Tadeusz Lysiak was just hoping for a good grade when he turned in his year-end assignment at the Warsaw Film School in 2019.
He got one, receiving an A for his short film called The Dress. His instructors liked it so much that they suggested he make a few tweaks and enter it in some film festivals. Lysiak took their advice and The Dress ended up winning prizes at 20 festivals around the world. And that was just the start.
Last month the film was nominated for an Academy Award in the short film category and Lysiak has been in a whirlwind ever since. He’s been fielding interview requests from around the world and he headed to Los Angeles earlier this month for a series of promotional events.
He still can’t believe that on March 27 he’ll walk down the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre and rub shoulders with Hollywood royalty. “This is just, like, from a dream,” he said sitting in the chancellor’s office at the film school just before leaving for L.A.. “We’re just humble students from Warsaw Film School in central Europe.”
Dressed in a grey hoody and faded blue jeans, Lysiak looks every inch the student, which he technically still is since he’s a few credit short of graduating. “I have to finish some stuff here,” he said. “But of course, after the nomination, it’s going to be, I think, really easy now because the nomination for Oscar is kind of like a diploma, or even better.”
He’s 28 years old and he started The Dress when he was 26. But the themes explored in the picture reflect a far more seasoned filmmaker and touch on subjects rarely seen on the big screen.
The movie centres on Julia, a chain-smoking, slots-playing, rough-hewn woman with dwarfism who works in a shabby motel frequented by truckers. She faces constant jibes and rejection but refuses to hide away and often gives as good as she gets.
But like any woman, Julia has desires; for a man, for sex, for relationships and for acceptance. When a truck driver expresses interest and asks her on a date, Julia spends three days with her only friend searching for the perfect dress and preparing for a night of passion.
Tolerance of physical differences is a touchy subject in most societies, none more so than Poland with its mono-ethnic population and often abrasive attitude toward migrants from the Middle East. Anna Dzieduszycka, the 32-year old Polish actress who plays Julia, had never been cast in a leading role before. She’d spent her career getting bit parts and largely overlooked.
“In Poland it could be seen as a taboo subject because we have some problems of course with accepting people that are somehow different,” said Lysiak. “But I think this is also quite a universal subject.”
Lysiak said he got the idea for the film after reading an article about the challenges short-statured people face in Poland. He did some more research and reached out for input from Dzieduszycka, whom he’d worked with on an earlier school assignment. “I thought about how I would like to make a movie about how people sometimes judge others or reject others only because of their physical appearance or other characteristics,” he said.
He started writing the script and managed to recruit a couple of experienced actors – Dorota Pomykała who plays Julia’s only friend, and Szymon Piotr Warszawski who plays the truck driver Bogdan.
Budget constraints meant that the cast and crew, made up entirely of students, had just seven days to shoot the film. “I wrote this horribly long script and actually the first edit of the movie was 45 minutes long because of my script,” he said adding that he had to cut 15 minutes.
Lysiak said they took special care with camera angles so as to avoid accentuating Julia’s height difference. “We wanted to see her eyes, her emotions, the humanity inside her,” he explained. “We wanted viewers actually to forget about this height difference, to really be in the eyes of the main protagonist.”
He also deliberately set the story in a rundown, no-name motel to give it a sense of emptiness and insecurity. “It was to make it feel like this is kind of in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “Nobody is connected with the space for a long time except Julia and her friend and the surrounding.”
In one scene Bogdan asks Julia why she never left the motel to escape the ridicule. “And she says to him because I don’t want to, I was born here,” Lysiak said. “The society, the world around me, has to accept me and not me fleeing away.”
The film is not easy viewing and there’s no “happily ever after”. It veers into dark territory and ends with scenes of brutal sexual violence, which has led to some criticism.
Director Ashley Eakin, a staunch advocate for disability representation in film, has chastised the movie for reinforcing stereotypes about disabled people. “It’s perpetuating these ideas that it’s, you know, taboo to have sex with someone who’s disabled,” Eakin said in an interview from Los Angeles.
She has high praise for Dzieduszycka, and Lysiak’s skill as a filmmaker, but she argues the movie was made for an audience of able-bodied people. “It just makes people feel bad for us. It shows that she doesn’t have the dignity, that no one’s going to love her, she’s always going to have this complex.” When the film got nominated Eakin was disappointed. “I was like ... the Academy thinks this is what’s good storytelling for our community,” she said.
Lysiak said he accepted the criticism and he understood Eakin’s point of view. But he said he spent weeks working with Dzieduszycka on the ending and she was adamant to show the reality of what many disabled people face.
“We decided to end this movie in this really brutal and cruel way to show that this is an important subject and nobody’s talking about it,” he said. “This movie is being compared to some kind of fairy tale, like a Cinderella story for example. But in our story, the prince is not the charming prince. He’s a really bad guy who wants to use this woman because of his position of power. So this is reality.”
There’s no doubt that whatever the outcome on March 27, Lysiak’s career is set to take off. He’s already at work on his first feature film – a psychological thriller, he says. But he’s not wedded to the industry. “Now I’m a filmmaker, but who knows what might come next.”
He comes from a long line of writers – his grandfather was a renowned Polish author and his father was a journalist – and he’s always presumed that he would follow in their footsteps. He only got interested in movies after watching Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds at the age of 16. That led to him creating a film in high school about an Alice in Wonderland-like acid trip. After a stint making pizzas, and dabbling in culture studies at the University of Warsaw, he ended up at the film school where he showed early promise with a short called Techno.
For now he’s enjoying the Oscar madness and he hopes that he can finally bring home an Academy Award for the school. It has been nominated twice before, but has yet to win. “Third time’s the charm,” said Lysiak with a wide smile.
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