Writer/Director Piotr Ryczko and Actor Marta Król on ‘I Am REN’, a Polish Sci-Fi Thriller with a Mental Health Message

I Am REN is a Phillip K. Dick-inspired science fiction thriller that slowly unravels itself to reveal a haunting mental health parable. Taking the unsettling serenity of the Polish countryside and combining excellent cinematography with a manic, malfunctioning android, there are plenty of twists and turns on offer in this directorial debut.

We spoke to director and writer Piotr Ryczko and lead actor Marta Król ahead of the film’s screening at this year’s Grimmfest.

Thom: Can you please describe I Am REN for anyone who has not seen it?

Piotr Ryczko: It’s a story about a woman, a mother, who one day announces that she is a robot. Pretty soon we are seeing that even though it sounds very improbable, we are seeing that it is the truth. One day she has a malfunction that causes distress amongst the family, so they go for a small vacation to see if she can be repaired. This way, we go through her journey where she discovers herself and discovers some very deep truths about herself and what has made her life hell.

Thom: Marta, what attracted you to this role?

Marta Król: From the first time that I read the script, I was attracted by the story and the character. It’s amazing because she’s a woman, a wife, a mother, and somehow, she is close to me, but also an android. I felt that it was a great thing to try and go on this journey with Piotr to find out what kind of android she is, why she has this error, what it means to be an android. I met Piotr to tell me a little about the story and I read the book Panacea, which he wrote before the script. For me it was so fresh, so new, so emotionally intense, I jumped into it very quickly.

Thom: How did you find the process of transferring your own idea from the pages of your novel to the screen?

Piotr Ryczko: It was always the plan from the get-go to actually use the book, and for it to become a film. So, with that in mind, it wasn’t too hard. Of course, the book should have its own literary value, but I focused much more on the psychological research that it could provide me to go deeper into the characters and understand them, to find out who they really are. It was amazing to have this deep research process for the characters, which you never have so much time for on a script, so that was useful. The book was written so that I could easily translate it to screen. Often literature has untranslatable symbolism and inner monologues and stuff like that. I didn’t have so much of that, and when I did have it, it was meant more as a form of research into the characters’ psychology. I liked this process very much.

Thom: What is it about this story idea that made you want to use it as your feature film debut?

Piotr Ryczko: It’s normal for a director and writer to use four, five, or six years on a story. From concept to taking it to festivals. You really must be considerate about all of this time and how to use it on something that is valuable enough to stick with for so many years. For me, it was a very personal story about my mother and what she went through and trying to understand her, so that was worth the time. Science fiction is a genre that I like very much, but it still had to be something personal. I needed to understand about my family, about suffering from mental illness.

Thom: As it is such a personal film, how much influence did Marta have on the characterisation of the role? Did the character evolve more after she became involved?

Piotr Ryczko: I am of the mind that it was a very personal story for my mother, but like I’ve said before, Marta gave so much input to this story. She put so much of her heart into the story and rehearsal process. It gave new value to the character, and that was invaluable. Both my mother and Marta’s intuition were equally important going into this role.

Marta Król: When I get the material from the director and the script, I’m trying to take it on myself and to follow my intuition and instincts to build the character. Talking with Piotr really helped me to trust this process and to be open and vulnerable. It was very intimate, and I was able to forget about barriers and borders during this process, and I think it worked. We were shooting on location for more than two weeks, far from our homes, and I was able to really focus on my work and this character. That was something important and helpful.

I always had Yori Fabian, our great cameraman, close to me, with the camera in my face, so that it could see everything through me. That was challenging, but I felt amazingly comfortable during the process, even if some things were quite difficult and emotionally heavy. But I really love this kind of work where I can trust my instincts, the director, the text, the story… and I got to swim! It was perfect, and I hope that you could feel that through the screen.

Thom: Do you feel that there are any stigmas attached to those with mental health issues, such as violence or danger, and that this is due to a lot of poor cinematic representations? How do you think that filmmakers are able to challenge and subvert this perception?

