Weronika Tofilska is a London based writer and director, graduate from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Film School in Poland and National Film and Television School in United Kingdom. She has written and directed several short films including Last Train, which won multiple awards on Polish and international film festivals, dark comedies The Patient, Suicide Is Easy, horror comedy Pink And Blue which won Frightfest Short Film Competition and Channel 4 horror short Doorkeeper.
She has made several music videos and commercials in collaboration with Forever Pictures. Most recently she directed two episodes of the upcoming Netflix TV Show The Irregulars, produced by Drama Republic. Currently, alongside BAFTA/Oscar nominated producer Chris Hees and with the support of Film4, she is developing a feature film Polyphony and co-writing director Rose Glass’s (Saint Maud) second feature film.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
Music was my first career, if you can call a career something that you do at six-years-old, it did feel like one nevertheless. A career that ended prematurely and in tears after one brutal failed cello competition at 13. After a short mental breakdown (first of many) I entered a journey of self-exploration and realised that my favourite thing about the film Amadeus is not Amadeus Mozart, but Milos Forman. So this time I decided to do something I wanted to do and not necessarily what I was told to do by others. And so I started watching every film that I could get my hands on (usually in the form of a VHS). Initially it was escapism, that then became an OCD-like obsession of watching, cataloguing all the films, memorising names and titles. I basically went full Film Nerd, which is a kind of film school that doesn’t require the whole family to go bankrupt. Soon I started to seriously fantasize about being a film director, but I was full of self-doubt (a doubt that was reinforced by many others) that I could do it and initially had no idea how to go about it. But being a Polish, female person with already one failed career (and a breakdown) under my belt, meant I was mentally pretty well prepared for things to come. Or so I thought.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
I studied film and filmmaking for a decade – first film theory, then Directing in Krzysztof Kieslowski Faculty of Film and TV in Katowice, Poland (didn’t get into Lodz) then went to NFTS in the UK (applied twice).
I don’t know if this is something that I would necessarily recommend to everyone. It’s a bloody long time and an even bloodier amount of money. But for me this was the only option I could see. I knew I wanted to move abroad, and I needed a way in. I didn’t have the courage or pazzaz to somehow charm my way through and I felt like I need to find out what the secret handshakes are. So, I decided to go straight to the source – aka film school.
The two film schools I went to couldn’t be more different. One was like a kick in the teeth, the other like a gentle stroke of an overprotective parent. But I learned an enormous amount from both. The Film School in Poland was free and the students there, especially in the cinematography department, were extremely talented, which compensated for brutal, overall unhelpful and borderline abusive educational methods of some of the teachers. But it was free, and you still got a small amount of money to make films. Without that kick start I wouldn’t be able to make my first proper shorts and on the back of them get into NFTS, where I then had two extremely enjoyable years in a comparatively stress-free educational environment. Coming from Katowice Film School, NFTS seemed like a magical land of total wish fulfilment and the only criticism I have about it is that it in no way prepared me for the cold indifference of the real world.
But for anyone who is from the UK and who has a financial safety net and time that allow them to make films with their friends, send them over to festivals and just meet people without being burdened by imposter syndrome and crippling social anxieties, I would sincerely say – you might be the one that doesn’t need film school. I really think that making films and specifically making really bad films, is the best film school one can get.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
When I graduated from one of the “best film schools in the world”, according to Hollywood Reporter, I was full of hope. I was skipping through the streets of Soho as if I was Gene Kelly and singing out loud the lyrics to Fame. I was thinking: This is it. This is where it all starts. People love my shorts! I have great ideas they all want to hear about. I’m going to make my first feature soon.
A year later I’m working in Curzon Cinemas, living in a shoe box size room in Wembley counting coins on my way to Tesco hoping it will be enough for the meal deal. After several meetings with some people in high places, getting an agent from a top agency, getting my hopes high for a development deal, nothing happened. I checked my e-mail waiting for a piece of good news. Click refresh. And refresh. And refresh. And nothing.
For anyone starting out or just graduating from film school, who at this point is reading this, thinking ‘oh, that won’t be me!’ I will say, you might be right, but this is exactly what my thinking was. But if I somehow today I discovered a wormhole and travelled back in time to that little Wembley room four years ago, I would morse code this message to my past self – be prepared. I seriously underestimated the number of obstacles and how hard it would be to get any sort of ‘break’ in this industry.
