Łukasz Żal shoots about one film per year. He allows the film to overtake him, creating mini chapters within his life, depending on the style, content, and emotional impact these projects imprint upon his life. With Oscar nominations from Cold War and Ida––two films by Pawel Pawlikowski––the Polish cinematographer teamed up with Charlie Kaufman for his first American film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
The Film Stage caught up with Żal to talk about working with Kaufman, the importance of making difficult films, and how his latest project affected him.
The Film Stage: How do you feel about I’m Thinking of Ending Things now that you’ve gotten a bit of distance from the film’s release?
Łukasz Żal: It’s a very important film for me. It’s kind of a meditation about life. It’s like a journey, perhaps quite uncomfortable at times, but life is not always comfortable and in fact it’s painful at times. And it was not easy to shoot it because we didn’t have a lot of time. So it was quite intense. I see a lot of personal things in it. For me, I think it’s a very bold, very brave movie. And I think there are not many movies like this nowadays. It depends what you have inside of you for what you will find out about yourself with this movie. It’s very universal. It’s not easy. It’s not like a commercial. Cinema is not entertainment. I think it’s so important that cinema is not only entertainment.
When you were first reading the script, what were the aspects you related to?
I think that one of the most important things was how we look at ourselves. How we are judging ourselves, how we are looking at ourselves through different people’s eyes, and how when we think of ourselves, we are building a picture. We are somehow building an image of ourselves, and how we would like to see ourselves. All those things come from what we learned from our parents, from our experiences, from what we saw on TV, from books. And this is how we see reality. We have our filters. Our problem is that we are overthinking. I really understand, Charlie. I think we have a lot in common.
We are not so often in the present. I think it’s so amazing that we always are denying that we are dying every day. When we are building the picture of our life, we are just somehow denying that we will die and maybe there are no silver linings in every cloud. So when I read the script, I completely fell in love with this and I found so many other personal things.
How did you get the script in the first place? How was your first conversation with Charlie?
It was so funny because when I read the script for the first time, I was going back home. I read this in the mountains and I was going home, and there was a blizzard. And I remember that I just stopped at a petrol station and I took a picture, which looked more or less like this ice cream place. Then I met Charlie, and we had a phone conversation. We were talking about how to approach memories. What is a memory? How are we going to show memories? What colors are we going to use? I really wanted to make this movie. And he didn’t call me after the conversation for 10 days. I don’t know. I felt like his character. I was thinking maybe I was too intense. Maybe I was having too many ideas. Maybe I was talking too fast. Maybe he was expecting me to have more solutions. I felt like Nicolas Cage in Adaptation. I really started overthinking. What did he think about me? Did he like me? Maybe not. I was just judging myself.
Was there any particular scene that you struggled to shoot? That you had trouble really getting it right?
Every day it was a struggle. Every day you are discovering something. I think the hardest aspect of this movie was to combine the proper atmosphere with dialogue scenes and camera movement. In these long dialogue scenes, to create images which will be hyper realistic and will give the impression of memory or fantasy at the same time. We wanted to make the camera anticipate what will happen. It’s kind of a mixture of memories. I mean, imagination, films, books and experiences. We didn’t want to use any lens manipulations or strange effects to make this look like a dream or something. But we were going to do it in production design, in the costumes, in the composition.
For the car sequences, how did you go about planning to shoot the two characters in different ways? Especially shooting Jessie Buckley with constantly different angles?
We had to find all of the angles. The first scene is a little bit different. We are more outside, we are just jumping closer, and we are filming them through the windows, through the glass, but when she’s suspecting that something is wrong, we are coming closer. In the second scene, we are closer to them. We wanted to somehow inspire ourselves through A Woman Under the Influence. And that is why the camera is a little bit shaky. We wanted to break this kind of conventional way of storytelling, with something strange and disturbing.
When you’re on set, do you find yourself getting bogged down by what the actors are saying, and the dialogue you’re hearing, especially during such an emotional, heavy film? Or are you able to detach yourself?
No, I’m not able to detach myself and I think I don’t want to. That’s the most important for me. That’s why I’m doing this. I remember the scene when the father is very old, and he is coming into the upstairs room and she’s there. And then we’re shooting this during the same day with scenes when he’s younger. It was so strange. And it was so painful for me when I noticed David looking so old, even with makeup. That’s the moment I thought about how we are denying getting older. We are losing our energy, our youth, and it’s so fucking painful. I remember looking at this scene and almost crying because it was so painful. That somehow fuels me. But I’m making movies to find personal connections. And after every movie, I’m different. Every movie is a chapter in life, where I am also discovering something personal.
What did you discover during this film then? How did it change you?
The big question. Yeah, it changed me a lot. And it’s still changing me. I came home like a different person. I think this process is still alive. It’s probably connected to my midlife crisis. After this movie I started to think more about the future, what will happen next. I’m going to be old, and I’m really starting to feel that. I can’t deny this, yet I can’t accept this. Also, there were amazing conversations with Charlie, almost every day before shooting. We were talking about how we were going to shoot the movie, but we were also talking a lot about life, about our lives, our fears, about the things we love and the things we are afraid of. I don’t know, it was somehow beautiful. What did you think? I mean, really, what did you think about the film?
I’m not sure I necessarily enjoyed it, but I liked it. It has struck me in a different way each time I’ve watched it.
Just today I was in a forest. And I was thinking about this film. And I was wondering, if I were somebody else, what would I be thinking about? I was thinking a lot about the film and our interview and about different things. I had so many thoughts that I really didn’t see this forest. And this is so fascinating to me that we are looking at things and very often, we don’t see them. And I think this movie is also about that, how we don’t see things how they are. Sometimes we are not present for even half an hour during the day. To me, this film is about this idea as well. Film is not only to entertain, but for you to ask not easy questions. And I think that cinema should make you uncomfortable. I remember that somebody on set told me that Americans love film because it sometimes helps them to forget. I prefer cinema that helps you remember.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is now on Netflix.