Interview with director and screenwriter Agnieszka Holland
Interviewed by Sergey Timofeev 06/02/2015
A confident woman of medium height, dressed in black, with a short haircut, and wearing glasses is looking at something on her tablet while the TV crew is setting up the camera and lighting. Serenity, confidence and slight detachment are the qualities that stand out to me when I meet Agnieszka Holland. She was born in Warsaw in 1948 to a family that was affected by the holocaust. She studied in Prague, then worked as an assistant to Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi, after that she started making her own films, and her first feature film (“Provincial Actors” - “Aktorzy prowincjonalni”) in 1978 won the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Festival. In 1981 she relocated to the West and made films in France, Germany, and then in the USA. She wrote screenplays for a number of Wajda’s films and for Kieślowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy. She also directed a lot of different films of her own, for example “Total Eclipse” with Leonardo DiCaprio, who played the poet Arthur Rimbaud, “The Secret Garden”, “Europa, Europa”, “In Darkness” and “Copying Beethoven”. In 2014 she agreed to direct a few episodes for the political TV drama series “House of Cards”, but before that she had worked on “The Wire”, “The Killing” and “Treme”. She also gave a lecture in Riga about the “TV series” phenomenon, and the theme was “The modern audience’s change in preference from film to TV; the value of TV series in the reflection of social processes”. It is also important to note that she is the chairwoman of the European Film Academy, therefore she was involved in the award ceremony which also took place this year in Riga and complemented the Riga International Film Festival. Considering the amount of work and responsibilities she faces, Agnieszka is still a calm, confident, detached woman with a slight amount of irony. Her type of personality would normally dictate a profession as a writer, and indeed she had to write a lot of screenplays in her time, which is why I wanted to find out how the stories are born in her head, what kind of plot lines interest her and why. Finally the TV crew have finished filming, and I sit down in front of Agnieszka Holland at the table, introduce myself and begin the interview.
Photo: Andrejs Strokins
You don’t just make films and TV series, you have also written a lot of screenplays. In the “Theatrical Novel” Mikhail Bulgakov described how the main character composes his own story, his own novel: a kind of little box appears in his head, where the little figurines of the characters move around, the music plays, the snow falls... So how does the process of coming up with a new story work for you?
I need a certain type of reality that can inspire me. Typically the original idea comes from the influence of an event or a person. This happens a lot more frequently than reading some kind of a book. Or it could be a photograph, a historical photograph, a painting, but the photograph is still more relatable - that is how my imagination kicks off. But it is also restricted by the limitations of reality’s capabilities. Bulgakov’s idea of the devil in the shape of a cat, or Fellini’s extravagant images, are not my thing.
When you write a story, do you see it in your head as a film? Or is it only just a story, a text?
I can’t say that every screenplay works the same way for me. But usually I have some kind of canvas as a backdrop, and then I see scenes that appear in my head out of order, and that’s how I write them down - not in a chronological order. When I have 7 or 8 of these scenes, I try to build some sort of structure and I do this visually, I draw a big diagram, I mark the different characters by different colors, and I form their development. Then I see that I have empty spaces that need to be filled up. I see that one of the characters doesn’t “fit”, and I try to balance it out. This isn’t technical work, it is more of a logical part of work. And of course before I start this work, I have to feel that there is something behind all of this, that the plot can live on its own.
When you work with a script that somebody wrote for you, is it a completely different feeling? Do you require a different approach?
Actually I’ve been mostly working with “other people’s” material for a long time now. And often I restructure it or partially rewrite it, and I do this either alone or with the author. Here a special mechanism of a psychological nature begins to work on me. After a while I begin to feel that this “other person’s” script is mine. At the same time there are certain limitations, as I don’t want to break the soul of the other person’s work. Therefore I need to find a way to comprehend the script as deeply and as personally as the original author did.
In the filming studio the original author is no longer important. Of course there are certain limitations here also, if it is a series being filmed for American TV, then I can’t change anything in the original script. It is very rare that the screenwriters would let me do that. But when I direct my own films, I constantly change some things until the very end of filming, and sometimes even during the editing process. I am constantly adding or rewriting together with the screenwriter.
When you are filming something, do you already envision how it will look on the screen?
