Marcella Cytrynowicz Is Keeping Old School Film Alive
Valentina’s music video for her single “Break My Heart” just dropped, and it’s directed by none other than Marcella Cytrynowicz. Marcella’s directorial and editorial resume includes several short films, including a series inspired by colors, and skate vids set to garage band punk rock. This past year, she has released music videos for sister Valentina, electro-pop duo Yellow Claw, and a series for Snoop Dogg’s debut gospel album, Bible of Love. What brings together these vastly different projects is her camera of choice—she often shoots on Super 8 mm film rather than digital, the now near-universal industry standard. Using Super 8 captures her overall directorial style—one of dream-like aesthetics, spontaneity, and what she calls “capturing the little moments”. Her overall visual look might be described as a modern day ‘60s mash-up of lo-fi California vibes and soaring landscapes reminiscent of arthouse foreign films. Milk sat down with Marcella to chat more about film versus digital, Russian movie inspo, and her many upcoming projects.
So the new video for “Break My Heart” was just released. Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind it, and collaborating with your sister, Valentina?
Yeah. So, we actually did her first video about a year ago, and we shot that one digitally. This was the second music video that we worked on together, and I’ve been really into film recently. I just did about 20 projects since graduation shot on film with Gus Bendinelli, who’s this cinematographer I work with that I met at USC. For this one, we did a color series with Valentina on Super 8 and I wanted to expand on that and choose three really bold colors. We actually shot the video in one day with the same backdrop that we just painted in-between. So we first shot it without color, and then my dad and my boyfriend painted it yellow, and then we shot it and then we painted it blue, and then we shot it again and painted it red.
That’s so cool.
Yeah. And we spray painted the plates and cups between shoots with quick drying paint. And I had already bought food and everything that would match the colors of the fabric and the tablecloth.
Can you talk a little more about the color series you mentioned and how that influenced this music video?
So we started working with film mostly because Valentina approached me and wanted to shoot a video for some Instagram content. And I thought, the only thing we can shoot on and make it look really good on such short notice is film, so Gus came over and we shot our first orange video on Super 8, and then from there, we decided—let’s just do a bunch of different colors. I really loved doing those colors, and that actually led to more work doing music videos on Super 8. We were even able to convince Snoop Dogg’s team to let us shoot his video on Super 8 as well. So that was the “Words Are Few” video in the church, and from there I went on to edit four more Snoop Dogg videos and direct one, and then I got to direct and edit another music video for Mali Music (“New Wave”) off the gospel album, Bible of Love.
Your music videos are for such different genres of music. Can you tell me about what it’s like working across those genres?
I love music videos because I don’t think there are many rules. The goal is just to make it visually stunning, visually entertaining, so nothing really needs to make sense. It just needs to look really good, and because of that it’s really fun to work with different genres. Editing the gospel videos for Snoop Dogg was really fun, especially working with the pacing on those. But then also for Yellow Claw, something that was a little more electronic—everything for me is about pacing and editing. I love editing so much. Like I edit everything that I direct with very few exceptions because it’s so important to the way that I work, so it’s so much fun to work with this new genre of music because it’s this completely new way I can cut that video to the beats of the song.
Do you have a favorite genre of music that you like working with?
Honestly, no. I want to keep working on different genres, maybe I’ll find out the answer eventually, but I love creating content. So any genre that comes at me, I’ll take it.
I also wanted to ask you about your personal projects, and how you balance those with your music videos.
I guess you could say that Valentina’s music videos fall into that category of passion projects because there are no rules for me. She trusts me completely to just do the videos as I see fit, and it’s really fun to work that way because during the final edits, for instance, I have to rely on my own notes for myself, because I’m not really getting feedback from someone that paid for the project or was in charge. So I definitely love that freedom, but it’s also nice working with a client and getting their feedback and learning from that. But while I’m doing all this music video work, I did go to USC to study screenwriting and I do love working in the feature world. We’re a couple weeks away from pre-production on a feature that I wrote, and then I’m attached to direct and edit, that we’ll be shooting on film, so that’s exciting. I’m super excited to do that because it’ll bring everything right now that I’ve learned from doing music videos and working with films and bringing them together.
Can you tell me a little more about the feature?
It’s about a girl Eliza in a small town who’s living with her mom who’s mentally ill so she’s more of a mother to her own mother, and she holds a lot of resentment because of that, and she’s living across the street from this boy named Finn who falls for her. And Finn himself has this dark secret from his past and, and just like her mom, he’s closer to death than life. So she’s surrounded by all these people who are dragging her down, and she needs to find a way to escape it all.
That sounds really interesting. Do you see yourself now as more of a cinematographer and director, or a screenwriter?
While I like to play with my Super 8 camera, I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a cinematographer. I definitely need Gus, who is the guy that I work on every project with. We’re totally on the same page and we watch all the same things—people tell me all the time that I need to work with other cinematographers, but I’m not sure because I feel like once you find that person you click with, I don’t see why you should stop.
I definitely identify as a director and editor. I really like to include the editor part because it is something that I feel super strongly about. We’re a two-man team that can travel easily and produce these videos. Because I produce, direct and edit, and because Gus does the cinematography and the coloring, we usually just need one production assistant. Especially because when we shoot on film, we don’t require that much extra help. When you work digitally, you’re much more likely to require gaffers or some sort of assistant if there’s a lot of equipment. But it’s nice because Adrian Grenier flew us to Brooklyn to shoot because there were only two of us, and Capital Records sent us to Miami, again because there were two of us. So it allows more freedom, I feel like, to do these projects.
You talked a little before about convincing Snoop to shoot on Super 8. Is it often difficult to convince clients to shoot like that?
It is actually, because they see the look and they want that, but they’re a little bit reluctant because when you shoot on film you don’t have playback and that makes people a little bit nervous because they can’t see what we’re filming until a couple days after we shoot. And also it doesn’t allow for as many takes. But Gus and I work better that way, and we come into the project knowing that we only have a certain amount of film, so we just get it done faster and more efficiently than we would on digital, if we only worked in that medium, but now even when we do go to digital, we shoot it the same way as we would on film. Super efficient, super streamline, having the idea of what we want to get done. I communicate heavily with the artist beforehand. For me, it’s all about what the artist wants; I don’t like bringing in a vision to the artist. Once they tell me their goal, I bring them the concept and then I direct the video.
So how do you convince artists that Super 8 is the right way to go?
It’s just the look. Once they see the videos I put out with it and they tell me that they want that, and they ask me if we can achieve that same look on digital, I just tell them that we really can’t.
What are some of your visual inspirations?
My dad is from Brazil and he grew up watching foreign films with his parents and he raised me watching foreign films as well. So a lot of French New Wave, German New Cinema, Italian Neorealism—these are the films that I grew up watching and where a lot of my influences come from. We just shot a spec piece for Nike about three weeks ago, where Nike requested a spec piece to see if they want to go in a new direction, and I ended up giving them a piece that looks like a French New Wave movie trailer, and they were really happy with that. So it comes from watching all of these films over and over again, and I have this huge love for Russian cinema, I guess even you could say Soviet cinema from the 1960s. I track down all these rare 1959 Russian films and watch those. I think that unconsciously whenever you create something, everything you’ve seen and read before that comes into play, so that’s where I would say a lot of my influences come from.
What are some of your favorite Russian films?
So one that is a little more known and a little less underground I guess is Letter Never Sent. And, honestly, if you’ve seen The Revenant—that guy had to have watched Letter Never Sent. My grandmother’s favorite language is Russian, and she taught Russian in Sao Paolo, Brazil, but she’s explained to me the Russian connection between them and the land is something incomparable to other countries. The connection that these people have to their land, and also because I love Russian literature, it kind of changes your outcome on land itself, and in turn how you portray land when you’re shooting it. Tarkovsky’s films as well do that.
Oh I love Tarkovsky’s films, they’re great. I was also thinking about landscapes, like the way you use California landscape and desert in your work. Can you could talk more about that?
