Paul Özgür - In a hurry to make that one masterpiece
Amsterdam, 2022-02-25 - Gerlinda Heywegen
He’s aiming for a large audience. His work has to be seen by as many people as possible. He talks about balance, Dutch DP Paul Özgür. In style and story and also in his own portfolio. And then there are the rules.
In a very open and honest interview on a sunny afternoon in Amsterdam, the LA-based DP makes up the balance in his own life as well. Where to go from here and with which agent. Because there’s one other rule: you got to have agents. Who will guide him to the one masterpiece.
Vind die trut en gooi haar in de rivier.
“When I saw Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001) as a fifteen-year-old kid, I was so moved! It is still my most favorite film. But it isn’t like I thought right then and there that I wanted to do something in film.”
That Paul Özgür, Dutch DP who mainly works abroad, did anyway in the end, is mainly due to an early obsession: skating. Not only did he skate an absurd amount of his spare time, but he started filming it as well. A first camera was bought early on. A Fisheye lens and a computer, for editing, quickly followed suit. “That was my main thing for about two years. I even brought the camera to school. In my parent’s attic, you can find an entire box of skate tapes. After a while, I slowly evolved towards narrative, although you shouldn’t take it too seriously. They were kinda like Jack Ass… ultra-American videos. I was totally fascinated by the power of montage.
So I talked with my school mentor about that I wanted ‘to work in film or something’. Upon which he uttered the legendary words: ‘But Paul, how many cameramen do we need in the Netherlands anyway?’. My mum had much better advice. That I might wanna go and work in the local movie theater and go watch movies for a change because that was not something I did back then. I was already 17 at the time. Not that I watched a lot of stuff there. I mainly worked behind the counter and checked tickets.”
On a sunny Amsterdam terrace in August, Paul Özgür talks about what his life has been like up to now. It has to be chronological, although there are intermezzos with questions about more recent work. But he keeps coming back to the point in his life where had gotten to previously. “Apparently that’s how I tell my tales.”
The interview takes place at a strange moment in his life, he says. One day after the interview, he will go back to LA, his home, for the first time again after the pandemic started. “I lost everything due to corona. I had to leave the country in a hurry because my work visa (Özgür did not have a green card yet at the time) had just expired and I wasn’t allowed back in. I lost my house and all my stuff is still in storage. Due to the distance and the fact that we just couldn’t be together because of covid my girlfriend and I broke up. I’ve been living out of two suitcases for a year and a half now.” He is a bit worn down and therefore “I can only talk about my work from the past up to now; otherwise, I lose track”.
Özgür freely admits that he is not averse to going for the money train. At the same time, he is, almost frantically, looking for that one film that will establish his name forever – that one artistic masterpiece. He earns his money with commercials - which is why he can also afford feature films that pay less. In any case, does he have high standards and is not easily satisfied. He learned his trade via the route: art academy St. Joost Breda, Filmacademie Amsterdam, and National Film and Television School (NFTS) London.
“I mainly went to St. Joost to find out what it was that I wanted to do. Trying out just about anything did me a world of good for a while. Learning to handle criticism was the most important lesson for me at that school. At the end of the year, we had our yearly presentations and I had worked really hard on them. Five people came to watch. That was a huge disappointment for me. I knew then that I wanted to reach a larger audience. So, I decided to apply to the Filmacademie - for editing no less and I was brutally rejected. When I was accepted for camera at a later stage, I found out I knew nothing at all about filmmaking. Nothing! And because I noticed things still went great on sets, I decided to become more serious. Together with some college friends, I started going to the movies and we just went more and more often. And it was only then that I realized what I was actually doing.”
One of the films that made a huge impression on Özgür was A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2010). He googled it’s DP Eduard Grau, who studied at the NFTS in London. “I immediately knew I wanted that too. I was so scared to become stuck in the Netherlands with a wife and kid, regular gigs, and the occasional Dutch arthouse film. I didn’t dig that at all. I had to leave.” London it was and it turned out to be a great move, for practical reasons as well. Because once he was accepted there (he and eight others were chosen from many applications), he discovered that learning the English set language is of the greatest importance. He still calls it a miracle that he was accepted (after three years at the Amsterdam Filmacademie). Özgür also cannot stress enough how important it was to be surrounded by international talent (directors, camera people, editors) who gave masterclasses on an almost weekly basis. That was a huge inspiration and motivation for him.
John and the Hole
For now, LA is his base though. Özgür tells that however many commercials he makes there, his motivation to move to LA was to make films. “When I shot John and the Hole (Pascual Sisto, 2021) I thought ‘Oh yeah, this is what I’m doing it for! These are really good actors.’ I sometimes struggle a little with the end result, but the work process was just awesome.” There are more than enough good actors in the Netherlands, Özgür agrees but he also feels that there is an essential difference in how work is done “over there”. So consistent, so professional.
