The Girl in the Watermelon Offers Seeds of Surrealism

By Comer, Brooke | American Cinematographer, June 1994 | Go to article overview

The Girl in the Watermelon Offers Seeds of Surrealism


Comer, Brooke, American Cinematographer


Part 2 in a 2-part series examining independent production on the East Coast.

"I love doing independent films," says cinematographer Irek Hartowicz, who moved to the U.S. in 1980 from his native Poland after working with some of that country's leading filmmakers. "There's a certain similiarity between the way you work on an independent project and the way we worked in Poland. Independent movies usually don't have a big budget or all the tools of a major motion picture. You're trying to find a way to create images that work with the story without compromising the quality of the story. You have to make do with the tools you have and use your imagination. You have to create your own aesthetic."

In Poland, Hartowicz worked on Andrei Wajda's Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film Maids of Wilko; Krzystztof Zanussi's Cannes winner The Spire; and Jerzy Kawalerowicz' Meeting Over Atlantic. But when he moved to the U.S., the cinematographer had to compete in a new market. The success he'd achieved in Eastern Europe was impressive, but it took time for Hartowicz to gain recognition and respect from his colleagues. His recent independent films, Sergio Castilla's The Girl in the Watermelon (which was the opening-night selection for the New Directors Series at New York's Museum of Modern Art) and John Paragon's Twin Sitters, reveal his talent not only as a craftsman, but as an artist.

While he was still in high school, Hartowicz began shooting on a still camera which he shared with his sister. "We could never afford a good one," he admits, "but that didn't matter. I was always interested in faces. I loved to shoot." He never thought of a film career "because no one thought of cinematography as a career back then." But after high school, Hartowicz' fascination with images led him to apply to the prestigious Polish Academy of Film, Television and Theatre Arts at Lodz, which accepted only one out of 40 applicants.

His all-encompassing education at the Academy included the chance to learn his craft on 35mm cameras, and to work on professional films. "The industry in Poland is so small," Hartowicz explains, "that by my third year, I was operating for a TV special. Then people knew me, and began to call me for bigger pictures. It was much easier to break into the film community there."

In working with the school's not-so-state-of-the-art equipment, Hartowicz and his fellow students learned not only to solve problems and fix equipment, but to improvise - to create images from exciting angles rather than with cranes or dollies.

Hartowicz received an intense course in camera moves while working on director Kawalerowicz' Meeting Over Atlantic, which was shot with an Arri BL-3 in 22 days on a transatlantic ocean voyage. "Jerzy was always thinking about the way a film was going to be cut later as he filmed it," says Hartowicz. "We were constantly discussing the angles and how they would work in the editing."

For Girl in the Watermelon, Hartowicz worked Eastern-European style with writer/ director Sergio Castilla, who allowed the cinematographer maximum involvement. "In most of my filming experiences in Europe," Hartowicz explains, "the directors gave me many opportunities to become creatively involved in the film, not just as a cameraman but in terms of choosing locations, and casting. In Poland, the cinematographer generally helps the director write the shooting script. Together they choose angles, frames, the composition of each shot. I don't find that same approach to filmmaking in America. Here, cinematographers are hired mainly to do one thing - shoot the picture."

The Girl in the Watermelon is a romantic comedy about Samantha (Meredith Scott Lynn), a 17-year-old Brooklyn girl in search of her father. Samantha's quest is complicated by the presence of three possible candidates. There's Sam Myerofsky, the man she's always believed was her father, who died before she was born. Or Eddie Alvarez, the Latin horn player from Spanish Harlem. …

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