Interview: Magnus von Horn on the Perilous Hike of a Social Climber in “Sweat”

“If you want to receive as much love as I did today, come to Krakow,” Sylwia (Magdalena Kolesnik) tells her 600,000 followers on Instagram in “Sweat,” having just finished up a workout that took over a shopping mall in the city with hundreds of adoring fans. A fitness instructor by trade, she thrives on perpetual motion, which has prepared her well for the life of a social media sensation, always eager to move onto the next thing and feeding off the adrenaline that comes with the instant gratification of having thousands press the like button on her posts within seconds of publishing. But while success has brought lucrative sponsorships to incorporate into her daily videos and a high-rise apartment to call her own, she finds it lonely at the top, with her obligation to share her life starting to limit what she can do, given her followers’ expectations, and any time spent alone with her own thoughts where there’s no reinforcement of her actions as there are online becoming increasingly perilous.

It’s what makes Sylwia’s reaction to a stalker so fascinating in Magnus von Horn’s enthralling second feature, finding a common feeling of isolation with the stranger she starts seeing outside her apartment alone in his car, instilling less a sense of fear than a curiosity about how his obvious desperation is manifesting itself. After von Horn’s feature debut “The Here After,” a harrowing drama about an inmate who returns home largely unwelcome to the town he grew up in, the director wades into another uncomfortable haven as Sylwia wrestles with her place in the world when online she is beloved but offline she feels so alone. However, von Horn is hardly one to wallow with Sylwia, using the time in which she starts to question everything to do the same in his own filmmaking process, building on a foundation of great skill to take the story both narratively and aesthetically in exciting directions and creating a film poised to give audiences the specific endorphin kick she chases throughout.

If not for the coronavirus, “Sweat” was bound to stand out at Cannes last summer where it was slated to premiere, and thankfully it’s making its way into theaters this week after a celebrated fall festival run. On the eve of its release, von Horn spoke about forgoing the usual preparations such as storyboards and shotlists to live in the moment as his main character might and finding qualities of Instagram influencer culture that could inspire him as a filmmaker, as well as making the great discovery of Kolsesnik, who gives an irresistible lead performance as Sylwia.

How did this come about?

I started writing this film five years ago and I was spending a lot of time on Snapchat. It was the first time I started following a fitness motivator, [which] was not even [known as] an influencer back then and I got addicted to all the material. This looked like an extension of a reality show I felt, except she was the one holding the camera filming herself. I was quite judgmental in the beginning and skeptical and cynical. It felt shallow and [I wondered] what is all this? But I couldn’t stop watching. After a while, I felt some jealousy towards her behavior because she was so spontaneous she didn’t even think about what she was posting whereas I can’t make a post without thinking about it for two days. I called her narcissistic in the beginning, but then who is more narcissistic really — me or her? All these feelings made me think oddly on her because she gave me such insight into her life that it inspired me to start writing about a character and filling in the gaps, [imagining] what is she doing when she’s not posting? On the other hand, I was interested in why was I reacting in such a negative way while she is so happy? It made me think about a bigger picture because I don’t think I’m the only one who reacts in that way to an influencer. But I decided that I can choose to react in a different way, but that’s a choice and [I asked myself] what is needed to make that change.

It was intriguing for me to read that the original script actually pivoted around Sylwia being caught in a lie, but as the film exists now, the drama revolves around a moment in which she was actually a little too truthful, posting a video of herself allowing herself to cry on camera. How did that shift happen?

The first idea I came up with for this film was very different because it was built on a sensational lie that she had built her career on and it was going to provoke mayhem and murder. It was [once] a very elevated kind of a film, but the more I started digging into the character and accepted her as a human being, all the sensational elements fell away. I didn’t need them because she was interesting enough as she is as in a normal world. But that took some time for me to discover and it’s interesting because then it was very much [about] what is true and what is not, and the more I watched other influencers, the ones that interested me the most are the ones where I felt that there’s probably not such a big difference between their online and offline personality. They are so spontaneous in their posting that it would be impossible to have a strategy in your head about every post you make. Their success relies on a spontaneous world where you don’t re-touch everything, where it’s dirty and you cry, you brush your teeth, you go to the bathroom. That’s why I like this insight into something I felt was true.

One of the lovely parallels you draw is of Sylwia walking up the stairs of the building she lives in on her own in the city and the stairs to her mother’s home in the country. Did the idea of two worlds come immediately?

The one staircase at her mother’s place, I know very well from my personal life. It’s a staircase I know very well, and the other one is Warsaw to me and it’s her success, and it’s how far she wants to get from her mother and everything her mother’s apartment represents. We were looking for that staircase a lot, but I like that comparison and it connects to something that is not in the film, but that we shot, which was a connection between the two apartments. It was in Sylvia’s apartment she’s looking from her window at the stalker and when she’s at her mother’s place, she leaves that apartment in the evening and then there was a shot of her mother walking to the window and looking at her daughter getting into her car and driving off. I was [interested in] this connection between Sylvia watching the stalker and the mother watching Sylwia than the staircases [themselves], but it’s the same — she carries a lot of things up both of them.

