Interview: Allan Starski A Humble Observer

Allan Starski and Vladan Petkovic.
Allan Starski and Vladan Petkovic. | Photo: Jelena Stankovic

One of the world's most prominent production designers Allan Starski, best known for winning the Academy Award in 1993 for his work on Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, was last week tutoring the participants of Goethe-Institut's training programme First Films First at the workshop in Bitola, Macedonia. We spoke to Starski about his education, today's state of film industry, and the FFF workshop.

Mr. Starski, how did you start out in production design?

I studied interior decoration at the Fine Arts Academy in Warsaw, not art direction or scenography. But I come from a film-makers' family, my father was a screenwriter, well known in Poland. So I spent my childhood in these filmmakers' circles, so I was familiar with cinema long before I started my artistic studies.

During my studies, I was not planning to be involved in any film production activities. From my point of view, I had bigger aspirations, I wanted to be a pure artist, not someone who is just taking part in someone else's projects. I wanted to be an independent artist, but it was my fate that I landed in the movies.

I started working on graphics for commercials, and I was, by education, a designer for the international market. My first job was during the communist times, so there was no big chance to break out internationally. But it was a good moment for filmmaking in Poland, the early seventies, so there were all these big Andrzej Wajda and Agnieska Holland films… and movie-making was my destiny!

Oscar-winning production designer Allan Starski. Oscar-winning production designer Allan Starski. | Photo: Jelena Stankovic Can you compare today's production situation to the one at the time when you were starting? There seem to be more opportunities, especially with co-productions, but we don't seem to be getting many more good films?

Open market creates this problem. To exist in the market with strong competition, with big global movies you need successful BO movies, but you don't have enough money to compete with American productions. On top of this there are so many low budget art films and they don't have much chance to get international recognition. Because there are so many films, there is not enough money for each of them, a lot of them are done in a short time, without good preparation and proper budget, and it’s a pity.

I still believe Europe is a place where co-productions can give some chance to filmmakers to make more recognizable, better executed movies.

Still, as a production designer, I am dreaming of European movies that can compete with US productions, have a chance to build big, professional sets, with interesting action and strong dynamic. I believe that commercial movies in Europe can be good and should be done in the right ways.

There is also another difference to when I was starting in film. Because the competition is much bigger, movies should be made much better. You can't go cheap. You can't use a location of a small village in, say, Croatia, Poland, or Macedonia, and pretend it's Texas, which was done very often 40 years ago. Because people travel and they know how places look, so you have to spend a lot of money to convince people that some place plays another place.

Nowadays you can make a movie with your cell phone, so there are hundreds of documentaries and small films, TV series, that you can see at home. So movies, in order to grab people from streets and bring them to theatres, should have something extraordinary, a visual side which is stronger than everyday TV programme.

How do you feel about this First Films First workshop, and its participants?

I'm not doing so many movies like I did ten years ago, and I choose my projects very carefully. So between the films I like I do these workshops. What I like here in Bitola is that I am not doing it with students, but with young directors. They are very well prepared. And they are ready to listen, but also to show me their work.

The system in which they are working is similar to the system I am working in to make bigger, professional movies. As long as these small movies have a compelling story to tell to the audience, our work is similar. The difference is just the budget and the size of the crew. But all the same, you have to be well prepared.

This workshop is useful to me because I see their scripts and I hear what kind of subjects are interesting for these young people, what they want to make movies about. The benefit is on both sides. They listen to me and see what I have done, but to me it is interesting to see what they can offer me as a part of the audience in the next years.

Allan Starski and the participants of the workshop. Allan Starski and the participants of the workshop. | Photo: Jelena Stankovic What do you think of the concept of the workshop?

It's good. As this is the second part of the workshop, they benefit much more from me because they already developed the scripts, and they are meeting people who can help them polish the scripts even more and develop the visual side of the story they want to tell. I believe they profit from meeting and learning from professionals who made a lot of films.

After all these modules, it would be nice if they invite us to the shooting, to show us how they are working on the set. It could be a continuation of the workshop. There they would be the masters of the sets. If they get the chance to direct, then I can come and see them as master directors, and I would be only a humble observer.

Vladan Petkovic asked the questions.