Director, Cinematographer: Andrzej Bartkowiak -June 2012
Central to any film you watch is the role of the director of photography.
by: Marianne R. Stanton
Working with the director and the production designer, the DP crafts the look of the film, conveying the mood as it relates to the story line.
Andrzej Bartkowiak, an island resident for over 40 years and in the business for almost as many, is one of the masters of his craft.
“In any film there are three people who are important to the success of that film: the production designer, the director of photography and the director. Some directors have more input with the director of photography than others, but it is the DP who is in charge of the look of the picture. Is it dark and dramatic? Is it cheery and light? Is it happy with a lot of pastel colors?” Bartkowiak explained.
“The production director works very closely with the director of photography who shoots the film and captures all of it and decides how the picture will look. It sounds simple, but it is not.” Bartkowiak has always lived a creative life, from the time he was a young boy growing up in Poland. When he was 9, his grandfather Marian Janski gave him a Pentax camera, and that was the beginning of a lifelong passion of capturing images for the world to see. “I never thought about it as a living. I was taking pictures, I had a darkroom that I would spend nights and nights in developing film, and I found it very, very addictive,” Bartkowiak said. His artists’ eye landed him a spot in the Polish National Film School in Lodz, much to his parents’ collective horror. During the admission process, the 18-year-old Bartkowiak had a good feeling about his chances for getting in. He had submitted 10 images in his portfolio, while other applicants had submitted scores.
“When all the images were displayed, there was incredible interest in my work. That made me feel pretty good about my chances. I was pretty sure I’d get in,” he said.
Originally, Bartkowiak had thought about going to Poland’s Academy of Arts, as he had an interest in painting, played bass guitar in a rock band and was always writing – poetry, short stories and music.
“I decided that was not for me. Film encompasses all those aspects with the visual, music and story, so I decided that was what I wanted to do,” he said.
The Polish film academy was a four-year school back then. Today it’s a much longer process. Well-funded by the state, it’s now six years long, during which time students work on making a feature film. Bartkowiak’s son Marco, who will graduate from Nantucket High School in June, will also attend the academy.
“I told him about the hardships of being a filmmaker, about keeping family together because you are always traveling. You never know about your next job. When you are done with a film, you are done, and don’t know when and if the next job is coming. There is nothing secure about it at all,” Bartkowiak said of how he laid out the hard realities of life as a filmmaker for his son. “I didn’t discourage him by any means. He chose it by himself.”
Bartkowiak has been immensely successful in his chosen career with close to 40 films to his credit, including box-office hits such as “Terms of Endearment” with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson, “Twins” with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, and “Lethal Weapon 4,” with Mel Gibson. He’s worked with Army Bernstein, a Hollywood producer who owns a home in Sconset, when he was the director of photography for “Thirteen Days,” directed by Roger Donaldson, about the Cuban missile crisis.
His first film as director of photography was “Deadly Hero” in 1976, directed by Ivan Nagy, and starring Don Murray, James Earl Jones and Treat Williams, who was the star of his next film in 1981, “Prince of the City,” directed by Sidney Lumet, his mentor in myriad ways.
Lumet had seen a PBS show he’d shot, “3 by Cheever: The 5:48,” liked what he saw and was trying to connect with Bartkowiak, who was sailing in the Caribbean, for an interview. When the two met, something clicked and Lumet hired him to shoot his film, one of Bartkowiak’s favorites and an excellent experience for him.
The early connection with Lumet was a seminal moment in Bartkowiak’s career. Lumet provided the 30-year-old cinematographer with valuable lessons behind the camera and in life.
“Sidney was a definitive figure in my life. He was my father figure in so many ways. I loved him,” said Bartkowiak, who went on to be the DP on a total of 11 Lumet films including “Guilty as Sin,” “A Stranger Among Us,” “Q&A,” “Family Business,” “The Morning After,” “Power,” “Garbo Talks,” “Daniel,” “Deathtrap” and “The Verdict,” with Paul Newman.
“The Verdict,” in 1982, was another box office and critical success and was one of Bartkowiak’s favorite films to work on, as was “Prince of the City.”
“Falling Down,” with Michael Douglas and directed by Joel Schumacher, is another of Bartkowiak’s favorite films. “It’s an old film (1993), but it’s still a great film,” said Bartkowiak of the story of a defense worker who becomes psychotic and violent after losing his job. It took a day to shoot the opening scene of the film, where Douglas is stuck in gridlock on a California freeway, perspiration beading on his face while a lone fly annoys him. The tension is palpable.
When Lumet hired him as DP for “The Verdict,” he asked him how he would shoot it.
“It was set in Boston, so some of the set is Old World courtrooms, and then the character (Paul Newman) is a dark character, but not all dark. So I said, ‘Well, the look would be a little like Caravaggio’,” Bartkowiak said, referencing the 14th-15th century Italian artist who was known for realism and the use of dramatic lighting.
Bartkowiak saw how Lumet worked with his actors, both from the technical side and the human side, to get the most out of them in a productive, nurturing way.
