If you walked into a screening not knowing anything about “All These Sleepless Nights” — a film about two young men and their journey through the party scene in Warsaw, Poland — you might not realize you were watching a documentary. The low-light, nighttime cinematography is not grainy, the performances have a dramatic-in-the-moment feel to them and the use of cinematic language is intentionally precise, complete with a smooth moving camera that glides the viewer through packed dance floors. It’s the type boundary-pushing nonfiction film that is championed by the True/False Film Fest, where “Sleepless Nights” screened this weekend.
Writer-director-cinematographer Michal Marczak sat down with Indiewire after his first screening to discuss how he shot the film and explain why he finds the discussion over what is nonfiction, and what is not, to be completely boring.
How did find you your subjects, Michal and Krzysztof?
I guess I have to go back to why I wanted to make this film. I don’t like coming-of-age or teen movies. Most of them are really oversimplified and there’s only a few in the history of cinema that I’ve really enjoyed. Walking around Warsaw, though, I realized there’s a new generation that has sprung up and it’s a little bit different. Although there isn’t that much of an age difference between them and I, there is obvious differences. Those differences intrigued me. So I came up with the idea of making a movie about this new young crowd.
How is the new young crowd different?
Warsaw now has this new identity, a new cool that has arisen. Of course everything is influenced and globalized, but I feel like Warsaw has its own little style that has developed, kind of how Berlin was when I was 19 and I felt like all the new stuff was happening there. I now feel that energy is in Warsaw, so I wanted to capture it.
I walked around for a half a year looking for stories, looking for characters, looking for locations, seeing what had changed since I was young and going to clubs. For a long time I couldn’t find anybody who I felt really attracted to, then one day I was at a house party and I saw Michal and Krzys, the two main characters. They were talking far away and the way they articulated with their body language really attracted me. I was into their conversation just by looking at them. I approached them and my interest just grew. It was love at first sight.
How long did you work with them before you started shooting?
Three months. For me, it is really important that everybody — with the crew, secondary characters and locations — that we are all on one page. That once we started shooting that it was an organic start — we’ve already had all these conversations and adventures and saw what this could be. For a small project, that kind of connectivity is really important.
And how long did you shoot?
A year and a half. I wanted it to have two summers with a winter in between. I knew that was the minimum amount of time that you could see some change in them.
I know it’s non-fiction—
—well, it’s kind of both.
Certainly your subjects embraced the performance aspect of the film. There are a lot of scenes I have a hard time imagining you simply following them around, especially with what felt like well-choreographed camera moves. This feels much more like a collaboration between a director and his cast.
It was a total collaborative process. I’m not very clear on labels and it’s up to other people if they want to call this a documentary. Many times we’re playing off real emotions and the starting points for the characters were their real lives. It definitely evolved. Each scene was devised differently. A lot of it was improvisation. We did a bunch of improv workshops, which is based on slow comedy. It’s alot of being really attentive and in the moment, trying to make your partner the best possible player. It’s about being being responsive, which is also the role I set up for myself as the cinematographer.
Each scene in the film is devised differently. There wasn’t one methodology, beyond living through the moments and making sure there are emotions in the flow of the scene. We also talked alot about cinema — what works for cinema, what doesn’t. When you are working with non-actors it doesn’t help to talk about anything really specific. You can’t rehearse to get at the emotions you want, you have to sort of talk around it.
There’s women that come in and out of Michal and Krzysztof’s lives. I’m assuming not all of them were necessarily onboard with becoming characters in your movie. Eva, who plays such a huge role in a portion of this film, clearly embraced her role, but I can’t imagine that was the case for others.
That was the part of the first three months beforehand, figuring out who would be involved. You need the places, the clubs, the secondary characters and the people in the background to be involved. A big part of the first three months was getting to know their entire social milieu and seeing who would work in the film. I did a lot of camera tests in the beginning. In doing those tests I was trying to see who was drawn to the camera and who hid and got shy.
I was also looking at my circle of friends to see who would work well emotionally with these characters in terms of their energy without the camera there. Then after, when the camera comes in, we can see what stays and what doesn’t. Eva was my idea. I had a scene in mind between her and Krzys—
—Sorry, just want to be clear here. Are you saying that Eva was your idea and you introduced her to the boys? Because Eva definitely seems to have a very real romantic relationship with Krzystof and a history with Michal.
