Life is a Dirty Subway Ride and other musings
Here at THE FRONT, we all have artists and filmmakers we collaborate with who aren’t women, but are still feminists. And one of those people is our dear friend and collaborator, director and cinematographer Sebastian Mlynarski.
A conversation with filmmaker Sebastian Mlynarski exploring what inspired him to make the short Not Where I Intended To Go.
At 14, Sebastian was taken from his sulfur mining community in Poland and dropped into the ‘90s East Village, completely unaware and without knowing a word of English. During the most transformative time of his life, he was forced to find himself in a place where he knew no one. In his new short film we’re premiering, NOT WHERE I INTENDED TO GO, Sebastian explores the intricacies of human narrative and complex relationships that harken back to this disconnected time in his life that changed his entire trajectory. Following the voice of an anonymous woman as she recounts her life story that atmospherically mirrors Sebastian’s own, the short captures the loneliness of riding a crowded train and the desire we all have to connect.
After creating various shorts and documentaries, Sebastian is now working on his first feature film, Onwards and Downwards, which documents three friends on a hiking trip as they grapple with separate mid-life crises following one friend’s suicide attempt. Like his new short, the film deals with getting lost and unearthing deep truths about identity, legacy and survival. Alongside the release of NOT WHERE I INTENDED TO GO, Sebastian chats with longtime friend and THE FRONT founder Thalia Mavros about inciting incidents, bonding with strangers on the New York City Subway and how he’s found himself through others.
THE FRONT: WHY DID YOU MAKE NOT WHERE I INTENDED TO GO?
SEBASTIAN MLYNARSKI: Whenever I’m around big groups of people, I always wonder who the protagonists are. I really want to know what’s going on in the person’s head who’s sitting across from me. I imagine these stories and kind of invent them, and then I had this idea that I would just film these people and kind of project my own narrative onto them.
Then, I kind of thought, “Well, I would interview some of the people whose stories I’m interested in and that I already know, and then I’d put them over people in public spaces riding the train or walking on the street or whatever.” And initially, I was going to have multiple voices, and you would just kind of cut between these different stories. But when I sat down with this first person, she told me this dream she had about being on a train and getting lost. I was like, “This has to be just a singular story.” And also, her story is not something you can just kind of dip in and out of and go on to someone else. I really wanted to honor her arc, her personal journey.
Once I was done with it, I just decided I would do that in other settings for an entire series. Someone else’s story will take place over, like, footage of kids waiting to get into concerts. It’s a new story about another friend, and it’s completely unrelated.
But yeah, I just wanted to make this film because I wanted to put this narrative onto people that I watch and kind of give them a story. You know, make them into characters.
WAS THE WHOLE SHORT A DREAM OF HERS?
No, the whole story is real. She mentions an anecdote in the beginning and says, “I have this recurring dream where I am on a train, and then something happens and I get off the train at a wrong stop. And once I realize, ‘Oh shit, this was not the stop that I was intended to go,’ I can’t get back on the train, and that one leaves. So, I have to find another train to be on.”
And I just thought that if I was a psychoanalyst analyzing her dream, that was her entire life story in a nutshell. You know, like her mother drops her off to live with a babysitter, and her life just has a completely different trajectory. And of course, that’s interesting to me because that’s what happened to me in a different way.
I was bumming around Poland until I was 14 like I had it all figured out, like I was a popular kid. I was very confident. I had a motocycle, a girlfriend. You know, at age 14, I felt like, “Oh my god, my life is just going to be this fucking insanely easy. I’m just gonna sail through this thing.”
And then, my parents took me to New York City on vacation, and the very first thing they told me was, “No, you’re staying here forever.” And without a word of English, without knowing anyone here, without any kind of point of reference, my life totally changed. I’m always interested in that inciting incident of one’s life. And we all have one. I think that’s when our childhood ends: when everything we believed to be true gets completely undermined by an event or in an instant.
In my next piece, I want to talk about that trajectory again. How you think you’re going one way, and then this other thing happens that turns your life into something else. And I believe these moments are so difficult because they make you go deeper and deeper to find out what life is really meant to be for you. Then, you do what you’re ultimately meant to be doing.
WHEN I SAW THE FILM, IT INSTANTLY REMINDED ME OF YOU AND YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO THE CITY. SO AS A KID, I IMAGINE YOU JUST SHOW UP WITHOUT CONTEXT OR REFERENCE POINTS, AND YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO FIND YOUR WAY. TO ME, THAT MAKES YOU DISEMBODIED FROM YOUR SELF. YOUR HEAD IS IN ONE PLACE, BUT PHYSICALLY, YOU’RE IN ANOTHER.
