She travels through continents just for the right light, and has done so for decades. She decided to relocate from Poland to Hollywood, and give success a go. Magdalena Górka is the cinematographer of many well-known films and TV shows such as Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (2022), the second unit of The Fablemans (2022), Doom Patrol (2020), and promising, but currently on-hold, R-rated comedy blockbuster. She does not shy away from shooting gigantic action sequences, a skincare routine gone wrong in Mackenzie Davis’ body horror short film, Woaca (2023), or establishing frames on a set surrounded by LED Volume walls. Some would say it’s fortunate that she was initially oblivious to the unspoken rules of the film industry, and should she start again, Górka would probably not give cinematography a chance. Luckily, she’s not going anywhere. Instead, she’s making a name for herself when it comes to creating some of the well-known frames in cinema.
FRONTRUNNER sat down with Górka to discuss the challenges of Hollywood, what it feels like to receive notes from Spielberg, the cinematographer’s silent task of bridging the gap between producers and directors, and how, sometimes, you need to shave your head to gain respect.
You’re an established, respected female Director of Photography. Yet, a film set, especially the camera department, is notoriously male-dominated. Inevitably, some women find it difficult to progress in such an environment in pursuit of the craft, and they ultimately quit. How did you manage?
You’re right, it was a different time—but I can attest this theme still rings true. Starting out was even more difficult then, and the challenges for women cinematographers were less discussed. When I started film school in Poland, I was the only woman, and I had no idea how challenging it would be or what it would entail. Like many of us in Hollywood, I just loved films, wanted to be part of it all, and get behind the camera. I thought the cinematographer was the person who just operated the camera, so I chose that. I never even thought about problems and difficulties of this job, as all I wanted to do was play a role in making great movies.
When I arrived at film school, everything became truly, evidently hard. Polish film school is not your typical university—it’s an enclosed, elite environment where only 10-12 students are admitted every year. As the only woman, none of the guys took me seriously, but the competition motivated me even more to succeed. I decided I would never give up. The night before classes began, I shaved my head so people would respect me. A professor started his first class by reviewing a book of our headshots, and when he saw my application photo with blond hair, he looked right at my shaved head and said, “What did you do? You’re supposed to be pleasant to look at!”
If I turned back time and had the knowledge I have now, I would never do it again. My journey started with blissful ignorance and beginner’s luck—I was oblivious to my circumstances. Not coming from a film family, nor having industry connections to warn me about the challenges, ultimately worked in my favour. I am so happy to have made it to where I am today.
Have you ever felt that your technical knowledge was questioned by directors or producers?
It’s not questioned at my level. You need to have the knowledge to be there. They don’t question my technical knowledge, but the difference between my experience and that of my male colleagues is how often I have to over-explain why I need a certain piece of equipment. If I’m working on a TV show and there are two cinematographers, my male colleague will not be questioned as often about the equipment and crew that he needs, whereas in a woman’s case, that’s the very first thing they ask. I calmly have to justify the needs for specialty equipment, knowing that if we don’t use it, the whole process will take longer and cost more in the end.
I always offer multiple plans with multiple budgets, but this is a major difference I have faced first-hand, regardless of how technically knowledgeable or prepared I am.
The technical tools in the industry are rapidly changing and evolving. How do you find the time to keep up with all the equipment knowledge and experiment with new techniques?
I stay interested. I read professional literature, I read everything! Social media is a huge asset, too, where certain pages talk about new equipment or strategies. Above all, by nature of my work I have built a career of industry friends who are a trusted source of primary information about the tools of the trade. I am curious about the craft, I like to be on top of everything, and I love to use new, experimental techniques. When I shot Star Trek, we used the LED Volume, which had only ever been used in the Mandalorian, before, at this scale. In that case, I couldn’t just pick up a book on it. I went straight to the source, and I called Greig Fraser. He was kind enough to spend two hours talking me through a new technology I had no idea about. The best way to achieve anything is to practice with someone who has done it before and be willing to ask hard questions. You can read all about something, but once you stand there and immerse yourself in it, it’s completely different. In our industry, to stay relevant, you must progress your knowledge with the times and keep applying, demonstrating, and sharing that knowledge.
You said before that because of your credits as a cinematographer, you often get approached for sci-fi projects. Correct me if that’s wrong, but I imagine sci-fi is not the only genre you have passion for. How do you navigate this and engage with different projects?
I receive many offers of many kinds, and I always try to choose one that’s different from what I did before, often a step up. Importantly, I never let myself get pigeonholed based on what people think I can or should do. I had the opportunity to shoot Season 2 of Star Trek [Strange New Worlds], but I declined. By that time, I already knew how the technology worked, I knew the crew, and I was comfortable on set. If I were in a different circumstance, then I am sure I would have accepted it, but right now I am at an age where I need to challenge myself and continue levelling up. Diverse projects drive my passion.
The Fablemans! Tell me about your work on the film as a 2nd unit Cinematographer, and also, Steven Spielberg!
