The essential listlessness of youth: So many have tried to capture that on camera, though every film that does so successfully makes it feel like the first time.
Going from party to party until there are no more parties, so you walk the empty streets in the early morning light, your best friend at your side, eventually ending up in a bed with all your clothes and the lights still on, only to wake up and do it all over again the next evening… Polish moviemaker Michal Marczak’s docufiction feature All These Sleepless Nights successfully examines these moments.
In the film, two art students, Krzysztof Baginski and Michal Huszcza, “play” themselves over the course of two summers in Warsaw. Marczak maintains a novelistic feel in his direction, much as Terrence Malick’s recent film Song to Song does with its interweaving narratives—in which characters come and go, every interaction and relationship feels of tantamount importance, and people express themselves through the pulsing bass of house music.
Marczak, who took home the World Cinema – Documentary directing award at Sundance this January, has directed two prior documentary features (At the Edge of Russia in 2010 and Fuck for Forest in 2012) and served as cinematographer on others. His working methods in pre-production and production of All Those Sleepless Nights are almost as remarkable and fresh as his finished product. With two engineers on his crew, all of their equipment was built from the ground up using 3-D printers, so as to create items that were light and mobile. Working with a threadbare crew—as Marczak says, “You can have 20 people for a month, or you can have five for 10 months”—they all lived in on the same city block. Following Baginski and Huszcza’s lead, this small production team were always game to jump in a Uber at a moments notice, racing all over Warsaw: chasing parties, chasing sunsets.
At a party for the film in Downtown Los Angeles after an early April screening of the film, Marczak implored his audience to dance at the afterparty. “We showed this in New York City, and no one danced,” he added, a little forlorn but ever hopeful. The very next morning at the press day, all of us a shade groggy from the night out, Marczak was informed that I had been at the screening party. Without missing a beat he inquired, “Did you dance?”
I danced. How could I not?
Caleb Hammond, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You served as cinematographer as well as director for this film. How large was your crew on All These Sleepless Nights?
Michal Marczak: It was scalable. The rule of thumb was to have it as small as possible. Sometimes it was just the sound person and me, especially since some of those apartments were really small. When it was larger scenes, we needed another person to help with sound, and anywhere up to seven assistants on the really big scenes, where we needed to get a lot of releases from people and maybe set up some lights before. But the film was shot almost entirely in natural lighting. The lights we did use, we went in ahead of time and played around with the bulbs or created our own little fixtures that looked like they were part of the apartment or the party. And [the lights] actually stayed there. People used them; we came back a month later and they were still there.
Sometimes more people would come for the prep, and then they would leave, so there would be as few people as possible on set. Managing people—it’s such a fucking hassle. You’re wasting so much time.
We spent a lot of time in prep on this film. Everyone knew how to do anything. Kris, the main actor, actually was the camera assistant. When we were setting up, he didn’t have much to do, so he learned how to help me rig the camera. So we were able to cut down one person less. The sound person also knew how to help with the camera. I knew how to run all the sound and vice versa. We modified the equipment so that there could be fewer people. Two people could prepare the sound, and the actor could prepare the camera, and we could shoot it in a minute. It took a lot of time in the beginning, but once we got that to work, it worked flawlessly.
We all lived in one block. That was the idea, that when we weren’t shooting we were all on one block, and we had all the gear ready. There’s that sequence when he walks in the rain—that rain just hit. We just called each other; within five minutes, we were all ready with the camera and umbrellas to shoot that sequence. We had everything prepared, always, for any occasion: rain, underwater, everything. The actors had their costumes and everything always ready. Everybody was always on the phone on standby. We could really be any place in the city within 20 minutes and do our shoot.
We could jump in an Uber or two with the characters and get everyone from place to place and not have to worry about having the other guys come by car and meet us there. It gives you this amazing freedom of just being able to change locations very quickly.
MM: What camera did you shoot on?
Marczak: Sony a7S. It’s super small. We could’ve afforded a better camera, like an Alexa or something, [but] I tested everything and the Alexa was just too heavy. Even the new carbon Red Weapon 8K is still 1.5 kilograms too heavy for me. My rig had full focus, which I steered myself, like a computer I controlled through a joystick. It had to be light in order to shoot for a long period of time. So the only camera that was possible to use was this Sony a7S. It has amazing low-light capabilities, which was super important for us.
