Blurring the line between documentary and fiction like few films before it, Michał Marczak‘s All These Sleepless Nights is a music-filled ode to the ever-shifting bliss and angst of youth set mostly in the wee hours of the day in Warsaw, Poland. Marczak himself, who also plays cinematographer, is wary to delineate the line between narrative and nonfiction, and part of the film’s joy is forgoing one’s grasp on this altering perspective, rather simply getting wrapped up in the immaculately-shot allure of its location.
With the film now debuting in limited release this weekend, I had the chance to speak to the director about crafting this one-of-a-kind experience. We discusses the poetic quality of the film, his camera technology, the youthful exuberance of dancing, and why he hates 90% of documentaries — and what can be done to improve this form of storytelling.
The Film Stage: At the beginning of the film, you have the concept of the Reminiscence Bump [the tendency for older adults to have increased recollection for events that occurred during their adolescence and early adulthood]. Can you talk about your decision for opening with that and how it informs the rest of your film?
Yeah, I started feeling it in my life — I’m 32 when we started making the film and I’m 34 now — that there was a certain point when the “I” is structured and you come to terms with who it is you actually are and when those memories are actually engrained. I got really interested in what it was that I was remembering. I remember just writing down, in a very free-hand and open way, all the stuff that I remembered most vividly. Then I read it and it turned out to be very random stuff, actually, but of course all of it had some deeper meaning to it. Then I just started reading about the psychology of memories and remembering and reminiscence and nostalgia. I found that research of that term, Reminiscence Bump, when in actuality the formation of the “I” is a very important part of human development and that’s why you remember it, because you have to kind of go back to it, to reconstitute who you and reinforce who you are. Of course, it changes, but that’s kind of the base that you come back to and reference yourself and how you’ve changed and how you’ve grown as a person. That felt like an interesting concept to try and make a film about as a structural device, because memories are random, but every single time you go back, they are different. They are alive. They are reshaped based on your present experience. Of course that’s something cinema can’t portray, but I tried to get as close to it as possible. That’s why the film opens with that term, to kind of set you up and give you the idea that’s why the little disjoints and memory-within-a-memory structure of the film will play out.
There’s a poetic quality to the dialogue, too. It almost feels like they are looking back on their lives while they are speaking about it, an all-encapsulating view of their entire life.
Totally. We definitely talked a lot about the concept of structuring the film kind of like a memory. So it has that layer of poetics to it and it allows us to not be super literal. The camera work, the floating camera, and the focus and careful choosing of what is in the film with so many areas of life — all that played to reinforce that theme of this being all one big, weird memory. That also allowed us to be more playful and poetic within the actual scenes, but also it actually very much corresponded with the way that people spoke. That’s why those things played out when I started remembering and playing with the idea of making a film, which has these jumps in narrative and is more about moments and the combination of moments, than something structured or with a more classical narrative. That also played very well into the fact, when I was just roaming the streets of Warsaw, that these people — these protagonists — have that kind of style already of nostalgia and poetry in them when they speak. That’s something very different than from generation, which was way more crude and straightforward. This one is way more playful with language and with being and playfulness with each other. Of course we added another layer to it by making it just a little bit stronger.
With this camera technology and the rig you invented yourself, it’s something I haven’t seen on film yet. Since the film’s premiered have other filmmakers reached out to you to utilize this technology? I feel like you could become quite rich if Hollywood wants to use this on the next Transformers film. [Laughs]
Ah, maybe not Transformers. They don’t care about that stuff, they have got a lot people. The whole point of this tech is to really allow one person what usually three people would do. It was all about miniaturizing things that are already out there. We designed the smallest follow focus unit available and it’s stuff that’s available now, but even now, it’s bulkier and it’s made with the idea of doing takes. Basically all this gear, that’s how it is designed. You do a 10-minute take, and you got an assistant and he picks up the stuff from you and puts it down and you have two more assistants rigging it all up and cabling it. The whole idea was to build something that is super compact which allows me to go out for a whole night and not have to worry about changing cards, changing batteries — where I can put it down safely and pick it up whenever I want; that I can control every single parameter with both of my hands. So that’s why we built our own software to control the gimbal and everything was programmable as if I had many, many keys under my hands. I could control focus and I could control the way the gimbal moved and operated and I could change it all within a shot. I didn’t have to put down the camera to re-change any of that, so that I could be continuously shooting and doing adjustments. And I’m shooting and pulling my own focus and having sound playback and everything — to have it really compact and light so that I could operate with it for long periods of time also. To have all those things in one, it was impossible to buy anything off the shelf and modify it. It had to be built from scratch to have all those values and properties.
Have other filmmakers reached out to you to see how you did this?
Yes, a lot. A lot actually have. It’s kind of funny. But it’s not easy. It takes actually quite a lot of work to do it. I had a really good engineer that was working with us that was full-time with a big lab — really sophisticated laser-cutting equipment and graphing facility and 3D printer with light materials. So it required a lot of that stuff, but once you make it, of course, you’d do another one. Once I go into the details though, people are like, “Okay, I think I’ll just do it handheld.” [Laughs] It was super annoying and it required me to learn so much about electronics, but the awesome thing is once we got past it and once we got it to work, it was just awesome. We got to that point which I love, and which I think a lot of young filmmakers fuck up, is that when they are shooting, they are actually thinking a lot about the gear. That is a thing you can never do.
Once you step on a theoretical set, even if it is a hybrid where the set is very loose, or once you are in a situation with your people, you should always be ready to shoot and never deal with anything technical. Everything has to work flawlessly and it has to work subconsciously. I think that was the most important thing: learning all the gear and learning how to use it well, but also our whole team. Our sound person, it was the same sound person from the beginning to the end, and she was also kind of an assistant director also, looking out and communicating with me about missing something — being my eyes where I couldn’t see. Same with assistants, very responsive and nobody ever used their phones. That’s also very important. Everybody be in the now. Everybody be super attentive. Everybody know what we are after. Everybody helping and giving each other tips and doing multi functions. So instead of having six people, we were able to have three or four.
