All These Sleepless Nights opens Friday, April 7, at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles before expanding throughout the country. The following interview was originally published during the film’s premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
The music pounds, young people flirt and dance and mope and opine, and the camera swings all around them, doing more than just watch. The camera is a participant, dancing with its subjects, trying to register each shade of their emotions. Welcome to the world of All These Sleepless Nights, the latest film from Polish director Michal Marczak (Fuck For Forest).
Boldly programmed in the World Documentary Competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the movie is unlike any other work of nonfiction you’ve seen. Too engaged, interactive, and borderline invasive to be an observational film, but also too spontaneous, in-the-moment reactive, and variously naked to be a work of fiction, All These Sleepless Nights stakes out its own cinematic terrain.
It follows two young men—the lithe, chiseled-cheeked Krzysztof, and matinee idol handsome Michal (not the filmmaker)—as they tour the nightlife and everyday trials of young adulthood in Warsaw. They go to parties, they get drunk, they end and start relationships, they seem to know what they want and then seem without a clue, sometimes from one scene to the next. And throughout, there’s music, there’s ecstatic experience, and there’s Marczak’s unstoppable camera navigating it all.
Whatever the film is, it’s intently and undeniably cinematic. In the following interview, conducted during the opening weekend of the Festival amidst the buzz of surrounding revelers, Marczak talked about the work of cinema he intended to create, the intensity of emotion he hoped to express, and the unique and radical methods he employed to accomplish it.
What was the central motivating idea for you on this project? It has such a searching quality—what’s being sought?
It’s a film about youth. About the craziness of youth and the emotions associated with it. I’m 32 and getting over that period, but I still remember it very vividly. The idea was to portray those feelings, emotions, energy, and doubts, all of that. When I look back at my youth it’s like a waterfall of feelings and emotions. And they’re contradictory. There’s sureness and then unsureness—you know something and then everything turns upside down.
I really wanted to make a movie about that. But that is something that’s very difficult to make a movie about, and definitely to pitch. But from the start I felt that I could do this. It’s so easy to heighten emotions and add story points and beats to make the story more dramaturgically interesting. But then you’re getting away from the reality of the emotions and feelings.
There’s such an intimacy to the film, and it feels like there’s so little distance between whom we’re watching and who’s making it.
What really got me into doing documentary was the idea of making films that really bring you into the story, that make you feel like you’re there with the characters, that make you feel like you’re a partner and not just a viewer. You have to actively be in it, and everything that you’ve lived through is also part of the story. It’s like an immersive experience. I’m interested in feelings and emotions, and less about facts.
How do you pursue those emotions, and couch them in a film? Because you have to determine in a more practical sense whom the film is going to be about, how you’re going to shoot it, what the narrative might be. How did you settle upon an aesthetic and form?
In order to convey these kinds of emotions I knew that I’d have to utilize all of the cinematic language. I’m not really inventing the wheel—all these elements have been done in films before. I wanted to utilize all those elements—take the best that you can from documentary, and all other genres—to convey these emotions. Putting pieces together to find a form that really suits the story. So in this film I knew that I had to take it to the extreme.
I knew that I wanted a story that doesn’t revolve around very big problems. At that age, things can feel really problematic when you’re in it, but when you look back it wasn’t really so, it just seemed like it. I’m not saying people don’t have large problems—many people do, and many great films deal with those issues. But I wanted to make a film about people who don’t have these big problems, which I think accounts for a lot of us. These are things you probably wouldn’t make a film about, but they’re the things we go through
How did that affect the process of casting real people?
I chose characters that I felt had an energy and vibrancy in them. People that seemed to have the biggest potential for change in them, and the potential for differentiating emotions, people who are always striving.
How did you go about finding your characters?
It was basically me going around Warsaw for half a year and just meeting people. Hanging out in bars. I have a lot of friends in Warsaw, so I met friends of friends of friends, people I had really distant connections to, getting into crowds that I didn’t have access to before. Sometimes I told people that I was planning to make a movie, but I didn’t really say if I was looking for people for a fiction or documentary film, a big or small part. I just said I’m thinking about a film and looking for people. Sometimes I’d bring the camera so that people could get used to me.
Considering how close you get, and how fluidly you’re moving, what did your camera setup involve?
I knew that I wanted to tell this in a very cinematic way, but there wasn’t really a camera gear that would allow me to do it. I actually postponed this film for a year because camera technology just wasn’t there. The equipment was too heavy, and I would have had to use two assistants and a focus puller, and that would really fuck up the intimacy.
Then a year later, I spent two months building a camera rig. It’s like a combination of a Steadicam and a gyroscope, which I custom made. I had follow focus and computer control at my fingertips so I could shoot really long takes and be in crowded places. I could shoot documentary style but in a very cinematic way.
There’s an Emmanuel Lubezki quality to what you’re doing, a balletic swing and swirl, but in such a different context. You’re so oriented toward characters and faces, getting closer and closer. Such proximity and movement seem constantly in relation to these people and their emotional lives.
I really wanted the camera to be a character. And utilize those things in a documentary context that have been, until now, reserved for fiction filmmaking. Especially if you’re talking about feelings and emotions, you have to convey it with the language of cinema, which is camera and movement and proximity, lenses and light.
It seems movement is especially meaningful in this milieu—that sense of restlessness, curiosity, elusive satisfaction.
