On Cold War, which marked his second collaboration with Pawel Pawlikowski, cinematographer Lukasz Zal built on his rapport with the Polish director to find an exciting new way of working. In his first-go round with the director, on 2013’s Ida, Zal earned his first Oscar nomination, which resulted from a strange twist of fate. Hired as a camera operator on that lush period piece, Zal came to a major career moment when Pawlikowski’s regular collaborator, Ryszard Lenczewski, fell ill, and he was asked to step in. While Zal didn’t have the benefit of prep time on Ida, he did find it with Cold War. Attached to lens the film from the get-go, Zal could then tackle the film with confidence, with time to define a new cinematic language. “I completely fell in love with the story, and it was also personal for me,” the cinematographer says, “A really personal study of what love is, what it’s not.”

Based on the tempestuous relationship between Pawlikowski’s own parents, Cold War would be a passionate love story, a musical romance centered on two artists of differing backgrounds and temperaments, who found it hard to be together, and impossible to be apart. Like Ida, the director’s latest would be shot in black and white, crafted with the same set of cinematic tools. Starting from this place, Zal needed to find a broader cinematic approach that would honor what was unique about Cold War.

What excited you about the idea of reteaming with Pawel on Cold War?

When we did Ida together, it succeeded, and it was a great collaboration. We very quickly found ourselves not only good collaborators, but also friends. I think we created somehow a very symbiotic relationship, in terms of working on creating pictures. We really like to work together, so that is why he came to me with another story, another script. What was most exciting and challenging in this was the story itself. When I got the script, the first versions, I fell in love with this story. It was somehow very important for me, and felt very emotional. I think it’s so important, when you’re making a movie, that you’re not just treating it like a job, that you’re [pursuing] stories in which you somehow can find a bit of yourself.

What was very exciting and challenging was that we’d succeeded with Ida, but we knew that we wanted to make a different film. We knew that this film was going to be in black and white, that we were going to use the same format, but we knew that the story would [reveal its differences] as it progressed. We would use camera movement and compose [shots] differently. The challenge was to use quite similar tools, but make a completely different, more emotional story, more dynamic and more changing in styles.

What were the first steps you took on the project, with the newfound prep time you’d mentioned? Did Pawel share family artifacts with you, or mention any specific visual touchstones?

Yeah, there was really a lot. Pawel writes his films with images—the scripts and the stories he is [crafting] are very visual. He doesn’t just illustrate the film with images; he treats the image as part of the story. That is why, when we started meeting, it was a long process. It took, I think, six months, and we were first sitting and reading the script together, talking about how we were going to tell this story. Of course, he showed me family pictures, and we were talking about his parents’ story. In general, there were a lot of conversations about love, about women, about our relationships, and that was a great time that we spent together, sitting and looking for solutions, watching films—Tarkovsky, Godard films, Casablanca.

Amazon Studios

For me, also, a great inspiration was Ralph Gibson’s photography. In terms of contrast, we knew we were going to make a different film than Ida, because we realized that contrast seemed like the best tool to tell this contrasty love story, which was very dynamic and engaging. We had great production designers, and we all were also watching a lot of [archival footage] from Berlin, from Paris of that period. With all of those elements, there was a certain moment where the shape of the film started to appear.

We knew that the film would be changing in style—that we would start from white, where the people are part of the landscape, and we’d create our documentary world in which we find our characters. Later on, when Zula appears, she give some energy to the camera. She somehow triggers the camera, and when they fall in love, we are somehow with them. We see everything through them, and in Paris, when the relation becomes much more intense, we added in longer lenses, so the vision becomes more narrow. We are in a trap, in Paris; she feels trapped. In the end, everything becomes wider. So, it was a long, but also amazing, very creative journey, this process, where you were not only preparing the film, but also knowing yourself better, and learning something. I think that’s what cinema is about. You’re not only making a film, but also, every film is like a milestone in your life.

Also, the music was very important. We had the idea that every song is maybe not a chapter, but a little punch that pushes everything forward.

What was discussed when it came to the film’s opening moments? The first scene really sets the stage, stylistically, for the film as a whole.

