Based on a true story, the gripping, life-affirming drama Infinite Storm follows Pam Bales (Naomi Watts) as she unexpectedly rescues a young man she calls “John” (Billy Howle) on a New Hampshire mountain on a cold November day . Director Malgorzata Szumowska captures this inspiring triumph in the history of the human spirit with aplomb, focusing on the isolation, beauty and brutality of nature, often using silence and ambient noise to convey emotion.
The film differs greatly from Szumowska’s previous feature films, including The Other Lamb, starring Michiel Huisman as a messiah-like cult leader, and Elles, in which a journalist (Juliet Binoche) investigates a student prostitution ring. Szumowska has also made some fantastic films in her native Poland, such as “In the Name Of,” about a gay priest, and “Never Gonna Snow Again,” a satire about a masseur who invades a condominium.
Szumowska finds a common humanity with her characters and tells her stories with genuine sensitivity. Pam may be haunted by a tragedy from her past – it drives her to go up the mountain on a day when inclement weather makes climbing risky. And Watts gives a brave performance, struggling to crawl out of a hole when Pam makes a misstep or is determined to keep John – who makes some misjudgments – alive at all costs. Howle’s character is more of an enigma, but the bond these two strangers share ultimately changes their lives.
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Szumowska spoke to Salon about her new film.
I’m amused you followed “Infinite Storm” to “Never Gonna Snow Again”. In terms of content, this film is very different from your previous work – it’s an action picture – but it’s also a character study. What was the appeal of making Infinite Storm?
You are absolutely right; it is very new and different. The crucial thing is not the story, which is rather adventurous and genre-heavy, but that I didn’t write the screenplay. I’ve wanted to try something like this for a long time – in a different language and in a different film language. The balance, the temperature, everything is different, but now I would like to make my own film in Polish, which I wrote, and then make another film like this.
Do you like mountaineering? What are your experiences with outdoor activities?
I’m very interested in sports and I’m very hardcore. i am a surfer I do CrossFit, indoor climbing, swimming. Hiking was very important for me to make a film like this. We spent hours hiking for pre-production and filming. It was a very physical experience. I like that. That’s why I wanted to make this film, to have this physical experience on a high mountain super close to nature.
I really liked the line about nature offering wilderness, refuge, escape and hope. I like the use of silence in the film and the ambient sounds. What can you say about filming on location?
Everything about the project was beautiful and brutal. We had 24 days of shooting, 10 of them on the Hochberg. We were limited with everything including budget. I will put Naomi and Billy in the real situation and real environment, so they have to survive; otherwise we would not achieve this spectacular performance. Naomi said she was ready, but it was difficult for her on the first day. Then he’s naked and it was minus 10 degrees outside. Every day we woke up at 2:00 or 3:00 am and traveled to the high mountains to face the sunrise. It was a tough, physical experience. But I think Naomi found the freedom to be with us. We East Europeans have a different history and that was culturally interesting for them. It’s the nature of people from this part of Europe; there is brutality in us. We had war experiences recently – in Poland there was the communist regime, and Croatia and Slovenia also had wars. We are very different and warriors. We fought to make this film and to bring all these scenes to life.
Can you tell us something about your approach to telling this story visually?
I worked closely with my cinematographer and co-writer/co-director Michel Englert. Our collaboration was super effective; We don’t need words to communicate. Visuals are super important, so he was like, How do we make white snow interesting? You can’t tell one place from another, but Michel never wanted to shoot in the same place twice. He never used the same camera setup. We worked hours on preparation and hiked through crazy mountains. I lost a lot of weight, which was good, and I quit smoking completely. We tried to find the right image, the right angles and the right lens. Then we decided to use a handheld camera and be close to the characters to make them feel like you’re breathing with them and the cold and their combat.
How did you work with the actors on the physicality of their roles? Both Watts and Howle gave muscular performances, and they are very inward and have very little dialogue. can you talk about it
There was a lot more dialogue in the script. When Michel and I saw it, we thought, “No! How can they say all those lines in these weather conditions?!” It wouldn’t work. We reduced the dialogue. Naomi wondered why we are all taking out their lines. But they would have to shout their lines because of the wind! We would not hear of their words. She said, “Yes, you’re right.” We tried to express everything through her face and without dialogue through physicality. I introduced the film to a friend and he said this film was super physical. When I thought about who could play Pam, it had to be an actress of a certain age who was very fit and believable. Naomi is super fit and I like that she is a very physical actress.
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John’s character is stubborn, reckless and hurtful. Pam is sad but determined. We learn her story, but he is more puzzling. What observations do you have about these people?
The biggest question mark in history was his character. He’s an enigma. He’s a real person and it’s a true story. We were limited by that fact. We couldn’t invent his [back]Story. I tried to make his character interesting on screen, but I knew audiences would be more with her because we know more about her. So we decided to make him less likeable and have some contrast between them. You like her, but you don’t like him because he’s a troublemaker. But in the end you really like him.
A spiritual thread runs through your work. This is a story that would be appropriate for discussions of faith. can you speak to this
The religious element is nature. That’s how I feel It is very difficult to have God and religion plus nature. It’s almost the same. The metaphysical speaks to us through nature. There’s a kind of belief that people passing by are somewhere. You can feel their presence.
“Infinite Storm” is about someone who changes Pam’s life. Who changed your life and how?
My life was changed by people I met and definitely my father who was a strong personality. And it was changed in a good way because of him. I met great teachers and directors at film school who changed my life. You have encouraged me and empowered me to do what I do.
Infinite Storm is now available on VOD. Watch the trailer via YouTube.
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