I had the opportunity to speak with Jeremy Podeswa, the writer and director of the upcoming film, Fugitive Pieces. The film is based on the 1996 prize-winning book of the same name by Canadian poet and author, Anne Michaels. The story is a lyrical redemptive tale of a man who must deal with the legacy of his traumatic childhood experiences during World War II.
Toronto native Podeswa has two other feature films to his credit, Eclipse (1994) and The Five Senses (1999), but for the last ten years, he’s been more active in television, with directing credits for The Tudors, Dexter, Six Feet Under, and Rome, among others. He is currently working on The Pacific in Australia, where I spoke with him on the phone. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Fugitive Pieces is your third feature film, and lately you’ve been more active in
television. How do you compare working in both areas?
All the TV work has been directing, and TV has been great for me. I really started directing a lot of television with Six Feet Under and then that led to a lot of other work with HBO. I directed Rome and now I’m directing a show called The Pacific which Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks are producing. It’s sort of a companion show to Band of Brothers – that’s what I’m doing in Australia.
I think [working in television] gives you a versatility that’s really valuable and a wide range of practical work experience and working with different tones, which is really exciting for me. When I came around to doing Fugitive Pieces, which is a much more ambitious film in many ways than my last couple of features, having directed Rome and a couple of other things that were big and complex and challenging, I felt equipped in a way that I might not have felt otherwise. At the same time, although I really loved doing all those other things, I hadn’t written them. It was really nice for me to take a little break from that and go back to work on something I had actually written and invested a lot of my own time and energy, personality, and preoccupations into and then film that.
Anne Michaels said she waited a long time to allow Fugitive Pieces to be made because she wanted whoever did it to have a deep understanding of it. How did you land the job?
I approached the company that had the rights to the novel. I had a very strong emotional response to the novel. I really felt an affinity for the things that she was saying and a strong connection to the quality of her writing and the themes she was dealing with. I think I was just extremely passionate about it. I made a very strong case. I also have a personal connection in that my father is a Holocaust survivor and I identified very strongly with the things that she was writing about, but I think that alone would never have been enough.
The fact that I did have a sympathetic connection [was important,] but also that on an aesthetic level I really responded strongly to the material. Anne had seen the last feature I made just before I approached her about doing this adaptation, which was The Five Senses, and she had responded to my creative perspective. Getting a sense of me as a filmmaker, getting a sense of me as a person and of my passion for the material, all together those things made her feel confident that I could do it.
Do you think the fact that you have handled multiple narrative threads in a film before helped? Given the films that you’ve made, it appears that you like narrative complexity.
That’s very true. In fact, I am attracted to narrative complexity. Even the first feature I did, which was called Eclipse, had a very unconventional structure. What interested me from the beginning [with Fugitive Pieces] is that I didn’t really know what form it would take because it is a very complex, dense novel. It takes place over forty years and in many different countries. It was a process of discovery, really, for the structure to emerge. Probably on some intuitive level, even at the beginning, [I knew] it was going to dovetail with my own narrative interests.
Anne Michaels said she felt it was important to understand that the story was not only about the relationship between memory and history, and the relationship between men and women, but also the relationship between men and men. How did you approach weaving all those narrative strands together, especially since you’ve also got the time and place shifts?
It was a very intuitive process. I knew I wanted the film to start with the inciting incident, the traumatic event that haunts Jacob for his whole life. From a cinematic perspective, I thought it would be very interesting to start the movie during wartime in a crisis and have the audience think, “I’m watching a movie about the war.” Then there’s a sudden shift about ten minutes in where it’s the 1970s. Jacob is an adult and we realise that [the war] is not actually what the movie is; it’s one part of what the movie is. I liked the idea of coming into Jacob’s adult life at a point of crisis as well, when his marriage is not going very well.
I play with time further by retroactively dealing with how he met his wife, and having little details of his childhood before and after the traumatic incident being interwoven into the current story. So it’s quite a dense structure, actually, but I had a few anchors. One was how I wanted to start the movie, how I wanted to make that first leap. Once the audience accepts that first big leap, it will accept almost anything in terms of how we play with structure as long as it is organic and fluid and all those connections have a kind of seamlessness to them.
With The Five Senses, one of the things that was praised was how artfully you did conceal the narrative stitchery. For this film, did you want the juxtapositions to reveal meaning as well, so when you bring two pieces together, one actually illuminates the other?
Absolutely. That was always in my mind. It’s not arbitrary why we go back to a specific thing when we go back. It’s interesting because surprising collisions often occur. You put two things together and you think they mean one thing, but they actually mean something else, or they mean a third thing on top of the two you intended. I love that things inform each other in ways that are not always expected. Certainly, when I wrote the film and edited it, everything had to have a reverberation aspect. The past had to reverberate through the present in a way that was meaningful and moving. What dictated those things most was the emotional impact of one thing against the other.
Given that the book was written by Anne Michaels, did you feel that it was really important to get the poetic language of the book somehow into the movie?
Absolutely. I felt that so much of the appreciation of the novel is in the actual words she uses. The book is a work of sustained poetry, really. There’s a beautiful story being told, and the language is absolutely essential to the experience of reading the novel and a huge part of the pleasure of the novel. Anne managed this crazy trick of being incredibly intellectual and at the same time being purely emotional. I was profoundly moved by the book. I cried when I read the novel a number of times. Largely it’s the use of language which gets right to the heart of something, words that crack feelings open. I knew that if you could harness that in the movie, you would really have something special. I couldn’t imagine accessing that without the actual words.