Yeah, this is a weird thing, and I’m not sure I can say this, but I use to date her for a little while. And I just knew she had this amazing energy. She never thought about acting, but she just kind of did it. Some people just have that in them and when you see it, you know it.
Warsaw is a small city, we’re all friends of friends, and it turns out a lot of my friends are friends of the main characters and there was a lot of connections. And it just turns out, I didn’t know this, but Eva — because she never wanted to talk about her past — that she did really have a past relationship with Michal. That was a coincidence. And I just felt like there was an underlying emotion that connects her and Krzys, and what I had in mind was just a scene where I knew something would happen. I guess I have to explain one other thing. Whenever I test characters, I always like to do it in a real environment with the real camera.
So that scene at the beach party where we meet Eva, is that one of these test scenes where you are bringing everyone together?
Exactly. That’s the whole thing with working in this technique, sometimes the best things happen spontaneously at the beginning. So I know my camera test has to possibly be a scene in the film. And that camera test became a major scene in the film and the beginning of their love relationship and it totally happened.
So Eva and Krzys had a real romance?
Absolutely. They were together for a half a year. But when I devised that scene, I thought it might be a little fling. I knew she would come in and mess things up, but I just thought she maybe a one scene thing and then at the end of that night I felt like, “Oh, we’re onto something more,” because the whole thing sparked. And the whole backstory with Michal came up, and that just added another dimension to it. I tried many times with other people and there just was no chemistry. It’s just one of those things. It’s really cool to go into something and try it and be able to have it on film and then not recreate it later.
I’m glad you brought up camera tests because with most documentaries we have learned to live with really grainy, ugly images in low light and evening scenes. Your footage — and your movie largely takes place at night — is gorgeous. So is part of this you are also scouting the right clubs, beaches and only picking locations where you can get the light right? Did you dismiss locations where Michal and Krzysztof would normally go and simply decide not to shoot there?
Of course. I spent a lot of time on this. The rig I shot with I built myself — it’s a gyroscope rig on a steady cam arm, it’s a bunch of different parts. I built it from the ground up with parts. The right side had a specially designed computer controller so I could change the settings while I shot, and I had a follow focus that, with the help of engineers, I designed. And basically everything was rooted to a battery in a backpack, so I could go out and film for 12 hours. I’m really meticulous about this, it took almost four months to build because all the parts really had to fit together. And I’d bring a couple different cameras and lenses for different situations.
It must have been a really fast camera and lenses?
Really fast lenses and the [camera was the Sony] AS7s for the night shots. The reason I had to build the rig myself is no one makes things that are that small and that light weight. In order to shoot for that long of a time I needed to build it with titanium and custom made parts. It had to be small, so I could fit in between the people dancing and not bump into people.
So, yeah, I did pick the locations based on lighting. Also with lighting, whenever it wasn’t a good time to shoot, I would hold everybody back and wait. If you think about it people resonate with nature and they resonate with light. It’s like when there was a house party and then all of the sudden a sunrise comes up that always brings energy to people. And if you just play a good track at that time, all of the sudden everyone is rejuvenated.
Many other parties I would come in before and set up my own lights, so that nobody at the party would think the lighting was there for my filming. It was all very low level and small units. When my friends were creatings a beach party, I would say can I show up five hours early and set up the lights. Most of the time they are all into the music side and getting the speakers right, so they were happy to have someone come in and do lighting for them. I always did the lighting with the idea of creating a beautiful mood, or creating mood that felt intimate and allowed people to feel in the moment. So yeah, a lot of choosing locations and pre-lighting, but also building lights in [the subjects’] house that I put on dimmers, but it was all stuff that no one would notice and it stayed their for a half a year.
Watching it often feels like you are a director trying to get your shot rather than pulling back and documenting the unfolding of a scene. The film is filled with really intimate close ups, layered compositions and complicated camera moves.
Definitely, especially with a film like this where it’s about the nuances and subtleties and you don’t want to convey certain things through language, you want to do it through the mood, or the look, or the pace, or framing, to build the emotions and the dramaturgy. It’s super important.
