Interview with cinematographer André Szankowski, AFC, AIP, about "Cosmos", directed by Andrzej Żuławski

par André Szankowski

[ English ] [ français ]

Born in Brazil in 1979, and a citizen of the world, having lived in the USA, England, Portugal and France, Andre Szankowski, AFC, AIP, also has Polish roots (his father). For his first invitation to attend Camerimage, he will present Cosmos, the new film by Franco-Polish director Andrzej Żuławski. Get to know this trilingual cinematographer with an international career.
André Szankowski et Andrzej Żuławski - DR
André Szankowski et Andrzej Żuławski

So, this is your first festival ?

André Szankowski : Incredibly, yes ! It’s also the first time I’m visiting Poland. Although I tried to make time to come in the past, the demands of shootings and of life have always decided otherwise. This time, I’m very proud to be attending alongside Andrzej Żuławski, a Polish director, who is one of the founders of this festival.

How did you meet Andrzej Żuławski ?

AS : Through Paulo Branco ... I’d shot with him several times (with Raoul Ruiz, Fanny Ardant ...) and although, in terms of the visuals, they were all very different projects I think Żuławski was able to find a point of view and a link to his own directing style in my work. I remember he had enjoyed Mysteries of Lisbon, saying : "This is a very bright image, really polished..., this is not at all what I want for Cosmos !" He entrusted me with the film on the basis of our relationship and on the understanding between cinematographer and director.

What is it like to work with him on set ?

AS : We shot the film entirely in Portugal, on a six-week shooting schedule. A rather short shooting... The biggest challenge for the DoP is that Żuławski shoots his scenes in the order of the story. The whole movie is not shot in chronological order but throughout each day, each scene is chosen to correspond to what he has in mind in terms of assembly. This means that we can very well start with a wide shot, then switch to close-ups on the actors, and then return to the wide shots later, even though the lighting has changed completely !
We made constant back and forths on the set, with the lighting the way it is ... and we simply have to learn to make do. When you take into account locations like Sintra (a small village northwest of Lisbon famous for its very variable microclimate), it sometimes became a real headache. A scene early in the film, for example, was filmed literally under a snow storm, while a few days earlier, the tests were conducted in lush green vegetation as can be imagined in the south of Portugal.

What is exciting is that despite these conditions, Żuławski always adapts and somehow finds narrative meaning from these surprises.

Had you exchanged visual references to prepare for the film ?

AS : Unlike some directors with whom you might watch up to ten films in order to get ideas, Andrzej, did not give me any references. He stuck to technique. I particularly remember a discussion regarding lighting faces with fluorescent lighting, which he liked a lot. He placed the whiteness of the skin at the center of his aesthetic concerns.
It gives great importance to the actors’ faces. It’s almost what dictates the way we filmed or lit a scene. For example, from a narrative point of view, he doesn’t like highlighting the image by using low lighting or blue lighting for a sad scene… He just wants the DoP to come up with a way of reading the face without making it too theatrical or too dramatic.

Andrzej Żuławski hadn’t made a film for over fifteen years... Meanwhile the digital revolution has revolutionized cinematography. How has he adapted to this new way of making films ?

AS : He’s perfectly at ease with the digital process... Whether it be shooting in Raw, LUTs, or the fact that we did don’t have the exact final result on set... I must say that he has a very accurate understanding of the image, and always gives extremely pertinent feedback on the lighting. I can tell you he even has a contrast lens that he uses to judge the image ! And I also felt that his working method hasn’t really changed because of digital.
He doesn’t do lots of takes, he doesn’t film the rehearsals, and remains very close to the actors and isn’t stuck to his viewfinder. He doesn’t do lots of backup shots, the scenes are often put together at the last minute (one of the consequences of his preference for working chronologically according to the assembly), and his method of setting up the scene is often a surprise to the rest of the team... Anyway, he knows so much about the story because he memorizes the screenplay, which allows him to find a solution to every situation, allowing him to solve problems day by day and roll with the punches.

So this wasn’t exactly a shooting based off a storyboard !

AS : Definitely not ! That puts pressure on the technical team. We might prepare a scene with as much time as we like, but when shooting begins, everyone’s got to be ready. And if the actors get it right at the first take, that’s the take that will be kept regardless of any technical problems that we might have experienced in framing or focus.

What were your technical choices ?

AS : I often use Panavision lenses, but this time, I chose to fit the Alexa camera with Cooke S4 lenses, mostly because of the way they render faces. I find it to be a bit softer. The skintone is silkier, especially when you’re shooting in wide angle between 21 and 27mm, as is Żuławski’s preference. Furthermore, he’s a director who isn’t afraid to suggest rather extreme camera angles, which breaks with the more docile style with much longer focal lengths.
Lots of dollies, no Steadicam, and just a bit of filming from the shoulder. What is funny in hindsight is that I realize that we didn’t have much discussion with Andrezj regarding the preparation of the film. Shooting began and the film just came together, like that, without too many questions !

A word about the colour timing ?

AS : Calibration was done at Eclair with Raymond Terrentin. We quickly agreed on the style of the images and the general tone of the film, the many issues related to lighting took us a lot longer ! Going from a 21mm shot in a very narrow space with little windows and grey weather outside to close-ups isn’t always easy ! I remember a particular set filmed in a house by the seaside, where the wind was blowing so strongly that even an 18 kW HMI couldn’t remain standing on its support outdoors ! But in the end, I realize that Andrzej isn’t at all preoccupied by those things. What matters to him above all else is that the story exists. The essence of the film for him isn’t in calibrating the lighting…

Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC, and translated from French by Alex Raiffe.