PE: Well I was born in Lodz (Poland), this is the famous city where the film school was founded and all the time when I was a young boy I was remembering that very special place in the city where all the great directors were learning how to make beautiful films so from the very first moment I was thinking about movies. And then, and this was by accident, my brother gave me a camera and I didn’t think about making stills or even movies at that time, let alone cinematography, but it was such a great pleasure that I decided to go to the film school (which was then funded by the Government) and it all started like that. It you’ve even seen The Promised Land by Wajda, it was filmed in the city of Lodz. It was industrial, full of red brick, dull buildings but the only place that was shining was the film school and that’s why everybody wanted to go there.
Q: Lódz is not only know for the film school but it’s the only city that has a festival aimed at cinematography, the famous Camerimage Festival that takes place each November. Was it natural that you were always going to study there, rather than some other place? Was it because you wanted to follow in the footsteps of Wajda and Polanski?
PE: Well of course, I never imagined that I would go somewhere else, from the very first moment I knew that this was where a young Polish filmmaker should go.
Q: Tell us about the training there and how you ended up working towards cinematography?
PE: Well Lódz was a very special film school. Right from the beginning, we started making a black and white film on 35mm and all the films during my training there were only made on 35mm which was very rare because all the other schools during my training were using 16mm, a smaller camera, so that was the first difference about Lodz. The second was that we had a professional crew; we had gaffers, camera assistants and grips, so from the first year we had to co-operate with those people which was a great training because later on when we started working on professional productions we already had some tricks and knew how to handle the crew, which is one of the most important elements if you’re going to be a good DoP, so we had some great teachers and we made some fantastic friends. So just after film school I started to shoot features with my colleague directors, which was fantastic.
Q So let’s move on now to one of the major collaborators of your career, (Roman Polanski), and it’s somebody who I want to come back to later because this was your international breakthrough.
But first, let’s show a clip of the film you made with Andrzej Wajda, that was the starting point to Hollywood:
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ED: Yes, and that’s why I wanted to show you this Pan Tadeusz clip (of the Last Foray in Lithuania (1999)) because it was about the 10th film I did in Poland and probably the one that attracted the attention of Roman Polanski, because after that he called me and asked me to join him in The Pianist (2002) so that was the link between my Polish period of my career and the international one.
Q Before we look at The Pianist I want to find out how exactly you defined your role in the making of all these films. Where you someone who involved yourself very early on with the script-reading with the director and the actors? How did you start to get a vision for the film?
ED: That was the good thing about Lodz film school, we were working most of the time with the directors. After finishing film school I started working with my friend Wladyslaw Pasikowski, I think we’ve made 8 movies together, and the films we made together were like a stylistic breakthrough in Poland and they were very popular. Wladyslaw was like a star. We were working on the script, talking about the locations, scouting together, collaborating on the writing and that tradition is something very special at that school. Together we made Kroll (1991); Pigs (1992); Psy 2: Ostatnia crew (1994); Bitter-Sweet (1999); Demony wojny wed ug Goi (1998); Operacja Samum (1999); Reich (2001); Poklosie (2012).
Q: And does this make things much easier for you when working on the film?
ED: Of course it does: it’s interesting to be involved as early as possible, to know the main subject and the themes to be a part of the whole machinery of the movie-making process, which makes you (as a DoP) more involved and in the centre of the process.
Q: So we come to The Pianist, which won you a César and also the Eagle Polish Film Award 2003 for best cinematography and numerous nominations leading to your becoming Hollywood Cinematographer of the Year in 2005. What were the initial meetings with Polanski like?
ED: Roman is a director who knows exactly what he wants. We didn’t have a long conversation at the beginning, we just met very briefly in Berlin, because that’s where the movie was to be shot, in Berlin and the second part in Warsaw. We were briefly talking about the style of the film and the only thing was said was that it should be as natural and as documentary (in style) as possible and everyday when I went on set I kept in mind that it should be as simple as possible. Because if I can make it like that it will be believable.
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Q: I mentioned my interest about the relationship between the DoP, the director and the film editor and then tensions between them all. How much did you and Roman Polanski speak about the way you were going to shoot this scene in terms of how it was going to eventually appear with the close screen shots of the actor in the room and then the camera going outside to the streets below?
PE Roman’s way of working is always the same. We don’t know too much about the scenes before we meet with the actors. Every morning there’s a meeting with the DoP, the directors and the actors, we start from scratch with the actors reading the script and he’s (Roman) placing them in the room, in that case. They rehearse the scene over and over again and then after the rehearsals, when everybody knows what they’re doing, we look at the scene created by them and we discuss how to film it. We don’t know what will happen later ’til after the rehearsals and I just love that type of work because everything goes naturally from the script and from the actors.
