How do you make a movie about a hostage situation that unfolds in a single location? Let writer/director Jakub Piątek tell you.
In Prime Time, it's New Year's Eve in 1999 Poland. There is some uncertainty about the upcoming millennium, but glimpses of TV screens show happy revelers doing the Macarena and musing on their futures. At one TV studio, just after a call-in prize show begins, a young man storms with a gun and a hostage. He demands access to the cameras to make an announcement.
The characters spend the next few hours in a dangerous dance of crisis negotiations, bloated egos, and uncomfortable revelations.
The film was shot last year in 28 days, with 20 of those days spent on scenes in the studio. Director and co-writer Jakub Piątek crafts a pressure cooker of a film that relies heavily on the stunning performances of his cast, most of whom come from theater backgrounds.
Piątek graduated from the Polish National School of Film, Television, and Theater in Łódź. He began producing documentaries and shorts before moving into directing his own. Prime Time is his first narrative feature and is a selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
The film stars Bartosz Bielenia, Magdalena Popławska, and Andrzej Kłak.
Piątek spoke to No Film School via Zoom ahead of the film's premiere. Learn from his experience on a pandemic production and telling a story in a single location.
Editor's note: the below interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I know that you were inspired by real hostage events, but what about that type of story attracted you to it as a writer and director?
Piątek: So basically with Łukasz Czapski, he's a co-writer of the script, we found a case in the States from '96 or '97, I think. Two guys got into the guns in a TV station, a very small one in the States, and they just brought anarchy to the broadcast. They just put their music videos on there. And we were just focusing or circling around guys in their mid-30s who were rebelling or even not rebelling anymore. And then we found the case in Poland. And what really attracted us story-wise was that it was like 18 years ago, and to this day, we don't know what the message was, and [what] the guy who broke into a TV station with a gun and took a hostage wanted to tell. And it's treated like curiosity on our side. And we also raise the question, "What we would tell people when you can broadcast anything?"
And we found that it's a really nice engine for a character, for a protagonist. And maybe we can radically create a character that needs viewers to be complete. So you don't know a lot of backstory, you just have the small crumbles around about him. The goal was that the viewer needs to somehow fill up the character, the protagonist. [...] You can bring your own ideas to the character.
We finished the film couple of weeks ago. We had just a couple of screenings, work-in-progress screenings. And what we found from the audience is that it's somehow working, and people are getting out of the screening with their own idea of what he wanted to tell and who he really is. And it was like a nice journey with this mystery provenance.
NFS: I think that you've developed all the characters really well, even not doing that much necessarily in terms of them saying, "Here's who I am, here's my age. Here's what I believe." I feel like you get a lot from the character interactions that you give us. Human connection is something I noticed as being important to the film. I really liked the scene where Sebastian was talking to Lena via the TV screen. I also really like the scene in the car early on where Mira tells Grzegorz, "Scoot over and don't touch me." How did you come to those moments? Was it something that you learned in rehearsals, or did you always know that you were going to do those things?
Piątek: We worked with some people from the team we worked with before on a short, Users. It's just like 30 minutes of a dialogue scene between two people over the internet and just randomly meeting on Chatroulette, and just playing this strange game between them.
From this previous work, I really like the idea that you are not connected to someone just face to face, but there is something in between. And for example, right now [on Zoom], I should think about a background and maybe change my clothes before, and decide to shave or not to shave. It's 10 months into the pandemic, so I'm not shaving a lot. But in Prime Time the aim was that this film is really on the shoulders of the actors. The whole film is between them. And there is no escape in editing or in camera work outside of their faces.
So, what we wanted to do was to build a team. In Europe and especially in Poland, there is this tradition of theater groups, and they are working together really closely, and they are changing directors there, and they are doing different pieces, but the team is always there. And so we have four, five weeks of rehearsals and in between, we rewrote the script. And during the rehearsals, we did it partially with the equipment. So with the TV cameras.
We could improvise and just find those moments, as you said, [like the] TV thing talking with Lena or when Mira says "just move to your seat." It's something I like about the class [difference] and that those two people would never meet. It was improvised, and we just wrote it on the script. I really like working with actors and treating them as the co-creators, not the people like 3D models that you can light and just put in front of the lens.
And so the whole process and even the cinematography was just—we were there for them, more or less. For example, during those four or five weeks, rehearsals every day. There was a DOP with a small TV camera. So we just shot also and edited the film during rehearsals. So just getting into the site was trying to recreate the energy and maybe just move forward a little bit with the story and then have this freedom.
NFS: I was going to ask about the energy and tension also just because you are in basically one location the whole time, moving in that space between the booth and the other part of the building. That tension is really excellent even though everybody's in the same area for a lot of the film. What did you do to make sure that those scenes stayed energetic and kept moving even though they were all just in one area?
Piątek: First of all, I really like the films that are set up in one place. There's a lot of great films like The Guilty by Gustav Möller or Locke with Tom Hardy, the film where he is driving a BMW and talking on the phone. So you don't need a load of elements to create the story. And this is my first feature-length fiction film.
So I had this feeling starting the writing process. That if you can just have a smaller amount of elements in the story that you need to manage, so I can focus more on them. I can focus more on actors. I just have one costume per actor, per character. So you have a lot more time to decide to look for it and just really feel it and just bring it to life somehow. So for me, it was more freedom and more time to make those decisions.
NFS: What did you shoot the film on?
Piątek: We shot on ARRI Alexa Mini with Primo lenses. [DP} Michał Łuka prepared a special LUT for us beforehand, before the sets. So there was a lot of testing. We also used filters on lenses. I think it was Hollywood Black Magic. And we just [got] a little bit more grungy look. And of course, we used TV cameras. I don't know exactly their names because we hired a retired TV studio engineer and he just found those cameras in Poland then just brought them to the set, and we just recreated a functional TV studio. [...] Some scenes we shot using two cameras, two ARRI cameras, like the big dialogue scenes with the father, with Lena and also the first negotiations.
And we also used this old TV camera with tapes, with digital Betacam, or something like this. And it was also like our prop, but it was fully functional and the guy with the mic was really a sound recordist, and the camera operator that was one of the extras was really like a guy [from] the film school, [from the] cinematography department.
NFS: That's cool. I like that you got to use extras in practical ways.
Piątek: Yeah. We also hired the police guys, like this counter-terrorist squad that's a real counter-terrorist squad. So it's nice just to have those kinds of professionals around you because for example when you have the scene with handcuffing. You can ask them just to see how they do it because they do it every day.
NFS: So, as you mentioned, this is your feature debut. Obviously, you've done some work before this, but do you have any advice for someone who's maybe moving from shorts and wanting to do their first feature? Anything that you learned that maybe you would have wanted to know before you got started?
Piątek: I feel lucky because the team that met during the production was like friends and people who really wanted to make a film. So it's not only my debut, but also there are a lot more people as well—my co-writer, from one of the editors. Also, the DP debuted. So they really wanted hard to get it made. There was a pandemic, so there were ups and downs.
Just getting out some amount of elements, and then just focusing on what you want to get. For example, having one space that you're trying to tell your story. It becomes handy also production-wise in terms of financing. And we have those.
If you're in rehearsals, you can do whatever you want. That was like a rehearsal that we just advanced during as rehearsals and also team building. Some days, we just took the actors and went to a shooting range, and everybody would select shooting pistols and shotguns. And not because we are gun supporters or anything like this. But just to have the feeling that you have a deadly weapon in your hands, and what does it mean? And suddenly, okay, it's like a shooting competition, and it's team building, but on the other hand, you just got this feeling that it's a pretty scary thing to be around.