From Lumet, Bartkowiak learned about staging and blocking actors, important skills to master in designing the camera moves necessary to capture the look the director wants.
“Sydney was a man’s man, but not macho. He was honest, strong, understanding and loving, but also forgiving. He was very quiet and very subtle in the way he worked with actors. I learned a huge amount from him in how he handled not just actors, but the film crews and himself. He was a very good role model,” Bartkowiak said. “I never heard him raise his voice to anyone. He was a total gentleman, very classy. He was an amazing, amazing man. Funny, charming and incredibly intelligent.”
Bartkowiak also had the honor of working with another one of the great directors of all time – John Huston – when he was DP on “Prizzi’s Honor,” which came out in 1985, directed by Huston, and starring Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston.
“He was another gentleman. Funny, witty, with an amazing spirit. He was pretty sick with emphysema during the filming of ‘Prizzi’s Honor’,” Bartkowiak said of working with Huston. “But he didn’t let that get in the way of making a great film.”
Working with these two directors, but largely Lumet, positioned Bartkowiak well for breaking into directing a film of his own, which was no easy task.
“I like filming, but I like to stick my fingers into everything,” he said. “I had done some big movies that were very successful, so I wanted to try directing.”
It’s not easy to make that transition from being a director of photography to that of a director, but he’d had a lot of experience working with great directors: Lumet, Huston and Donaldson, and actors as well.
“You get boxed in to a certain role in Hollywood. It’s a very difficult transition,” Bartkowiak said. “I was lucky to get the opportunity.”
Joel Silver, who produced all the “Lethal Weapon” films and had worked with Bartkowiak as DP on “Lethal Weapon 4,” gave him his chance to direct in the 2000 action-thriller “Romeo Must Die.”
To this day, Bartkowiak is thankful to Silver for the opportunity he gave him.
“It was a big leap of faith for him to do that, which showed his faith in me. And it worked,” Bartkowiak said, reflecting on his first experience as a director 12 years ago.
Since then he has gone on to direct five other films including “Exit Wounds,” “Cradle 2 the Grave,” “Doom,” “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” and “Beneath the Deep,” due out next year. He’s also got a film in development which he’s keeping quiet on for the moment.
Bartkowiak is always working on something. He’s also shot over 2,700 commercials, which was the work he was doing before he broke into film.
When he does have some free time, he likes to spend it on Nantucket, where two of his three children were raised, and where he has developed a deep affinity for the island and the maritime environment that surrounds him. On a chilly May morning he was bound and determined to finish painting his boat so it would be ready for the warmer waters in June. The water has always called to him.
“Sailing is my total love,” said Bartkowiak, who has logged over 50,000 nautical miles, cruising up and down the East Coast, through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes, down through Caribbean waters, where he used to winter his 80-feet ketch Jubilee 3, and through the Panama Canal countless times as a family with his children, Ania and Marco.
“I love the lifestyle. I love the challenges. You have to be totally self-sufficient. You have to have a respect for nature, but sometimes you get caught. If you make the right decision you are rewarded immediately, and if you make the wrong decision you are punished. It’s immediate feedback and I love that about being on the water. The more rewards you get from making the right decision, the better you feel about your skills,” he said.
Bartkowiak bought his first sailboat, a 43-footer, in 1976, after he shot his first film, and spent much of his time in his 20s, when he was shooting commercials in New York, coming to Nantucket on weekends and cruising the Caribbean in the winter months.
Bartkowiak was first introduced to the island in 1972 by the Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska, who was married to David Halberstam at the time. Halberstam, a journalist for The New York Times, introduced him to his colleague Russell Baker, and Bartkowiak ended up spending a great deal of time on the island, driving up weekends and often staying at the Halberstams’ on Coffin Street or with the Bakers at their Main Street home. He was married to artist Kasia Baker for a while and the two have remained friends.
While he has filmed all over the world, lived for awhile in London when he was filming “Doom” and his children were in boarding school there, the island continues to pull him back.
“When I don’t work I choose to be here. I like to get away after finishing a film, and I come here,” Bartkowiak said.
“Nantucket is very unique. It has its own pace. It is incredibly beautiful to me. The island is just visually stunning, and there is so much stuff to offer in finding peace or things to do,” said Bartkowiak, who loves sailing, fishing, clamming and gazing up at the night sky. He likens living on the island to being on a boat, surrounded by the sea, and at the mercy of the elements.
“You are so close to the weather here. You can see a front moving in, and then you see the tail end of it. You can’t see or feel that on the mainland,” he said.
Bartkowiak also has great friends on the island from his years of living here. Solid, true friends, like actor John Shea. His one regret about the island as it has changed over the years, is the loss of much of the working waterfront.
“This used to be a functioning seacoast community with a lot of commercial fishing boats, but for Nantucket that is all ended. And I’m regretful that it’s gone. I miss it,” he said.
Marianne R. Stanton is the editor and publisher of Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.