Hola is the beautiful diva whose stunning features make her ready for her close-up. Tako is the brave old pro, able to take on potentially daunting tasks like crossing a stream. Marietta is the stunt performer with a particular set of skills. They are all the stars of the Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski’s “EO.” They are also all donkeys, three of six who share the titular role.
The 86-minute feature, in theaters Friday, emerged at Cannes a surprise hit from the veteran director, who thanked each of his donkey stars by name when accepting the festival’s Jury Prize. Paying homage to Robert Bresson’s 1966 donkey tale, “Au Hasard Balthazar” — the only film that has ever made Skolimowski cry, he said — “EO” follows its hero after he is removed from a circus by animal rights activists. Longing for Kasandra, the young woman who was his stage partner, EO, named for the sound donkeys make, treks throughout Europe encountering occasional good will but frequent danger (and, at one point, Isabelle Huppert).
To pull this off, Skolimowski, 84, needed to cast animals in Poland and Italy who could convey EO’s essential melancholy. “I had this manner of working with them by spending as much time as possible with the donkey solo, one by one,” he said in English on a video call alongside his wife and co-writer, Ewa Piaskowska, and their dog, Bufon. “Whenever my crew had a break for lunch or preparing the new scene, I was with the donkey by myself and spending time with him or her whispering tender words into his or her ears.”
Donkeys are having something of a moment in cinema this year. In Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” Colin Farrell is trailed throughout his Irish village by a little donkey named Jenny. In Ruben Ostlund’s Palme d’Or-winning “Triangle of Sadness,” a group of shipwrecked voyagers from a luxury yacht kill a wild donkey. But “EO,” which is Poland’s entry for best international feature at the Oscars, tries to burrow into the soul of a donkey far deeper than any of its contemporaries. In those other movies, the donkey is ancillary. In “EO,” it’s the entry point.
“It was very paramount that this picture is told not about the donkey but through the eyes of a donkey,” Piaskowska said. “It was crucial and elemental for us to be as close as possible to the donkey, to feel his fur and hover over him, to have a tactile, very expressive emotional appeal to the audience.”
“EO” began for Skolimowski and Piaskowska, who have collaborated on his recent features “Essential Killing” and “Four Nights With Anna,” as a filmmaking experiment. They were both “fed up” with predictably linear plots, he said, and wanted to combat that by using a silent animal protagonist. But what animal? Dogs and cats were overused, they immediately decided. Instead, they found their inspiration after visiting a living manger in Sicily set up for Christmas four years ago.
Amid the barnyard cacophony surrounding the baby Jesus, Skolimowski saw a donkey standing alone in a corner. “He was really motionless, speechless, soundless and looking at the whole scene with enormously large eyes,” he said, adding, “Because of those eyes we realized that the audience can withstand contact with such an animal for the length of the feature film.”
Their first casting choice came during the research process after the couple stumbled on a Facebook video of a donkey in northern Italy named Marietta doing an act in which she fell to the ground. Her human companion then pretended to resuscitate her by pulling on her hooves and performing mouth-to-mouth. Skolimowski and Piaskowska sent a researcher to track her down and recruited Marietta to appear in the hypnotic opening sequence in which Kasandra and EO are bathed in flashing red light.
Then it was time to assemble the rest of the donkeys. To match her, they looked specifically for the Sardinian breed, gray with a black stripe down the back and across the shoulders. The animal handler Agata Kordos had never been on a set where such an “unusual” creature was the centerpiece of the entire story.
She had assumed, given their reputation, that the donkeys would be stubborn, but was surprised to find that was an inaccurate stereotype. “They sit there and they ponder if they should do something or not,” Kordos said, speaking through a translator. “It’s not because they are stubborn but because they are wondering what the right decision is. They are actually pretty charming animals to work with.” (Nicki Donaldson, of the Britain-based Miniature Mediterranean Donkey Association, wrote in an email that the breed is “extremely intelligent.”)
Tako and Hola were based in Poland and appear in about 90 percent of the movie, said Kordos, who had worked with Tako before. Hola came via a friend. Tako would walk through water. Hola would pull a cart. Hola was “prettier,” Kordos said. There was also Ettore — a “teddy bear” of a donkey, said the actress who played Kasandra, Sandra Drzymalska — as well as Rocco and Mela, who subbed in when the crew was on location in Italy.
Selecting a donkey for a role isn’t all that different from casting a human actor, Piaskowska said. “It’s just the emotion it evokes in your eyes.” Hola, for instance, had a “softness” in her expressions. “She was just very appealing,” the co-writer added.
However, when it came to choosing a human to serve as EO’s first love, Kasandra, the filmmakers needed to know that the actress would play well opposite all the EOs. Auditions took place with an animal present. During her tryout, Drzymalska had to contend with Bufon, the couple’s long-haired German shepherd, who seemed to be running the audition rather than Skolimowski.
Drzymalska had never acted opposite an animal before but felt catharsis in scenes with her furry co-stars. “The eyes of the donkey are really special,” she said. “It’s a lot of emotion.” When she met her co-star on the set, “I understood why Jerzy chose a donkey as the main character.”
Skolimowski described the film, which grows increasingly tragic, as a “little bit of a protest” against the indignities suffered by animals at the hands of humans and industry. A sequence shot at a fox fur farm made the crew “practically sick,” he said (he and his wife have since cut their meat consumption), and some days on set were emotionally trying, like when they filmed at a veterinary clinic. “It was a sad place,” Piaskowska said. “You could feel the donkeys becoming sadder, almost.”
Other moments were challenging simply because the production had to rely on the predilections of, well, a donkey. Tako, for instance, refused to bray on cue even after they tried everything — putting a mirror in front of him or playing the sounds of other donkeys braying on speakers. “We spent half a day begging him to bray,” Piaskowska added.
These days, as he promotes the film, Skolimowski misses the company of donkeys, though he and Piaskowska are traveling too much to own one as a pet. “I still have dreams about donkeys,” he said. “They appear in my dreams and it’s always pleasant when I wake up and I think, Oh, I was with a donkey.”