“Use minimum means for maximum effect!”
Jana Hojdová is a cinematographer, director, and producer. This year she made her feature film debut with the confident and visually refined title Mirrors in the Dark (2021, dir. Šimon Holý). She is currently working on a documentary about the cinematography legend Robert Richardson, a long-time collaborator of Quentin Tarantino. At the last edition of OKO she acted as one of the main jurors and at the same time presented her masterclass Knowing Hollywood.
Let’s start with your feature debut Mirrors in the Dark, which is part of the festival programme. The film stands out from contemporary Czech production in several ways, be it the way it was made, the subject matter or the unique visual style. How was the visual concept of the film developed?
Šimon directs and writes his own stuff, he has a very good visual imagination and aesthetic perception. He knew he wanted to shoot Mirrors in black and white. I read the script and understood why. So, we started writing, calling, and discussing. We also dealt with film formats, and used two in the movie: 1:2,39 and 4:3. It came naturally. We wanted the viewer to be completely focused on the main character of Marie, not to be distracted by the colors and too many props or decorations in the frame. We were getting closer and closer to her with the whole concept. The film shows three rather long conversations between Marie and her boyfriend. It is a very detailed study of the inner world of the heroine, both directorial and visual.
Isn’t the black-and-white color palette often exploited in art films to make the film look more serious and sovereign?
Recently, for example, Landscape in Shadow and The Painted Bird were made in black and white. I think in both cases it is not abuse, on the contrary, it helps the stories.
I honestly didn’t even think that Mirrors could be perceived that way. I also just wanted to serve our story as visually as possible. Moreover, if the viewer really gets “inside” the character, they don’t think twice whether the film is in color or black and white. They succumb to the stylization of the narrative and the story they are seeing.
The film is based on a conversation between Marie and her boyfriend, which is shot in one long static shot – doesn’t that put you in a passive position as a cinematographer? Does it take away your room to maneuver?
Not at all. For me, of course, it was more complicated in some ways. The conventional visual and editing concept of film usually does not place such a concentrated emphasis on the main object of the narrative. Our intense shooting concept, which did not give me the opportunity to adjust the frame, led me to maximum concentration and connection with the character of Alena. I literally breathed with her behind the camera, I was rather breathless, because Alena Doláková’s performance as Maria struck me with its authenticity. In my opinion, this minimalist visual concept gives more space to the viewers’ imagination, so perhaps they have more room to project themselves into the world of the main character. We deliberately didn’t push them towards anything. Behind the camera, I focused on every detail while arranging and preparing each shot.
Are you used to this way of working? Do you always pay that much attention to detail?
I always focus a lot on detail, and I like minimalism. I’m after a certain purity of image composition. But it all depends on the genre and the style of the director. In Mirrors it was a novelty for me that the shots lasted unusually long, often up to 15 minutes. We knew that the director had no intention of combining them. As for the detail, yes, I’m a detailist. But I hope I am not losing the whole for the sake of detail.
At the same time, it was a novelty for you in feature length. Has that brough any change?
Mirrors in the Dark is Šimon’s and my feature debut. Since we shot the film in just eight days, the preparation had to be very thorough and meticulous. Šimon always has everything prepared to the very last detail and comes to the set with a clear idea. He also wrote the screenplay. He knows what he wants. He knows perfectly how to cast roles, not focusing only on type. Above all, he is not afraid to experiment, to be original in a good way. In short, he has the courage to take risks. Literally!
Apart from static shots, there is a lot of dynamism in the film – movement, dance, music. Why did you focus on this contrast?
We knew in advance that we wanted to somehow visually distinguish the mental state of the heroine, presented in the form of a dialogue with her partner, which is essentially her confession and Maria’s coexistence with the world around her. She must also exist within. She doesn’t live in a vacuum. This is what the dynamic camera captured because the actions of these situations were dynamic. This created an interesting and distinctive contrast of Mary’s worlds.