Piotr Ryczko: We’ve talked on many occasions about the stigmas that are put on people with mental health issues. That was one of the main reasons I made this film. I know how my mother’s environment reacted to her. She was far from dangerous and never hurt anyone, but even though she was the only one who was sick, the whole family was stigmatised – we were all dangerous just because we were near her. People were afraid. Cinema is part of this, because usually you have these depictions that if someone is mentally ill, then they’re either a killer or some sort of degenerate. To fight this, we tried to make a film where she’s depicted sometimes as being violent, but we tried to put the viewer into her shoes without judging her, without saying that she is mentally ill, because we learn this very late in the movie. That was our main tool, not telling the viewer about it straight away so that they have the time to get used to her as a malfunctioning android, so that they can sympathise with her. In the end, we only really show her suffering that all this mental illness has brought to her. I always wanted it to be a very empathetic film towards her. I hope it’s viewed like that and not as a judgemental film.

Marta Król: At one festival Q&A, there was a girl who said that she’s suffered from schizophrenia for many years, and that she’s see many movies about this but she always felt uncomfortable, because it wasn’t about the illness, it was judging her. After I Am REN, she told us that we really showed the inner world of a sick person, and that it was real for her and close to what she’s dealing with. So that was a great review for us.

Piotr Ryczko: A lot of people don’t know that a lot of the suffering doesn’t just come from the illness, but from the isolation it brings. This sickness comes in waves where it can be worse or better, and you have all the medication for it, but the isolation and loneliness that comes with it is crushing. This is something that we often forget, and this is something that other people can do something about by not pushing people ­away.

Thom: The way that I Am REN brings you in is that you believe you’re getting an android-themed science fiction thriller, but it slowly reveals itself to be a mental health parable. Do you feel that there is a stigma attached to genre filmmakers not being able to tell more meaningful stories, and what do you think they’re doing to change this?

Piotr Ryczko: To do a film about AI right now is extremely competitive, and these movies are very, very good. I think that the only way that filmmakers can do anything about this is to tell more unique and personal stories, and to use the genre to achieve that. That’s the only way for a film to stand out. From what I’ve seen, sci-fi is getting more human stories in the genre, and I hope it continues to go that way. It feels like the right way to evolve the genre.

Marta Król: I think that it’s great that Piotr found this metaphor for this sickness. I think that, thanks to this, I Am REN has multiple layers. It can be a sci-fi, it can be about illness, but it can also be about a woman who wants to be the perfect mother, the perfect wife – it’s a subject about us. It’s about what pressures we put on ourselves as women, or even as men and a society. I think this movie can be watched through many, many layers, and that it can be different for everyone.

Thom: When writing and portraying a character with complex mental health needs, what research and considerations are involved?

Piotr Ryczko: It took quite a long time to connect these two. In the beginning, it was only a story about a woman who was a robot. It took a couple of drafts to understand that I needed more to make it unique. I needed to tell a story that was much closer to me. At the same time, I was struggling, because I’d always wanted to tell a story from that part of my life, but it was too heavy, too personal, and too painful. It was amazing to find this metaphor so that I could deal with the subject that had traumatised me for a lot of my childhood. It helped me to better understand my mother, what she went through, and to do it in a way that wasn’t too painful.

Marta Król: First, I worked off my instincts, of course. After that, I was watching all the movies that I could about robots. I was watching YouTube videos about all the new robots in Japan. There’s one called Sophie – she talks, and she answers your questions, she’s very intelligent and makes funny TV interviews. I was also thinking, what’s the difference between REN and other robots. I remembered asking Piotr “What’s different about her? What’s new?” He said that she’s too emotional, she’s the android that feels too much, even more than a human being. That was something that, for me, was a strong thing to keep. It’s very human, but also mechanical. I can imagine a robot that feels in 100 years, or maybe it’s already here.

Marta Król: I was trying not to tell a story about a sick person, but about an android who wants to hide that she has an error. There’s so many things happening, and she doesn’t know what is and isn’t true because she really loves her son and husband, but maybe the husband is a traitor. There is a scene where she doesn’t react and is like a doll, and that was hard for me to play, because I realised during shooting that I can’t breathe. Robots don’t breathe. Piotr is saying “I don’t want to see the life in you” and I had no idea how to do it. But, I am the kind of actress that, when the director tells me to do something, and I think it’s good, I want to do it, so I just said “OK, no problem”. It was so strange, because I wasn’t breathing and I wasn’t blinking for a long time, and I felt as if I was separated from my own body. During the shooting and when I saw it on the screen, it was strange. So, there were different moments. Sometimes she’s more human, sometimes she’s more android. I think it’s interesting, because we have different places, different parts, and different things that we are living with.

