Michal Marczak's All These Sleepless Nights captures the twilight reveries and dawn revelations of Warsaw's college-age young people, following them from wandering walks to thumping clubs to sunrise drug sessions and everything in between. The subjects' exploits are captured in gorgeous, cinematic detail—representative of high-quality narrative filmmaking. It's easy to almost forget that you're watching a documentary, and not a scripted feature.
We caught up with Marczak about how he put together his fascinating film, the changing state of Polish politics, and capturing drug use on film:
VICE: The film looks very different from other documentaries in general. What led you to embrace these aesthetics?
Michal Marczak: I started out doing documentaries, but I always felt that the fly-on-the-wall, long-lens perspective is super limiting. Of course, there are certain situations in which that technique is the best, but if you want to do something which really conveys emotions—image, mood, atmosphere—then handheld isn't enough. I wanted this film to flow with the characters, and for the point of view to be completely embedded with them—to be living through the moments with them. I looked through a bunch of technology that was available, and there was nothing that was sufficient to be able to film for long enough and to be able to control it all by yourself. So I ended up building a rig to shoot the film on. I actually postponed shooting for half a year because we were waiting for components for the camera rig, and they just weren't working well yet.
When did you first decide that you wanted to make this film?
When I was strolling around Warsaw, I was seeing that there's a new generation around and I'm not the youngest one anymore. The imperative was curiosity. What are these people like? What has changed? Has anything changed? Or have I just changed and I'm just looking out with a different set of eyes? I did find minor differences, which was super exciting. Poland gained its independence in 1989, so I have a feeling that my generation was still a little bit shy and looking towards the West. I remember visiting London and New York when I was 21 and I felt very inadequate—that I didn't belong there. This generation doesn't have that. They travel the world and they feel they're like part of it. That really wasn't a thing with my friends.
This is also the first pure generation that can slack off for a year, not do anything, and just think about themselves and where they want to go and their style and what they want to do in life. The idea was to capture that moment, because it also felt a little fragile—and it ended because the right wing government took over. Those days are unfortunately gone.
As a filmmaker, how would you characterize the changes that Warsaw has undergone?
The architecture's changed, but internally there's been the most interesting change. People spoke less about their emotions, but there's something much more playful with this generation. They're more conscious of the subtleties, and they play with them better. There's way more playfulness now—more eroticism and flirting—but there's not a lot of sex. In my generation, there was way more [sex], but way less flirting.
This generation is having the least sex of any generation since World War II. There's one scene where everybody falls asleep, and I think the audience thinks, "Oh, they must all have had group sex or something." They just fell asleep and were cuddling each other, and then they woke up and had breakfast. That's very interesting, and it was important to show that.
I thought it was really interesting, the way this movie captured going out. I'm approaching 30, but I still go to clubs sometimes to enjoy music.
I go too. I never want to lose it, I think.
It's tough to let go of it. I get more tired every year, but I still get a rush going out to dance. What was it like going out for you as somebody in their twenties?
When I was 20, I looked like I was 15. So that was actually very difficult. It was also hard to hook up with any girls, because they were like, "Oh, dude, did you just get out of high school?" But the main things didn't change. I wrote down all the memories that I had from that time, and I thought, "What if we try to build a narrative in a film that resembles my way of remembering those things?" There was a lot of randomness with some kind of cathartic end to it—a conversation in the bathroom at four in the morning where somebody tells you something that profoundly sticks to you, and it somehow changes you.
What role does politics play in this film?
It was a really special time when we were shooting this film. We had over 20 years of prosperity and we got out of the financial crisis very well. We were one of the first countries to get back on our feet after it happened. So life was really good, and we had an OK central leftist government. There were problems, but no really big problems—and in our history, we've always had these huge fucking problems. So when we were shooting, it was the sweet point where things were just good.
But the month that the film premiered in Sundance, right before the government took over, it was only a 15 percent chance that they would—kind of like in America. It was a coup, and now they're really cutting down on freedom of speech, and all of these people are spending a lot of their time going to protests and saying, "What the fuck do we do now? Do we stay here or do we leave? We can't really go to England anymore."
There's a lot of open drug use in the film.
I hate the way drugs are portrayed in films—that whole thing where you do a line of coke and you're all happy and jazzed up and feeling like you're the king of the world. Many times, you take a line of coke and you're fucking depressed as hell. You're pissed off at yourself that you're actually doing this, and you're super tired and it doesn't really do you much. Then you can't perform with a girl and you're just fucking miserable and you want to jump out of a window the next day. I didn't want to glorify any of the drugs.
On the other hand, there's a moment when the characters take acid for the first time and they take it in a beautiful setting at the right time of day. That can actually raise that friendship and that feeling of yourself, especially if you're doing it for the first time. We all did it together. You can see me sometimes in frame, just lying around around them somewhere. It was a beautiful moment of connection between all of us. I'm definitely way more into psychedelics than I am into all the speedy stuff.
Note: All These Sleepless Nights was produced by Pulse Films, a company associated with VICE.