Not exactly. I collect many important visual impressions, for example casting is very important to me. If I have the opportunity to do casting myself, I always do it, even with the most famous actors, to check how correct my intuition was in relation to this or that character, and whether the actor can embody the personality that I already formed in my head.
When the filming process begins, I have three elements: the space, the actor and the camera. And suddenly everything comes together, or it doesn’t. (She smiles). Filming for me is the most exhilarating step. Some directors don’t enjoy it as much, but for me this is the time when my brain and my imagination are working to their fullest potential. Actually when I am reading somebody’s script, I sort of “project” it, I see it in images. This process makes it very tiring for me to read other scripts. It is as if I am already filming them in my head. And sometimes it happens that I imagine something from page one, but then on page two something completely conflicting with my imagination happens, and so I have to return to the first page and re-imagine it the correct way. That is why I always try to avoid having to fulfill the consulting role, or something of that nature, because the actual reading demands too much energy from me.
You mentioned filming TV series. They are undoubtedly very popular now. Maybe it is because people want stories, and you can call TV series the contemporary equivalent of novels. Indeed, literature states that “the novel is dead” and so on. Now the equivalent of that has appeared on the screen. Do you agree that TV series are the new novels?
Yes, I think that there is a type of audience that pines for something “epic”. This reminds me of the 19th century, when the great realistic novels were also published in newspapers and magazines as types of series. Hugo, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky can all be described in some way to have “written series”. The audience is hungry for the capability of following the unveiling of complex personalities in a wider scope, and for the richness of possibilities and diversities of the plot. The necessity for such stories usually appears in the moments of revolutions, and the realistic novel came at the time of the Industrial Revolution. And we also live in a similar era of changes, the world becomes more fragmented and incredibly difficult; there is the informational revolution, the sexual revolution, and all of them are happening so far that there is no full understanding or reflection of what is occurring. This leads people to a dead end. The epic approach helps to make ends meet and create an image of the world, even if the world appears to be not too enjoyable and pretty cynical. In this sense, it is interesting that the most popular American TV series show us a world not all that wonderful, full of characters that are quite horrible. This is a world where cruel, cynical and brutal things take place. And for whatever reason people want to watch this, and they identify with those awful characters. In my opinion, it shows that our society has a hidden aggression, and we observe its outbursts in real life. And these TV shows in some way help to deal with this aggression.
Should we block the aggression, or should we express it and get rid of it?
It’s difficult to say. I don’t think we can identify a concrete and easily formulated psychological influence. However these TV shows open some channels of communication and self-expression which are blocked in our ordinary life.
So you think that people need stories, which inevitably feature hard stuff?
10 or 15 years ago it was very difficult to sell a show to TV or studios which featured unlikeable characters. I also faced this problem and quite often would get annoyed when I would come up with an idea for a plot and they would say “But this character is not very nice!” Fuck! You know... So what if he is not very nice? But now everything is the other way round - you come to a studio with an idea, and they tell you that this character is too nice!
Yes, too sweet... (they laugh). But all this happens because that’s what the audience demands, not because somebody laid out this scheme.
Maybe the next wave will be those sweet, likable characters.
Yes, and at some point all of this will come to a complete stop, and it will be impossible to go on without a complete change of this exposition. And if it comes down to war, which isn’t so unlikely, people will not want to watch horrible stories and subjects. We don’t know what will happen. But now it is the way it is, and it’s interesting to analyze and question why the audience is fascinated by complicated stories with pretty negative characters.
What kind of story would you like to tell in our time?
It is not so easy to “grasp” reality nowadays. In the last few years I’ve been trying to write a script in which I want to realize the true story of everyday life in a country like Poland. So far I have been unsuccessful. So I took a novel written by one of my friends, it is quite strange and unusual, and it is quite different from the things I have done before. And we’ve been working on it for a whole year, but for me it is a kind of experiment. As for the story that I want to tell... It would have to touch upon the subject of the mystery of today. And from what I watch (and I watch a lot of stuff, European, American and Asian), only a few films truly pertain to this mystery. They unfold something genuinely truthful about what is happening around us. The last film that made me feel this way was probably Zvyagintsev’s “Elena”, not his new film “Leviathan”, but the previous one. It is a very simple film that managed to penetrate deeply the flesh of today’s time.
Do you live in Poland now or abroad?
No, I live on two continents and in three countries, and I work on a lot of things, so I live where the filming is happening. Not too long ago I spent a whole year in Prague during filming. Now I am working for American TV and I travel to strange places like New Orleans and Baltimore.
What do you think of the two worlds, Eastern and Western Europe? After 25 years since the fall of the Berlin wall, are we more similar to each other?
Those two worlds have a lot of similar problems, similar aesthetics, but they have different... wounds and pains. And it’s not that all post-communist countries have the same wounds and problems. They are also different from each other, and the way we are trying to avoid or hide from these problems is also different. It is quite interesting, but it seems that in very few places people are able to openly judge their reality and their past. There is a lot of escapism. And this escapism is reflected through the most kitsch ideas in money, in the market, in nations and churches. And the people in these countries don’t look any happier than before. Which proves that Milos Forman was right about most people preferring to live under the wing of the state, not in the jungle. A host of populists appeared, maybe in the Baltic countries not as much, but in Poland, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, they are very common. These are liars that provide people with fake solutions for real problems.
People dream of freedom, but when it arrives, it becomes very difficult to actualize it.
A similar situation is now taking place in Western countries too, it is possible to see the similar symptoms in France and Italy. However those countries have solid democratic institutions which can still function, although nothing functions any more as it should. We are in a deep crisis, therefore I think that there should be an opportunity to make a simple film that could show the way things are in reality, but perhaps I don’t have enough talent to film that.
25 years ago people had grand ideas about the free market that automatically makes us free. What should we hope for now?
The free market does not make us free, and I understood this when I was filming my first feature in America. Because those I worked with were even bigger collaborators than those who thought themselves as such in Poland. My colleagues were really afraid that they would do something unpleasant to those who had any power over them, for example me, the producers, the studio. I understood this when I asked my assistant for his opinion on a few of my decisions. Suddenly I saw a very scared person, pale in the face, standing in front of me. And he was saying that, of course, everything was exactly as I was seeing it. And I needed quite a bit of time to persuade him to divulge, to feel safe with me and to share his point of view.
I understood just how much these people are dependent on their job, on their credit scores: the credit cards make slaves out of them. They buy houses on mortgages, they send their children to universities on loans, they pay for health insurance with credit. And every person becomes dependent on how favorable is the corporation to them. I haven’t even seen such a high level of conformism in Poland, maybe in Czechoslovakia in 1968 where it was dramatic and violence prevailed. There is none of that in America, it is a free country with a free market, however the people are completely blocked off.
What should we hope for?
You want some sort of solution from me? I don’t have one. But I know one thing for sure - we don’t have enough great ideas. And we don’t have an authority that would perhaps come to us with a new religion, or a new concept that analyzes reality. Ideas that are all around us are just recyclables, the remains of some leftwing or rightwing notions from the mid-20th century.
Do we have to think about how to cultivate a generation of thinkers?
Probably... But now the lack of ideas and hopes are making easy prey out of people for populists, who are trying to unite people in the name of race, nation, hatred or God. And we are seeing how quickly these false ideas can lead to the creation of almost fascist regime.
Do you think there are contemporary directors who could be called great thinkers? Those who, perhaps, have not yet found the mystery of the moment, but are at least on the right path to it?
Of course there are directors that have the talent to grasp the essence of things: undoubtedly Haneke, Zvyagintsev, some Iranian guys... The Turkish director Ceylan, although in his last film he is taking a step back from this path, becoming just a bit too comfortable.
Photo: Andrejs Strokins
Perhaps it is time for a new generation of female directors?
I am quite disappointed in this regard. 10 or 15 years ago I thought that the time of women was coming, that they will be able to find a new path. It didn’t happen. Of course there are interesting female directors, for example in Poland there are more interesting young women than men. But it often happens that after their first film they disappear. For women it is undoubtedly more difficult, as they have to take care of a lot of things at the same time, like family and so on. In reality I don’t even know why it is happening this way.
Is this your first visit to Riga?
I was here in September and saw a little bit of the city.
As you walked through the streets of the city, maybe you imagined what kind of film you could make here?
You could make a lot of films here. The architecture is quite European. It could be a German city, it could be a Scandinavian city in some places, and it could be a Russian city in a few areas. This is a good place for some sort of a Western, for a film with twisted action. However if you ask me what sort of film or story you should film in your own country, I cannot formulate an answer to that as I only spent a few days here.