At 85, if you could sit down to talk with your 25-year-old self, what would you say? That is the main idea behind actress and filmmaker Morgane Polanski’s latest short film, Through the Looking Glass. Starring Dame Siân Phillips, and with costumes done by Maria Grazia from Dior, the film is an introspective thriller that looks inward to create the full picture. Aside from that project, created by her own Stroke Productions and touring festivals last year, Polanski has been on her toes lately, working with Wes Anderson on his most recent film The French Dispatch, as well as starring in 2019’s BIFA-nominated independent film Looted.
Polanski filled us in on all the details for The Untitled Magazine‘s latest print edition, The “INNOVATE” Issue, as well as what inspired Stroke Productions in the first place, and why she loves psychological thrillers oh so much.
Let’s start off with Through the Looking Glass, a short film that you directed with your production company Stroke Productions. Can you tell us a little bit about the film and that whole production?
Stroke Productions is a company I have with my best friend, or “work wife” as I call her, Serena Jennings. I had done short films before working with her, but then we co-wrote The Stroke, which was our first short film. And we kind of created Stroke Productions on the back of that, because we needed a production company to get a short going. And then after that, you know, why should we dissolve it? Let’s just have it always, cause you know, in terms of the world now, no matter what there’s still production. So she wrote Through the Looking Glass, and we actually shot it right before the pandemic. We had Dame Sian Phillips in it, and Maria Grazia from Dior, the costume maker who did the outfits.
It’s basically, if you were 85 years old, what would be the conversation with your 25-year-old self? We kind of started the idea when I was 25, I’m now 28. There’s something about when you’re in your mid-twenties. I know me and my friends, it’s kind of all that we talk about, but I find your early twenties fucking difficult; you’re trying to find yourself, you’re uncomfortable in your skin, but then I’m like “this is the peak of your time.” Then I look at my parents and I look at photos of myself and I think, “oh I’m so silly, I had it all in front of me. I didn’t even see it.” And there we are, me and my friends, boxing our own selves on the boxing ring and I think, “what am I going to tell this to my daughters? ‘You’re gonna enjoy it, it’s now, it’s your big time!” And it’s basically like the cycle of life. If you could tell your 20-year-old self, what would be that conversation? Then actually you can still evolve, but you need to make mistakes and then struggle in your twenties. Aging is not easy, is what I hear from other people. And I’m like, “ahh, I can’t wait to age!” And they’re like “you wait!” It’s about that. It’s also a bit of a wink to Snow White.
It’s a great concept: what you could say to your 25-year-old self. Because it’s that whole concept of looking back at your life and as a young person, also thinking ahead: what would I think about myself if I were older? It’s definitely that whole paradigm of time and age, it’s such an interesting subject that a lot of people reflect on. Particularly with the pandemic, it’s put the urgency of our lives and our lifetime through a magnifying glass right now, specifically. Cause we just don’t know like how much time we have.
It definitely pressed “pause” in time and kind of put things back into reality, and actually what truly matters and what truly, truly doesn’t. It’s weird when you feel like you can’t trust your eyes. Especially with women, it’s all about how you look. I’m 28 and I look at photos at 22 and I’m like “oh my god I look much younger and I didn’t even realize that.” It’s scary. That’s why I think a lot of my films that I’m bringing into the studio are psychological thrillers, it’s the lines between “do I believe the script in my mind, or should I check it out with other people?” Because that version between the madness in my head and the reality is so small. If I don’t bring them in, if I just don’t speak to anyone, if I do other people’s thinking for them and interpret everything, I can go mad and believe really awful things.
Tell us a little bit about working with Maria Grazia from Dior, who did your films’ costumes. How did that come about and what sort of collection did she create?
I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to divulge too much about the film — but I wanted it to be sort of timeless. Like period, but not really period, and Dior does that so well, especially since Maria Grazia has been designing there because she embraces the classic draw with adding such a modern, edgy sense to it. And actually it was during the V&A exhibition of Dior in London, I remember going to see it for some inspiration.
It’s two outfits that the younger girl wears. I wanted it so it was classic, but with Dior edge to it. There’s a small waist and a bit of shoulder pads.
The film has also been recently shown at a bunch of festivals!
We had Venezia Shorts online, This is England, Womxnchester festival, we’re having one in Manchester, then we just had another festival. So it’s mainly England… we’re still waiting for other things. Hopefully the rest of the year it will be doing the festival run, and then it will be public. We’ll see, for the moment it’s just on the festival circuit.
Tell us a little bit about Stroke Productions, which you founded with Serena Jennings.
