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SUNDANCE 2021 World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Jakub Piątek • Director of Prime Time

“We would often refer to the suitcase from Pulp Fiction: you don't know what's inside it either”

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- We talked to the Polish director about his debut feature, which revolves around a hijack situation at a TV studio

Jakub Piątek • Director of Prime Time

As the world is getting ready to usher in the new millennium, Sebastian (Bartosz Bielenia) hijacks a TV studio, taking two hostages: a well-known presenter and a security guard. His plan is simple – he wants to deliver his message to the viewers. But first, someone needs to accept the new schedule. This is the plot of Jakub Piątek’s feature debut, Prime Time [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Jakub Piątek
film profile
]
, screened at Sundance.

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Cineuropa: Many people will remember New Year's Eve in 1999 and the expectations that came with it, as if a brave new world were about to begin. You also show these reactions, flashing up on the screens.
Jakub Piątek:
I was 15 years old at the time, so this was the first New Year's Eve I might not actually remember [laughs]. When we looked through the archives, what I liked was that it really went out with a bang. The biggest stars were performing, John Paul II would bless all these drunk people – it was totally absurd. My mum went to the bank to have some kind of proof of how much money was in her account, afraid of the “millennium bug”. You really believed it! I enjoyed the idea of having this massive party, happening somewhere outside of our “box”.

Exactly – so much is happening, but not in the actual studio. When one first hears about the movie, one might expect Lumet's The Network. And you went for Waiting for Godot instead – or, rather, waiting for the chairman.
While developing this film, we would often encounter resistance that came down to: “But he doesn't say anything.” Now, as I read the first reviews, I can see that it works for some people, and others consider it its biggest drawback. We would often refer to the suitcase from Pulp Fiction. You don't know what's inside it either, and yet everything works. We were researching similar stories that had happened in different countries, and also in Poland, nobody knows what this guy's motivation was. It was something I wanted to keep in, even though our story is very different. At the beginning, we wanted to add a quasi-reportage: various people, including his mother, talking about Sebastian. That was the first thing we cut. And when it comes to the waiting, the movie was planned like a relay race. One person starts, then passes on the baton to the negotiator, then Sebastian's father and so on.

It could be viewed as a Polish reaction to a crisis: “I’m sorry, but it's not part of my duties.” In a US film, everyone would probably want to be a hero right away, wouldn’t they?
I'm glad you say it's something inherently “Polish”, because these people are not trained like their American colleagues. We had a series of consultations when preparing the movie: we met with a retired commandant, and he was no Denzel Washington, ready to take matters into his own hands. He said: “With a case like that, you would have to make a whole lotta phone calls.” Our counterterrorist units always had to explain everything; they couldn't even afford flash-bang grenades, so if someone were to start piling pressure on them like that, they would rather go home, celebrate New Year's Eve and eat herring salad. That being said, a few days ago, I was contacted by the negotiator who was there when it really happened in Poland. I got so excited that I called up all my actors before I responded, and he said: “Me too – I just called up my friend who was there as well.”

It would have been so much easier for Sebastian to get his message out there now, as everyone seems to have some kind of a “platform”. It has been a while since we saw someone so desperate to stand in front of the camera.
I grew up watching television; that's how I discovered film. Now, the first thing you see on Facebook is this question: “What are you thinking?” You want to share everything right away. Back then, there was a certain hierarchy, and television was Mount Olympus. If you were on there, you were important. We met many TV personalities, and one famous presenter told us that when she walked into the store, everyone would just stare and talk about her appearance as if she wasn't there. She wasn't human – she was someone they saw on TV.

In films, when you have such a small group of people, suddenly squeezed together, they often begin to form some kind of a relationship. How did you want to show it?
Lumet's Network and Dog Day Afternoon were on everyone's must-watch list, but my favourite story came from the real materials about that last event. The cashiers from the bank, once they were allowed to leave after having witnessed all that terror, said it was the most wonderful night they had ever experienced. They had never laughed so much before; they had never felt more alive. Of course, this could be explained by Stockholm syndrome, but for me it was fascinating to watch these three people, people who would never meet in real life, who wouldn't even eat lunch in the same place. There is a certain energy that comes with such a meeting – even when it lasts for just a short time.

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