I got to relive a lot of my life moments. I got to cheat time and that's a beautiful thing that cinema can offer you.
Michał Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights blows the line between narrative and nonfiction into a cloud of coke. The degree to which any of it is scripted seems continually up for grabs. Since his first feature, At the Edge of Russia (2010), the Polish filmmaker has ventured into ever more ambitious realms of hybrid documentary. All These Sleepless Nights is bound to elicit the same kind of reaction as Fuck for Forest (2012): Is this the work of a genius or some sort of charlatan?
There’s not much in the way of plot. The film is essentially about the ephemeral nature of the excesses of youth: what it is to be young, totally carefree, and absolutely committed to having a good time all the time. Twentysomething buddies Krzysztof Baginski and Michal Huszcza—neophyte actors “portraying” themselves—are Olympic-level hedonists. They resolve to live life to the fullest and push the boundaries of their freedom. They share theories, girlfriends, and narcotics in a self-indulgent yearlong journey of endless partying through Warsaw. The action unfolds in underground tunnels, on strobe-lit dance floors, and against picturesque cityscapes. A beach is host to a most dazzling segment: blissed-out revelers swaying to Caribou’s “Can’t Do Without You.”
The 2016 Sundance Film Festival presented All These Sleepless Nights in its World Cinema Documentary competition, with Marczak taking home the directing prize—a coup considering how little the film tries to convince the viewer of its factuality. It’s too engaged, interactive, and borderline invasive to be an observational film. Then it’s too spontaneous, in-the-moment reactive, and variously naked to be a work of fiction. Marczak’s latest stakes out its own cinematic terrain.
All These Sleepless Nights is one of the best films to hit theaters so far this year.
All These Sleepless Nights opens in L.A. and SF on April 7th, and in NYC on April 14th.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview was tightened for length and clarity.]
When you first met Krzyś [Baginski] and Michal [Huszcza] at a party, what was it about them that caught your eye? And at what point were you convinced that they could do this?
They just seemed very special in the sense that they had a weird dynamic. Michal was the Marlon Brando and James Dean type of guy who was very loose and not self-conscious. He was the bon vivant guy. Krzyś was super analytical of everything. The difference between them was really strong. We definitely thought that, if we played off of that, the good things would come. Krzyś was at a time in his life where he didn’t want to be in the shadow of another person anymore in that sort of friendship. He was aspiring for something and it was going to be a bumpy road ahead. They’re performance art students, which is based around being in the moment, running on emotions and talking about their experiences. So they already had a little bit of that in them.
When I told them about the film, I flat out said, “Listen—if we’re to go on this journey together, we have to become very vulnerable and open up. There are definitely going to be hard and sad times, and maybe lonely times.” They totally believed in it. They understood that’s the only way to get an emotional connection: if you’re just really frank about who you are and where you are.
That was the very first conversation you guys had?
That was the conversation we had at the beginning. I think that’s what really set up the connection. I never really had second thoughts. It really was one of those things where it just felt right. I was looking for people for around four months. I was just going for coffee, going for walks, and hanging out and talking with a lot of people. That actually paid off because that’s how we got everyone else in the film and how all the places got to know what I was setting out to do. Sometimes I was coming around with a camera, so a lot of these clubs and bars kind of knew who I was and what I was doing, more or less. Nobody really knew what this was going to be. But since I had a four-month prepping period, when we did show up with a larger crew to actually shoot, people were natural around us and not looking into the camera. That paid off very well, I think.
How old were you guys when you shot this? Aren’t you all around the same age?
There’s actually a 8 to 9-year difference. I would say they’re the younger generation. I was born in ’82 and they’re of the first generation born in ’89 and ’90. They were 24 and 25 when we started.
That’s actually important: You set out to capture the youth culture of their generation.
That was one of the reasons. I realized that I wasn’t the youngest anymore and my generation is kind of on the way out. I was going out a lot less. My friends started having children and getting stable jobs. Then these young people took over and these new places sprung up, as things naturally happen. I was very curious. Also, they’re kind of the first generation that’s completely free—born in the free world. We all felt a little inferior when I was in my early 20s. I remember coming to London and New York and feeling very out of place, whereas I think these people feel that they’re total citizens of the world. There’s a difference, and because it’s Poland, that difference is probably larger than in New York or any Western world that had that for such a long time.
I know you shot this over the course of two years with big breaks, to include two summers and one winter to show the passage of time and see the two guys evolve. I don’t know if this was largely shot in sequence, but Krzyś seemed so much more relaxed towards the latter end of the film. But maybe that’s just me getting comfortable with his “character.”
To me, that’s exactly what the film is about. It’s very subtle things because, at that age also, hardly ever do these big changes come into your life. It’s the small changes that actually make a huge difference. I think it’s exactly what you’ve observed. In the beginning, Krzyś especially, is very uptight. There’s a line in the film where someone comes up to him and says, “You dance like a chicken,” because he didn’t really know how to. He felt kind of awkward in his body and with who he is, especially having this friend who’s the complete opposite of that. Michal goofs around and never really thinks about the way he looks. He has an in-born naturalness that makes him suave.