We did shoot some on the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera when we wanted the 16mm depth of field. That camera works really well in high contrast and a lot of sunshine, although it’s the shittiest camera in the world for anything where there isn’t direct sun.
MM: How did you push the narrative forward on set, when you all were wearing so many different hats with so many different responsibilities?
Marczak: Because we put so much time in prep, the whole idea was that when we were on set, taking care of the equipment would be subconscious. That’s why we modified almost every piece of gear. So we had a long downtime after every shoot, cleaning our equipment and getting it ready, recharging it for the next days shoot. But once we went out, that wasn’t a thing that we had to worry about.
This is my rule: Once we’re getting in the mode of “This is the time that we might possibly shoot,” it’s just about story. It’s just about story and responding to the light and to the moment. So then it was super simple. To me the operating became natural. Once you’ve done something for so long, you don’t really focus on it. It was just a conversation about story: “What do we have from the scene? Where could it go? How could it develop? Are we shooting just one scene? Should we go onto the next scene? Which scene from the puzzle that I had outlined are we doing now?”
A lot of it was trial and error. Sometimes we had short windows of time. We knew that we had an hour of great light. “Can we shoot all of this? Or do we split it into two nights?” That was mostly going through my head, seeing how it goes, and then assessing, “What’s the chance we’ll get the same setting again? Can I match this if we come back the next day? Will it fit? Is this super special?” Not only with the weather and the situations, but the emotions. “Will we be able to jump into the same emotions? Where do we cut that night, and what do we join it with?” A lot of those things were gong through my mind, and we were openly talking about a lot of these things together.
MM: What were you doing leading up until the point when you would shoot at one of these parties?
Marczak: For me to find the rhythm of the scene, I really tried to be a part of the situation. When we go in, we dance. These parties, they usually have their natural flow. In the beginning everyone kind of talks and gets to know each other. We’re just in it, talking to everybody, explaining to some people who don’t know who we are, giving them a heads up. Then we go around a lot with the camera just to find the angles and see what works.
Parties evolve, but you can anticipate: “Maybe there’s going to be something happening here.” Then maybe we move some stuff around just so it feels better in the frame. Then usually the atmosphere gets better and better and better, and when we feel like, “This is the time,” because the whole idea is that I didn’t want to bring back so much footage. Editing was a bitch anyway. It’s more like a poetic connection between scenes, so you can move a lot of them around, because there’s not a super strong story connecting them. By replacing them you change the story. I knew that was going to be a big deal, so I didn’t want to deal with having hundreds of hours of footage. It was more, “We feel this is the one hour of the night. This is the peak,” and we’d already figured out the angles, and the guys had already spoken with everybody, and we went in and did it.
MM: And how was sound recorded?
Marczak: We ended up ADR-ing the entire film in post. We wanted to be very precise with the music that was playing in the background. Even though it seems like there’s a DJ set playing in the background, we could’ve changed the DJ set and have the tracks fade one into another exactly at the moment we wanted, for building mood and atmosphere.
The DJ set helps the emotions and move the story along, which I think is really subconscious, because you feel like they’re just going into a party, and this just happens to be playing there. But actually the music is carefully chosen. The stuff that was playing was completely off, and it wasn’t helping. We went in and remixed a lot of the tracks, remixed endings, so that music would come in perfectly with the scene, or cut jarringly. We controlled that whole world.
As an audience—which is why I really recommend seeing this film in a cinema—you feel like you’re really at these parties. The music gets you in. We play along with the perspective of the sound. Sometimes within a scene we start with a very objective sound, noisy as if from the production mic on a camera, and within that scene the sound becomes hi-fi and goes into the head of the character, where it’s very selective and you only hear certain things and conversations or music. It really helps you being in and outside a character’s head. It’s really subconscious. With 5.1 surround sound you can really help move the story along. It’s not just the music, but the perspective of the sound, the fidelity of the sound and the close-ups of the sound.
With ADR, we probably lost some scenes; they just couldn’t perform as well. But I think 90 percent of scenes actually performed better with ADR. By re-recording all of the sound, you can really make the emotions flow. It was really tedious work—a month of ADR. Six people had to come in the studio and redo all of their lines.
Our ears are so selective. Our ears do wonders. They’re something no microphone can get close to. In the club you have these amazing speakers. You walk from room to room and you experience different emotions. To actually have this portrayed in film, you can’t do that with a production mic—you have to do it in post. It’s weirder, sometimes I feel as if the sound is way more authentic actually, even when it’s totally created.