Polish writer-director Justyna Łuczaj made her feature directorial debut, The Horse Tail, with $650,000 and visions of a brutalist, neo-noir world made of garbage and broken dreams.
A modern retelling of Oedipus from Greek mythology, The Horse Tail (Koński ogon in Polish) follows Maj (Remigiusz Pocica), a young man who was abandoned as a baby by his sex-worker mother, Diana (Ryta Kurak) and raised by Hans (Przemysław Bluszcz), a strange pseudo-father figure, in his junkyard thrift shop.
When Diana returns from a long odyssey twenty years later, she looks for her lost baby but instead finds a grown man. Neither of them recognizes the other, which creates a confusing and ultimately life-changing situation.
Making The Horse Tail
Łuczaj, who is also a painter, started writing the script for The Horse Tail in 2012.
“My version of the Oedipus myth is one straight from a garbage dump,” she tells MovieMaker. “It’s a story marked by some kind of trauma, the presence of fate, and erotic tension. I decided to set the myth in more modern times, in Poland, and change some elements a bit. For example, in my case, Jocasta returns to Thebes, and she is not a queen but an elderly sex worker. Lajos is a degenerate policeman, and Oedipus is an outcast orphan who works and lives in a thrift store.”
She got most of the funding for the movie from the Polish Film Institute, and her co-producers provided the film with equipment and a post-production budget. Łuczaj chose to film the story in the region of Poland where she grew up near the border of Slovakia. There, she could stretch her dollar even further with the help of friends.
“The place I chose to shoot the film is the cheapest region in Poland when it comes to accommodation and meals. These are my hometowns, where I come from, and where after 15 years I decided to return. There is beautiful nature here, places that I know and love,” she says.
“As the writer Georges Perec used to say, limitations give freedom.”
Łuczaj had to make some compromises, but she found that her challenges only heightened her creativity — and that her setting, a ramshackle environment, worked well with her limited budget.
“I wanted to somehow make the real become unreal in the film — bring the atmosphere closer to my paintings, in which landscapes have unrealistic colors and light. Due to budget constraints, this was not possible. So my cinematographer, Małgosia Szyłak, and I were looking for a way to move away from realism,” she says.
One of the most crucial locations was Hans’ thrift shop, which she says is a place with “a crazy eclecticism about it.” It helped bring to life her world of “damage, corruption, and decay.”
Because no one town had enough decrepit locations to embody the world she envisioned, she combined several different locations in Poland and Slovakia.
“I wanted these places to be ready, hardly requiring any scenography, not to be contemporary, and to be destroyed,” she says.
“My cinematographer and I searched for these places for a year. It was a kind of collage. For example, in the broad plan, the heroine is walking in Jasło city, and when she climbs the stairs, it’s already another town — Rymanów, and when she’s at the bus station, it’s Slovakia. It is an eclectic, imaginary world, but at the same time real, without artificial elements or decorations. A garbage world made of real garbage.”
She drew inspiration for the tone of the film from Béla Tarr’s 1987 film-noir drama Damnation.
“This garbage-ness is not only about places — it is above all about the broken relationships that we observe between people living in garbage dumps,” Łuczaj says. “All of my characters do bad things and are degenerate in some way, but all of them are also lonely and looking for love. They act as if they couldn’t get through the door; they just bumped into the doorframes. It’s kind of an emotional false start. Failure in achieving love is quite a big theme in this movie.”
Another way that she saved on her budget was to cast many newcomers.
“For me, the most important element of my work was non-professional actors whom I chose and whom I had to convince my producers of. For a long time they were reluctant to this idea,” she says.
Łuczaj’s instinct to cast non-professionals paid off in the final cut of the film, where the raw emotion is palpable.
She found Pocica hanging out with his friends on the street. She could instantly tell that he was the right person to play Maj.
She was struck by Kurak when a friend posted a photo of her on Facebook. Łuczaj recognized Kurak’s bright blue eyes, but couldn’t place her — until she remembered seeing her in an experimental film from decades prior.
Kurak was reluctant to star in the film at first, insisting that she wasn’t an actress and that the experimental film had been a one-time thing. But after a few years, Kurak finally agreed to play Diana.
Łuczaj was even able to get permission from the director of the experimental film to use clips of it as flashbacks to Diana’s younger days in The Horse Tail.
“When I work with non-professional actors, it’s more about the truth, about presence, about creating a certain state. It is waiting for these things to actually happen, in a sense,” Łuczaj says. “The scenes are more ambiguous, delicate, and certainly less clear. Getting the desired effect is more difficult, but closer to the truth.”
Saving on the location budget and hiring non-professional actors allowed her to have a longer shooting schedule. In fact, Łuczaj says her low-budget process worked so well for her with The Horse Tail that she plans to replicate it for her next film — but with an even smaller budget.
“I think that for the next film I would reduce the number of people on the set even more, I would make it even cheaper,” she says. “But I didn’t have to compromise on the most important issues.”
The Horse Tail, which also stars Anouchka Kolbuch, Laurence Cros, and Tomasz Mularski, premiered in May at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival. As of this writing, it is seeking distribution.
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of MovieMaker Magazine.
Main Image: Remigiusz Pocica as Maj in The Horse Tail courtesy of Justyna Łuczaj