Was the fact that I am a woman an obstacle? Perhaps. Was the fact that I am Polish a problem? Maybe. Was the fact that I was a full-time popcorn sweeper, while trying to break through in the film industry a limitation? Most certainly. Was I angry and jealous about colleagues that didn’t have to work for living and could focus purely on their film work? Yes, though I felt a guilty about it. Was I disappointed that my “secret handshake” action didn’t seem to improve after having gone to NFTS? Yes I was. Did I waste time complaining about all of the above? I still do.
After years of frustration, my thinking fluctuating between two modes – that I am either a talentless waste of space or I am an unsung genius fallen victim to anti-Polish conspiracy, I decided that this is not helping anyone, and that I needed to recalibrate my thinking. There will be many times in someone’s life and career that accidents, random factors, prejudices will decide their fate. This is all out of my control, therefore it is not smart to be wasting my time thinking about it. The only way to limit the influence of those obstacles on one’s life is to try again, and again, and again. What I learned was that, if I really want to make films, there is no other choice but to keep going. If I persist and work hard, grow and learn, it will at some point be impossible for people to ignore me. So I try to focus on that.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
I have had a pretty clear idea about what kind of cinema interests me and what are the themes that I gravitate to the most (death, death and death). This was influenced by books and films I watched when I was very young – mostly quite dark, sometimes absurd, surreal. It went this way – Kafka, Sartre, Camus, Polanski, Charlie Kaufman, Coen Brothers and Roy Andersson.
The first of many attempts of making films before film school were just bad and not in a fun B-movie kind of way, but in an unbearably pretentious kind of way. We’re talking silent, black and white movies here about the meaning of life. But these movies were extremely important in understanding how hard it is to make a good film in general. Not to mention a film that is original, stylistically innovative and has something new and interesting to say about the world. I have no regrets about these first attempts, but if I were to do it again, I would have lowered the bar a little and treated them more as an exercise and a learning curve. My initial mistake was thinking that the process of translating an abstract idea into its physical representation on the screen will be effortless and automatic –similar to writing. But I learned that making a film can only be compared to learning how to paint with a blindfold on. You’re in for a series of painful reveals. Only with time and experience, one learns what is the cause and effect relation between a single decision that is being made on set and the final result we see on the screen.
Making my first student films, I was always trying to experiment with tone and aesthetic. The first few years of making films were an uphill battle and some truly atrocious films have been made (films being a generous term). The problem was, I believe, that I was trying to communicate something to my crew and colleagues that didn’t exist yet outside of my own head, something that no one had the same reference point for. Being inexperienced myself, I didn’t know how to translate it into technical language, for example, understanding what wide lens does to an image and how camera angle influences the tone of a single shot. For me a turning point was working with a talented and more experienced DoP and understanding the impact of location, production design on the tone and aesthetic of the film. More discoveries in the field of editing sound and music followed. It was an exercise in world building and this is something that keep learning about to this day. That film was a first short film that I wasn’t completely embarrassed about, called Another day. Yes, granted it still was a pretentious silent film about death, but at least that one looked good and it was a bit funny. From then on something clicked in my head and I continued on that path, gradually and slowly evolving, by hopefully letting go of some of that pretentiousness and even adding some dialogue.
How did you get your first break?
It’s a good question. I don’t know if I did. I did have many breakdowns though, which can be equally useful in one’s career.
There were couple of good turning points that are worth mentioning. First one was making a short film called Last Train, which had some small success in film festivals, secured me a place in NFTS and gave me some confidence as a filmmaker.
The second one happened quite recently with getting an opportunity to direct a Netflix show, which gave me a lot of professional satisfaction, sense of legitimacy as a working filmmaker and frankly, for the first time in my life, a good pay-check. A pay-check that now I can use to create a financial safety net for myself, so I can work on my pretentious black and white movies about death, without having to work a day job. It took me five years since I graduated from NFTS to get to that place.
I wish I could say why and how this opportunity came about at this particular point of time, but I can’t give a straight answer to this. It was preceded by years of failed attempts of manufacturing such opportunities for myself. But strangely I feel like every single experience I had for the last few years had made it possible for me to be mentally and professionally prepared for an opportunity like this to happen. So when the e-mail from my agent finally came, I was ready for it. And I move on from this with a sense of some achievement and satisfaction, but also knowing that there are hopefully more breaks and most certainly many breakdowns still yet to come.
TV Credits: The Irregulars (2020).
Film Credits: Kolejny dzien (2008), Last Train (2010), Shortcuts to Hell: Volume 1 (2013), The Patient (2014), Suicide Is Easy (2014), A Moment of Horror (2015), Love Life (2016).