Q: And is that the way it worked even from the “documentary-type” style you tried to follow in The Pianist?
PE: Yes, nothing is pre-planned, everything seems to be absolutely natural.
Q: So The Pianist led you into Hollywood and how would say that changed things from the point of view of working style? Did you find it more enjoyable, or did you find yourself (being) more of a cog in a large wheel?
PE: Definitely there’s a huge difference between making films in Europe and making them in America. Making films in America you become part of the ‘film industry’, making films in Europe is working with friends, and my friend directors. And this is a totally different type of activity. In the US, you’re part of the big machinery, in Europe you’re working in a creative process with your friends. And that’s always going to be more fun, working with friends.
Q: It’s great that we’ve got two examples of American Film clips to show you and, in a way, you couldn’t get a more different visual style. We’re going to start with All The King’s Men (2006) by Steven Zaillian and the second is Ray (2004) which you made with Taylor Hackford.
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Q: Ray uses a very soft palette of rich colours, embued with the warm South and reflecting the mellow feel of jazz music but with All The King’s Men you’ve used a very cool steely palate with interesting use of shadow and harsh. Could you talk about how you and Steven Zaillian created the look of this film?
PE: I think the idea was ‘German Expressionist‘ because we all had this picture in our minds on those beautiful black and white films and that’s why we wanted to go with this feel of going away from colour, being de-saturated, not strong and we wanted to use a harder light intentionally to show the hardness and cruelty of that type of politics. Things are a little different now and times have changed and I think the audience likes this type of commercial films rather than the artistic, ambitious type of film.
Q: Just taking that point further, do you think that there’s still a very strong visual culture in Poland? In the UK, I think because we come out of a culture of theatre and writing, there’s a more literary culture but I don’t think there’s ever been a strong visual style here compared to Poland. Is the visual aesthetic still there in contemporary Polish film?
PE: Obviously there’s a huge tradition of classical cinema in Poland and this is Wajda and friends. I was lucky to meet Andrzej and have been with him on many films and he is one of the directors who’s thinking more about the visual side and how the movie will look but I can’t say that this tradition is existing in every single section in Poland. It’s sad but it’s gone. I think that the story has to visible, that’s the most important thing. I wouldn’t like to be remembered as a guy who did good pictures on bad films, I would rather be remembered for good films with bad pictures and I’m being serious (laughs). I’m not fighting for something that’s mine, I’m fighting for the characters, I’m fighting for the scenes, that’s why the composition is good because of something, because of the accent you should put on somebody or some element that should be there and very visible in the film.
Q: So to sum up, looking back over your career so far do you think you have a specific visual style or do you feel your imput is ABSOLUTELY dictated by the material you’re working on?
PE: Yes, as I’m getting older I believe that the script gives all the answers: you just take the script and feel script and smell it…that’s how I think of it. The script dictates the solutions.
Q: Moving on, let’s talk about Roman Polanski and about the very strong story of your second collaboration with him in 2005, Oliver Twist.
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PE: Yes this production had effects that had to be larger than life. We were 90 days shooting this movie in Prague. The costumes were highly exaggerated and we used more make-up on the actors. To create that special look we made use of candle-light, and locally placed lanterns. There were loads of people dragging hundreds of lanterns and different lights around the set just to give the correct feel to the lighting, it was very intense and special.
Q: And moving on to The Ghost Writer (2010) tell us about the way you created the visual look for that film?
PE: There was clouds, and we were waiting for clouds all the time and there was no sunlight or hard light and my goal was to build a contrast, sometimes quite high levels of contrast using only the soft light and also a de-saturated palette of colours.
Q You go from a very short depth of field to a very wide lens in the scene of Ewan McGregor and Olivier Williams when they’re walking along the beach:
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PE: Well this is a different subject: choice of lenses. Roman is using only two lenses, no more. Not everybody know this. For each film we were just picking two lenses and just shooting everything with them. This is very rare.
Q: Why does he do that?
PE: Because he feels that if he switches from long lenses to short lenses for the shot, there will be no consistency for the shot, for the look he’s going for, so in The Pianist we were only using 25 and 32. In Oliver Twist, because of the larger that life idea we were using little lenses like 21 to 25 then for The Ghost Writer we came back to 25 and 32. And nobody else is like that. I’ve never worked with another director who’s so strict, who picks such a small variety of optics.