There’s a moment in the film where it has this home video-style feel to it. Everything else you capture has a glossy sheen and is beautiful, but this lets us into the characters a bit more. Can you talk about that decision?
That’s like a memory within a memory. They are reminiscing about the past year and then it cuts into this. To emphasize the fact that it’s a memory within a memory, I wanted it to look different stylistically. I wanted to be on the axis straight on. I wanted the camera to be the character looking at you almost, like you are the eye of the character. I thought the best way to do that would be to put the camera on the character’s head. Once I did that I was like, well I shouldn’t really be there because I’m also going after something which is super intimate. At that time the characters which started out acting their first date and acting their second date, but by the time of these scenes they were actually a couple. Since they were actually a couple, I thought I shouldn’t actually be there because this is something very intimate.
I taught them how to use the GoPro camera, which I modified and put another lens in there so I got rid of the IR filter to make it better to work in low light so the lens isn’t as fisheye. So I gave them this camera and taught them how to use it and just said, “Shoot your life. Shoot the moments that you’d be okay with. Once you put the camera on you, don’t turn it off for an hour or two.” They shot with it for like two weeks. Then I taught Krzysztof, the main character, how to use Premiere because there is a lot of very, very, very personal stuff in there and I don’t want to look through all that. I said, “You and Eva sit down and look through that stuff and give me 30 minutes that you are both happy with me to use in the film.” And that’s what they did and that’s what I then edited into the film. Although I did have the master footage because I cut it all, but I never looked past what they gave me.
There’s a film I referenced in my review, where I said this feels kind of like a Polish version of Girl Walk // All Day. Have you seen it?
No, no I haven’t.
It’s about this dancer in New York City and it’s a very small-scale project, but it reminded me because of this youthful energy. There’s something magical when music and dance perfectly match up that’s like nothing else in cinema. Can you comment on finding that balance and the emotions it brings out in a viewer?
I can certainly speak about the way we went about it. I think everybody has their own natural state of dance they are in. Of course some people overdo it, or under do it when they are shy. It was really important for me to capture the state of the people that they are now. Dance is actually one of the devices that tells the story of Krzysztof opening up a bit, to the world and maybe to himself and becoming more comfortable with who he is. In the beginning he’s very tense and he doesn’t know how to dance very well. Someone says, “You dance like a chicken.” If you watch the film from that perspective, he has all these awkward moves and as the film progresses, they become more fluid-like and he’s discovering his own way of dancing. I really tried to make that an integral part of the story where that evolves. What we did is we actually got this amazing choreographer on board. She had this amazing technique of not teaching people how to dance — at all — but just playing around with their limbs and manipulating their limbs and their body. Just showing people how your body moves, what it can actually do. It’s all about finding the natural rhythm of your body. This is how your hand moves and you have this natural inclination to maybe move your hand up and then down. You kind of discover yourself.
It was this actually really cool thing where it was me and Krzysztof for months doing this choreography and dancing stuff. So I was learning and we were both opening up and it was just kind of awkward, two guys in a room sprawling on the ground and pretending to be worms, because that’s how it kind of looked liked. It all led to him finding his own sense of dancing. It was awesome with that technique because it didn’t really feel like he was learning how to dance or anything. It was really natural and really coincided with him as a character opening up and being more sure of himself. To answer your question, in a long form, for the magic to get it right, is for it to feel like it is really organic from the character — that the character really wants at that time to express something through the dance. That it’s not just about dancing, but there’s something in there that’s deeper with that. That was actually for me a very important dramatic tool to express that state of the character.
There have been filmmakers in the past that have blurred this line between documentary and narrative. I think of Kiarostami and Welles, but this one feels like it is pushing in a new direction, in terms of the camerawork. What are your thoughts on the documentary form and if it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of being able to tell stories in different ways moving forward?
I think we’re at the beginning. Honestly, most documentaries I really hate. I come from a documentary background and I’ve done mostly documentaries and that’s what I do and teach. But I hate 90% of them. They are just so bad. And they are so bad, because they do the exact opposite of what they should. They don’t bring you closer to feeling your reality. They tell you what you should think. Whereas I think especially in documentary, that’s the field where you can allow yourself not to have these strong narrative structures because you have an audience going in already knowing they are going to experience something different than a classical fiction film where you have all the beats and points and turns. So I think it’s a form that should be the closest to art, actually. It should be the furthest away from TV reportage. It should be in the realm of sensory art where you don’t have to abide by all these rules because you don’t have people going over 40 versions of your script. You have that freedom to experiment.
Reality is so complicated. You can only give glimpses of images and feelings and emotions. The whole context has to actually be created in the mind of the audience. You have to treat the audience with the utmost respect because the audience is intelligent. They can combine 2 + 2 and they can create and understand something. So I think the documentary world really needs to be using all the tools in cinema and art and music that have been and new stuff that has to be invented to keep up with our complex reality to somehow get us closer to it, but without ever telling us what it is — just having us be more in tune with the now. So I think great things are ahead for that genre, but I really am annoyed that it is so in touch with that fucking reportage stuff. Like access has any value — it’s such bullshit.
Well, I would agree with you. So thank you for doing what you do.
Not to be negative, there are beautiful films. The Act of Killing. There are amazing filmmakers that find ways to do this and once in awhile when it happens, it’s so fucking amazing. If more of that stuff is being made that would be beautiful.
All These Sleepless Nights opens on April 7 in limited release in Los Angeles and San Francisco and will expand to New York City on April 14.