Earlier this year, Wojciech Szepel finished filming a new BBC film adaptation of the classic English novel Howards End. Culture.pl asks him to reveal a few things about this exciting mini-series that’s yet to premiere and to share how he prepared to grapple with the classic novel. The Polish cinematographer also talks about what he likes in making documentaries and about… how he became a cameraman kind of by accident.
Marek Kępa: I read that it was your grandfather, an owner of a photographic parlour in your hometown, that first made you take an interest in capturing reality on film?
Wojciech Szepel: My grandfather, Antoni Dubicki, owned a photographic parlour in Gorzów Wielkopolski, he photographed weddings, parties, funerals. He made, I believe, a fabulous documentation of provincial Poland. Unfortunately, only one box of his negatives and a sack of his pictures survived the accidental fire that burned down the parlour full of flammable photographic materials. But I remember how we used to go on walks, take pictures of each other, of different people and situations. I had to guess how to set the aperture, choose the exposure time – that was a lot of fun. And after a while, I took over the function of our family photographer.
MK: You used to work as a TV reporter, travelling around Poland and covering news. How do you remember that time? Did you draw from those experiences later when making documentaries?
WS: It’s true. It happened because I had no other choice: it turned out that nobody actually needed us, students of cinematography, and that there was a crisis of cinema in Poland. That was back in the 1990s. It quickly became apparent that I simply needed to work. Back then I saw myself as an artist, and making news seemed like a step in the wrong direction. But from today's perspective, I know that I learned a lot. I travelled across the entire country, visiting places I’d never have visited if not for my job. It was a very interesting experience.
MK: Among the many documentaries you've worked on as a cameraman, there are two episodes of Backroads USA, a series by the Academy Award-nominated, New York-based filmmaker Katja Esson, which tries to capture the spirit of Old America. How did you land this intriguing job and what are your memories of it?
WS: Katja is German; I met her in Berlin where I lived for seven years. I worked as a cameraman in Germany, and it is there that my real debut took place – with the low-budget feature film My First Miracle. We had mutual friends, and one day we just decided to do something together – that's how we started working on Backroads USA. She's a fabulous person; she connects with people with great ease, has this wonderful smile and positive vibe. That's why wherever we'd stop basically in a matter minutes everybody would be willing to tell her their life story, with details. Absolutely amazing. From my perspective that was a great adventure – we were travelling in a van, a team of four, through Nevada, Utah, New Hampshire, magnificent views, wonderful people.
MK: Apart from making documentaries, you have filmed feature films and TV dramas. Can you say a bit about the differences between the work of a cameraman on a documentary and a feature film?
WS: What’s really great about documentaries is less pressure. When you’re making a documentary, you turn around there are maybe four people behind you, but when you're taking basically the same shot on the set of a feature film or TV series, there are between one and three hundred people standing behind your back… The shot may be the same, but the pressure is completely different. Besides, due to the nature of a documentary film you never exactly know what you’ll be doing the next day, while when you’re working on features, it's the other way around – you have to know very precisely what you’re planning to do.
MK: When the 2003 Polish full-length drama Warszawa directed by Dariusz Gajewski, which told the intertwining stories of a few people in Warsaw on a single winter day, won the Grand Prix at the Gdynia Film Festival was that a breakthrough for you, as its cinematographer?
WS: I don’t think that had some profound impact on my future professional life, even if it was a very important film to me. The making of it as well as working with Dariusz taught me a lot.
MK: Why not?
WS: Because this film apart from many upsides has one shortcoming. Namely, it was filmed on a digital Betacam, a format created for making news, and made with a very modest budget. That imposed certain limitations, and if somebody's watching this film knowing that it won all these awards, then they might be a little disappointed with the visual side. But it was an important film to me.
MK: Since then for your work as a cinematographer you’ve been nominated for the BAFTA award twice, for the 2008 film White Girl and the 2010 series TV series Any Human Heart. Did you ever picture yourself in such a position when you were studying cinematography at the Łódź Film School?
WS: No, that’s because I wanted to be a photographer back when I was studying in Łódź. I became a cameraman kind of by accident; the whole film thing was a bit of a surprise to me. I had to re-programme myself even to begin thinking like a cinematographer. I had almost nothing in common with it. In the end, I concluded that that's better for me, personality-wise. I considered myself a rather detached person and found it very interesting that a cameraman always works with a team of people rather than alone.
MK: When it comes to other cinematographers, whose work do you find inspiring?
WS: Bogdan Dziworski, Paweł Edelman, Krzysztof Ptak, Jolanta Dylewska, there’s a lot of names I could mention. Bogdan Dziworski has this extreme, personal style whereas Paweł Edelman represents what’s best in Hollywood. I had the privilege of observing him at work. He’s a very calm, wise and efficient man, when you watch him work he makes it all look so easy. Creating that impression, that these things are simple, requires, in my opinion, a great deal of talent.
MK: Earlier this year you finished work on a film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, a classic English novel set at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, described by Penguin as ‘a meticulously-observed drama of class warfare’. When is this BBC TV series starring Matthew Macfadyen set to premiere and what can viewers expect from it?
WS: I don’t know when it’ll premiere, maybe later this year, but I can say that this is a skilfully directed version. Also superbly acted. It’s also very modern, despite the appearances. Even though the story takes place in 1905, you get the impression that the on-screen problems correlate with the current reality, there are plenty of parallels. That’s why it’s a good watch. Hettie Macdonald, the director, did a great job.
MK: There’s a film based on Howards End with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, did you see it before you began to work on the series?
WS: I saw it, purely for research. I also purchased and read the book. I wanted to make sure that I know all the contexts, that I understand the text. It’s full of nuances, and I wanted to know them all. So that nothing slipped my attention so that I could have an educated conversation with the director.
MK: Does your series somehow refer to the trend of showing early 20th-century English social conventions that manifests itself through such pictures as Downton Abbey or Gosford Park?
WS: We don’t refer to that in any way, neither positively nor negatively. In our case, the narrative-aesthetic, directorial concept was to understand the text as deeply as possible, to extract as much as possible from it and to realise the series in the most appropriate way possible, without referring to any trends. This is a closed story, all you get is four episodes, this isn’t a series you can keep extending for as long as you wish.
MK: For the narrative-aesthetic concept to be coherent, you need to collaborate closely with the director. What does this work look like?
WS: That depends because it’s a dynamic dialogue. Sometimes I get notes that are very vague, and sometimes they're very precise. I build on this because I need to be directed in a certain sense. I do, of course, try to contribute as much as I can within the director’s concept, but it all really depends on the director. We simply have to listen to one another and want to achieve the same goal.
MK: Do you already know what you are going to work on next?
WS: Not yet. At the moment I’d like to spend some time with my family. But before Howards End, I worked on a warmly received project, also for the BBC, titled Man in An Orange Shirt. It’s a two-episode mini-series, a love story. Really interesting.
Author: Marek Kępa, October 2017