I recall that scene. Then Krzyś sighs, “Why would you say something like that?” and turns his body. You see his discomfort more in how he moves rather than what he says.
Yeah, so maybe Krzyś didn’t change that much, but his perception of himself changes a lot. One of the metaphorical things that we learn throughout the course of the film is that he becomes a much better dancer and comes up with this organic dance of his where he can express himself. So I think that’s one of the trajectories of the film: Krzyś becoming more chill, opening himself up to people, trying to find his own place in all of this and figuring out who he is. Is he the guy who likes to dance, or is he the guy who likes to stand in the corner of a room and be okay with that? Of course, I think the biggest problem is when you’re unsure which type you are. Once you kind of get it, then it all falls into place. These are the big things that I remember from my life, you know? These are actually big, traumatic things that, if you don’t know, you kind of want to figure out.
I know you did a bunch of improvisation exercises during prep. You mentioned previously how, in improv, the goal is to make your partner the best possible player. You’re trying to build each other up, essentially. Can you give me an example of an exercise you guys did?
Honestly, the three big things that made me feel much more comfortable as a director are toolsets. One of them is editing. I’ve had the chance to work with this amazing editor [Dorota Wardeszkiewicz] for many, many years. Another one is improv comedy, especially TJ [Jagodowski] and Dave’s [Pasquesi] stuff. They wrote this amazing book on improv [Improvisation at the Speed of Life]. Dancing is the third one. I think that’s a beautiful toolkit when you can combine them together. With TJ and Dave’s stuff, basically a two-person improv, it’s exactly what you said. It’s the simple rules. It actually all comes down to being in the moment, not thinking about what you should be doing or what your character should be doing. It’s about resonating and wanting your partner or whoever you’re playing with to be the best by being responsive to him. If you analyze it, it’s kind of exactly what documentary subjects or people that are lost in their emotions should be. It’s about going with whatever is happening and being responsive to everything: the weather, the sun, and the people and their emotions. As long as other people can play off that well, that builds and you become better, too. How actually a lot of those things apply to this kind of hybrid filmmaking? Magic! The workshops were just like that. We were doing two-person improv where I would maybe throw in one sentence or give one emotion to one of the characters and they would have to play off of that. Or I would just give them a very simple situation that they’re in and then it’s just improv and about making it better, better and better.
The film’s choice of music is so incredibly important to capture the essence of youth in that particular time and place, and ours. The Cairbou track in particular gives the film so much identity and feeling. How did you arrive at that song and ultimately get the rights to use it?
With a lot of those songs, I really tried to be true to what these characters were listening to at that time and what was playing when we were shooting the film, like the music that was playing at all these different clubs in Warsaw. Warsaw is developing this really cool music identity, too. A lot of these places are playing very different music. Of course, I did push it a little bit because some of these places we were shooting in had terrible music. [Laughs] Since the film was entirely ADR, I had the possibility to really go ahead and change everything. When we were shooting at that weird festival—like a post-hippie festival organized by the Germans on the border of Poland; like a secret, small uncommercial version of Burning Man—“Can’t Do Without You” was the hit track there. They used to play that track at the end of the DJ sets right when the sun was setting. As you saw in the film, it was the most beautiful aura and everybody was in the middle of it. We always tried to get the tracks that was steering us emotionally during the shoot.
The music was essential to get the rhythm of the camera and the pacing. I really hate that sterile kind of shooting where you turn everything off. I’d rather spend a month and a half in ADR and have that energy on set with music dictating the rhythm. We went back to a lot of these artists and just said, “Listen—this track was an important part of the scene. It was playing there. If you’d be willing to license it to us maybe for a smaller fee, that would be amazing.” Caribou’s Dan Snaith saw that part and I think he really liked it. He asked his label to give it to us for a very good price.
I’m curious about the scene where Krzyś walks through a traffic jam. It has value because it gives an otherwise small film so much scope and magnitude. Was that moment found?
I like that scene because it has many meanings, depending on if you know the historical context or not. Even if you look at the historical context, which side are you on? It just fits well no matter what perspective you look at it from. In actuality, it’s the first of August at five o’clock, the minute that Warsaw stands still and honors the day the Warsaw uprising started in ’44. We actually shot that twice in two years because, in the first year, a lot people looked into the camera and we couldn’t retrack their eyes. The following year, maybe the 65th anniversary, it was very serious and people really got into it and we were able to get the shot. We only had a minute for the one take and it worked. People were so into the moment that they didn’t look into the camera or at Krzyś.
You’ve gone on the record to say that you’re not a big fan of movies about youth because they’re “oversimplified.” What movies have done it right in your opinion?
A lot of the French New Wave films although, you know, they’re highly stylized. There’s definitely something more to them, capturing the ecstasy of new times approaching. That’s something that transcends the stories so much. It’s so much about that time frame. I definitely love a lot of that.
My earliest filmmaking influences are in music videos. I was rabid obsessed. I checked out your Mark Pritchard video for “Beautiful People.” How did you get interested in that world?