I haven’t produced a feature yet, but a few shorts. Stroke Productions has been a great school. Shorts are on a tiny scale, and we’re learning so much what not to do for the next time. And then I’m like “oh my god, thank god this is a short. On the bigger scale, what is going to be?” I always didn’t understand that someone that just comes up with the idea is as much a producer as someone that invests, and someone that comes in between… so many people are producers. You look at films and there’s executive producers, and producers on for ages in the credits. To me, that’s basically like giving birth to a child and now giving it to adoption for someone else, and then watching them raise them the way you don’t want to.
Serena is so incredible, and not even that she’s such a talented actress and writer, but she has such an incredible creative side. She has that incredible prefrontal cortex brain of just being really good at sorting things out and getting things done. I learned so much from her. She’s the start to my finish, cause I hate starting and she hates finishing. And so we kind of pass the baton on things, and we don’t decide “you do that, I do that.” It always actually fits into place of what I can bring and what she can bring. It’s kept me really sane to have that. Sometimes I direct, sometimes I just produce, and sometimes she writes. But we always said, no matter what, we’re just gonna always be there. We love to work with friends and hire talented people that we love. I want to continue doing that.
And then I found out early on — not that I would copy her — that Margot Robbie is doing is exactly what I am, she did it with her husband. She does some projects where she’s the lead in them and she also produces. And that’s really what I want to do.
Have you found that with your father being a director and growing up in that kind of environment, that that has encouraged your filmmaking and inspired you?
When I was like four years old, I went to Vienna with my dad for a few months cause he was doing a musical there. That was Dance of the Vampire, the musical in Austrian — which I still don’t speak a word of — But I remember staying there and I remember for the first time in my life I forgot about reality. I escaped in this magic fantasy world. I didn’t have any conception of time. I was completely in flow. And I remember thinking then that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, which is basically storytell. Because I fell in love with that so early on, I didn’t go and look for other things. Early on I wanted to be a director, and then I became a teenager and lost my confidence and realized the false ability to carry everything on your shoulder. And I was like, “no, I need to just start with acting,” and I went to drama school. But I don’t know, if my father was a surgeon or something else and I was in the operating room and I loved that as well, maybe I would have done that! I just found something early on that I loved and continued doing that, but it doesn’t mean that there’s not other things that I love to do. Like, I don’t believe we have one soulmate. I don’t believe we have one partner.
Of course, people morph as they evolve as a person. You become inspired by new things and by your experiences that form your life as you go. I agree with you entirely on that one. It’s also 2021, you’re just not one thing anymore. You’re a something and then you sell, I don’t know, ice cream on the side [laughs]. People can just do anything!
You have some various films that you’ve been working on aside from the ones with your production company, like Nan Yar, which is a short thriller.
Yeah, this is a short thriller that I act in that we shot in lockdown, that a friend of mine wrote. It’s about OCD and intrusive thoughts. That was lovely to be a part of. I had said to my dad “no more shorts!” But then I just loved the script.
We also shot — it was like two to three years ago now — a film called Looted, which we shot for $150k in Hartlepool in 18 days. It was one of the best acting experiences in my life. The director became a really good friend of mine and all the actors. It was like… you know when there’s less money and people are just doing it for the art and the story? It was just like, we were all for 18 days – like really long days – just serving the purpose of telling the story of that film. Weirdly — not weirdly, but cause it’s been two years, you kind of do something then forget about it when you act in it — it’s been doing really well! It went to two festivals, and it’s on iTunes and SKY. It was number one on the iTunes Indie films chart in the UK, and it’s completely different than what I’ve done before. It’s really a coming-of-age story that was awesome to do.
Tell me a little bit about your experience with Wes Anderson and your role in his new film, The French Dispatch.
What I will say is that he is the kindest, most incredible human, and it was such a blessing to work with him, from an acting and a directing point of view. I had such a great time, and it really was just amazing to work with him. He’s such a kind person. Everyone in his crew he’s worked with for years, and everyone is just so fond of each other. And that’s what I saw on my dad’s sets. My dad’s worked with the same people for years and they all keep working together. For me that says a lot. My DOP Alfie Biddle, who I did The Stroke with, and then did all the other things I did after with me, like our film about anxiety, because we wanted to do something on mental health. I did a few commercial things here and there, and we did Through the Looking Glass, and he’s just this really good friend of mine now. And I just want to work with him. Those work relationships are just so important — To become friends to work with is so beautiful.
So do you have anything exciting coming up that we can look out for aside from all these projects that you’ve been doing so far?
There’s some things that are in the pipeline, but it’s so early on. Just look out for something really really exciting!
Morgane Polanski @mpolanski
Photography by Simon Emmett @simonemmettstudio for @theuntitledmagazine
Stylist Rebekah Roy @rebekahroy_
Make-up Kim Brown @kimbrownmakeup
Hair by Paul Donovan @pauldonovanhair
Set Designer Emma Witter @emmawitter_setdesign