Anne Michaels said she visited the set a few times — was she a resource in the process of adaptation?
She was, very much. What was great about Anne, for me as a writer/director, was that she completely opened herself up to the process. She was very gracious about it. From the very beginning she said to me, “I know that a book is a book and a movie is a movie, do what you need to do, but I’m available to you if you want me.” I really chose to include her a fair bit because she was a fantastic resource. She knew these characters better than anybody; she’d been living with them for such a long time. She was writing about very complex things and I felt it could only be a good thing for me to consult her. She read some drafts of the script, she looked at some casting tapes of actors we were considering, she came to the departments when we were in preproduction and talked about art direction and sets, and she came to visit the set. She was incredibly supportive and available, but at the same time very respectful of the process. She gave me a lot of space so I didn’t feel tied to her or the novel. I had enough space to create something new.
Fugitive Pieces was chosen to open the Toronto Film Festival. What was that experience like?
It was fantastic. Every film I’ve made has shown at the festival. This was a very big honour and all my family were there, my friends and everyone who worked on the movie. It was very exciting and moving for everybody, so that was great.
The cast received rave reviews at the festival. How important was casting to this film?
Casting is huge for me. If you don’t cast the right people, you don’t have a movie. Casting is everything. We did massive searches for every character in this movie. Aside from having to cast people who are beautiful and appropriate to the context of the film, in this case you have very specific requirements. For example, Jacob has to age about twenty-five years. He has to be believable as Jewish, Eastern European, intellectual, a writer and also a romantic lead. That’s a lot of things for an actor to pull off and there were not a lot of actors that really fit that role suitably.
Similarly, Athos has to speak Greek, has to age many years as well, and you have to believe that this character is capable of this incredible act of sacrifice to save this child whose language he doesn’t speak and raise him for his entire life. He’s an extraordinarily compassionate human being. Finding Rade [Sherbedgia] was like finding a needle in a haystack, a Greek-speaking actor who could believably be all those things. Dialect, language, aging, all those things are very difficult to achieve.
And Robbie [Kay], too — finding a young actor who believably had been through this kind of a trauma, who could be believable as Jewish, Eastern European and could speak little bits of other languages, including Greek and Yiddish, and age a few years believably as well — very tough. With Robbie and Rade, if we hadn’t found those two actors … there was no second choice for either of those roles. We looked at thousands of kids all over the world. We looked over North America with no luck, we got casting people in Eastern Europe, in Budapest, in Prague and Poland, and there was no second choice. When I heard Robbie, it was like a lightning bolt. I knew if any of [our choices] didn’t work out for whatever reason, we were really in big trouble. But we found them all, amazingly enough.
One of the Toronto film fest reviews called the film “painterly.” Did your father being a painter influence your own appreciation or approach to art?
I think it did very much. My father’s father was also a painter and my brother is a painter. Certainly painting was probably the number one influence when I was growing up, seeing it around me and living with it. My father always had a studio and I went to the studio a lot and watched him paint. He painted me and my brother and sister all the time. I was very aware of the creative process and had a really good understanding of composition and colour and light and all these things. I was always interested in fine art.
But I had a lot of interests. I was interested in movies, in television, in writing. I knew I was going to have to find a form of artistic expression because there was so much in my family, but I didn’t know what mine was actually going to be. Filmmaking seemed to be a great way to combine all those creative interests that I have in a way that’s very interesting to me.
Some of the early reviews of your film remarked that the scenes seem like tableaux. There’s an accuracy of detail and very specific look with the colour and the light. Did you have a specific look in mind or is that something that evolved?
I had worked with this cinematographer before and we have a very good dialogue about these kinds of things. We talked a lot about what the film should feel like and look like and a lot of it comes from the novel as well. It’s very poetic and rich in detail. A big thing for me was finding a cinematic equivalent to the poetry of the novel. The novel has a kind of literary luscious quality and I wanted the movie to have a luscious quality as well.
I knew the attention to detail in the book should also be in the movie. The book is a lot about archeology. Athos is an archeologist. A big metaphor in the book is that everything has meaning, everything has value, everything retains history. That’s a very beautiful idea for me, so we did pay a lot of attention to details.
The film is a joint Canadian/Greek production and was shot in both countries. It sounds like the logistics of production were very complex. Do you have any stories that particularly sum up for you what that was like?
The most dramatic one is that we were shooting on an island in Greece called Hydra, which is an incredibly beautiful island but not really one suitable for filmmaking. There’re no roads, so there’re no cars, no trucks, no vehicles of any kind and because everything is up on hillsides, you can’t even roll things anywhere; you have to climb.
We had Panavision cameras strapped to donkeys, people carrying furniture on their backs and climbing thousands of stairs, and that’s how we made the movie. Because it was so crazy an endeavour, it was also fantastic. It was such a bonding experience for everyone making the movie. We were shooting in a place that hasn’t really been shot before that way. It is singularly beautiful and for the story works incredibly well. Jacob is a writer who goes to Greece to heal, and this is exactly the kind of place that Jacob would go to. He wouldn’t go to a place where there are scooters buzzing around; he would go to a place that is remote and beautiful and quiet and has an unbelievable beauty and that’s what Hydra has.
Fugitive Pieces opens May 2. View the trailer: