Vanja Černjul recently returned from a four-month stint in Malaysia and Singapore, where he shot Crazy Rich Asians for director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2). Warner Bros. is promoting the upcoming feature (to be released in August) in part as the first major studio production with an all-Asian cast. The romantic comedy is based on the best-selling 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan, in which an American-born economics professor travels to Singapore and is subjected to rough treatment at the hands of wealthy women who want to steal her boyfriend.
The film is Vanja’s third project in a row in the Far East. The first was Marco Polo, the Netflix series that earned him an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award in 2016. Connections made on that project helped lead to more work in the region.
“Before Marco Polo, I didn’t know anything about that part of the world and I wasn’t particularly interested in traveling there,” he says. “Somehow it wasn’t something that was on my radar. Now, after working there the past three years, I feel like Southeast Asia has a special place in my heart. I feel that this project broadened me not only professionally but also culturally.
“One amazing aspect of the experience was working with a crew assembled from 28 different nations. We had Thai electricians, grips from New Zealand — just about every department was a mixture of at least three different nations. It was unbelievable to see how people from all over the world worked together, not always even speaking the same language.
“Spending time in Malaysia, I was able to take weekend trips to Vietnam and Cambodia, and I spent a lot of time in Singapore,” he says. “That’s the beauty of what we do. Our work takes us to different parts of the world. We have to do the work, which is different from going to visit the place. You come to a place and meet people, and then you have to learn about their culture and customs and how to work with them. You have to be able to communicate effectively. As a result, I really feel like I learned a lot, not only about this part of the world but also how to put a together a great team from many different cultures.”
I asked Vanja how he can recognize in a prospective crew member the ability to cooperate across language and culture differences.
“It’s part of my own background,” says the cinematographer, whose other recent projects include HBO’s 1970s-set drama The Deuce. “I was born in Croatia and moved to New York when I was 25-years-old. New York is my home — I’ve been there 25 years. I think my experience as a person who grew up professionally in a new country prepared me for work in a multicultural environment like the set of Marco Polo.”
Vanja shot both the feature Crazy Rich Asians and The Deuce with the Panasonic Varicam. You can hear him discuss the latter here on the AC Podcast.