Looking for Variables: An Interview with Kazik Radwanski
Over the course of ten years, Kazik Radwanski has established himself as a key figure of the independent filmmaking scene in Toronto. Paired with producer Dan Montgomery, he has built a production company, MDFF, which has become a stalwart part of the city’s film community. The two partners even host monthly film screenings with visiting directors. Made on shoestring budgets, Radwanski’s films are shot almost entirely in tight, in close-up. Over-usage of close-ups in contemporary cinema is all too common, but the approach to form here produces a strange effect. In shooting exclusively in close-up, Radwanski creates mystery and tension. They evoke questions about his protagonists rather than simple answers about how they’re feeling. In How Heavy This Hammer, Radwanski’s superb second feature, his latest main character, Erwin (Erwin Van Cotthem), is at first glance the definition of a simple everyman. He likes to play sports, drink beer, and play computer games. But as we spend more and more time with him and become familiar with his detachment from his duties as a husband and father and in touch with an undercurrent of frustration, perhaps we understand him less and less. He may not understand himself very well either, nor want to. As a result, the life he has made for himself slowly slips through his fingers. What’s really sad though, is that he hardly seems to notice.
How Heavy This Hammer is playing in Brooklyn, New York from Friday, February 17th through Thursday, February 23rd at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP. Kazik Radwanski will be in attendance, as will guests of accompanying short films on the 18th through 22nd, including directors Matías Piñeiro and Nathan Silver.
I caught up with Radwanski in Toronto:
Kazik Radwanski: I made a short film years ago called Out in That Deep Blue Sea, which covers similar territory. It comes from a very introspective place. A lot of it’s based on my father, and myself. All my films come from personal places. Then I rely on finding someone like Erwin, who in many ways is not what I imagine. It helps me ground the ideas. Sometimes it’s almost embarrassingly introspective and then it balances out. I’m always looking for the variables. Shooting on location. Trying to let the film change. It starts abstractly and becomes much different.
Cook: And Erwin was such a variable?
Radwanski: It’s not based on his life at all, but it’s more like I never imagined the character being from Belgium with an accent. That informed things. It would be a very different film if he was Canadian. This sort of distance with how he speaks to the kids and his mannerisms. I try to get to a point where I don’t talk directly with the actor, and it just sort of grows scene to scene.
Cook: What did you want to do differently from Tower?
Radwanski: The protagonist of that film has the luxury of being a loner, but in this film, Erwin has obligations and responsibilities as a husband and father. Looking a few years ahead.
Cook: When Erwin is jacked into his computer game, and removed from his environment, he’s quite calm. But as things carry on we see this pent up aggression start to manifest, whether at rugby or while playing with his kids.
Radwanski: The dynamic I was looking for was somebody who was weak, but at the same time powerful. He doesn’t want to talk about his feelings. He has control. When I first met Erwin what I liked most in rehearsals was how he could steer conversations where he wanted.
Cook: Could you talk about your unique shooting process?
Radwanski: We shoot over the course of a year, mostly on weekends, and edit and rewrite as we go, coming up with scenes to contemplate what’s working. Most of us are film students or have jobs, so we work around that. It takes three or four months to shoot a short film. I rely on having that time, shooting then thinking about it, and doing short days focusing on one thing, not cramming in 10-hour days. I like working with children, and animals, and we have breathing room to be patient. For the rugby scenes we followed around a team for a month.
Cook: Would you shoot sports again? Hockey?
Radwanski: It’s tough. I was thinking about it when I was watching Kevan Funk’s Hello Destroyer. I’d like to, but I’d need a strategy. In the next film, I want to do a skydiving sequence.
Cook: Could you talk about casting and working with the kids?
Radwanski: The set is constantly alive. A lot of child actors are very mature, which is not what I want. What I like is how easily kids can get into the moment. I prefer inexperienced actors in general, things that can introduce chaos and inject energy, and ground it.
Cook: With all these variables, can you talk about the ratio from script to how the film bends to these other factors?
Radwanski: There’s a plan but it’s adaptive—in some ways, it lines up. The major scenes are still there from the original script, important lines of dialogue. But then I’ll adapt the shoot, according to locations I like, or I’ll write an extra scene for an actor I like. It’s about 50/50. I shoot a lot of takes and am constantly bending it, until it works. I rely a lot on the cinematographer Nikolay Michaylov and his ability to adapt. He’s great at that.
Cook: Can we talk about the visual language of your films, in particular the use of close-ups. Cinema is oversaturated with close-ups today, but you’re mining very different qualities with a very specific approach.
Radwanski: With my early shorts, it was a gut impulse, and letting the film live or die with how captivating the actor’s face was. It was about intimacy. But it’s changed a lot. It’s now more about the discomfort, how it’s disorienting and claustrophobic, and it keeps the audience from judging the character too much. It levels the playing field. I like being close to someone who you wouldn’t expect to be close to, or who doesn’t easily reveal herself, so that tensions and mystery emerge.
Cook: It’s not about psychology, it’s about behavior.
Radwanski: I’m not trying to capture their perspective. It’s being confronted with this person and not knowing what to think.
Cook: My dad falls asleep during movies like Erwin too.
Radwanski: We all do.
Cook: You focus on quotidian details.
Radwanski: I find that more fascinating. You could laugh Erwin’s problems off, and even Erwin wouldn’t really consider these as problems. That’s where the tension is. Is he depressed? Is he detached? I don’t have the answer the same way that I wouldn’t have the answer about people in my life.
Radwanski: John Cassavetes, A Woman Under the Influence. Specifically, I had in mind the scene when they run around on the beach and start drinking beer in the back of the pickup truck. Lucrecia Martel’s A Headless Woman really made me think about camera placement. Allan King. The Dardenne Brothers. There’s tons, it gets sort of lost.
Cook: Can you tell us about future projects?
Radwanski: I’m working on a short film now closer to my film Cutaway, which is outside of the language with close-ups. I’m trying to experiment with shorts that mat lead to a feature in a different style, after doing one more in the same way. Almost as a trilogy of character-centric films in Toronto, but it’ll be with a female protagonist. For me, experimenting is not shooting in close up [laughs].