“Sometimes things seem fake, sometimes they don’t,” a young woman tells Krzysztof (Krzysztof Baginski) late one evening in “All These Sleepless Nights,” a line that crystallizes Michal Marczak’s brilliant snapshot of being young and carefree in Warsaw. For the filmmaker, it acts as a sly reference to the way in which he decided to capture the moment, an inventive blend of narrative techniques and nonfiction elements that recreates the dreamy feeling that one is the star of their own movie in their early twenties with the world at their fingertips. Yet simultaneously there’s an unmistakable authenticity emanating from Krzysztof and his roommate Michal (Michal Huszcza) as they drift from party to party, occasionally encountering the profound as they stumble through some typical youthful transgressions, particularly when they come to be infatuated by the same woman (Eva Lebuef).
Marczak earned the best director prize for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance last year for “All These Sleepless Nights,” a culmination of his ongoing push to capture his subjects with uncommon intimacy, whether or not what unfolds before his camera is strictly nonfiction. In previous films “At the Edge of Russia” and “Fuck for Forest,” the director’s immersive style has been insightful for protagonists discovering their own limits ideologically, physically and psychologically, whether it’s on the border where Russia meets Finland where a young soldier learns the ropes of his patrol in the former or in Norway where a radical nonprofit makes porn to benefit the environment in the latter. But in “All These Sleepless Nights,” it’s especially effective with sweeping camera moves that reflect a notion that the world revolves around them and the sense that this moment is fleeting, tying time and space together in way that feels truer in spirit to these formative years than any fly on the wall treatment could be.
Recently in Los Angeles, Marczak spoke about how he was inspired to take a look at the generation just behind his during a unique moment in Polish history, as well as his ongoing collaboration with editor Dorota Wardeszkiewicz, a former associate of Krzysztof Kieslowski, and how he captured such poetic visuals on the fly.
How did this crazy idea come about for you?
It was strange because in the stories I’ve had going through my mind, I never thought I would do a coming-of-age movie. But something really shifted in Poland. In the west, young people have had freedom for decades, more or less, but in Poland, it was something very new. The Wall fell in ’89, so in theory, we got independence there, but in reality, it took another 17, 20 years for economic independence. I remember when I was their age, maybe a little younger [at] 19, I came to New York and I felt really inferior, coming from this Eastern European country and I didn’t fit in. I’m just eight years older than these kids [in the film] are, so it’s not a big difference in theory, but in actuality, it was quite a big difference. All of the protagonists that are born after ’89 or ’90, they feel they’re citizens of the world, so they feel they’re part of it, and I wanted to find out how things have changed – or have they changed? Am I just looking through a different set of eyes? But they have changed in small, nuanced [ways] and it started intriguing me a lot.
Also, it all came to this one moment where we felt [the cultural momemt] was all very fragile – something was in the air and it has to do with the fact that Warsaw isn’t gentrified yet. You can live in the city center and walk everywhere really closely. No tourists come. And in the summertime, everybody leaves, so the city can become your own playground. Like you see in the film, characters walk in the middle of the street – and it feels like you’re the only person there in the middle of the night in the middle of the week in the summertime. That feeling is ephemeral – [it feels like] it’s going to change quite soon if the city is gentrified or if the political situation changes, and the political situation actually did change and we started having a lot of problems – so the film [was intended to] record this last moment of complete untethered joyfulness of youth.
That was one [reason] and then the other was how the film was set up [to reflect] memory. When I started looking at [what was happening in Warsaw], I started to analyze my memories and see what I remembered from my late childhood and I realized it’s a lot of random stuff. For example, I completely wiped out the tedious jobs that I was doing, but I had these random memories of a conversation in a bathroom with some guy who’s name I didn’t remember or know what he did, but it’s all stayed in my mind because it was something very important at that time to hear, like one of those moments where somebody has said it a thousand times before but you have that moment of like, “Oh okay, now I get it.” So I just wrote down all those moments in my life and I looked at them and thought, could we create a narrative where we wouldn’t [write a] script where there’d be character arcs and the acts and how certain things work, but just create [a narrative from] where the natural and dramaturgy create these moments. That’s why the film starts with that reminiscence – it’s a memory within a memory – because in the middle of the film it turns out he’s already [nostalgic for] that time already. For me a lot of things have to fall in place [to make a film], and the ideas have to resonate really well with the time and the moment in my life, so here all these things added up and it was like “This is a good thing to do next.”
How did you go about finding your main characters Michal and Krysztof?
I was roaming in the streets and I love to walk around and overhear conversations. [Once I had] the first idea to make something about this younger generation, the next step I like to do in developing a film is do everything together, [including] writing, casting, researching locations, finding potential people and snippets for conversations, so I’d write in the coffee shops where the people were and hang out with them at night. I’d be on the lookout for story, for characters, for style, for music, and also doing camera tests [early] to see which places will be easy to film, looking for the look of the film, and testing people on camera. Sometimes I would say I’m just looking for people for the background, but I was actually doing testing for the main roles and I’m building this whole world of the locations and people and the music and of potential times of shooting and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
Of course, the main thing without which this film would never be made, was looking for the two main guys and that took a long time. I met with a lot of people and hung out and did some tests, but I never felt that was it. Then I met Michal and Krys at a party because after I got into that world, I started to be introduced to people, just going to parties, so I got to know that whole new young crowd in Warsaw. I just saw [Michal and Krys] one time at a house party and then we went out and had a really crazy night. I told them about the concept [of the film] and I think from that time on, they never questioned it. It just felt like it was them, the dynamic between the two characters. They were in such different moments in their lives and they wanted such different things and it’s very good when you find characters that are at some crossroads in life, and then the film is like an adventure that they really want to live out themselves. I think we all felt that’s what it could be. We didn’t really know what it’s going to be, but we felt we all needed that.
