Interview: Agnieszka Holland, director of In Darkness

Agnieszka Holland pictureVeteran Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland’s 2011 war drama In Darkness (Sony, Blu-ray $35.99, DVD $30.99, released June 12, 2012) was nominated for a 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of the year. But, as Holland explained to Disc Dish, the movie was nearly not made.

Based on events as recounted in the 1990 book In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall, the outstanding movie tells the true story of Leopold Socha (played by Robert Wieckiewicz), a sewer worker and petty thief in the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Lwow who used his knowledge of the city’s sewer system to hide a group of Jews for more than a year during the Holocaust.

Director Holland is no stranger to distinguished film concerning the Holocaust. She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film for 1985’s Angry Harvest, a German movie about a Jewish woman on the run in World War II, and another for  screenwriting on her 1990 film Europa Europa, which concerns a German Jewish boy who escapes the Nazis by masquerading as an elite student in a Hitler Youth Academy in Berlin.

Disc Dish: How did the story and screenplay for In Darkness make its way to your desk?

In Darkness DVDAgnieszka Holland: David Shamoon, a Canadian writer, found the story and the book written by Robert Marshall. David Shamoon wrote the script and I read it, but I initially passed on it. It was way too complex for me, though I thought it was a fascinating story. But I first said, ‘I cannot do this film,” [primarily because] I had done films on a similar subject before. But he was very stubborn and he didn’t accept my answer of no. Then he sent me the next version, which was even better. Around the third version, the story began to enter my dreams and I found that I could not avoid it. But I gave my conditions and I was sure that the conditions would never be met.

DD: What were those conditions?

AH: I would only do it if it was going to not be in English. First, the producers said no, so I said no myself. Then, they agreed after coming to New Orleans and hearing the accents of the actors on the set of Treme [episodes of which Holland has directed]. They said that, yes, I was right. But with original accents and original voices, they cut our budget by half. The Polish producer understood why I did not believe in the movie at first.

DD: Have you always had a tricky relationship with producers when it comes to the kind of films you make?

AH: There’s always some kind of conflict with a producer and the money is always part of it, of course. With In Darkness, I liked my producer. We all want the same thing and that’s to make the same movie. Producers have to collect the money, find the money, convince the state or banks to move forward with the money. But when it’s not an English-speaking film with known actors, it’s not easy to get a film financed.

In Darkness production image

Agnieszka Holland directs Benno Fürmann in In Darkness.

DD: Things have changed in the European film industry since Europa Europa in 1990.

AH: Twenty years ago it was easier—the market was easier for foreign-language movies. Now, I feel the change in Europe. There’s more American product in Europe, most of it lacking originality. Filmmakers in Europe want to make better stories with local content, and producers want product from America.

DD: And now here you are, making high-profile European films and directing prominent American television shows.

AH: I never imagined doing this kind of stuff. When I started, I wanted to make artistic Polish films. But after all the political shifts and drama in my country began, things changed. It didn’t look like I would be making movies, and I didn’t think I could come to Hollywood and make movies. But I got the opportunity. And I can say that making movies anywhere is like a style of life. Actors and producers and crew members are all alike. It  doesn’t matter if you’re working with a Hollywood star or a provincial actor in the Czech Republic.

DD: The last several years have seen you “go Hollywood” by way of television, directing episodes of David Simon’s acclaimed HBO series The Wire and, as you mentioned, Treme.

In Darkness movie scene

A scene from In Darkness, directed by Agnieszka Holland.

AH: Sometime over the past few years, I became known in the TV world. TV is very much a writer’s medium. In many ways, the director is like a guest, serving the writer. In movies, it’s more a director’s medium, the feeling of the ownership. Working on TV has one great thing: It follows a schedule, which gives me energy and keeps me aware.

DD: Back to In Darkness, you must have been proud of its positive reception around the world.

AH: I didn’t expect that the movie would be so powerful. I didn’t think audiences would respond to the movie. A lot of people, to them it was a real experience. It was a surprise that they reacted in similar ways in Berlin, Toronto and Los Angeles. They laughed and cried at the same time. Maybe there were minor differences, but apart from that, the movie has the same effect.

DD: A universal response–one that crosses national boundaries–must also be very satisfying.

AH: It depends on the movie for the reaction of the audience. I think frankly that people are ready for more complicated films. I became optimistic over the recent years as I see that people are watching the world in a different way. The Internet has changed the perception of news, music, arts and world. People are more active and curious and less easy to manipulate.

DD: With In Darkness nominated for a 2012 Academy Award, I must ask you about your favorite films of 2011.

AH: It was not a great year for films. There were more good foreign films than there were American films. Moneyball and Midnight in Paris, which is such a sweet movie, were  movies that I enjoyed. But there was really nothing great, nothing you will remember for a long time. Oh, there was one. I would say that Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life was magnificent.

DD: And that one has more of a European feel, no?

AH: Not really. He’s very American filmmaker. There are a lot of American elements in his films and in Tree of Life. But maybe he is not an American filmmaker except in that America is where he makes his films. It’s more like he’s from another planet.

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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.