A smell lingers in the air during an early scene in Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s horror musical The Lure. It’s not the bar’s smoke-filled air or the food that’s cooking. It’s a sign that mermaids are in the building, and an early indication of the visceral experience the director has crafted. This is a deliriously bizarre world in which the beautiful maidens stink and disgusting sounds are ever-present. These heart-consuming heroines—Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Gold (Michalina Olszańska)—come ashore in 1980s Poland during a period of martial law and become performers in a Warsaw nightclub.
During a recent trip to New York, Smoczyńska spoke with The A.V. Club about what the reaction to the film has been in her home country, and wanting to capture the experience of growing up female.
The A.V. Club: Were all of the elements in the finished film in the original script?
Agnieszka Smoczyńska: Robert [Bolesto, the writer] told me, “Agnieszka, I want to tell this story about my friends—very close—who are composers. They grew up in a dance club.” I said, “Okay, it’s fantastic because I grew up in such a place—my mom ran such a restaurant.” And he said, “Fantastic, I want to make it.” We met together with [the Wrońska sisters, Polish musicians in the band Ballady I Romanse], and they said, “Okay, let’s make the film. We want to make a musical.” And I [thought], “Oh, my god, a musical? No, no, no.” And then, after a week, one of the Wrońska sisters said, “No, I don’t want to make this film because it’s too intimidating. I don’t want to expose myself so much.”
AVC: Because it was so personal?
AS: Yes, exactly. She said no. We thought this was the end of our journey. And then Robert said, “Okay, so let’s make them mermaids.” It was so absurd. The mermaids are like a mask. You can hide behind these masks. We said, “Okay, yes, it’s fantastic,” and we started to work on it.
AVC: Why were you initially reluctant to make a musical?
AS: In Poland, there’s no tradition of musicals. It was my first musical. I was like, “Oh, my god.” But I started to think—if I have mermaids, I have to find the ways of expression to show them. And that’s why it’s a musical. They sing, there’s a dance club, there’s the musicians.
AVC: In Poland, there’s no tradition of musicals?
AS: There’s no tradition in Poland. There’s no tradition with horror. There’s no tradition with genres. You can imagine what people think when they watch this movie.
AVC: What was the reaction?
AS: The audience in Poland was divided, but at Sundance it was a huge success. In Poland, they promoted it as “the Polish Chicago.”
AVC: As in, Chicago the musical?
AS: Yes. And because there’s no horror, you can’t tell that we made a film about mermaids. They didn’t show in the trailer that they are mermaids. They didn’t show the horror element. And people with children came to this film.
AVC: Did you look to other movie-musicals for inspiration?
AVC: Is there any Polish tradition of mermaids in lore?
AS: You have to know that, in Warsaw, where this is set, our emblem is a mermaid.
AVC: So why didn’t they want to advertise that there were mermaids?
AS: Because our mermaids don’t look like sweet mermaids from Disney. We wanted to kill Disney. We wanted to make our own legend, and we believed that we could attract an audience because of this. We don’t want to make victims. We want mermaids who’ll fight, who’ll devour. We wanted to make them half-beautiful and half-ugly and this fishtail—long, long, long 2-meter fishtail, full of mucus. You can feel the smell and everything.
AVC: Can you tell me about the design of the tail?
AS: At the very beginning, we wanted to make short, normal, sexy fishtails. Then we decided no, no—if you want to go farther and you want to create a new, modern mermaid, we have to find something else, another reference. We have [artist Aleksandra] Waliszewska for the opening titles—why don’t we create huge fishtails? She sent us the paintings, and our guys from special effects started to make it from silicon. Inside you have the sponge, and inside you have the mechanism. During the shooting, a guy worked the mechanism. Some scenes have practical models, and some scenes have CGI.
AVC: Is the Warsaw mermaid, who’s on the emblem, more along the Disney line?
AS: It’s more Disney. Maybe not—she’s a fighter also, because she has a sword in her arm. But the fishtail is sexy. I remember when we started to shoot, the guys from special effects, they said, “Oh, my god, it’s not so sexy. It’s not good. Agnieszka, you have to stop this.” And then I thought, “Maybe they’re right.” But no, no. I was inspired by the Waliszewska paintings.
