Last House on the Road is the story of Marta, a mysterious woman who arrives in the middle of the night at an out-of-the-way cottage. Her intrusion into the secluded life of its dwellers is unexpected, yet we have a feeling that all these people know one another very well. The following day brings about astonishing developments. As the story unfolds, we discover strong and pain-laden ties between Marta and the host family. Time and again she loses her temper over simple facts and seemingly innocent remarks. Skeletons are brought out of the closet that she would rather know nothing about.
Wojciech Kasperski interviewed by Anna Bielak, Stopklatka
Q: Last House on the Road has a number of common fairy tale elements: the cottage, the dark forest, the little girl roaming around with a basket of blueberries. Within the genre each such element usually serves a purpose. What does the house stand for in the world you have created?
A: The last house on the road is a metaphor for the place you reach in terminal moments of your life. I wanted to make a film about death and coming to terms with it, about trying to forget, yet not being able to break with the past. Inventing Marta I pictured someone stuck in a stalemate. Your reference to fairy tales does make a lot of sense. I tried to give the immediate whereabouts of Marta an eerie touch in order to emphasize her mental and emotional state. She lives in illusion. As she walks out of the dark wood she’s forced to confront the truth buried deep down in memory. But the last house on the road is also a dead end house. Once inside, you can’t take a step forward. You have no choice but to back up and face your past.
Q: Which is difficult when you’re making your way through a foggy night. The action takes place either in the dark house or in dusk-enveloped woods. Is the landscape a metaphor for oblivion?
A: Yes. Marta’s memory span isn’t larger than the light of the lamp she holds in one of the initial scenes. Her memory is very temporal. She has chosen to ignore everything that’s beyond arm’s reach. Her universe has shrunk, and the outside world fills her with terror. People around her have become strangers. She has to illuminate anew subsequent aspects of the past, feeling that in her reduced-scale present something is wrong. However, when she stretches her horizon far enough, she realizes something that’s too hard to bear. Walking in the dark is safe. We did some day-for-night shooting – scenes taking place after dusk were filmed during the day, then the footage was digitized. Thus we achieved the beautiful effect of falling moonlight. The forest bathing in it reflects Marta’s emotional state. The shapes she perceives visually have little to do with the real things. She sees what she wants to see, even though, paradoxically, she’s searching for her identity, her past, her lost child.
Q: Maja Ostaszewska is excellent as a woman on the brink of insanity. Did you write your story with her in mind?
A: I was focused, basically, on telling the story of a woman who has lost her child. I brought up such issues as lost love, female energy suppressed after the loss of her daughter, and loneliness born of estrangement from the husband, who enters into a relationship with another woman. I was writing about someone who had lost her bearings, and about the feeling of loss. I have done a couple of men’s stories before. The men in the Last House act feminine – they are passive, they back away, superseded by a woman who goes after the truth. Marta is an active person, struggling with her thoughts as well as with reality she disbelieves. She is the doer. The idea of casting Maja Ostaszewska was an early one. I think highly of her, having seen her not only in films, but also in several theater productions. I invited her to do a screen test. It was followed by a long talk. Maja asked me a number of intriguing questions, drawing my attention to some very interesting aspects of the script.
Q: What led you to co-starring Robert Gonera and Magdalena Karel?
A: Magdalena was the casting director’s idea. I didn’t know her when she showed up for our screen test. She came out, knocked me out, and walked out (laughter). She managed to liven up my character exactly the way I wanted it. A brilliant, very focused actress, who regularly performs on stage. Robert Gonera is this movie’s legend! He volunteered to shoot the film in his private time because he found the project and the character he was to play fascinating. “He’s like me, yet different”, he mused. Robert arrived at the set driving his own car, and learned wood processing in a mountain sawmill. His character functions in the film as an anchor, takes care of the whole family. He’s the father and guide – Marta’s guardian. I didn’t want the typical man-woman relationship between the two. Eroticism was to play a secondary role. In two scenes Marta is sitting naked in a bathtub, but she’s not the subject of the man’s sexual fantasy. That adds another question mark to the story… Somehow Robert always knew what to do. He was very well prepared. He had even brought along a wig that must have cost a fortune; we used it only in a couple of flashbacks. His attention to detail was extraordinary… (laughter)
Q: And production-wise, did it go smoothly, without a hitch?
A: The filming of the Last House was an almost three-year experience. (The movie has four co producers, and got additional financing from the Polish Film Institute – editor’s note). We thought big: very demanding shooting situations, plus a script difficult to make into a movie. Winning over the Munk Studio’s Program Board to the project was a challenge in itself. Moreover, since I had deliberately chosen the Bieszczady Mountains to be the setting, it was taken for granted from the very beginning that the filming would be done right there. And so it came about that we shot on location in the area around Dwernik, the Bieszczady National Park, a couple of local Orthodox churches, and a sawmill. It took our crew of forty ten days of hard work to do the job. We were shooting in authentic nature reserves, closed to the public, and in historic buildings protected by law – damn tough, trust me. (laughter)
Q: Excerpts from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery appear twice in the movie. It’s a book about coming to terms and responsibility. The Last House, if put in this context, seems to be telling about coming to terms with a trauma and taking responsibility for your own actions.
