Interview with Vanja Černjul, Zagreb-born Hollywood Cinematographer

Total Croatia News

Vanja Černjul is a well-known Hollywood cinematographer and director of photography who gave an in-depth interview with Zoran Vitas for the Večernji list. 

The reason for this interview is the upcoming NEM Zagreb event, which will take place in Zagreb between the 11th and 13th of December. We’re used to NEM happening in Dubrovnik during the spring, but now we get the chance to see the Zagreb edition of the event during the winter. Vanja Černjul will be at the event, participating at the panel, which discusses the influence of the production process on the basic idea of a show. He’s never been in Dubrovnik for NEM events, so he’s happy he’s able to come to the Zagreb one and see some old friends.

He talked about his last finished project, Here Today, a film with Billy Crystal, how they met, and the stories he read as he prepared to work with this juggernaut of the entertainment industry. Vanja Černjul says he learned a lot from Billy Crystal, not just about film-making, but also about what he wants the next 20 years of his life to be like. He also talked about his experience while filming The Deuce, a hit David Simon’s series, where he was also the director of photography. He said that he’d hoped he would get the chance to work on the show from the first time he heard about the D. Simon show about prostitution and the pornographic underworld of Manhattan in the seventies. It sounded like an ideal project, as it allowed him to do more research, which he enjoys, especially in preparation for the historical drama. As he prepared for Netflix’s Marco Polo series, he learned a lot about the Middle Ages in Asia. Currently, he’s working on a Jullian Fellowes project called Gilded Age, taking place in late-19-century New York, and the research for that show brings him much joy. 

When asked to compare the experiences of working on many different shows, such as 30 Rock, Orange is the New Black, Marco Polo, Bored to Death, and many others, he says it’s difficult to compare as those took place in different stages of his career. They were all challenging, and each of them helped shape him as a professional, but also his personal life. He commented on the films being made in Croatia, saying that those lacked authenticity for a long time. He says that the critical event for Croatian film happened in Pula last summer, when “The Diary of Dijana Budisavljević” won the most significant awards, which brought back some of his faith in Croatian film, but in Croatia in general. 

When asked if he watches many shows and which are his favorites, he says that being a voting member of the Academies, which award the Oscars and the Emmy awards, he needs to see everything relevant for those votes. This year, he also saw a lot of European production. He rarely watches TV shows which don’t have the defined dramatic structure, so he enjoys limited or mini-series. This year, he says, he was thrilled with HBO’s Chernobyl, which managed to tell a great tale from our history and also talk about the modern societies like the USA or the UK. 

He commented on the changes on television, with the growth of numerous streaming services, saying that the current age for TV can be compared with the invention of the steam engine in the industrial revolution. He adds that it’s known how much people are willing to spend on the content a month, and the market is not going to grow much. With many different streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, AT&T, NBC…), a short-term perspective for the industry is excellent. However, it’s difficult to find anywhere in the world, crews available to work on your productions at the level needed, as everybody is booked. Traditionally, many production companies worked in Prague or Budapest, because it was cheaper and where they could find workers, but those are also overbooked. That’s why countries like Croatia get to have a slice of the pie, and many of his friends from the industry worked in Croatia, and they were all satisfied with the working conditions here. The situation will, however, not be like this forever: as soon as the streaming wars are finished, not many will survive, and the number of projects will drop. No party lasts forever. 

In the end, Vanja Černjul talked about his past as a war journalist and reporter, and he says that he found himself in that situation by accident, and he never planned for it to be his career. He just graduated from the Academy of Dramatic Arts, there were many reporters from all major networks in Zagreb to cover the war(s) and were recruiting the local talent to help them. At first, he was invested in what he was doing, feeling like it was important for his country. Still, after his closest friend died in Bosnia as a cameraman for BBC, he soon got disillusioned and turned into a cynic. That made him leave that profession. 


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