I got on the phone with one of the film’s three directors (more on that in the interview), Wojtek Wawszczyk, who is in Poland. Wojtek was kind enough to take some time out of a very busy week to walk me through the Jez Jerzy phenomenon, and why his filthy, rude movie is a landmark in Polish animation
Americans may not know that your film is based on a very popular Polish comic book. Can you explain George The Hedgehog a little?
It’s a comic book series that was created by Rafał Skarżycki and Tomasz Lew Leśniak, who were two friends in high school who developed the character as a joke, basically. George the Hedgehog is a character who doesn’t go with the flow. It’s edgy and it aims at the target of teenagers. Teenagers like it a lot because what the character is about is that he isn’t an action hero, he’s an anti-action hero. What he wants to do is to live his life and not be bothered by anybody or anything. Just to be independent with yourself, that attracts young people.
He also does drugs and gets laid.
Yeah, pretty much. In the beginning the comic book in the first two or three years it was in two versions - one for children only, one was for adults. It was in two different papers, two different magazines basically. But at some point the creators decided to stop the one for children because it was creating too much confusion. They started doing only the one for adults.
Is your movie based on a specific comic story or is it a new story?
It’s an original story. It is inspired by some motifs from the comic and has some characters, mainly an imperfect version of the main character, and it takes the environments. The clone and other characters do exist but the movie version has a lot of psychology for the characters.
I’ve read that the original comic tackles a lot of public officials and celebrities in Poland. Will American audiences be able to get those references?
What we decided in the beginning was that since the movie would take around two or three years - it took us three years to make it - we decided in the beginning to cut all the local jokes and all the jokes based on current events. When you make a comic book it takes much less time, and that’s why you can take any events that happened recently and you can publish very quickly. But when you make an animated movie they get out of date when you finish it. That’s why we decided to cut all the local jokes and the current jokes and make it very universal. What we tried to describe in this movie is the world as it is at the moment, the world around us. We have had screenings in Europe already and we didn’t see any problems in other countries. Everybody was like ‘We have the same politicians here, we have the same problems here, we have the same pop stars here,’ and that’s what it is about. It’s about broad politics and the low culture of pop stars.
You worked with the actual creators of the comic, right?
I think this is the first comic adaptation in Poland that has the creators involved in it. I wanted it to be true to the original. I wanted to have a movie that is true to the original so I can gather all the comic book fans and make them feel they have the same product. But at the same time I wanted to aim at a wider audience as well. But it was very natural for us to bring the creators onboard. One of them wrote the screenplay and the other was one of the three directors. We had three directors on this project.
How does that work, having three directors? Do you argue a lot?
Actually it was a great experience. Before I made a couple of short films and I did them on my own. This was my first movie made in cooperation with other directors. What we did basically was each of us was taking care of the things he knows best. Since I have had the longest experience in animation - I even worked for Digital Domain years ago - I was the animation lead, so to speak. Tomasz, the guy who created George the Hedgehog, he’s the illustrator of the series, was the director in charge of drawings. The third director was for actors. We fit each other emotionally - I think I have a thing where I go towards hysteria and panic, basically. The other directors calm me down.
The other thing that helped us is that when there was a problematic situation we could put it to a vote. Since there was three we could put it to a vote and there would always be a win.
How did you guys animate this? Was it all in Poland?
Actually it was a struggle. What’s important about this part is that as you probably know Poland broke up with Communism about twenty years ago, and I think this is the most ambitious animation project done in Poland since it was a free country. What else is very important for this project is that it tries to describe our Polish culture, what happens to after the twenty years. It may be very harsh sometimes, but it shows what we hate about some things in Poland. And not only in Poland, but what we hate in the world around us.
Coming back to your question, yes we did animate it in Poland. We animated it with a very, very small group of specialists. We had some of the best young cartoonists and the best young Polish animators. Together with the screenwriter we were only 14 people. 14! Compare that to huge animation projects that have 50 to 100 people. When I worked on I, Robot as an animator I was one of 60 animators on the project. You can imagine it was quite a struggle - each of us had to work for six or seven people. And we did it in the same time [as a bigger production].
We knew that making a 3D animation would be too expensive and too expensive timewise as well. That’s why we chose a technique known as cut out animation. All the drawings were cut into pieces. That means the character has separate arms, separate forearms, separate fingers. You draw it once and you have it in layers and you move those layers. You move drawings, basically. Technically it’s similar to South Park, but I think it’s much more intense and illustration-wise I’d say it’s stronger, a more painterly look.