Lukasz Zal is one of the most inspiring and expressive cinematographers working today. Making his feature DP debut with Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2013 Oscar-winning foreign film Ida, Zal went on to work on six projects with his creative imprint on each story, including the wonderful oil-painted stop motion animation Loving Vincent.
By reuniting with Pawlikowski for Cold War, a cold, unadulterated perspective of love against the backdrop of troubled times, Zal has been nominated for an Oscar for his mesmerising photographic style – a monochromatic observation of two destructive lovers confined within the Academy aspect ratio.
I talked to Lukasz about his experiences working with Pawel again and his approach to shooting Cold War, whilst trying to reign back my complete adoration for the project.
Dzień Dobry, Lukasz.
I hope my Polish is okay?
Dzien Dobry…so can we speak in Polish?
Haha, I don’t know too much I’m afraid.
Oh I’m sorry I don’t know too much English…
We’ll have to compromise.
LZ: (Laughter) Okay.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today I really appreciate it! I hope you’re having a good day?
Yes thank you so much, yeah. I hope you are too.
First of all, I’d like to say a massive congratulations for the overwhelming success of Cold War; Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, BAFTA nomination, American Society of Cinematographers nomination, and of course the Silver Frog winner from Camerimage – this must be an exciting time for you?
Yes, incredible. It’s like a dream you know? Every day was like almost a vacation it was crazy but no, I didn’t completely expect that it’s amazing. It’s like a snowball. It was so great to work on this film and it was a great privilege. It was like a present from life to make this movie with Pawel (Pawlikowski) and now with everything that is happening now is extra and I’m just so glad. Thank you so much.
You’ve mentioned Pawel there and obviously you have worked with him before with “Ida” after Lencezwski departed from the project – I’m just curious as to how your relationship with him has blossomed since 2013? Was it easier with you for you to collaborate with him this time around?
I mean, this film was much more complicated. It needed much more prep and much more engagement so it was completely different but I think we got along so well after this movie. We kind of have had a shorthand with this one but we know each other so we know what we like.
Pawel uses this unique way of storytelling because “Ida” encouraged him to somehow go much deeper. And also I think we knew what we wanted and we just took all those experiences we had with “Ida”, and I know his way of working. I love this way of working. We also have become creative friends and we like to spend time together and that’s so important. I’ve learned so much from him, you know, he somehow constitutes my way of thinking about movies. “Ida” was my first feature film, so this way for me was the most original way.
When I took this project after Ryszard (Lenczewski) fell sick and when I became DP, in the beginning, it was a bit chaotic because I didn’t know locations and things, so it was not easy for me. But it was also amazing because we were covering a lot together.
This time was more complicated. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves so we were trying to do a different movie. We wanted to make this film very different from “Ida”.
And when you work with Pawel he invites DPs like actors, to create this world with him. So it was amazing to just take part in the preparations and also while shooting to be together with him and treating this film like a painting. It’s great to be close with the director, being on set together and struggling together. It was an amazing journey but it was a long journey because the prep, the production and even the post-production took longer than a year, but it was an amazing journey where I learned a lot about making movies, love, and even myself. It was a big chapter in my life and I wish that every film would be like this.
It’s so nice to hear that your relationship has only gotten stronger since “Ida”, and I hope I see you both collaborating together in the future because these films have played such a massive part in my life. It’s made me look at film in a different way. I just wanted to thank you, and to thank Pawel for that as well.
Wow, thank you. Wow. That’s so beautiful to say. Thank you so much.
It must be difficult as well because both “Ida” and “Cold War” are personal stories for Pawel, he’s admitted that “Cold War” is based around his parents and their destructive relationship – how does this affect your approach to shooting these sorts of stories? Do you feel you have a duty to honour and remain faithful to these experiences?
It is so important. This story is so personal, stories that come from memories, from childhood. Pawel was so involved in this so you just want to do your best. When he sent me the script for the first time I fell in love with it. It was also so important and personal for me because the story is so universal and I think that is so important when you’re making the movie.