John and the Hole with the description: ‘A coming-of-age psychological thriller that plays out the unsettling reality of a kid who holds his family captive in a hole in the ground’ got good reviews on a regular basis and especially the camerawork was praised. “But” says Özgür “I actually don’t like it at all that it receives higher praise than the rest of the film. Sisto is a visual artist. To me, script and performance are more important than anything else; cinematography should serve the story. But sometimes it was hard for me to find a good balance. It was Pascual’s first feature film.
I instantly got something like a Truman Show-feel when I read the script. This obsessive observation of someone else; in this case this kind of weird family unit. I used the work of photographer Arne Svenson as a source of inspiration. He takes pictures with enormous lenses of people in their homes, from a huge distance. You peep into their lives like a voyeur. And then Svenson also often leaves their heads out of the picture. I gave Sisto a book with his work. He absolutely loved it. It was exactly the mood he was looking for. We often chose low-angle shots which lends it that specific ‘peeping feel’. The camera had to be clean but when you see the family in that hole, it had to be murkier. We set out many rules.”
Although Özgür did not graduate from the Dutch Filmacademie, he did make his graduation film just before he left for London: Magnesium (2012), a collaboration with Sam de Jong (direction) and Shady El-Hamus (script) about a young gymnast who finds out she is pregnant and wants to have an abortion as quickly as possible so she can continue her career. It did well and won for example the Tuschinski Award at the Nederlands Filmfestival (Dutch Film Festival). Özgür himself won the award for best DP in the Student Competition category at Camerimages, Poland. That was a huge boost for his reputation.
He worked again with Sam de Jong - on Prins – three years later which also was a success. Özgür already lived in London at the time “but the weird and also funny thing was, that after I had finished school and still was waiting for work in England, I had lots of assignments in the Netherlands.” It all comes down to having the right agent. Özgür mentions this often during the interview. Agents are vital in getting the jobs Özgür desires; commercials, videoclips, foreign films. “It was only after Prins was nominated for a Gouden Kalf (Dutch Film Award) that the agencies got genuinely interested,” he says with a slight hint of bitterness.
Prins in reviews was called the most unconventional feature film debut in years when it was released. There’s this version of Amsterdam-Noord where the sun always shines and 17-year-old Ayoub hangs around with other boys, mainly missing a father figure. But nothing about it is ‘old school Dutch realism’. No, at times De Jong opts for an over-the-top set design, for montage-generated jokes and that is what makes Prins so interesting and, at times, flashy and hip.
Özgür: “Sam has this documentary background and that’s how he approaches fiction. I like to have visual rules. That is fundamentally different.” That’s also why according to Özgür a “substantial” amount of decoupage was needed. “Mieneke (Kramer, editor) was closely involved in my work.” The shoot was not easy. Partly because of the actors, many of them amateurs. “And the kids hated each other,” tells Özgür, “Truly awful”.
Hand-held or not
On The Wound (Inxeba, John Trengove, 2017) the DP mainly worked with amateurs as well. He calls it his best film to date. The South-African film tells the story of a boy who enters the jungle for an intense and life-threatening rite de passage. A temporary community of men and boys is the basis for the unhappy ending of the story.
“In the end, almost 80% was shot handheld but that was not what we had wanted when we started out. I felt it was just too obvious, jungle – handheld, it had to be different. But after a week, we watched the first rushes and they were really bad. What we shot didn’t work. The actors were truly frozen. So, yeah: handheld after all. It allowed me to do long takes and it allowed the actors to move more freely. So we let go of our plan to make a mix between handheld and a steadier camera. I had to re-shoot a lot of material, but that didn’t bother me that much and it didn’t generate too much work for production design, so it was okay.
What also helped, when we started out with the new approach, was the presence of the only professional actor, Bongile Mantsai. He arrived a week later than the rest and immediately took along the other men in his wake. I could go with that in that new flow. The Wound of course isn’t a documentary but still… that was, in fact, kinda how things worked. I couldn’t understand what the actors said, so I had to go by their body language completely. In between, I made some extra shots. It was a tough shoot but it worked. It was very hot, I made many long takes that could last up to 20 minutes and we had a lot of carrying to do. But I was totally committed. John is a highly intelligent filmmaker; I found our collaboration truly inspirational.”
It was a risk to shoot the film in South Africa. Trengove links a homosexual relationship with the ritual that is performed on the boys in the jungle (their foreskin is cut off under barbaric circumstances). Özgür: “The set was in the middle of nowhere so that was safe. And not everyone on set knew what the film was actually about. When the film was finished, it was banned for a year. And when it was eventually released, there were protests.”
