TIFF ’19 Interview: Malgorzata Szumowska on Cottoning Up to a Cult in “The Other Lamb”

Only in a film from Małgorzata Szumowska would a feeling of serenity seem unsettling. With films like “Body,” about a troubled young woman unraveling in the wake of her mother’s death, and “Elles,” in which a journalist experiences a sexual reawakening through an investigation of sex workers, the sense of calm that washes over you in “The Other Lamb” as you’re taken into a forest where the gentle trickle of a nearby waterfall threatens to become hypnotic is what’s unnerving, even before you meet the Shepherd (Michel Huisman) and his flock, a collection of women divided into two color-coded groups – women that have feared children for him already and those being groomed to follow suit. Selah (Rafey Cassidy) falls into the latter category, reminded from time to time of her resemblance to her mother, who she barely knew and can’t find out too much about when the women are prohibited from telling each other stories, true or not, when only the Shepherd is allowed do so.

However, Szumowska has quite a yarn to share, working from a script by C.S. McMullen — quite literally, ensnaring the women in open spaces fenced in by beautiful yet constraining string gates made of wool, but narratively as well when Selah gradually comes to challenge the Shepherd in ways that his other wives won’t, emboldened by her interactions with one of them who has fallen out of favor (Denise Gough). Just as Selah gradually pokes holes in the alternate reality that the Shepherd has carefully constructed for the women, Szumowska finds unique ways to break into her consciousness to uncover both the pain and power she holds within, as memories are accompanied by the aching vocals of The Kills’ “Last Goodbye” and a discovery of what she’s capable of emerges as brightly as the sun that pierces the clouds that constantly follow the cult as they march across the country in search of a suitable new home.

During the Toronto Film Festival where “The Other Lamb” premiered en route to stops at Fantastic Fest in Austin and the San Sebastian Film Festival, Szumowska spoke about how she fell under the spell of this cult tale and unwittingly recommended herself for the director’s chair, as well as finding the film’s otherworldly setting, locating the right lead actors and dealing with their unruly wool-covered co-star.

How did you get interested in this?

It’s a funny story because two years ago I met David Lancaster, the producer at a festival at 5 am at a bar, and he asked me if I knew a good Polish [cinematographer]. And I said, “Yes, I know a very good Polish DP,” and I suggested my DP [Michal Englert] and sent over our work to David as a reference for his job, and then they sent me script and we ended up doing it together with my DP.

It may have been strongly defined on the page, but was it interesting figuring out what this cult would look like?

I was watching a lot of documentary about cults like “Holy Hell” and “Wild Wild Country,” even about psychopaths like “The Ted Bundy Tapes,” all of this strange stuff. But of course I said to myself that I wanted to make something different. For example, I decided not to tell the background story of these people, but to concentrate on the moment now because all of this background is more or less the same. They always are the same issues and you can’t say something original about the background of a leader of a cult or of these women.

Also, the budget was very limited, so I couldn’t have a special set design or something [to indicate the past], so said to myself, I have to find something very simple. I discovered afterwards there is an existing Italian artist, Maria Lai, who lives in Sardinia and does the [string] stripes, which didn’t know, but the idea of these [wool] stripes just came to my mind. It also like something sexual. It’s like bondage. There’s something strange about this. So I thought maybe it’s a good connection – [part of why I was attracted to the project] was that it was a story only women with one man – brutal, sexual, all of these elements I like, if you know my cinema – I like edgy, controversial stuff.

It’s such a nice connection to the idea of sheep that’s in the film, almost literally tying together the idea the real ram that leads the flock of lambs alongside the women and the Shepherd.

I never expected that the ram’s going to be such an important element! It was mentioned in the script, but I made a decision that we couldn’t keep the ram because it’s too complicated. Then they bring me a real ram. His name is Jeffrey, and I started to walk with Jeffrey and finally Jeffery becomes a very important character in the movie. It [did end up to be] very complicated, but we had a real shepherd who had two sheep dogs and he spoke to them in a special language you can’t understand. And it was very interesting to see how much those dogs could control the sheep, reacting like “run in, run out…” – and they were controlled by him. And then he walks with us through the scenes through the all landscapes with these dogs and with the sheep.