Simply amazing! I felt like the luckiest person in the world. The film’s cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, who is also my mentor, called me up and asked if I was interested in doing 2nd unit. It was a dream. Spielberg has a tight team, and they always work with the same people. As Second Unit, I was invited to go on set and shadow them for a couple of days. They were so kind and accommodating. Janusz has the attitude that there is work for everyone. He never withholds information, is genuine, and he doesn’t entertain competition. He is truly excited and passionate about the craft. The way he uses lighting is dramatic and cinematic, and he created a very specific style which is a common language for Spielberg’s films.
I was very nervous at first, but the welcome was so warm that it eased my nerves within a day. I would work on different sets with Janusz, and Steven would come by with notes. I would set up the cameras and the lighting, shoot the scene, and then Spielberg would come back with more notes. We were in constant communication with Janusz all along the way. A fantastic memory is when Steven, who has an enormous technical knowledge, described how he wanted a certain scene to be lit. So, I prepared the scene, but I prepared this extra option on the side just in case. I showed him what he asked for, to which he said it looked great, but then I asked if I could show him something else. I showed him my side approach, which is something he is probably not used to, and I immediately instinctively thought, “Oh man, I messed up!” as he evaluated it. He quickly responded: “Well Magdalena, the light is beautiful, you must do it for a living”. The man certainly knows his power and how to encourage collaborators to do their best . Lifting someone up is always more difficult than bringing someone down, and those two legends—Janusz and Spielberg—are there for a reason.
The Fablemans was one of the best experiences of my life. Coming from Poland, I never imagined I would be on film sets with top Hollywood filmmakers.
You now work in Hollywood. How do you think your European upbringing, and perhaps your different style when compared to the US, influences your work? Has transitioning to American filmmaking taken effort?
One hundred percent. Having gone to school in Poland was very valuable for me. Polish filmmakers are some of the most prepared and technically experienced in the industry. Our schooling is heavily based on history of film and reasoning. If you move the camera, you have to have a reason. Same with a light. Everything has to be motivated and all actions are thought through. Our professors taught us the history of cinema, where they would dissect every scene and talk us through what went on in the background and why.
When you work in Europe, it feels more intimate and intentional, like a family. It’s more of a shared mission, the art of film, and it has this sense of magic. Now, anyone can become a cinematographer thanks to innovations in technology and access, but still, in Europe, there is this deep respect towards the craft rooted in history and intention. In the US, film is all about business and politics. You have to fit in, be punctual, complete the scheduled day, and it has to be pleasant. On that note, Janusz shared a unique insight from his journey… he once told me that, at the end of the day, what matters is how you make people feel. If you make people feel great, they will work with you again. If you are brilliant, but you are an asshole (of which I have met many), then nobody will hire you again. The competition is so great nowadays that, if you cause problems, there are hundreds of talented people lined up who are ready to work in your role.
Re-adjusting and accepting how different these two worlds are, that of Europe and of the US, took me many years to interpret. I keep in touch with most of my producers and directors, many of whom became my dear friends, but I mainly connect with other cinematographers. It’s hard for Europeans to adjust to the American way of working. Cinematographers are still artists in Europe, and everyone waits for you, whereas in the US, you have no time.
You struggled for many years, but how did you go from being a beginner to having the reputation that you do in the industry?
I guess it’s because I’m hilarious? But seriously, It just happened slowly. I worked very hard and I always brought extra, like on the Spielberg set. I do more than what I’m asked for, yet I deliver on time and in budget. I learned when it’s time to open my mouth and when not to share my opinion. The best virtue is the ability to know when to shut the fuck up. Seriously—this is something you have to learn in the US. I have a European personality, so people began to remember me for it. I developed my own style and process of shooting and lighting, and eventually people started to like it. Producers would often call me back because I was always happy to help less-experienced directors and would always make the schedule. My relationships started with producers, then slowly I built relationships with directors from there—first in commercials, then in movies, then TV shows. Now, here I am.
This is how I heard of you, too.
There you go. Yes, from a director on the other side of the world, and here we are. There is always a fine line between reality and dreams. As the cinematographer, you must be the greatest politician where you make producers feel that you are creating something that is realistic, and the director should believe you are making their dreams come true. It’s a delicate balance, and it’s never about you, the cinematographer. Ego doesn’t go well with the craft, and there are very few people who can make this triangle about themselves. This is exactly what I mean when I say it’s business in America.
How are the writers’ and actors’ strikes affecting your current project?
I was working on the most amazing blockbuster film that, unfortunately, I can’t talk about yet. The film has a wonderful cast paired with an amazing director and producers; the filmmakers on this project are truly just exceptional. It’s a dream project, and the subject of the film is so close to my heart. It’s an R-rated comedy with a big heart and it will bring joy to the world. It’s the kind of movie that people need and would love to see after the pandemic, now in this current global environment. We already had the script written, so we could work straight through the writers’ strike, but unfortunately the actors’ strike ultimately shut us down and they promptly sent everyone home. It’s one of my biggest heartbreaks, because we didn’t expect it at all and thought we could work through it as it unfolded, but I am happy to say we will all be back to finish the job soon.
The actor’s strike has affected many lives as it’s not only about the actors, but about the tens of thousands of crew members who are struggling this year. It’s a shame that a deal can’t be made when all of Hollywood is built on deals. They make deals for breakfast. I truly hope that everyone will reach a satisfying agreement, and we can return to making movies soon.