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How ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ DP Łukasz Żal Used Subtle Changes to Distinguish Memory From Reality

Lukasz Zal Cinematographer
Courtesy of Mary Cybulski/Netflix

When “Cold War” cinematographer Łukasz Żal teamed with writer-director Charlie Kaufman on “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” one of the earliest conversations they had was how to communicate memory visually. 

In Kaufman’s new film, based on the novel by Iain Reid, Jesse Plemons as Jake and Jessie Buckley (“Wild Rose”) as his meta-named Girlfriend go on a long road trip to meet his parents at their remote farm. Girlfriend questions everything. She isn’t sure their new relationship is going anywhere, and just as they set out, she thinks, “I’m thinking of ending things.” Though she doesn’t say it, he seems to be able to hear her. And as they travel through rural Oklahoma (the film shot in upstate New York) on a cold winter’s day, the narrative intertwines their conversation and their individual memories that spring from it.

Żal sat with Kaufman and production designer Molly Hughes to flesh out the concept of how the characters would
see themselves in a memory. “Some would be faded, and others would be colorful,” Żal says. Lighting, filters and colors all played a part. Happier memories are well lit and feature colorful backgrounds, because “when you remember something nice, you think of yourself in the best possible light,” Żal explains. For darker memories, filters were used to reflect emotion. “The image would be contaminated by the emotion,” Żal says.

Another conversation revolved around shooting the omnipresent snow that surrounded the car, which starts with a flurry and by movie’s end has become a blizzard. “That snow was a challenge,” says Żal, who says that filming began in mid-March of 2019, when snow was unlikely to stick. Kaufman wanted Żal’s advice about where to lens the car scenes. “I told him, ‘It’s tricky to shoot on location; the studio is the best option,’” he says. The team built a temporary stage in a factory in Warwick, N.Y., so the production was no longer dependent on weather conditions; the environment — and the exteriors — now could be controlled using LED screens. 

To capture footage of snow, the second unit went out earlier to Tug Hill, getting shots that could be added during post-production. “We could go from the Hallmark-movie look at the beginning of the film, where we meet the two characters about to go on the road trip, to the snow falling to the blizzard,” Żal says. 

As the tension escalates between the two characters — Girlfriend is convinced Jake can read her thoughts — and the blizzard starts to hit, Żal reflects that tension in his camera movements, swapping out the Steadicam for an Arri Alexa LF handheld.

When the pair arrive at Jake’s parents’ home, the DP has the house lit with cool colors to give it an abandoned look. But the place springs to life as Jake sees his parents. 

“He wanted the film to look like a painting,” Żal says of Kaufman’s vision for the farmhouse. The house was lit warmly, using candles to give a softer, gauzier look. “Farmhouses are filled with memories and family history, and we wanted to add those layers here,” says Żal. Even the walls of the home figured into the mix. “The wallpaper looked like it was disappearing in the background, almost like a memory,” he notes.

At the family home, Jake’s mother (Toni Collette) mentions that her son is very controlling, which causes Girlfriend to further question her world — her surroundings and even her sanity — and similar to Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine
of the Spotless Mind,” the film ventures into the subconscious. Ultimately, the viewer is left to try to “distinguish reality, imagination and memory,” Żal says, “because the changes in lighting, filters and design are very subtle.”