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7th May 2014
Hard at it
Title of film: Tell Me, Numbers and Letters
Director: Peter Szewczyk
We talk with Peter Szewczyk about his journey from working in cgi on hollywood blockbusters to directing his own short films and music videos

What was behind your decision to move from working in special effects for blockbusters and start writing your own visual narratives and directing them? 

Well, I actually got my start in directing quite young, doing work for Felix Da Housecat and other local Chicago artists. But then in 2002, I landed the job of a lifetime at Skywalker Ranch, so I rode that wave as long as I could.

It felt right at the time, since I was always in the cinematography department, and I was learning how to tell stories with colour and light. But it’s sort of a con, working in feature film VFX.  You get your name projected on the silver screen next to some pretty big titles, and feel like you played a key role. The truth is, you didn’t. My job was no different than my father’s – a welder in a machine shop. But my tool was a graphics card and my factory was Weta. So I jumped ship, watched my salary drop to zero, and started building up my directing reel. 

Did the skill sets you evolved as a special effects artist influence the style of your own work? Do you find you automatically include effects ideas in your work? 

For better or worse, I think I picked up a very “cinematic” accent to the language I employ for storytelling. I tend to compose shots and sequences with a large screen format in mind, and that probably comes from watching hundreds of hours of dailies when I was on Shrek, Harry Potter, and the like.

But I love characters, first and foremost. More even than plot. That’s why someone like PT Anderson and Darren Aronofsky are such heroes to me, because they focus very tightly on the complexes and contradictions of individuals. I will use whatever tools at my disposal to depict the emotional landscape of those characters. Since what I have at my disposal is a laptop, then yes, VFX gets used for that. If I had budgets and contacts, I would probably be using long tracking shots and steadicams. I have no attachment to CG, but it is handy when you can’t find a nice locations, so you just change it in post to suit your needs.

What are the key lessons you’ve learnt about film making since you’ve started directing?

I wish I knew this one thing, when I decided to walk away from Avatar, and focus on my own filmmaking: That I would be very broke, for a very long time. Apart from that, embrace what makes you different. I am very happy I left California 10 years ago, because I would have probably ended up regurgitating all the usual Hollywood fare. Living in London I tapped into what made my voice unique – my strong Polish background (I have dual citizenship) and my deep love of literature. Those things are totally “not cool” living in LA, but in London, they are respected. 
  
Where are you based or do you work between countries a lot? 

During the last nine years, I mostly worked out of London and Krakow, but at the moment, I am in LA. While London is just about the best city in the world to me, it is extremely difficult to survive as a director there. When I say “difficult” I really mean “impossible”. I still have a few people looking to find me work around town, but in the meantime, I am exploring LA and what opportunities might arise. I suspect it is just as hard to find work here in the States, but at least the weather is nicer and the whiskey is cheaper. 

Tell us please about your latest video for Numbers and Letters – how did the idea come about, what were the main challenges of shooting and producing the film?

I had some notions about what to do with the narrative, but then Katie Hasty, the lead singer, stepped up and presented some really colourful ideas. We worked together, so that I got my wish-list items, like setting it in the desert, and mixing in some surreal elements, while she got to tell an abstracted story about the pitfalls of misguided worship.

I had produced a video very much like this in Iceland, where there was virtually no crew, and I had to do double duty as DOP and director, so it was familiar territory. Shooting in the desert is the only tricky bit, because it goes from cold to hot and back to cold, really fast. Also the rocks change colour depending on the time of day, so continuity flies out the window. 

Out of your recent work which piece came together magically?

The entire story for Colour Bleed came to me fully formed, during a walk to work in Denmark. I think when a brainstorm like that hits you, it is your duty to drop everything and ride it for all it’s worth. So in terms of story, it would be Colour Bleed. There is also a little experimental short film I did on Brick Lane that was a truly magical shoot. It was a warm night in June, on a Saturday, so the air was electric. We shot it all with a hidden camera, improvisationally, so it could never be reproduced again. 

Credits

Numbers And Letters, Tell Me
Director, Cinematographer – Peter Szewczyk
Production Company – Light + Mathematics
Producers – Katie Hasty, Peter Szewczyk
Production Coordinator – Russ Fischer
Visual Effects– Light + Mathematics
Special Makeup Effects – Lawrence Mercado
Cast – Josh Mann, Eric LaCombe
Sound editor – Tom Deane
Additional Visual Effects – Per Mork-Jensen