Yeah, I think it’s interesting that you picked up on that because I also think this interest I have in other people is a need for connection. Because when I came to New York in the ‘90s, there was not a single person I had ever seen in my life. None of the places were familiar, and I didn’t grow up in them or around them. I was literally dropped off on the moon or a different planet where everyone spoke gibberish.
So, I was able to look at this world that was completely foreign and only stay sane by relying on my thoughts and the narratives I needed to create in order to not lose the plot, metaphorically and literally. I was trapped in my head all the time, and I think that’s why I turned to drugs and alcohol so early on in my life. I needed some kind of connection.
And so, I think watching these people is a reminder of that era of my childhood. I deeply, deeply wanted these people to be part of my narrative. I wanted to be on the train with them, but I felt so separated. They were on the train, and I was on the other side looking through the glass, just observing.
And I think that’s what this girl was experiencing, and that’s why I think I’m drawn to these stories. They’re stories in which people kind of live out a similar life, and they feel they’re a little bit on the outside looking in and wondering, “Oh, what would my life be like if I was this person or this thing happened to me?”
And there’s something kind of nice about finding yourself in other people. I love that. Like, I don’t know who I am, but I know who I am a little bit through all of the other people I come across. I get to know you, you see something in me that I don’t see in myself and then I get to experience myself through you. Then, I meet another person and see something else.
SOMETIMES I WONDER, “IS THIS THE ONLY CITY WHERE NOBODY CARES AT THE END OF THE DAY?”
Yeah, I guess they don’t care on some level, but on another level, people are also like, “Yeah, you’re making something, and I’m gonna facilitate it for you.” Like, “It’s my turn to be in your film now.”
What keeps this city going is people allowing each other space. So, I come in the train with a camera, but another guy is going to come in with a fucking guitar or bongos or a fucking showtime, you know what I mean? And they’re just gonna be like, “You know what? This is the city I’m living in, and I’m going to let you do your thing with a camera.”
Maybe it’s totally naive to think that, but to me, it’s beautiful. It’s a utopia I can get behind because it’s honest. It’s not like people suddenly become one and they’re kumbaya-ing together, but they’re seeing it doesn’t take that much to let people have space to be themselves in.
And when the kids come in and do showtime, you can sense the reluctance, the tension. People are like, “Ah, fuck.” And then they do this amazing stuff, and people start to be like, “This is kind of amazing.” And then, their day gets disrupted in such a way that it actually — probably — makes it better. It informs them and lets them know there is more to life than just getting somewhere on time.
I mean, I get on an overcrowded train with a big camera and hold it above all these people, and no one punches me in the face. It’s incredible.
WOULD YOU CONSIDER THIS SPECIFICALLY A NEW YORK STORY?
No because even though New York is facilitating this, it’s a universal story of intimacy. We’re all looking to connect. I’m using New York as a studio or set, but to me, we’re all in it together in the same way. We all want love, and we all want to find our way.
In the film, the girl ends up completely forgiving her mother for abandoning her and wanting her back in her life, and then her mother sort of does right by her. The girl still hates her and all this stuff, but ultimately love goes above that.
Love is so powerful. Love goes against logic, and it’s such a force, you know? And that’s what the film is about to me: love for one another and need to connect.
It’s about love for the journey, love for how the trajectory — the thing I hated — changed my life exactly how it was supposed to. Now, I love what happened to me. I know I am who I am because of it. But I don’t want it to oversimplify it. It still sucks, and I turned into a fucking drug addict, a heroin addict. I don’t regret it now because I survived it, but I also saw a lot of death and friends who didn’t make it.
IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME AND SPEAK TO YOUR YOUNGER SELF DURING THE SHITTIEST MOMENT OF YOUR LIFE, WHAT WOULD BE THE ONE THING YOU’D TELL YOURSELF?
When I was at my lowest point, I was on 80 milligrams of methadone. I was fucking just so strung out, and I had that moment where I was like, “Oh my god. I’m in the fucking wrong movie.” I literally thought, “I’m not supposed to be in this movie.” And then I had this other thought, and I was like, “What if later on in this film, I make it out and I’m fine?” And now, I’m currently at this moment receiving a message from my future self telling me, “Fucking stick it out, and you can do it. You’re going to make it out okay.”
So, like the girl in NOT WHERE I INTENDED TO GO, I guess I’d tell myself, “This is not the last stop. It feels like the last stop, but there’s a whole journey.”
And you know, I’ve made many many mistakes in my life — many mistakes that would’ve been tragic if I didn’t learn from them or use them as a catalyst for change. And way worse things happen to many other people, and they manage to do amazing, incredible, inspiring things. I think about that a lot. Sometimes, we get so trapped in our own dramas, but that’s what life is. Life is not a fucking beach chair. Life is a dirty subway ride.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]