Where did Krys’ fascination with numbers come from that you hear first in that opening scene?
It’s a little bit of a metaphor to add to the fact that he’s the kind of character that really thinks everything through. That’s his internal struggle is to get to a point where you just let go and feel free with yourself – that’s why he takes up the dancing and trying to find this organic dance that will feel nice and natural. Struggling to find that looseness, which I think Michal has, because he’s the embodiment of not giving a fuck just acting spontaneously, Krys feels that he may not exactly want to be like [that] but he wants to have a little bit of that, so the numbers are there to reinforce the fact he’s one of those very analytical minds and has a little bit of a struggle with that.
Did the visual language of this come naturally?
I did a lot of tests with different aesthetics at the beginning. I actually had this one fucking crazy idea where I built this radio-controlled camera on a gyroscope on a helmet to have these really intimate POV scenes, but that could be more controlled. Sitting another room controlling the camera didn’t really work. But I love to experiment and when I went through that process of elimination, what felt the most natural is that the camera has to be always in motion with the characters. As soon as they have a lot of anxiety and the emotions are buzzing inside, the camera should be a reflection of that, but also of my closeness and my presence with them. I’m not really present [in the film], but [I wanted the] feeling that we’re living through these moments together, so that the audience can feel that they’re going on this journey.
[That meant] no longer lenses, so I knew that it had to be wide lenses – I only had three lenses – 16, 24 and 35, basically – and that dictated the whole visual language that you have to be close to the characters. But then because you are close you’re able to direct them [without interfering in the action], so it became like a dance between me and them where I could feel where they’re moving and within the scene, I could touch them or whisper something, so we wouldn’t be thrown off and we could use all that footage, but still give direction and have a little conversation to get things happening. That was really important, not to have this whole thing of “Okay, now we shoot, do a take and put the camera down and we discuss it and do another take.” It was a very, very fluid movement of shooting, and that camera and the rig, which I created, and those choice of lenses, allowed for that intimacy and for us to be in the moment, which was most important for this.
You’ve said your editor Dorota Wardeszkiewicz has been an influence on how you operate the camera. What is your relationship with her like?
She’s a really amazing woman. Editing with her for a couple years was an unbelievable lesson in filmmaking – not only editing, but she’s just super intelligent and an incredible storyteller, so I think she’s my biggest teacher and mentor. The amazing thing is she’s edited with so many directors and in all the classical styles from the ‘60s and the weird experiments [too], so she’s gone through everything and she knows what is timeless and what isn’t. She’s interested in not repeating herself or stuff that was done before and because she has this vast knowledge, she’s really free to experiment. So when I came to her with the idea [for “All These Sleepless Nights”], I said “Listen, I’m thinking maybe we should not really follow the narrative thread [for this film], but try to find a poetic thread [where] maybe sometimes [scenes] won’t really work on the most obvious storytelling level, but they work on a certain level.” She picked up on that immediately. She said, “Of course! Let’s do it. We’ll definitely have a difficult time editing it because there will be so many options,” but she was super excited about it and knowing that she’s into it and wants to experiment, it [gave me the confidence to think] “Okay, we’ll try to find a way to make it work.”
This seems to be a really exciting time for Polish filmmaking, a lot which seems to straddle the line between narrative and nonfiction. Of course you can only speak for yourself, but does it feel like something special is actually happening?
I totally feel it. I haven’t seen everything, but I’m very happy because in the ‘70s, Polish documentary cinema was really on the cutting edge. There were these amazing filmmakers [such as] Wojciech Wiszniewski doing stuff that holds up so well over time – they were messing with the form and there was amazing cinematography and each film was a completely different world. So we have an amazing tradition to build on and I feel that in the past five years, we’re coming back to it.
But times have also changed. Back then, it was the domain of short films and they had the budget for them and the short films were screened before features, so these documentaries were seen by everybody and were a part of the culture. People [have] tried to continue that, but in today’s world, the short form has changed a bit and you can’t do it on that scale. You don’t have those budgets and you’re limited to showing them at film festivals, so there was a big struggle to get into feature length because we never had feature-length documentaries. It was usually 30 minutes max, so I think we had a couple years where we were lost and now I think we’re coming back to that experimental tradition of messing up forms and having a lot of humor in it and trying to find the form that best suits the story. A lot of those people that I mentioned also are mentors [now] on the films or they now run the film programs at national schools, so I think there’s also a really good passing [of experience] from teacher to student.
As you referenced, you’ve captured a moment in time for Poland and you discovered soon after filming that moment was even more fleeting than you could’ve known. What’s it like to have a snapshot?
Yeah, it’s really weird. When the film premiered in Sundance, the chances of the right-wing government [coming into power], which is like a coup — they’re really, really bad — [seemed unlikely]. Now, if you were to make this film, everybody would be talking about politics. If you’d come to Warsaw, you might not see a big difference – you’d see people partying, but politics would be on everybody’s minds. People would be going to protests, people are worried about their future, people are unsure if they should leave and then where do they leave to? They usually left for London [before], but now there’s Brexit. That was always the fallback. So now I would not be able to be true to that world. If I were to cut out the political aspect, I would be lying in this film and it would be a different film. But it’s something that we definitely felt, although there were no signs pointing to it because the [incoming] government, like in America, had a very small percentage [in the polls], [because] we’re also this weird country that loves to fuck things up. That’s been our tradition for hundreds of years, so I think that’s something that all Polish people feel – when something’s good, it’s never going to last and it’s a really sad part of our history and heritage.
“All These Sleepless Nights” opens on April 7th in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre, Berkeley, CA at the Shattuck 10 and in San Francisco at the Opera Plaza 4, and April 14th at the IFC Center in New York, among other theaters. A full list of theaters and dates is here.