The idea was to keep the camera going, riding on emotions, and only slowing it down or locking off shots as exclamation points. To really utilize the composition in a way so that if it slows down it’s an important moment, a moment of a certain intensity. I really wanted to feel like the camera work was really synced with what was happening with them emotionally. That’s why music plays in real time, so that we could be synced with each other. The characters and I would be on the same beat so the camera could capture the rhythm of the scene.
That’s why we did tons of rehearsal before, to really teach myself how to get to this really high level of anticipation. Shooting in this way doesn’t have to be reserved for fiction filmmaking. If you really are there with the people, and listen to them, you can anticipate their moves, you can anticipate what they’re going to say next. This way you don’t have to do multiple takes. You just have to get into their heads, and get the rhythm of their conversations. Going into this, that’s what I really wanted to learn. I think I can still take it much further.
You really think you could get closer than you did here?
I think you can go further. That’s my dream. To me, in documentary filmmaking, when you’re on a set, working with a DP, it can be uncreative. I love when I’m just there and my camera is basically moving by itself, going exactly where it’s supposed to go. That’s just beauty for me. But of course not all the sequences of the film are like that. And that pisses me off.
Well you got super close. Did you have to sell them on the idea of letting you get close, letting you enter these private spaces and witnessing such private moments? It must be a strange, slippery thing to describe going in.
When I found these people, and felt that they had something special to them, I said basically—let’s make a movie together. Which is something I was fascinated with as a kid, the energy that comes from just getting people together to do something crazy, to make a movie. It’s really beautiful.
Something I say always from the start is that I don’t really want to make a documentary about you. Let’s just get together, and go on an adventure. We’re going to end up in a place that you’d never end up at if you’d not gone on this adventure with me, and I would never end up there if didn’t have you guys with me. Let’s just combine our energies.
I did one documentary that was observational, and I felt miserable. People were going through things and I wanted to help them out, but I couldn’t because I didn’t want to affect reality. I felt that I was stepping into people’s lives that I shouldn’t. But I don’t want to categorize films into fiction and nonfiction. Let’s just go on this adventure. You are real, and you are living through things, so let’s just set up a space where we all do these things. Do we do them for the camera, or we do them just to live a beautiful moment? I don’t know.
And you’re not being bothered by that ambiguity changing the atmosphere entirely.
I’m totally not bothered by that. The story is about youth, it’s about energy, and the actual facts totally don’t matter. Probably half the things that happen in the film wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t making the film, but other things would have happened, maybe similar, maybe not. Maybe they would be more difficult to convey in a cinematic way, or maybe they wouldn’t be. The most important thing is that we all wanted to live this moment. We never did anything where people were pretending to be somebody else, where they’re doing something that they would never want to do by themselves. That’s fiction. Everything we did we did because we wanted to live through it.
Do you think they were emboldened by the camera?
Maybe. I talk a lot with my characters about cinema, and about what cinema can convey. Cinema is a really simple medium, and there’s so much that you simply can’t convey. Literature you can have so much, but with cinema you have to find shortcuts. So we had many conversations about what’s cinematic, what works and doesn’t. But it was also a conversation about life. We were giving each other tips and pointers on how to live. We were all embarking on something for which, from the start, we set some rules, but we’re also pushing each boundary in any way we can. While keeping in mind that we were doing a film.
I’m fascinated by what you’ve done with sound here. Did you know from the beginning that you didn’t want to rely on sound recorded on set, or did that come about out of necessity? Because not only aren’t you making observational cinema, you’re hearkening back to the pre-sync sound era of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, where it’s all ADR, and in some ways more creative than observational cinema.
The crux of making these films is that when you don’t ADR, you have to turn down music. Because when music is pounding, and everybody is talking at the same time, you can’t hear what people are saying. But when you turn down music to a level that is below what people listen to—young people listen to music loudly, and their parties are loud—it’s really difficult to use that music. So we didn’t replace much of the music. It’s the exact same track in the exact same moment that was playing on set. And what we did was throw away the entire soundtrack and recreate it from scratch in an ADR chamber. That was like a month and a half long process.
Which I imagine was even more of a challenge because you had people who aren’t normally actors doing this very professional task.
Everybody that was in the film was recreating the scenes for ADR. If it was 5 people we had 5 people. If they were stoned they were stoned, if they were drunk they were drunk. We recreated the exact atmosphere.
Was it fun?
It was really fun. But I was really nervous because I wasn’t sure if it would work, and because ADR is super difficult to do. But these people actually nailed it much better than I think many actors would. They got really into it. Of course it’s a bit different—the emotions are a little off from what they were on set. But that doesn’t mean it’s worse.
It can add a different level of reality to it, as well as a sense of being both in and slightly outside of the moment.
And because there’s this music that can actually engulf you, you can feel that you’re there. And feel closer to them. When you have a wall of crappy mono sound, it actually pulls you away from the story. You’re hearing many things at the same time, and you’re not concentrating on dialogue. And that’s not reality. Our ears actually have amazing noise cancelling capabilities. When we’re in a loud place, we only hear the person that we’re speaking to—like now, when I’m only paying attention to you.
If we recorded here with a microphone we would get all this background noise—it would be distracting, like that door pounding all the time. So in order to bring back reality you have to go so far. You have to go to ADR and replace all the dialogue. Because the most important thing for me is realism on set. It’s just me and a sound person, and everybody’s perfectly chill with each other. If it’s a party, music is blasting on loud. We didn’t care about making it quieter because we’ll just fix it later. This way we have the emotions. And everything’s happening as it should.