Jeremy Podeswa talks about "Fugitive Pieces"

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Fugitive Pieces tells the story of Jakob Beer, a man whose life is transformed by his childhood experiences during WWII. The film is based on the beloved and best-selling novel by Canadian poet Anne Michaels.

Jakob’s story (Robbie Kay) begins in Poland in 1942, when he is nine years old. Nazi soldiers have murdered his parents and abducted his teenage sister, Bella. Traumatized by this horrific event, Jakob sneaks out of his hiding place and struggles to survive. He is found by Athos Roussos (Rade Sherbedgia), a Greek archaeologist working at a Polish dig site in Biskupin. Moved by the child’s plight, Athos boldly smuggles Jakob out of Poland and hides him in his home on the island of Zakynthos in Greece, also occupied by the Germans. Jakob spends the last years of the Occupation in Athos’ tender care.

After the war, Athos and Jakob immigrate to Canada, where Athos has accepted a teaching position with a University. As he matures, Jakob (now played by Stephen Dillane) begins a new life, studying, writing, and eventually falling in love with Alex (Rosamund Pike), a beautiful young woman. Yet he remains haunted by his parents’ death and the question of his sister’s fate. This terrible burden makes it impossible for him to live in the moment or to accept love when it is offered to him. Writing offers some relief, but it is not until he meets Michaela (Ayelet Zurer), a gentle soul who truly understands — and accepts — his pain, that Jakob allows himself to join the living. The lessons he learns become a legacy to Ben (Ed Stoppard), a child of survivors whose life intersects with Jakob’s in meaningful ways.

Jeremy Podeswa director of the Fugitive Pieces, has the written, directed and co-producer of The Five Senses and Eclipse in the past. The Five Senses was developed at the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in the Directors’ Fortnight section. It was nominated for nine Canadian Genie Awards, winning for Best Director, was the recipient of the Best Canadian Film Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, and has been distributed in over 50 international territories.

Eclipse, the story of ten characters looking for love in the ten-day period preceding a solar eclipse, was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, New Directors/New Films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Toronto International Film Festival.
Podeswa also directed the television movie After The Harvest, starring Sam Shepard, which was the winner of the Directors Guild of Canada Award for Best Direction and was nominated for nine Gemini Awards (Canada’s equivalent of the Emmy Award), including Best Director.
He has also recently directed the final two-hour movie of the mini-series Into The West, set in the 1890s and Executive Produced by Steven Spielberg for Dreamworks and TNT.

Cinema Without Borders: How did you come across Anne Michaels book and what motivated
you to make it into a film?
Jeremy Podeswa: I read the novel shortly after it was published. It had already generated something of a sensation in the literary world and was an immediate bestseller in Canada, where it remained number one on the bestseller list for a year. Like so many readers I was struck by the astonishing literary quality of the novel… every paragraph was a work of poetry. But I was also impressed with the emotional quality of the novel. Anne has great compassion for her characters and her love for them, and by extension, for humans in general, is a beautiful thing. I was also struck by her take on the war experience, how she made the concerns of war survivors relevant to any reader who has suffered a loss and has to learn how to come to terms with life after that experience.

I was motivated to make a film of the book from the start, but it was only after years of doing other things and thinking about it, that the opportunity presented itself. I think I was so attached to it partly because the story it tells dovetails with my own experience as the son of a WWII survivor, and I felt that the book tapped into that experience in such a unique and understanding way.

CWB: Has there been any personal experience in your life to help you to understand Jakob’s character better?
Jeremy: Yes, I do have my own personal experience that identifies with Jakob’s story (I’m Jewish, the son of a survivor) but I do feel that the story that Anne is telling with the novel and that we’re telling with the movie extends far beyond the particulars of that experience. It was never my interest to simply make a film about that specific experience of war. That would have been too limiting and in a way too close to my own personal story. What fascinated me about the novel was that it spoke to so many people with such a wide range of experiences. The book, (and the film), is about loss (of any kind), but also about compassion, self-sacrifice, and the power of love to transform lives… it’s really a story about overcoming loss and that’s something that everyone can identify with.

CWB: How did you come up with the visual style of the film? I experienced a melancholic mood watching Fugitive Pieces.
Jeremy: There is something very stately and classical about the novel, and also very poetic. I wanted to find a cinematic equivalent to those qualities and make a film that reflected Jakob’s sensitive and poetic nature. Jakob’s words that narrate the film have an almost incantory quality that, coupled with the visual density of the film, create, I hope, a film that has a lot of texture and a soulful tone. Interestingly for me, even though the film makes bold leaps through time and covers many places (Poland, Greece, North America) and many periods (the 1940’s to the 1970’s), it has the appearance of being extremely fluid and cohesive. It’s hard to explain, actually, but I think it’s alchemical in a way. Disparate things become a cohesive whole, largely through an attempt to create a sustained poetic tone that reflects the interior life of Jakob himself.