A recurring theme in this interview series with DPs for NSC is the New Deal; the pamphlet for better films. Özgür is not familiar with it, but listens attentively.
“All productions I do now are exactly the opposite of what you’re talking about. When I start shooting, I ask for what I need and then I receive just that. No standard stuff, everything made to order.”
And he doesn’t mind the video village so much, but, as it turns out fairly quickly, that is also due to the fact that he knows how to work his way around it. “I have a good DIT, a digital transcoder. I upload one shot of every scene in the cloud and I have it synch automatically with my iPad or iPhone. I indicate whether it should be lighter etc. There is someone on set who changes that on the spot, sends it back and while chatting in the cloud we’re already making the images just like that. I send them to the producer and director as well and then it is already finished for the most part. I grade it then and there. On Embattled I worked like that as well. The grain is made on set - added in the same way.
Talking about that film… “In the plane en route to Japan to shoot a commercial, I read the script by David McKenna who also wrote American History X. It appealed to me and my agent said I really should do this one. I had to decide right away – something that I prefer not to do. But that’s how things often go in the US. It is all ‘waiting and waiting’ and all of a sudden there is a ‘go’ and a film has to be made right this minute. Stephen Dorff (leading role as Cash) was not attached to it at the time; Colin Farrell was.”
Embattled summarizes like ‘an intense father-son drama wrapped in hefty and spectacular MMA packaging’. With Dorff as a father with issues, a drinking problem, and no talent for anger management. In short: an asshole.
“It was a union film. An important reason for me to do it. It was my way in, a big step towards working in the US. But, looking back, I sometimes wonder whether it was the right step because I’m not entirely satisfied with the end result. I also think I had higher expectations of Dorff. The shooting itself was tiring but mainly I found it hell to work with him. He didn’t trust my angles, whined about my lighting. The way I see it is that his old school mentality was a mismatch with the indie film we were all making at the end of the day.”
“I’ve always been in a hurry but that’s starting to change now. It is quite hard to stay focused on what it is I actually wanted when in LA. I am definitely not the first cameraman to go there and fall for the money. It is tempting to go for materialism because it is such a huge part of the US culture.”
Money and artistry are united in his collaboration with sister Marleen and her partner Emmanuel Adjei, who, after they both attended art school in Gent, make installations, art videos, and music videos for artists like Sevdaliza, Beyoncé, Madonna, and FKA Twigs. Here the agents come into play again for Özgür. Thanks to The Formula (2016) by Sevdaliza, which was well-received in the world of music videos, he was finally approached by a London agent. Far more interesting to talk about than the visual concepts he created for all these artists. His work seems to come so naturally that he sometimes even looks surprised that they are worth discussing. And the celebrities? He’s used to them by now. They only serve as a means to an end for his career.
Özgür may be somewhat less in a hurry, his ambition has not wavered one iota. “I want to shoot big. An Interstellar is truly my dream. I would want to follow in Hoyte van Hoytema’s footsteps. And in thirty years’ time, I would also like to shoot a James Bond or something like La La Land. 50-50 balance between commercials and films – that’s how I would like to work. Those commercials are fine because it allows me to keep on making the arthouse I want to make. Until the really big jobs come along.”
He is a bit unclear on whether the arthouse he mentions could be Dutch as well. “The Wound and Vind die domme trut en gooi haar in de rivier (Ben Brand, 2017), are the two films I support the most. But Vind die domme trut en gooi haar in de rivier did not make big waves.” The film about a nasty video that goes viral with all the consequences, as a result, is especially well-balanced according to Özgür. “Handheld and tripod, it’s just totally right. Visually, also in terms of grading, I’ve been able to push it.” And here he once again refers to making rules. When to film with distance and when close. He thought this out carefully for each scene together with Met Ben Brand. “I really expected it to do well. That has certainly changed my attitude to Dutch films even more; it was such a big disappointment when it didn’t. No one has seen the film. I kinda got that art academy feel again, like when you make something for just five people. Four months of work and then an anti-climax like that.”
Özgür talks for hours on end and regularly enquires “You do have time for this, right?”. Now and then he is genuinely surprised himself about all the things he has experienced so far. Each gig comes with its own agent and that angle seems to string his entire life story together. The way he shot, the way he chose his style… all that remained something that had to be pried from him during the entire conversation. He preferred talking about how his career is developing and which strategy he should use. “The whole technical part has never really captured me. I go to a film for a story and the actors. That is how it all started out and that is the way it still is.”
Interview: Gerlinda Heywegen
Translation: Sonja Barentsen