One of things that really helped me was I worked really closely with my editor [Dorota Wardeszkiewicz], who is 76 and editied with [Krzysztof] Kieslowski, and we’ve been working together for five years. What I learned from her is the extreme rigor of editing and that’s the most important thing for a camera operator is to be an amazing editor. When you are shooting in an improvisized way, the only way to do this is to remember what you’ve shot, what the angles are and what you are missing. Editing was the thing that helped me make the biggest leap as a cinematographer. When I shoot I keep in mind the setups I have. So if I need a close up, I’ll spend the next hour trying to find a time I can get one without asking [the performers] to do something, because they aren’t actors and when you ask them to do something it doesn’t feel right. Or I’m creating situations that are similar to what is happening, that has high emotional content, where I can go back to get that close up.
There were shots where I did mulitple takes, but it’s mostly the technical stuff. It’s more about doing alternate takes. You do a really nice master shot, but for some reason it doesn’t work out, you never repeat that shot, you try to create another emotional situation where you do another master shot that takes a completely different route, but conveys the same emotion. Maybe a scene is made up of three master shots, I have one, and I know what the the rhythm should be, so I’m waiting for a situation where I can get the same rhythm of the camera through the characters. It’s alot of memorization actually and reacting to the moment, but when you work with the same people over a long periodd of time it’s easier. We anticipate each others movements, which is how we can get these complex camera moves and no one fucks up the frame.
How many people were you shooting with you behind the camera?
Depends, sometimes just me and a sound person.
And is the sound always a shotgun mic on a boom?
That’s why I did a lot of ADR [Additional Dialogue Recording, recording character’s dialogue in post-production], it’s the boom that really annoys people. It’s the boom that really fucks up all these complex master shots. Most of the time we had lav mics, with the idea of going into ADR to re-do most of it.
How much of the film was ADR?
So you really needed characters to commit to being part of the film until the very end, break ups and all, if you knew going in a majority of the lines would be re-recorded in post?
That’s what I told the people from the start. As soon as we a got an idea of what the character could be, I’d talk about what the character’s arc and where this could lead and I’d say, are you in or are you not, because I need to know now. Because the dramatrugy is really close to real life, so most people know where this might end up and it might end up in a really fucked up situation and they can anticipate that. We went on a journey together and with every shot you build that trust.
Before the introduction of the film, you mentioned that while you were editing you had the True/False audience in mind. How much of that is because of the things we are talking about — a nonficiton community that’s not about the rigid lines of what a documentary can be, but that embraces cinematic expression and the blurring of lines with fiction?
It’s true because I think that whole conversation about is this fiction, or is this documentary, is so old and overdone. Anybody who knows the history of cinema or made a film, knows these things are irrelevant. “Nanook of the North” was entirely staged. I rather talk about the emotions and what Josh Oppenheimer talks about, which is people performing. We all perform in front of each other. It’s about creating personas and this movie is all about finding your own persona and finding a persona that makes you feel good. I’d rather talk about that, then a boring conversation about is it fiction or nonfiction.
I really wanted to make a film about youth and all those crazy emotions associated with it and the fragmentary nature of it and how once you are past that period in your life you have to look back and make your own narrative about it. That’s how I felt when I got into my 30s. All those crazy and random things that happened, I’m only now making sense of it. That was the idea of the structure of the film was to make a movie of moments where the audience has to connect the dots. When I knew I wanted to do this I knew there wasn’t enough really good young actors that had that new vibe to them, or that represented the style of how I wanted to tell the story, so I knew I would have to work with non-actors or people off the streets, because that’s where the energy is. Even in high budget films I feel like the crowd in the background is fake and they aren’t dancing to the actual music, or people are pretending to be drunk, so I really wanted that authenticity of Warsaw and I knew I couldn’t do anything that would distract or interfere with the mode and atmosphere I wanted to capture.
I actually postponed production by three months because the controller for the gyroscope weren’t good enough to give me this fluid camera movement, which I knew I wanted to have because I wanted all the tools of cinema at my disposal. I need to be able to utilize the ways of framing and telling the story with images. That’s what’s so exciting, is these tools are now such that we can shoot cinematically with a no crew and in an improvised way. That has always been my dream and technology is finally there.