways. They were all very talented and enthusiastic and openminded.

Cook, F**k, Kill won the main prize for best project in development at Sofia Meetings. Do you think that’s a sign that the subject is of universal interest?

As the author, I can’t think about the subject matter in the same terms as producers do. I was glad we won, and I took it as a sign that I found a powerful way to tell the story that was still very much mine. I guess for my producers, or coproducers, it was an important sign to support me despite the many complications. It wasn’t an easy project to finance.

You’re not only the writer and director, but also the producer of the film. What was it like producing, and how helpful was it getting support from Eurimages?

Thank you for asking, since this was a big learning experience for me. I was surprised, after the success we had with My Dog Killer, that the Slovak Audiovisual Fund declined to support my new film as a Slovak majority project, even in the development phase. The bizarre arrogance on the part of most of the committee members led us to change the project to Czech majority funding. The Czech Film Fund gave us support immediately, and it was a nice relief to feel welcome again. After that, we got Slovak minority funding from an amazing new committee, where the number of men and women was balanced. Then we got Eurimages funding, which is essential for auteur films. I’m very grateful for all the institutions that supported us. It’s a privilege to be able to do auteur films in these neoliberal times, when we believe human beings can be treated like commodities.

I hope the fact that Slovakia has a new, female president [Zuzana Čaputová, elected in March] will bring more authenticity and decency into politics, so we can end corruption and get people’s trust back again. And I hope Čaputová will be an inspiration for the Slovak Audiovisual Fund to support filmmakers and treat us with integrity, respect, and decency. These are qualities essential not only in work relationships and social and political life, but especially within our families.

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