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“It’s Very Interesting to Live Without This Adrenaline…”: DP Łukasz Żal on Slowing Down While in Quarantine

Cinematographer Łukasz Żal received an Oscar nomination for his first feature, Ida, and well as for his second collaboration with director Paweł Pawlikowski, Cold War. Last year he worked on his first US production, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman and based on the novel by Iain Reid.

Żal spoke with Filmmaker by phone from Poland.

Filmmaker: How are you?

Łukasz Żal: I’m good, I’m staying in my parents’ house by a lake. I don’t feel comfortable because the whole world is suffering. Hopefully it will end well. But this time honestly is not so bad for me, I finally have some time to do things.

Filmmaker: Is Poland under lockdown?

Żal: Yes it is, but we are in a very small village, maybe 50 houses. Like a summer resort, so it’s more like a vacation for us.

Filmmaker: What were you working on when this started?

Żal: I was preparing a movie that’s supposed to happen a year from now. Now it’s in the packaging and financing stage, so I am working with the director on the visual style of the film, like preparing mood boards. And I’m working on the formal documents to be submitted to financial institutions on how we plan to shoot the movie

Also I’ve been working on a few commercials. I was in the middle of one when the lockdown started. It was funny because we were changing how we were going to execute the project. We were trying to make it with a small crew, maybe 12 people. When we started to scout locations, the government added more restrictions, so we couldn’t shoot. 

Filmmaker: Everything stopped.

Żal: Completely.

Filmmaker: How does that affect your finances? My income dropped to zero.

Żal: Exactly, my income dropped to zero as well. I have savings, some money from royalties, and that will give me the opportunity to survive for the next few months.

But what’s funny is how much money I spent on things that I really don’t need. For instance, I was spending a lot on restaurants, gas, things you buy when you are out. They add up, and now I realize how unnecessary they are. Now I’m spending a third of what I was spending in Warsaw.

I’m finding that right now I enjoy the stillness of the world. I’m not saying that this is a good time in the world because people are suffering and dying. It’s also hard because we have to wait to see what happens next, how we will deal with the world’s economy, health care. But I realized I shouldn’t resist this situation, this time when we don’t have work. I need to use this time as much as possible. I am trying to do the things I couldn’t or didn’t do for a long time because I was “too busy.” 

I was working very hard before all this started. I try to shoot one movie a year. Because they don’t have huge budgets, I also shoot commercials. For a long time I’ve been working like crazy. From the moment I shot Ida my life changed. I was in a rush all the time, like a car driving 200 kilometers an hour. And then everything stopped. 

It’s very interesting to live without this adrenaline, all those things that give you power. Now you just have yourself. All day … yourself. Now I can see exactly what I am worth, with just myself and my wife and my son. Now I can do what I’ve been wanting to do for so long. Do I run every day, exercise, ride my bike? Do I take pictures? Before I wanted to take the time, and now I can. 

Of course I’m afraid of what will happen when we go back. What kind of project will I be able to work on? But right now it’s like, okay, this situation happened, I cannot control it, so now what? It doesn’t make sense to resist. We need to use this time the best we can. Before I wouldn’t let myself be in the position of not working because I was afraid to miss a lucrative project. Or I just felt kind of a compulsion to work.

Filmmaker: You were working nonstop for five years. Are you going to work that hard in the future? 

Żal: No, I’m not. I going to work hard, but also manage my energy. I am going to focus on what is important and be more kind to myself, take more time to observe. Use “wide lenses” more often. I realize now I didn’t know how to rest. I understand now that energy is not unlimited. 

I’m learning how to slow down. Sometimes you need to allow yourself to be bored, to be irritated, to be pissed off, allow yourself to feel those emotions. Not to try to escape and use work like a drug. 

Filmmaker: On the other hand, you need to make money.

Żal: Of course, but how much money is necessary? Now is the time to find out. You buy things to compensate yourself for working a lot, you’re spending more money in restaurants so you need to work more and more and more. We are caught in these stupid circles, this lifestyle of consumption.

Filmmaker: How was your experience shooting a feature in the United States?

Żal: It was hard. Quite hard. For me making movies is mostly about being in the creative process and creating something that will move people. Every movie so far has been an important step in my life. Charlie’s film was an important step as well because the process is very different than in Europe.

I fell in love with the script and I really wanted to make this movie. We had five weeks for prep, which is very short compared to the films I’ve done in Europe. There was only time to scout locations, brief people, work on the schedule, take production meetings. There is not a lot of time for creative conversations, for finding the movie, finding its visual style.

When we started to shoot, I didn’t feel prepared. We had 24 days to shoot a long script. We were sometimes shooting seven, eight, nine pages a day. I wasn’t sure I would be able to deliver. It was so stressful, I felt like shit, like a machine. There was no time for discovery, to creatively observe and adjust, to find those magic moments that occur only with more time. It’s like a factory. I came back here completely exhausted. 

To give you an idea, on Cold War we prepped for seven months on and off. I had time to work with the director, time to talk and develop a language. With Charlie we had a lot of great ideas, but often there was no time to refine them. And we had to improvise a lot which is stressful when you are not prepared.

Thank God I had amazing crew who helped a lot. Working with Charlie was perfect. He is a great human being. The actors were fabulous. We finally got it done, and I think we made a very important and beautiful movie. But the emotional and physical cost was huge. I’m glad I did it, but I made a lot of entries in my “Never repeat my mistakes” notebook. 

Filmmaker: Now you have all the time in the world.

Żal: It’s interesting to have, well it’s absurd to have this time. Sometimes I think we don’t want this delay, because it’s easier to just get into the excitement, get into a project, be surrounded by people. Even when I look at myself, it’s much easier for me to be and work with people than it is to be alone. In the middle of nowhere. Face yourself, try to discover something about yourself. That’s the hardest thing, the hardest task, to be happy with yourself.

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