Where did you find this amazing forest?

In Ireland, it’s an amazing landscape. We traveled there and found everything.

I understand the weather can change at the drop of a hat. Did it cooperate with the shoot?

It did and it didn’t cooperate at the same time. It was very cold and if you see that [the actors] are wet, they are really wet. It was really raining. It was sometimes unbelievable. For example, when we were having a baptism scene, the water was zero degrees and when the girls went under the water at the beginning, it was safe and healthy safe. And I don’t know all of these rules as a filmmaker from Poland because [there] it has to be for real – rain for real, cold for real, but with the baptism scene in the lake, [I asked all the actresses if they were willing to continue] and then they say, “Okay.” But in that scene and another one [where it] was raining all day when they are walking, they are very wet.

Filming in Ireland with a cast comprised of actors from various cultures, is it exciting to get that mix? You seem to have eschewed the label of being a specifically Polish filmmaker.

Yeah, it was always my goal to became an international director. It’s very complicated for the Polish filmmakers to became someone in international market. It’s happened very rarely. Only to few in recent history, so it’s like getting out from kind of trap. Poland is a Pacific country and now it’s very wealthy. We don’t have unemployment. Everything is nice, but it’s a country for white people, most of them Catholic, and if you have to stay only there, and make only films in Polish language for the Polish audience, I think you are really trapped, mentally trapped. So my goal was always to get out and even that’s a paradox. I want to live there. It’s a place I love. I have friends there and I feel the most comfortable there, but I don’t want to make art that’s like Polish art.

You do seem to be tapping into the zeitgeist internationally with stories like this and “Elles” where a particularly marginalized group of women finds strength in leaning on each other. Was that part of the attraction of this?

I actually didn’t want to make a movie which is a too much black and white. It’s a complex problem and it’s a very modern problem. There are no easy answers because we had the patriarchy, and now we’re going to have matriarchy, and when you see the group of the women, they are fighting with each other. They are jealous. And like men, there is no paradise of women. They can create a hell [too]. That’s why I wanted to show that there is no black and white reality, and why he’s a kind of hidden monster – soft, but very manipulative and very abusive, even worse than if he would be a very direct monster, so it puts some questions on the table.

You get two lead actors who can really play to those nuances. How did you come to cast Raffey Cassidy and Michel Huisman as Selah and Shepherd, respectively?

Raffey was a obvious choice. I saw her in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and I said to myself, “That’s the girl.” She has that something — a dark side, something very intense and very real. She’s unpretentious. Then I had to make a decision with the man because [the producers] were suggesting some very obvious choices — men that were very male. Not very handsome, but men’s men. And then I said, “No, maybe we try to have someone exactly opposite” – someone who is soft, beautiful, looks a little bit like a Jesus to create this and hide his dark side and also to create this sexual tension because I don’t think you can create a sexual tension between a 15-year-old girl and an ugly, chubby old guy, like the ones we are reading in the newspapers right now. So that was the decision.

You make some strong choices with the color palette as well. Was dividing the women into separate groups based on their relationship to him part of the script?

Originally in the script, they are all dressed in white, but because the island is very cold, we have to adapt the the the script to the nature, to the landscape and we had to make a decision about those clothes and we were inspired by Ohio sect and they look exactly the same [divided into these separate groups of one color].

There’s that one moment where you see an American flag sticker in a car Selah is in during a flashback, but generally you stay away from identifying locations. How much did you to make the location anonymous?

From the beginning, the original script took place in Australia, and we said to ourselves that it can’t happen in Europe because the countries are too small. They can’t make a journey through the whole country or half of the country and not to meet anyone [from the outside], so to make the story believable, it has to be set Australia, Canada or U.S. But the American flag was already on the car we rented for the movie, so I said, “Why not?” [laughs] I thought it was good because in U.S., those sects really exist. Like Ohio or in Salt Lake City, so to me as a European, it made everything more believable.

“The Other Lamb” will be available to stream on VOD on April 3rd.