AVC: There’s a lot of female nudity, but you also have this grotesque-looking tail, and when they have legs, they’re de-sexed. They don’t have any genitalia. What was your intention in playing with their attractiveness and sexiness? How did you want to portray that?
AS: It was very hard, because it was something completely new, but I wanted to make them animals. For me, [what] was important about the nudity is she’s not ashamed, but also she’s not, like, in erotic movies. Also, if I wanted to make a story about a girl growing up who wants to have a pussy because she wants to have sex with her lover… We decided to give her no pussy when she’s without the fishtails, like an angel, like a creature from outside.
AVC: How did you build the mythology of your mermaids?
AS: I was inspired by Homer, the Greek mythology about sirens who devour people and who are like predators. I was also inspired by Hans Christian Andersen, by his story about a mermaid who falls in love with a guy and wants to sacrifice herself. But what was the most important to me was to create a new, modern mermaid. The look of the mermaid is not taken from the legends or old paintings. As you can see, I asked the modern painter, [Waliszewska], “Please, paint me a mermaid,” and she painted it. I used this as a reference. What was also important is how they eat. It was our idea that they eat hearts. Also, the telepathy between the mermaids. We wanted to create something new.
AVC: Sound is deployed in a really interesting way. There are the musical numbers and the way that they talk with one another, which is musical in itself.
AS: It was very important because we started to work with a sound designer after the first draft of the treatment. He was working with us—with the scriptwriter, with the composers, with me, and the choreographer—and after the first draft of the script, he wrote the first draft of the sound-script. I knew that I wanted to create the whole movie as a score, as a composition. I really could see the whole movie after we made the sound. The sound design is crucial for this. It helps you to go from the musical to the horror, from the horror to psychological drama, to comedy, and it must be very, very gentle, and it must impose the way you have to watch it.
AVC: Where did you draw the sounds from?
AS: There are many sounds from sharks, from dolphins, from orcas, and also [the sound designer] created his own sounds. He started to study the ocean sounds and he created many, many, many sounds. The sound has 17 layers, so you can imagine.
AVC: What did the ’80s era and that setting bring to the story?
AS: For all of us—the Wrońska sisters, the director of photography, the scriptwriter, the sound designer—it was the time of our childhood. At the very beginning, we wanted just to tell the story about our childhood experience. For us, we were sure that it would be during the ’80s. But what you can see in the movie is that it’s not during the ’80s—it’s in the so-called ’80s.
AVC: What was the story about your childhood in this culture that you wanted to convey?
AS: The initiation. Growing up is very brutal. The first time, the first love, the vodka, the first cigarette, the first sex, but also the feeling of the music. My mom ran such a restaurant, so it was really my childhood, this whole environment. The feeling that the young girl is treated as an object. I think the mermaids are also treated like this, as a metaphor for girls growing up. We made them animals to highlight this.
AVC: Was there anything about that period that you wanted to convey in the film?
AS: Of course. It was the Communist time. It was just after the martial law. It was the time when there was no freedom in Poland. Everybody drinks vodka. There was no hope during this time. For us, it was very important to not directly get into politics, because from the point of view of mermaids, there are no politics. They are like children in this way.
AVC: You play with time in the movie. You never really know when things happen. Everything is fluid.
AS: Many, many things changed during the editing, and the most important thing was the energy and the emotions between sisters. I had many scenes which were in the beginning that I put in the end during editing. Normal chronology wasn’t important for the story. Mermaids also don’t look at the world in a chronological way.
AVC: How did the songwriting process fit in?
AS: The lyrics writer, Zuzanna Wrońska, started to work with Robert and me from the very beginning, from the first draft of the script. Every character had to have a song. We need a song for Silver and the bass player, a love song. We need a song for Gold, which reveals that she’s wild and she wants something different. And we need a song for The Lure as a band. I wrote the emotional arc for the songwriter. Emotionally, I knew where the story had to begin and end. We were working together. The Wrońska [sisters] have a specific way of writing. It’s like poetry. It’s not so sweet. There’s a sadness to it. The whole movie is like an evening at the dance club. You have their original songs but also Donna Summer covers.