What sold you on Magdalena to play this role?

I had seen her in a play and I thought she was great, so she was the first person I asked to come for casting, but I didn’t know her before. I felt [instantly] that she would be good for this, but you never stop casting after one person, so you have to do the usual rounds and when I kept coming back to her, one thing that was interesting was the first time I met her, she didn’t even have an Instagram account and she was not connected at all to the world of influencers. But what we connected on [was] a level of emotional exhibitionism, not [necessarily] on the phone, but maybe on a theater stage or maybe the way you are in private. Some people [share] a lot about themselves like Magda, but other people like me don’t.

It was also something she said that I liked very much — when people treat her like a stupid blonde, then she gives them stupid blonde times two. I thought that we can use that in the film, to use all the elements of stereotype as much as possible, but of course that requires a long process of finding a really stable [foundation] for the character so we can throw her in every situation and even if the audience will judge her for a moment, eventually we know because we have been so involved in the process of her, she will land on her feet and the audience will see what’s good in her. But that’s a long process and I think she had the patience to get into that.

From what I understand, you actually spent time away from each other so she could find the character on her own. Does anything surprise you when you reunite?

We were very much in touch all the time through the prep, but a lot of things changed in the script because of what she brings to the character and that’s more than welcome from my side, that’s why I work with her. I believe she brings something to the process and that’s the reason for that process is that you invite someone else to the project to make it better. That’s what she did and the cinematographer, the sound engineers, production designers – [this] is what we do together.

Unlike “The Here After,” I understand this process was completely different in terms of deciding against using storyboards or sketching out too much in advance.

What inspired this film was it was a reaction to my previous film and it played a big part in finding this topic because my previous film was slow, static, bleak, and I wanted to make something colorful, dynamic, loud that wasn’t scared of [filming at] a shopping mall or something like this. I didn’t want to care about making a world that corresponds to my aesthetics. I wanted to get into Sylwia’s aesthetics, her colors and [being naturally inclined] towards preparing and meticulously planning, this film was also a way of letting go of that. We shoot in a way where I didn’t want to ever repeat the same shot twice and I wanted to shoot long shots [because] I didn’t want to think about editing or coverage.

I said, “Let’s treat [scenes] as a cucumber. We have a long cucumber and then we cut it up in the middle and we put it back, it’s just a shorter cucumber.” That’s how we’re going to edit the film. We’re just going to shoot in an intuitive way as well [where] I’ll just present a situation and then I would really fight for Magda to find her own way in the scene and not block it or say that “This is the way you work.” [And] the cinematographer [could] do whatever he felt like doing and to work with his intuition because his intuition is great, so when I then start [seeing scenes unfold] and I started directing details and tell him “you have to be there at this moment at the scene” or “Magda, you have to be here at this moment,” I realized I was destroying things. It was interfering with her intuition and it wasn’t good.

How on earth did you pull off something like that opening mall scene then? Logistically, that would seem to require a great deal of coordination.

It was the most difficult one, that scene and the nightclub [later on in the film], but the nightclub you see it much less. It did take a lot of planning and we had big problems financing this film from the beginning. We ended up with half the budget we were planning for and we had 21 shooting days, which is not a lot, so it was also a way of how to survive these restrictions or not restrict your strengths. That’s also why we shot in such long sequences, even this shopping [mall] in the beginning, which was also the best part of it. The most fun was to set up a rough sketch of the whole scene and not to cut it up, but to rehearse it in a big way, [like] let’s do the whole thing. We would shoot it maybe seven, eight times in full and every time it would be something different. It was great.

I remember Magda told me when we were doing an interview [together] that in such long sequences she’s able to become a inhabitant of the scene because she’s allowed to forget about the cut because it takes so long and that creates a kind of a life. People start reacting differently and the extras and people in the background get space to do things and it’s very interesting to see what they do with it. Just creating a group atmosphere, people do really interesting stuff.

What’s it been like sending this out into the world? You unfortunately haven’t been able to travel with it, I know.

It’s been exactly that — it’s been quite unfulfilling in the way of not really being in touch with people and [see] their reactions to the films, knowing [they] are watching it but not being able to sit in a cinema with people. When you feel the reactions of the audience, that doesn’t lie, and I realized in this year, even if I knew it before, that there’s no cinema without the audience. The cinema is a collective experience and all of that I missed terribly. I’ve had so many meetings on Zoom, talking to you now and Q and A’s when I talked to a black screen and I know there are people somewhere in a cinema somewhere watching me. I shut it off and there’s just silence that’s unfulfilling when it comes to you’re collecting energy after you finish a film to make another one. You learn something and I haven’t learned yet as much as I would have liked with this film.

“Sweat” opens in select theaters in the U.S. on June 18th, including the Quad Cinema in New York, the Laemmle NoHo in Los Angeles on June 25th and will start streaming exclusively on MUBI on July 23rd.