A: Marta has erased her traumatic memories. Denial has become her coping method. It’s a fairly common mechanism, employed in various situations, from a random fight with a neighbor to decisive moments in one’s life. Forgetting is easy, and it always comes first. When the experience has been very intense, to take it upon your shoulders and carry the weight on entails enormous responsibility – for yourself, for the past and the future. My heroine blames herself for what happened. Losing the daughter is a huge burden, way too heavy for her. She makes an effort, tries to alter her situation, but where does it really take her? I was interested in what’s going on inside her head. Therefore the shooting was mostly done in a linear fashion. Maja Ostaszewska wasn’t supposed to know how her character’s emotions would evolve. We had discussed things at length at the outset, jointly creating Marta’s profile and the story behind her, but at a certain point we let go. Maja is a very sensitive person and a mother, so she was very responsive to every turn of events. Watching a talented actress explore her own emotions as they evolved was an extraordinary experience!
Q: You talk a lot about the psychology of your characters. I wonder whether it’s intuitive, or perhaps the result of an in-depth research, carried out well in advance?
A: I had to do some reading on people suffering from a posttraumatic stress disorder. Anxiety that usually comes with it is often the effect of losing something or someone of key importance to our life. Phantom pain in the missing limb is a phenomenon known from physiology. There’s a sensation equivalent to it in psychology. The easiest way to experience it is to walk into a dark room, where you can’t see anything, and try taking a picture: you press the shutter button and the area around you lights up for a second. All you can see at this moment stays frozen before your eyes, as if the flash light burned the image in the iris. Marta finds herself in such a darkroom, but keeps looking intently back on the past, as if the after-image never disappeared. The real world is thus hidden behind it. It’s not easy to explore this emotional tangle in a short film, so both I and the camera man tried to focus on creating the atmosphere and tell-tale frames which would reflect Marta’s confusion and anxiety.
Q: Is the score intended to bring it out?
A: It’s mostly drone music with soft, flat tones, whose principal function is to create an atmosphere of looming danger. One motif repeats throughout the film like a refrain – it’s simple and string-featured. The music isn’t supposed to dot your i’s – its function is rather to give the scenes an emotional resonance.
Q: The Catholic religion plays an important role in your film, with its concepts of guilt, sin, and punishment. According to Susan Sontag, religion evokes fear rather than easing it. Last House on the Road embraces that opinion.
A: Absolutely. I see the oil lamp Marta carries to light up the way as her only prop. In my story religion is on the dark side, and it does add to the woman’s anxiety. It’s the mythical God who’s responsible for her bitterness. When she enters the church, she leaves behind the daylight and steps into the sticky darkness. And she finds herself facing a total void. The place is empty, there’s nothing inside, save the apocalyptic Angel of Death on the altar. Trespassing is mentioned in the prayer. But the prayer doesn’t help, it changes nothing. It does Marta’s world no good, brings her no comfort. All she has is her head. Unfortunately, it leads her astray, deludes her with the after-image. Last House is about fear and anxiety, about quivering and groping one’s way, all alone in the dark. Hope lies with the heroine, with her facing up to what she’s been shunning, to her hurt.
Marta Maja Ostaszewska Jakub Robert Gonera Anna Magdalena Karel Weronika Magdalena Kozłowska Piotr Maciej Musiał Kasia Julia Wróblewska
Written and Directed by Wojciech Kasperski Director of Photography Jacek Podgórski Edited by Tymoteusz Wiskirski Music Composer Paweł Lucewicz Sound Editor Kamil Radziszewski Production Designer Małgorzata Muszyńska Costume Designer Emilia Czartoryska Makeup Artist Anna Kołyga 1st Assistant Director Paulina Krajnik 2nd Assistant Director Jędrzej Bączyk Casting Director Teresa Violetta Buhl Script Supervisor Kamila Złakowska Floor Manager Leszek Jarosz Production Manager Adrian Moćko Color Corrector Anna Sujka On-line Editor Piotr Bandomir Props Supervisor Agata Lepacka Executive Producer Adrian Moćko Producer Ewa Jastrzębska
Country Poland Production Year 2013 Genere fiction Running time 33’50” Production Companies Munk Studio, Better Film Productions Film co-financed by Polish Film Institute Film represented by Krakow Film Foundation World Sales Krakow Film Foundation
- T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival, Poland, 2013 (competition)
- Gdynia Film Festival, Poland, 2013 (screening)
- Two Riversides Film and Art Festival, Poland, 2013 (competition)
- 35th Durban International Film Festival, South Africa, 2014 (competition)
- 33rd Uppsala International Short Film Festival, Sweden, 2014 (competition)
- Youth and Film Koszalin Debut Film Festival, Poland 2014 (competition)
- Vistula Polish Film Festival in Moscow, Russia 2015 (competition)
- World’s Independent Cinema Awards GRAND OFF, Poland 2015 (competition)
- ZubrOFFka International Film Festival, Poland 2015 (competition)