As a cinematographer, you just want to add something special to the film and when you work with a person like Pawel who never gives up, everyone wants to give 100% because he gives 100%. He’s looking at every detail. The story was so special that made everyone want to do their best. But we’re also trying to make these films personal for you, because I’m trying to make stories that are personal for me. You discover so much about yourself when you’re shooting such a movie.
But working with Pawel is so special. He thinks with images, he’s so visual. He is telling these stories with images, so working with him is very symbiotic – talking about images always. The image is so important, not to just translate the script into images but to tell the story through this vision. This world we created we did it together.
We prepared all these elements and when he’s on set, all those elements just coincide in the proper way. It is so challenging, but working with Pawel is like 12-hour creative meditation.
I feel within your style of cinematography there seems to be this balance and relationship between people and the places they inhabit. Your use of depth and your tendency to add extra height to your frames, with the subjects often occupying the bottom third of the shot – is this something you personally wanted to incorporate into this film?
This idea came at the beginning, we found it’s good for shooting people when you place the camera high. There was an idea of building this world with depth, we wanted to create as many layers as possible. In “Ida” it was like a painting, but in this movie we wanted to have so much depth and not so much movement – just to place these layers and have a deep depth of field to build this world. We had more space and headroom in “Ida”, but in this film we discovered it’s useful because we didn’t use a lot of takes, so in these shots we need to show people and places and the entire world.
Always when we get to the location we place people, sometimes it’s the production design team or Pawel, but we always place people and just take pictures to see if this location works for us or not. This way of just showing this world comes from the opening shot of this movie which is kind of like a documentary. In one frame and not moving the camera you can have so many layers, and this is so important.
Sometimes it’s so important to just observe.
When watching the film I was completely blown away by the performances by Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot – for a cinematographer it must be a dream to have these talents in front of your shot, to express every emotion that you wanted to capture? How important were they to your process?
They were very important, you know, they are the ones making the movie. Their faces, their emotions – it’s empty without them. It’s so important to have actors who trust you, and sometimes they need to wait a long time so it’s important to have this trust. They are the postcards.
And of course it’s not the first time you’ve shot Joanna Kulig? She also made a brief appearance in “Ida”, as well.
Yes, and of course Agata Kulesza too. They are amazing people. In European cinema and Poland it’s normal that we have these close relationships. We just become close. We become one family.
There’s only one shot for the scene so everything needs to work perfectly. It’s not easy for them and they’re so patient. It was great to work with them.
You mention there the influence of European cinema, I am just curious about the inspirations you have that you incorporate into your own work, for me there seems to be a lot drawn from 1960s European art-house cinema or even French New Wave cinema – would that be an accurate assumption?
I am heavily inspired by 1960s European cinema. There’s a lot. For example, there’s Tarkowsky – he was amazing for me, particularly about thinking about film; the poetry within the elements. I admire him all the time. But also Godard, you know, “Vivre Sa Vie” that was so important for us. French cinema was breathless, it’s so important for many things. I was even inspired by “Casablanca”.
So what’s next for you, Lukasz? What project have you got lined up? I’m looking forward to seeing your work again in the not so distant future, I hope.
I’m starting a new movie but I can’t speak too much about it. You know how it is.
No problem. I’m excited for you.
Yeah, I’m so excited.
You deserve all the success that is coming for you, Lukasz.
Thank you. Thank you so much. I was so lucky I met Pawel. It was so important in my life. Of course, I’ve done different films with different directors and you learn so much, but with him I was so lucky. I discovered this way of making films and telling stories through images because of him.
I just want to finish by saying dziekuje ci for your time, Lukasz. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you.
Thank you so much. Thank you. It was such a pleasure speaking with you.
When Lukaz and I finished talking I was taken aback by how humble he remains despite his rapid ascension to success. His gratitude for Pawlikowski rung through the entire conversation, an admirable quality in what seemed like a respectful and courteous gentleman. It was an honour speaking with him.