Thom: What films and books were your key influences? Despite being shot in Poland, I couldn’t help but feel like this had a very Scandinavian, Phillip K. Dick feel to it.

Piotr Ryczko: I think the Scandinavian association is from the choice of environment. We had a lot of luck. When I found this location that we shot at, the main location of the movie, which is a very Scandinavian architecture, I was sure that this was it. It’s exceptionally beautiful, but at the same time very aloof and cold. It had the sense of isolation that I wanted her to feel. It was perfect.

Marta Król: Well, also you have lived in Norway, Piotr.

Piotr Ryczko: Yes. I grew up there.

Marta Król: Regarding inspiration – Ex Machina. This movie is strange because it is so beautiful and perfect, but I feel cold watching it. I don’t know how to explain it. There was a distance, but it was so great. I had the images of her in my head for this role.

Thom: What are your thoughts on the genre film scene in Poland, and do you have any recommendations?

Piotr Ryczko: Poland is very conservative and traditional in filmmaking. I come from both Poland and Norway, and I can say that it is the same in Norway. The films that get funded are more towards drama and arthouse, which do well at festivals, but are obvious, and our movie is far from obvious. It is drama, and it is arthouse, but it isn’t obvious. But right now, there is a new generation that is proposing stuff that has never been seen. We are seeing a change. There is still a lot of fear, especially about sci-fi. It’s nearly impossible to get a sci-fi movie made. There were two tries: our movie and Bodo Kox (The Man with the Magic Box). It was quite a big movie, and sadly it failed miserably in the cinema. A lot of people are very scared because of that, but people in Poland and Norway think about sci-fi as flying spaceships and stuff. Sci-fi is so much more than that. So, we are trying to change that, and there is more genre cinema, not necessarily sci-fi, but a lot more is coming now. We are seeing these hybrids of genre and drama. That’s where I think the storytelling is going. In the UK, I think there is a lot more of this happening, and genre is more prevalent than drama. This is where we are heading – we are just ten or fifteen years behind you.

Marta Król: Yeah, we are good at psychological dramas, and we have a really good Polish cinema school, but I think we’re still a little bit stuck to it. If you are looking for money for your movie, it’s probably still true that it’s easier to find money for a film that’s dark, deep, and conservative. But we have, for example, Pawel Pawlikowski, whose two movies, Ida and Cold War, were nominated for Oscars. It is happening, and it’s slowly changing. I hope that the new generation is coming and knocking on the door. With lockdown, we can change how we think about movies moving forward. I think some people have realised that they can be at home and just make a movie. It may be easier somehow, but also there aren’t as many productions right now because of COVID, so it’s different for everyone.

Thom: I’m surprised to hear that Polish cinema is so traditional and conservative when Poland also has such a vibrant, abstract poster tradition.

Piotr Ryczko: Poland has one of the most amazing poster traditions in the world, and it’s very well known in the world for these vibrant posters. And like you say, these posters are incredible, but beneath them is a conservative school of filmmaking. It’s a very strange mix.

Thom: What is the one thing that you want audiences to take away with them after seeing I Am REN?

Piotr Ryczko: I want the audience to empathise more with people who suffer from mental illness. To understand these people and to not stand back or to run away from people like this. To see them for what they are, which is deeply suffering people. That’s the deepest intention, and I hope that comes through. Maybe in some small way this can help us understand and to try to connect to these people.

Marta Król: I agree. I want to tell people that if you see somebody that is suffering from something, especially right now in lockdown where people can feel like they are in prison and feeling alone, strange things can happen in this time in people’s heads, so talk to them, or ask if they need any help. The world right now, with everything happening, has everyone alone in their box with their computer. I think we need touching, being with others and talking to others. So I would say to somebody after this movie “Just look around you, maybe there is someone who needs your smile. You should give it to them”, because people can be suffering with things you don’t know.

I Am Ren is screening at Grimmfest from October 7-11.

Book your tickets here.


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