The way you talk about the film makes it sound like you’re genuinely excited about it. Not only as a co-creator, but as a viewer who appreciates that something about their generation and the feelings they are experiencing have come through.
I appreciate Šimon’s overall enthusiasm, his determination, and the fact that he ditched the institutions and made the film he wanted to make with his own money, without compromise. Today, of course, producers are all about getting people to the cinema and making money. But we weren’t making a romantic comedy. Films like Mirrors are typically intimate films and have a right to exist. It’s not a film for everyone. It is a film for the generation of thirty-somethings who are groping and searching for their place, who are living with traumas from their childhood, from their family… who are thinking. The whole crew understood what Šimon wanted. We were all interested in Marie’s fate and became more and more drawn in.
At school you were already involved in filmmaking, writing, and directing your own projects. Is this something that is cultivated at FAMU, or was it more your personal initiative?
I started to come up with the scripts assigned for a specific topic on my own. I enjoyed seeing what I would write down, too. I’ll shoot it the way I want. But not all cinematography students are like that. From the beginning, around the age of 16, I started planning to study directing. As time went on, I became more and more interested in the picture. In the Cinematography Department, the teachers were generous. If a student wants to direct their own project, under certain circumstances, they can. This approach allowed me to authenticate my idea of the individual and the whole, my point of view on the subject, my imagination in a very tangible way. I also produced my own projects.
Amazing experience. I soon found out that what works on paper doesn’t necessarily work on camera and that less is more. In short, don’t unnecessarily complicate your life. I started putting up my own boundaries.
You’re currently working on a documentary portrait of cinematographer Robert Richardson called kameRRaman, which you’re also directing. Did you think about adding a second voice in the form of a fellow director, or was it clear from the beginning that you want to be on your own?
I hadn’t thought about that at all, and it wouldn’t work. The documentary began to emerge very organically, based on the trust between Robert and I. Robert didn’t even think we’d bring in a director. We didn’t talk about it at all, it didn’t occur to us. Of course, I consult him on everything. After the rough cut, I’m counting on working with a playwright.
How did you start the documentary? Was it difficult to get financial support at first?
In the beginning there was no money at all for this project. I started filming spontaneously, in various situations with Robert. Without a script, without a camera, without anything, just like that… I shot on my mobile phone. I found the phone to be ideal for this particular document. Robert is an impulsive, unpredictable, and impatient person who needs things right here and now. If I was shooting on a film camera, I’d have to turn it on, put in the card, flashlight, and focus, and then sound! And that unique moment that took place is that precious fraction of a lifetime would be irretrievably gone! Whereas with a cell phone, I swipe and shoot right away. I got everything. There are exquisite moments and passages. And Robert didn’t have time to think. Everything is authentic and true. We’ve gone all the way to the bone.
You have tried both feature and documentary filmmaking, as a cinematographer and as a writer. Do you differentiate between these two categories at all, or do you approach each project separately?
I don’t think you can separate the two. I always try to prepare carefully for any project and do my best while at it. That’s how I do things. Whether the project will be successful is another matter. I’m enjoying the journey. The great adventure of following your vision as a director or just a cinematographer, or both in collaboration with the crew when we are on the same page. The sense of belonging is beautiful. It’s an important part of my life. I’m grateful for it.
Cinematography is still a predominantly male domain, at least in the Czech Republic. Do you feel any effects of being more of an exception confirming the rule?
It is important for women to assert themselves in the arts as well. It is important to give women a voice. I don’t like to divide films into female and male. I think movies are either good or bad. The female director’s or cinematographer’s view must be different to some extent from the male one. It’s perfectly natural. The two worlds are inextricably linked and inseparable. They’re enriching one another, aren’t they? Current technology allows us to do this. It’s lighter and smaller. There should be more women behind the camera!
The interview with Jana Hojdová was led by Petra Chaloupková, external contributor for Cinepur and A2.