“My mermaids do not wear seashell bras but rather chew on human hearts.” So writes Agnieszka Smoczyńska in the Director’s Statement for her first feature film, The Lure, a Polish horror musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, wherein twin mermaids come ashore, join a New Wave band, fall in love, and occasionally tear out people’s throats. Don’t let the synopsis give you the wrong idea, though. This is a serious meditation on love, drugs, femininity, family, sexual exploitation, and bloodlust. Its prodigious use of dream logic may preclude viewers from understanding exactly what is happening at a given moment, but the emotional impact of its inevitably tragic denouement is surprisingly potent. To learn more about how this glorious genre-shredding whatsit came to be, we spoke to Ms. Smoczyńska and co-lead mermaid Marta Mazurek.
Agnieszka, though this is your first feature film, one of your short films, Aria Diva, also dealt with the power of musical performance. Is this a theme you’re consciously pursuing in your career?
A: I don’t think it’s conscious. Maybe it’s because when I was young, I sang in a chorus, and a lady told me I couldn’t sing. (laughs) So maybe there’s something emotional behind it. But honestly, no.
When you started working on The Lure, it was going to be a more straightforward drama.
A: Yes. Robert Bolesto, the screenwriter, told me that his friends, Barbara and Zuzanna Wrońska, had a band called Ballady i Romanse, and he wanted to make a film featuring their music about their childhood growing up in the dance club where their parents would perform. So I went to their show and bought their album, and I really fell in love with their work, because there is such lyricism and musically, there are psychedelic moments, disco moments. It reminded me of my childhood, growing up in the ’80s. However, after a month, one of the sisters said, “I don’t want to make a movie about my childhood. It’s too intimidating.” And we thought it would be the end of the project. But then, we thought, “Let’s make them mermaids.”
That’s a pretty radical re-imagination.
A: But we were desperate.
M: That was the best decision ever. (laughs)
A: It was the best decision ever, but we didn’t believe that at the beginning. When we’d tell someone we were making a movie about mermaids, they were like, “What?” And it wasn’t easy to raise money for such a project. Then we started to think about our mermaids, and we didn’t want to make them so sweet as characters, and their music wouldn’t be so sweet. One important thing to know is that, in Poland, there are no musicals. Maybe, in the ’70s, there was one musical, but there is no tradition here.
But clearly, from looking at the movie, you had familiarity with the movie musical genre. Which musicals, in particular, did you use as inspiration?
A: All That Jazz. Cabaret, for sure.
So there’s a lot of Bob Fosse in The Lure.
A: Of course, when I was in secondary school, I watched his musicals, but to be honest, when I was younger, I hated musicals because, for me, they were too fake. When we were making this movie, we didn’t want it to be fake, but we had no idea how to make a musical and, in Poland, there was nobody to tell us how to make one, either. We did decide, though, to have our actors and actresses sing live on the set. This was important because, for instance, when Marta sang, she acted with completely different emotions than she would have if she had recorded the song before shooting. You can really feel the difference when you are watching a musical.
Were the songs pre-existing or were they written for the movie?
A: A few of the songs already existed, but Robert asked Barbara and Zuzanna to write some songs especially for the film because we wanted to give every character their own song moment. So they worked with Robert the whole process, from the treatment to the last draft of the script.
Marta, what interested you in the project?
M: When I read the script, I totally fell in love with it because it was very original. It was so different from anything else I’d ever read. And it was about mermaids. When I was very young, I was crazy about mermaids. I always dreamed of being one, and when I became an actor, I dreamed of playing a mermaid. (laughs)
One thing I found interesting about the film is that there is a lot of mystery surrounding all of the characters, mermaid and human. Did you tell your actors about their characters’ backstories or did you want them to figure it out for themselves?
A: No, I gave them their backstory. I started to work with the Stanislavsky Method and we had a rehearsal where we sat at a table and talked about the mermaids. Before that, we had talked to some other actresses about the characters, and that helped Robert improve the script. So, for me, the input of the actors was very important. Then, when we had the girls cast as the mermaids, we had rehearsals where we talked about their motivations.
