When I saw Jerzy Zielinski, ASC, PSC, at Camerimage in Poland, he was taking a short break from the editing room in Warsaw, where he was assembling his feature-directing debut. The film is titled King of Life, and Jerzy hopes to have the project locked in time to attend the ASC Awards in Los Angeles next month.
King of Life is a comedy/drama about a stressed-out executive for a large corporation who learns to appreciate the simple things in life after a traumatic event. “I was looking for material that had a layer of humor,” Jerzy says. “It was really important to me not to go into heavy drama or a period piece. I was interested in a contemporary, universal story with a main character who could be understood by any audience.”
During development, Jerzy thought it unlikely that the project would go forward, so he was a bit surprised to find himself eyeing the finish line when he spoke to me. He says that his experience as a cinematographer drove him to perfect the script before taking further steps. “I knew the technological aspects wouldn’t be a problem. I was more worried about the actors because I have less experience there. I’ve worked with actors, of course, but I hadn’t been in charge of drawing an emotional performance out of them. I’ve learned, first of all, that it’s important to convince the actors that the material is really great. You have to bring them together, excite them and inspire them to believe in their characters and in the project. In certain situations, they look to you for help. They have hundreds of questions, and the director has to know the answers.”
As a veteran cinematographer, Jerzy knew that choosing the right director of photography would be crucial to success. He chose Jan Holoubek, PSC. “From the very beginning, I understood that shooting and directing are two completely different territories, and I was never tempted to shoot this myself,” says Jerzy. “I feel that most cinematographers, including me, have a tendency toward stylized imagery — it’s in our genes. But it can be a trap; the images can get in front of the story and characters, and that’s wrong. The imagery must support the story and characters. If the balance is not perfect, your story can be killed by beautiful, overly stylized images.”
Casting was a new adventure. “I have always been amazed by fantastic directors who can watch hundreds of different actors and choose the right one for the part,” says Jerzy. “They have a kind of sixth sense, and I was not sure if I would be able to do that. My casting director was very helpful. As with everything else, we went step by step, casting the smaller parts first. I needed time to transform myself, to familiarize myself with this unknown territory. I saw that I liked my choices, and that gave me confidence.”
He adds that it was important to start the casting process very early, before the full financing was set. “That meant I had three months to learn. There were a lot of rehearsals and table reads, and I noticed the actors understood and were responding to what I said. That was reassuring, because I had questions about whether I would be able to express myself effectively. It was a fantastic experience, I have to say.”
In keeping with his step-at-a-time approach, Jerzy has not yet thought about what’s next — or whether he will direct again. “My focus right now is on finishing King of Life and getting to the point where I can be happy with what we did. I’m trying to make a film that is close to my vision, and I hope it will work for others. I haven’t asked myself if this is a crossroads in my life.
“I’m a filmmaker. I look to the example of Clint Eastwood: he’s an actor, then he started to direct, and now he can do both. If a friend calls and asks me to shoot a movie, I will do that. And if I come across some great material that I feel I can direct, I will do that. At this point, I can say that directing has been a very exciting process.”