Actually, I haven’t done that many music videos. I did a couple videos for some friends back home with almost no budgets. Many of the interesting electronic musicians in Poland just don’t do videos and that’s their thing. At Sundance, I think a lot of people from the record industry were there and people from Warp saw the film. They just came up after the movie and told me they liked it. We had a great conversation about the use of music in film. Also, the co-producers of the film is Pulse Films, an amazing company that do a lot of videos for artists like the Chemical Brothers, FKA Twigs… So Pulse and Warped somehow got in touch and they just asked me if I wanted to do videos. I love videos. A couple months after Sundance, I got my first track and it was for Mark’s “Beautiful People.” I really loved it and wrote a treatment. They liked it and chose me.
This video is stunning to look at. That alone is a separate conversation.
Mark is such a talented guy. He’s an awesome musician. Jonathan Zawada did such beautiful cover art. It was beautiful to take part in the creation of a world that’s not just a video but something that reflects the whole album, the album art… It was really interesting to be a part of that.
Speaking of form, so much of the dialogue for your film has been dominated by questions regarding that. Is it documentary? Is it narrative? What is this hybrid? You seem more interested in the resulting product and less so in the ways to get there as long as it works.
I definitely don’t like putting stuff into boxes, although I do think there are stuff that can easily be put into boxes if you have to. Then there’s the question of, “Why do it?” So yeah, definitely. I’m not the one who’s interested in that. I really wasn’t going out there to break borders or anything. I always try to start with what the story is and “Who can play this?” Is it real people that will do a better job, or actors? Then, “What’s the cost?” Is it worth spending two million dollars on something that you can do for a thousand and get the same effect or maybe better? How will I have a more interesting time making it and go through a more profound experience? So I guess I love cinema and all the tools of cinema: videos, documentaries, everything… I feel good doing any form of it, in any style. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting the authenticity and the thing you want. It’s about utilizing all the things that cinema has to offer and, also, all the things that you can invent in the future to get it to work. Then the outcome is very organic, I think.
It’s so difficult to actually break it down. I hate it when people just simplify reality in general. They’re like, “Oh, so it’s this and that.” How do you know it was? [Laughs] There’s no simple answer to any of this, you know? I think the much more important and interesting conversation is like, “How do you feel showing your emotions on screen and what is imperative for that? How does it feel when you open yourself up like that and you’re vulnerable to people?” So, to me, that whole conversation about the energy that’s formed on set and the interpersonal connections that’s required to pull something like this off is a super interesting conversation. “But is it label A or label B?” What does that actually give the reader or the audience, you know? I think it’s a trick when people have that information and think they understand something like they can grasp something—it’s bullshit. You can call it whatever you want, but you’re not grasping it. It requires way more analysis and multi-level kind of looking at the situation to actually grasp what it was.
I remember having a similar conversation with the Dardenne Brothers last year. They basically just felt like they were never really telling the truth about their process because it’s so hard to define. Yet, they’re asked questions. I like this quote from you: “Everything we did we did because we wanted to live through it.” Did you have fun making this movie?
I did, I did! I got to relive a lot of my life moments. I got to cheat time and that’s a beautiful thing that cinema can offer you. I was always drawn to that in cinema. I remember being 16 and seeing Paul Auster and Wayne Wang’s Smoke and Blue in the Face. There was no Internet then, so I had no information about how those films were made. I figured one was improvised. I think that really was a thing for me. It was like, “That’s what it can be.” It can be a group of friends who get together, throw in ideas, experience something beautiful, heighten reality, and reach levels you wouldn’t without having the pretext of making a film. You can shut yourself off from reality. There’s so much distracting us when you need this total concentration to be in the moment for 12 hours [on set]. Even when I was at these parties [in real life], my head was flying around thinking about this and that. But doing the film, I just went in there, no phones or anything—just 12 hours of looking at people and analyzing and being emotionally present—and that’s really, really cool. Of course, there were times where it was painful because it was dealing with issues that people were hiding or running away from: breakups and the loss of friendships and coming to terms with the fact that maybe you’re a little bit more lost than you think you are. Nevertheless, it’s all super interesting things to experience that you shouldn’t run away from. The idea was to have as many of those moments. Also, that was the basis for checking scenes. If there weren’t strong enough emotions and we didn’t get lost in the moment, it probably meant nothing of value happened.
What are you most looking forward to about your next science fiction film about “a man who claims to be an alien”? Will you continue this creative process you’ve developed?
Honestly, I’m not scared. But I don’t want to lose this process, you know? That process and energy on set means so much to me. I really don’t ever want to make a film where it’s just about making the film. Sometimes I visit my friends on set and the experience is just terrible. [Laughs] Of course, I know I’m going to have to scale up [with the next film]. This is going to be quite a big film, I think, with known actors and with a much larger crew. I’m definitely going to try to do everything I can to choose the people and set it up in a way where we can still have that process. When we get on set, we can close ourselves off and go into this dream world and create our fantasies and live them out—and not just be craftsmen. With Pulse Films, since they have the background of making these hybrid films, I’m quite positive we’ll figure out something.
What stage of development are you in right now?
A solid treatment. We would love to start shooting early next year, so we have to hurry up.
Is it untitled?
It’s kind of untitled. The “Untitled Cosmos Project,” as we call it.