How Oscar Nominee Lukasz Zal Made Us Look at Cold War

Academy-lauded cinematographer on shooting black-and-white truths

Frozen in time, frozen in glass: just one of the stunning images captured by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Lukasz Zal in Cold War.

A man leans against a mirrored wall in conversation. His partner wanders away, but his gaze doesn't shift. The viewer realizes that he is looking at someone, and she is reflected in the mirror. Out of focus, yes, but the way her head rests on her fist, an inverted exclamation point, makes her unmissable, makes it clear they're staring at each other.

This pivotal moment ignites and defines the tumultuous relationship between pianist and ethnomusicologist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and young singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), a romance that spins across the entire history of post-war Communist Eastern Europe in Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski's fictionalized family history of his parent's time as emigres from Poland after World War II. It's one drop in a raging torrent of memorable moments captured by cinematographer Lukasz Zal, moments and images that have earned him an Academy Award nomination for cinematography this year.

Zal first worked with writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski in 2010 on another historical drama, Ida. Originally intended to be that film's camera operator, he took over as cinematographer when Pawlikowski's long time collaborator Ryszard Lenczewski was taken ill. The film's unusual format – black-and-white, 4:3 – was seen as risky, but instead helped make it Poland's official submission in the 2015 best foreign language film category. It didn't make the final short list, but Cold War did, as did Zal and best director nominee Pawlikowski in their respective categories.

Austin Chronicle: You worked with Pawel on Ida, but how did he bring you on to Cold War, and what did he tell you he was looking for in the cinematography?

Lukasz Zal: I was in Russia, in the middle pf a movie, and we were talking on the phone, and he just sent me the script. We were talking, and I fell in love with this story. I knew his parent's story because we were talking before about it, so I fell in love with it.

For the approach, it was kind of embarrassing to repeat ourselves. So we were thinking how to make the movie different to Ida, but on the other, when he came to me there was the idea that the movie would be shot in black-and-white, and we realized very soon that we wanted to use the same format. I think we wanted to make the movie more emotional, that the camera would be more engaged, and that the movie would be changing in style.

We wanted to make a very contrasting movie, because the story is very contrasting, and the relationship is very tumultuous. So we wanted to tell the story in a very contrasting way, with deep blacks. And also to change the style, and to start with this documentary world, and then switch to something more stylized.

Austin Chronicle: Let's talk about that mirror shot in the ballroom. There's so much character development and story telling built into it.

LZ: This shot is very special, but it was very difficult in a very special way. My work with Pawel is very symbiotic, and we spend a lot of time together, going through the script, reading the script, talking about things. After that, we went on rece, just one month and a half of scouting days. So we were very well prepared. We took very many pictures, I took very many pictures, we were recording things. In many shots, we were very well prepared. I would record it on my little camera, and the staging was almost exactly like in the prep.

“We knew that it was one of the most important scenes, because that’s them falling in love, and it’s that kind of a turning point.”
But this shot, we didn't have a very precise idea about how we were going to shoot it. I remember, the day before, we were shooting in this location – it was a theatre, so we were shooting a performance there – and after the shooting day, because we have the actors, we'll rehearse with the actors. So we were looking for different solution, and at a certain moment we just placed them by this mirror, and found this way to shoot. We knew that we were going to shoot in this exact place, because it was the theater foyer, but in that exact moment we just placed the actors. There were different positions, and we thought we were going to shoot it in a different way, but they stood in this certain place, and we just started to think, wow, that's great.

Also funny is the way that we lit the scene. The foyer was connected to the stage, so when you opened the curtains you could see the stage. So we just put down power lights on the stage, these pipes with lights, and we just switched on all the lights we had on the stage, pointed them directly into the foyer, and put 50 meters of diffusion and a few butterfly lights.

We knew that it was one of the most important scenes, because that's them falling in love, and it's that kind of a turning point. So we knew that he was looking at her, that she's the focus in a mass of people, but on the other hand she must be visible. So we put a lot of effort that we see from the wide shot that she is there, and then we have a close-up of her.

It's very important because it shows how we were working, how Pawel works, that we're very prepared for every shooting day, but while we are on set we are refining and sculpting the image, and looking for the best solution of how to tell this scene. It's like how (producer) Eva Pushinska called it, that Pawel is writing the film with a camera, and I think that's really true. We have all those elements, like actors and extras and locations, but while we are on set we're precise in placing the camera, finding the frame, and precisely building the pictures with depth. Pawel is in control of every extra. It's not the first assistant director - of course he's preparing this – but at the end, Pawel is controlling every extra.

There was one extra who was doing everything in an exaggerated way, and I remember Pawel was all the time trying to calm him down, make it that he's not stealing the show.

That was a very complicated process of started from rehearsal, with actors, with a little camera, in this location, trying to allow actors to go in different places, and at a certain point we found this place by the mirror, and we realized that this is a one shot scene, and it's perfect.

Cold War is in cinemas now. For review and showtimes, see our listings page.

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Oscars, Cold War, Lukasz Zal, Pawel Pawlikowski, Cinematography

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