CWB: Fugitive Pieces is a combination of fragments of memories, nightmares and slices of Jakob’s life. Did you want the audience have an active part in discovering about Jakob’s past and have their own understanding of it?
Jeremy: There is a metaphor of archaeology in the story… (It’s no accident that Athos, the man who saves Jakob is an archaeologist)… as the film is so much about history and memory, and about how one assimilates past experiences and moves forward into the future. This is important not only on a personal level, but on a global/historical level as well. Nations/cultures must learn from their often painful pasts and discover ways to create a better future. There is a beautiful notion in the novel that everything retains memory, people, obviously, but cultures, nations, and the very earth (what are fossils but memories of things that existed in an earlier age). Memory and history are retained in fragments and I suppose the “fugitive pieces” of existence are those things that have made it out of the past, that have survived by any means, and have landed in the present. It’s a beautiful metaphor, I think, that also parallels how human memory works, in fragments and moments and not always in a direct or linear fashion.

When the film begins, Jakob is a character that lives equally in the past and the present. He is haunted by his traumatic childhood experiences and can’t let them go. In many ways, that fact dictated the structure of the movie. In the beginning, equal weight is given to the past (Jakob as a child during the war and after) and the present (Jakob’s adult relationships and growing career as a writer). But as he gets older, and his life becomes more integrated, the structure shifts more to the present day.

CWB: Please tell us about casting of your film. How did you choose your actors?
Jeremy: Casting is always a bit of a mystery, a very intuitive process. You try to find actors that have an affinity for the material you’re working on, but who also have a kind of native intelligence that you can actually see, so that when the camera is on them, it reads a light behind their eyes. The audience senses a mind at work and complex feelings that don’t always have to be verbally expressed. These actors are very rare. For this film we had additional challenges. For example, Jakob had to be believable as a writer, an intellectual, and as someone who had been through a great trauma in his early life. He also had to be believably Eastern European and Jewish, incredibly empathetic, and he had to age 25 years in the course of the film. And he had to be a credible romantic lead. There aren’t a lot of actors who could fit that bill. Daniel Day Lewis, Ralph Fiennnes maybe, and Stephen Dillane.

There were a lot of casting challenges like that for this film. Some were related to age spans (Athos ages the most), some were linguistic, (everyone speaks their native languages in the film… Greek, Yiddish, German, etc.) and some were just performance related (Young Jakob had to speak small amounts of multiple languages and be believable as Eastern European and Jewish and had to express huge wells of emotions with very economic means. Robbie Kay was the only young actor we found in a massive world search who could have accomplished this, and did superbly in the end).

CWB: The performances in Fugitive Pieces are superb. It is like actors playing themselves. How did you work with the actors?
Jeremy: It’s said that 90% of directing actors is casting and I think that’s true. In this case I was blessed with a cast of beautifully talented actors who had a deep understanding of their characters as well as a profound connection to Anne Michaels’ novel and the themes of the film. Also, I think that the most important thing a director can do is to create a safe environment for the actor to work in, so that they can fearlessly open themselves up and reveal parts of themselves that are difficult to access. What you’re always looking for is the truth of any given moment and your job as a director is to help the actor get there.

CWB: At the end of the film, Michaela helps Jakob to accept his life at present time. What do you think it is about Michaela’s character that brings such a change in Jakob’s life?
Jeremy: I think what a Michaela offers, is understanding and acceptance. Unlike Alex, Jakob’s first wife, Michaela doesn’t insist that Jakob needs to forget the past, bury it and move on. What she seems to say is that he just needs to find a proper perspective on the past. A way to live with it, rather than let it go entirely. Jakob can never truly abandon the past but he can find a way to assimilate it into his life and allow himself to live and love again. She is also, clearly, a woman of sensitivity and intelligence, but I think the biggest thing is that she accepts Jakob as he is, rather than insisting that he change. Ironically though, it is that simple acceptance that allows him the space to change the most without even trying.

CWB: Please tell us about your future projects.
Jeremy: I’m currently directing the HBO mini-series “The Pacific“, executive produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. It’s a companion series to “Band of Brothers” about the Pacific War. Since making the movie I’ve also directed “The Tudors” and “Dexter” for Showtime, “John From Cincinnati” for HBO, and “The Riches” for F/X. An eclectic but very interesting mix of things. I’m also now contemplating a new feature film project… it’s brewing!

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Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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