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“I Don’t Do Sentimental Journeys”: An Interview with Agnieszka Holland

Holland 02

By Alex Ramon.

Few filmmakers can claim a more diverse and distinctive career than Agnieszka Holland, a truly global artist who’s worked in Germany, France, Czech Republic, England and the United States, as well as her native Poland. From historical to contemporary subject matter, original scripts to literary adaptations, studio and independent films to major TV series, Holland‘s work has brought special insights to its representation of the histories and experiences of diverse individuals and groups. Resistant to dogma, clichés or party lines, and defiantly hard to pigeonhole, Holland has summed up her creativity thus: “I make films not to provide answers, but to pose questions.”

Latterly Holland has achieved considerable success in U.S. television, directing acclaimed episodes of The Wire (2002-2008), Treme (2010-2013), The Killing (2011-2014), House of Cards (2013- ), and both episodes of Rosemary’s Baby (2014), while helming the Czech miniseries Burning Bush (2013). While Holland has spoken of the ways in which work on such series has stimulated her, she’s also issued a caveat: “working on TV series can erase your expressiveness as a director.” Her upcoming project, Game Count (2016), suggests her way of reclaiming that expressiveness, and of venturing into new directions, too. Filmed in Poland, the movie is an adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead (a title borrowed from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790). It’s an “anarchist feminist ecological black comedy thriller,” in the director’s enticing description.

Conducted at Kinoteka: The Polish Film Festival in London, at which a retrospective of her work was being presented (including a newly restored version of her once-banned and still under-seen 1981 classic A Woman Alone), the following interview with Holland avoided discussion of her TV work, focusing instead on her feelings about her early films, her memories of working in England for the first time, her views on the state of contemporary Polish cinema, and her work on Game Count, which, as it turned out, brought the conversation full circle.

Since we’re speaking during a retrospective of your work, I wanted to begin by asking what your feelings about some of your older films are, these days. Do you tend to go back and watch something like Provincial Actors (1979) or A Woman Alone (1981), or do you now feel distanced from these early films?

Provincial Actors (1979)

Provincial Actors (1979)

I don’t watch them too often, really. But it does sometimes happen that I have the occasion to see them again; for example, if a film is restored, and the producers ask me to watch it, or if I’m screening a film for some students. And of course sometimes it happens that I’m just flicking through television channels and one pops up, so then it’s difficult not to watch it. What’s magical about seeing a film on television is that you know that other people are watching it too, so it becomes a communal experience again, in a way. But overall I don’t do sentimental journeys.

You don’t feel too nostalgic about your past work, then?

Not really. But I suppose there is a nostalgic feeling of a kind. I don’t keep diaries, so in some ways the films serve as the diary and the documentary of what I was doing at that time, and of a lot of human relationships which were connected to each movie.

If you do look back, are there any films that you feel particularly close to or proud of?

I’m not ashamed of any of my films. Of course some are more controlled, which is to say that they look more as I imagined they would look when I was making them. That’s especially true of the smaller, more intimate films. Others, less so. But most of them are ageing pretty well, you know? When I watch them again, I don’t have the impression that they’re dated. They still feel quite fresh to me.

Having worked in many different countries, languages, and production systems over your career, do you have a strict or particular process that you apply to your projects, or have you had to be more flexible than that?  

When I’m doing a more personal film, something that I wrote the script for, then the process is a little different than if I’m doing something based on somebody’s else’s script. Then the “falling in love” is different, the process of arriving at the scripted version is different. With my early Polish movies, I mostly – though not always – wrote the scripts, but when I came to work abroad that became more complicated for various reasons. However, even then, I always participated in the last stages of the script. So at some point I felt that I claimed the property, you know. You can almost forget that it wasn’t your script originally! Having said that, as a screenwriter myself, I always have great respect for writers and I try never to distort their concept. And of course working in countries like Poland, Czech Republic, or France is different to working in the United States, where final cut is something that’s very rare for a director. But, in my experience, if you’re strong enough then you mostly find a way to have the version that you believe in. Conflict with producers can be disheartening, though. If it’s a creative battle, if you feel that they’re trying to find the best version of the film, then that’s different. But not if they’re motivated purely by commercial concerns.

Where have you felt most “free” or comfortable making films?

Paradoxically, you know, probably in Communist Poland. Except for the political issues, of course. But those were pretty simple to understand, and we found ways to get around them a lot of the time. But in terms of creative choices related to casting or storytelling pace, or the form or length of the film, we were totally free. That kind of freedom doesn’t happen anyplace now. Of course some contemporary filmmakers have found a niche to preserve their independence, but it’s become more and more difficult. And even if you do succeed in making the film your way then distribution is the issue. This can be very tough. You really need support from major festivals to get the film out there.

Since we’re speaking in England I wanted to ask about The Secret Garden (1993), which was the first film of yours that I saw. It was an important film for a lot of people of my generation: it reminded us that something other than Jurassic Park was possible in 1993. How was the experience of coming to England to make the film?

Secret Garden (1993)

The Secret Garden (1993)

It was very intense for me. This was my first film in England, my first for a major studio, and really my first encounter with the real England, which I only knew through literature and films up to that point. After Europa, Europa (1990), which was quite popular and successful in the United States, I had a lot of offers and I chose The Secret Garden because it was the important book of my childhood. So it was a lot of fun for me to bring it to life on the screen. At the same time, it was a very challenging shoot because the weather was terrible. The producers, Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope, were fantastic people, but not very experienced in some ways. They had a lot of problems with the British crew. Americans are not very exportable, you know. They’re good in their own country but when they leave it, suddenly they don’t know how to behave, and they’re surprised by any opposition. So I ended up in the middle. But in some ways that was good for me, too, because the British crew really became my allies. And that wasn’t necessarily expected: I was Polish and a woman, after all.

Related to that, one surprise, shooting in England, was the absence of other women in the crew. I’d made films in Poland, Germany, and France, where the crews were much more mixed. In France, in particular, there were a lot of women in key positions, and also a lot of women directors. But in Britain it was very different at this time. The costume designer on The Secret Garden was a woman (Marit Allen), and she was wonderful, but otherwise it was almost entirely male-dominated. I felt a little like I was in the military! The crew was huge, especially for such a small movie. Often it would be a couple of the child actors in a room or in the garden and 300 men around, drinking beer! Another of my memories of the British crew is that they were eating practically all the time! Many meals throughout the day. But it was also very special, to be in England, in the summertime. Going to Yorkshire was great. When I was a child in Poland I had an image of England, and the reality didn’t disappoint me, I have to say. In many ways, it was better than my imagination. So I’m very happy that the film itself has become a little classic.

You’ve described your new project, Game Count (adapted from Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead) as an “anarchist, feminist ecological black comedy thriller.” What drew you to this material?

I like Olga’s books, but except for this novel, and some of the short stories, none looked possible to adapt, really. As I read this one for the first time, I thought it could be a movie. A Polish producer friend based in Berlin asked if I would be interested in the project so I re-read the novel and said yes.  I thought it would be very simple to adapt, but in fact it wasn’t. Olga did the first draft and then we worked on it together. It went through many, many drafts. But as I was shooting, I realised that the film would really find its shape in the editing room. I’m on the last stage of editing now. It’s challenging. We’ve tried different things to find the right form for the story. But I think it will be interesting. It’s very different from any film I made before.

How was the experience of shooting the film in Poland?

We shot during three seasons so it was the longest shooting experience I’ve had. It took probably two weeks before I really started to feel the style. But the crew was fantastic. For the main protagonist, Janina, who’s a woman over 60, I chose an actress who’d never played a lead role before.

Wasn’t Stanisława Celińska originally attached to the project?

She pulled out a few weeks before we started shooting. I think she was daunted by the physical demands of the role. So I chose Agnieszka Mandat. She’s had some small parts in films, but she’s best known for her theatre work in Krakow, and she’s also a teacher at the Drama School there. In fact, Agnieszka was supposed to have been in my first film, Provincial Actors, but she was in the storyline that I completely cut out so she’s not in the finished film. So I finally gave her the satisfaction of a part after 40 years! It was great to reunite with her, and she was fantastic to work with. The young Polish actors in the film, many of them quite famous, called her ‘Professor’ on the set. When they had scenes with her they were like: ‘Wow!’ I think that this film will be a great gift for me, and a gift for her, too.

Turning to Polish film in general, I attended Gdynia Film Festival last September and it seemed to me that this is a very strong moment for Polish cinema, following ten years of the Polish Film Institute and the great international success of Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013). Do you share that impression?

I missed Gdynia last time, as I was filming, but I attended two years ago and I was on the Jury in 2013 when Ida won. Yes, I think that there has been a real renaissance in Polish film and I just hope that it will continue. Of course it’s always dependent to some extent on the political situation. If the new government decides to let it be and doesn’t interfere then there’s no reason why this good period shouldn’t go on.

Are you optimistic that they won’t interfere?

Well, I don’t know. So far nothing bad happened, in spite of some declarations, so I don’t want to anticipate anything, you know. But, yes, after a long period of decline, it’s a very good time for Polish cinema. There are many interesting filmmakers, the middle-aged and younger generation, coming up. Production has been stable and growing for the last ten years, since the Polish Film Institute was founded, and the new law about financing movies was made. This means that a kind of ecosystem has developed so that cinema doesn’t depend on the budget.

Another important thing:  the Polish audience started to come back for serious movies, not just for comedies. There have been a number of box office hits. Ida was successful everywhere, of course; Małgorzata Szumowska’s Body/Ciało  (2015) won the Silver Bear for Direction at last year’s Berlinale, and this year the very talented young director Tomasz Wasilewski was awarded there for best screenplay [for United States of Love]. First and second-time directors also made some good movies. These filmmakers are growing and developing, and they feel supported, confident that people are interested in their work.

Alex Ramon is based in London, UK, and teaches English literature and film at Kingston University and the University of Reading. He holds a PhD in English and is the author of the book Liminal Spaces: The Double Art of Carol Shields (2008). He has published and presented papers on Iris Murdoch, Mordecai Richler, Michael Ondaatje, Guy Maddin, Sarah Polley, and Rawi Hage, and blogs at http://boycottingtrends.blogspot.com/.

1 Comment for ““I Don’t Do Sentimental Journeys”: An Interview with Agnieszka Holland”

  1. […] “I’m not ashamed of any of my films. Of course some are more controlled, which is to say that they look more as I imagined they would look when I was making them. That’s especially true of the smaller, more intimate films. Others, less so. But most of them are ageing pretty well, you know? When I watch them again, I don’t have the impression that they’re dated. They still feel quite fresh to me.” Agnieszka Holland discusses her latest, Game Count, and, of all her features, some amusing anecdotes from the set of The Secret Garden, with Alex Ramon. […]

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