I really like horizons. I think I have this obsession with long shot horizons. I also like horizons involving silhouettes, but also a lot of close shots holding on people’s faces, and also tactile movements with hands and touching each other and things like that. So California and Los Angeles, it’s funny because Gus and I recently talked about how we’re basically almost shooting out LA. Like we’ve been shooting so many projects that we’re kind of going through so many areas of LA and shooting them out completely. We’re trying to find different places that we can use. But if you’re just talking about desert, even in the feature that we did in Death Valley, I think it’s an incomparable landscape to shoot. Especially Death Valley, National Park. There’s something about huge rolling engulfing landscapes like sand dunes and feeling like you’re so small, then staging people against this hugeness.
For someone who hasn’t seen any of your music videos, how would you describe your visual style in a soundbyte?
Wow, I have to think about this. I guess you’d have to mention that it’s shot on film, and it’s about the little moments.
I was curious about Kafka, and was really interested in how literature impacts your work too.
Books are extremely important. I think I spent most weekends in middle school and in early high school just reading a book in the kitchen from morning until night. And so I did a semester in Prague and the Czech Republic my junior year of college and I only took literature courses there. I don’t see how you can learn more than you can through reading, especially about history and time periods. I have a huge fascination about what life was like in different time periods and I feel for myself anyway the best means of seeing what life was like is reading books written in those time periods. Especially Dostoevksy’s Crime and Punishment. Like I read that book and I can see what it was like to live in St. Petersburg at that time. And if you saw my room, I have two big bookshelves filled with books and I even categorized them by country. I have a whole Slavic section. One of my favorite classes I ever took at USC was a Slavic science-fiction course where we read sci-fi books from Poland and Bulgaria and Russia, and honestly they were some of the best books I ever read.
Back to shooting on Super 8. So, why film instead of digital?
I think something that’s also very appealing about film to me is what just happens naturally when you use it. For instance, when you shoot on 16 mm, when you first put the film into the camera it gets exposed to light, so at the beginning and the end of that roll, you’ll see that the light filters through yellow and orange and red. You can time the first and last shot when you’re shooting a scenebecause it’s going to have those really pretty, nice colors with exposed light.
Last week we shot a music video for the model Isabella Peschardt, and that’s going to be coming out in September. It’s her first music video that she’s releasing, and it’s probably the most gorgeous thing Gus and I have ever shot. I’m extremely excited for that to come out, and it’s all about those natural colors that are coming in and out as the film begins and ends. And then with Super 8 as well, Gus is going to kill me if I say the wrong one, because there’s sun flares and there’s solar flares, and I’m pretty sure that I want to say solar flares, but one of them actually kills us. Do you know which one is the right word? I don’t want to say it wrong.
I’m not sure.
I think it’s solar flare because every time I say sun flare, Gus gives me shit about it. If a sun flare happened the earth would be destroyed. So I think it’s a solar flare, but you get these really pretty—if you shoot into the sun, or if you shoot a silhouette, these really pretty things that happen with the film and that’s not something you can recreate shooting digitally. And it’s something that surprises you as well. Because we have an idea of what we’re shooting but we can’t look at it either, so we only know when we get it developed, and there are all sorts of surprises that come out in it. We probably have a say or control over 98% of it, but that other 2% you’re going to get a lot of really pretty things, or you might lose a minute of film if you’re shooting on Super 8.
One last question. Where does the name Phat Mango, which you use on your website and Instagram, come from?
In high school, my ex-boyfriend and I were trying to come up with an Instagram handle for me, and I was obsessed at the time with guavas. I love eating guavas, and he said why don’t you do Phat Guava with a “ph,” and we typed it in and it was taken, so we went to my second favorite fruit which is mangos, so we just did @phatmango that way and we were laughing so hard that my parents in the other room were thinking that something was wrong. But then I went to USC and in freshman year within two weeks, I met someone whose handle on Instagram was “Phat Guava.” I don’t even know the likelihood of that happening.
Featured image courtesy of Valentina Cytrynowicz
Stay tuned to Milk for more rising filmmakers.