M: First, we talked through the dramaturgy and psychology of the characters, then we started working with our bodies. We worked on physically being more like predators, then feeling like mermaids, then like a mermaid who wants to become human. To see how I feel when my character is three meters long and how I feel when I have legs. We also worked with nudity, so we wouldn’t feel ashamed and could instead feel natural during shooting, and on our relationship as sisters. So it was several levels to work on, psychologically and physically.
This is clearly a role where you needed to trust the director so much. You’re exposing yourself in so many ways, emotionally and physically. You hadn’t worked with Agnieszka before, so at what point was that trust established?
M: I knew that this project was unusual and special, so I wanted to just go for it one hundred million percent. These rehearsals that we had before shooting were a process that really got us to trust ourselves and work on the characters so that we understood them deeply. Then, on the first day on set, we came with the things we had done during rehearsal, like acting like a predator, and Agnieszka said, “Put it away. Remember it, but don’t re-create it.” That was the moment I realized I could trust her because she knew what she wanted.
How did you build your chemistry with Michalina to the extent that you really did seem like twin sisters?
M: This is the third movie Michalina and I have done together. In the first one, we were lesbians. And then, in the second, we were roommates. So we were always working together closely. At first, we didn’t really get each other. It wasn’t, like, love at first sight, so we knew it would be a process, but it turned out to be good that we didn’t get each other right away. Because of that, we worked harder. We also had these physical rehearsals, where we’d touch ourselves and feel like one, like we’re the only two mermaids in the world and only have each other. When we were shooting, I felt I deeply knew Michalina, inside and out, and she knew me. And that bond is still alive. I feel like, just like how we communicate telepathically in the film, we now have that same ability in real life.
When I first heard the synopsis of the movie, before having seen the trailer, I thought it would be goofy and silly, but I was really impressed that you managed to establish a tone that was much more thoughtful and serious. How did you make sure that all aspects of the productions, from acting to design, steered clear of goofiness?
A: I decided to treat our characters very seriously. My goal was for people to laugh not at the characters, but at the situation they’re in. But when we were working on the story, many people, including people who gave us money, said to us, “If you want to make a fishtail, you should make it out of paper because then it would be funny.” And we definitely didn’t want that. I think the humor comes from the horror elements combining with the musical elements.
It’s absurd, but not funny.
I thought it was interesting that the mermaids’ dream is to come to America. Why does America mean so much to them?
A: It’s because it’s a musical. America is the place where the musical was born, so because the mermaids sing, they want to go to the better clubs. They want to go to the kingdom of the musical.
I was impressed that, even though I’m sure your budget was a fraction of that of a Hollywood blockbuster, the special effects were so realistic. How did you work within your budget to make the visuals so convincing?
A: Back when we just had a treatment, I asked the biggest and best company in Poland, Platige Image, to be our co-producer, and they convinced me to think about the special effects in a different way. They said, “First of all, you have to make a practical model for the fishtails. Practical models are the best because if the actresses can actually be inside of them, then they will behave completely differently.” So, for some scenes, we have practical models and, in others, we have some CGI.
Were you surprised by the positive reaction that Americans have had to this movie?
A: To be honest, of course. Before we finished the film, the chairman of the Sundance Film Festival saw the movie because one of our producers just sent him an email. And everyone in Poland was like, “No, no, don’t send it!” Then, the chairman told us he read the synopsis and was like, “What is this? My God, what a crazy story!” But he asked for the link, and he told us he was so astonished by the movie, so we knew before the premiere in Poland that maybe Americans would like it. Because you have a genre tradition, and you have completely different perceptions of film. What is very strange in Poland is, for you, like, “It’s great! It’s fantastic!” So many Polish producers didn’t want to give us money for this project. They said, “Nobody abroad will understand this movie because it’s so specific. The dance club is so specific to Poland. The Polish music. This is not universal.”
M: At Sundance, it was so surprising that people were taking pictures with us. We’d be walking through the streets, and people would be like, “Hello, mermaids!”
The Lure is now playing at the IFC Center in New York.