We knew we were putting a mosaic of documentary images at the beginning, and from this, our characters appear after some time. That was our way of opening, setting up that everything comes from this folk music. The story evolves, the same as the music evolves. We had an idea that in the beginning of the film, you are watching, but you are a little bit confused. You don’t know what’s going on. We wanted to make it look like a documentary, like a chronicle, and you see those folk people. By the way, they were real people, real musicians, which Pawel and the casting director found at a folk festival. So, that was kind of the situation. We were exposing our world and building it from those documentary pictures, creating the whole from those different shots. We crystallized our characters and later on, when we were in the Mazurek Ensemble, this folk ensemble, there’s a transition from this documentary part to a more narrative part. We found our characters with them, and then we were just following them and their emotionally dynamic relationship.

Amazon Studios

You’ve quickly established yourself as a master of black and white photography. What is your philosophy or typical approach to shooting a film in black and white?

You need to find the right feel for the image, and we quickly realized that [it would be] black and white for this film. I had also done films in color, but we realized that this film would work much better in contrasty black and white because we wanted to link to the ‘50s and ‘60s, to this cinema. We also realized that it’s more iconic, and that [any attempt at] color would be mannered—that this film would look like a Soviet film stock, or a Soviet answer to Technicolor.

What I learned shooting Ida is that there always must be a point of black and a point of white in every image. It’s the most important thing, and we realized very quickly that in this film, we needed contrast in the images all the time. We were constantly looking for contrast—heavy contrast, whites and blacks, but also a lot of details, a lot of texture. A lot of shades of gray, and a lot of micro-contrast. We were always looking for locations that would work perfectly in black and white, taking black-and-white pictures and just looking for those places, because not everything works. Black and white and contrast appears in every layer of this film. It starts from the temperature, from the temperature of our characters, the temperature of the relationship. But it also appears in picture in lighting, in production design, even between cuts. We were doing scenes that were very dark, but also scenes that were very bright, to shock the viewer all the time—to just give them a little punch.

For costumes, we did a lot of tests, looking for contrast, and we wanted to really have this picture have real blacks. We wanted to not have too many details; now, using digital, sometimes there are so many details. Sometimes, I believe that black and white gives you an opportunity for your interpretation of the world. With light and shadow, you can emphasize something, and also hide something. Then, you just create your own vision of the world, which can show what is important and what’s not.

Working with the picture, of course you prepare yourself and spend a lot of time on the prep, but I think that the most important part is when you come to the set and you’re working. We work with Pawel a little bit, like painting a picture, adding things, removing props, putting props into the frame. It was a constant framing and reframing. Pawel was doing a lot of takes, and we were also placing the camera quite high, and composing everything in depth. We didn’t do typical coverage. We wanted to make condensed shots, which were not only showing actors, but also the whole world behind them, which talk about people and places—and we used a lot of layers, just to synchronize everything in one take.

Amazon Studios

Could you further define the approach to composition on display in Cold War? What motivated you to shoot so many scenes above the height of your two leads?

That was because this was somehow like Citizen Kane, or an Orson Welles film. You’re making one shot in which you are trying to find complex information about people, about the world. That was the idea, and I also think most of the shots in this film are two-shots. The format [we used], the Academy format, works perfectly for the two-shots, and works perfectly for the portrait [shots]. Very often, we placed the camera higher and gave a little bit of space above the head, just to find the best balance between the portrait—the face and eyes—and the world the people are in. We’ve gotten used to this wide format, where we place faces very often on these golden points. In this case, the composition is not so important, but when you break those rules a little bit, you can just make more emotional and significant and symbolic compositions. I think that the most important thing for us was to make tableaux. We talked about condensing things, and composing people and places, and just trying to [say something] using these little frames, to talk a little more about reality. We wanted to build a condensed [sense] of reality, which [speaks to] that which is beyond the frame.

You recently received Camerimage’s Silver Frog, in recognition of your work on Cold War. Seeing major successes a little over a decade into your career, what are you thinking about now? 

Honestly, I think that the most important thing for me is just to make good films, stories through which I’ll be able to somehow learn something about people, the world and also about myself. Life is really short, so that’s why we need to choose films and scripts very carefully, not just to work. Every film should somehow be like a milestone, an important part of you. So, I’m really open to good films. Now, I’m just preparing a film in Europe. I’m also talking about a few future projects in Europe, but I would love to shoot something in America. But I would like to just make another good story, and also develop a good relationship with directors. I would love to work like this, like working with Pawel, which I think has been a very unique relationship.