We do not talk enough about Agnieszka Holland. Which is crazy because she has made some genuine classics — the 1993 version of The Secret Garden, the Oscar-nominated historical dramas Europa Europa and In Darkness, and the Henry James adaptation Washington Square (which contains one of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s greatest performances) among them. She has also made some underseen wonders: A Woman Alone, filmed in her native Poland, is one of the saddest pictures you’ll ever see. To Kill a Priest, an ambitious epic about the murder of a Solidarity-associated Polish priest, made with Western actors after Holland left her homeland, is a marvelous, devastating work just waiting to be rediscovered. Total Eclipse, an intensely passionate, did-I-dream-that romance featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as teen poet Arthur Rimbaud and David Thewlis as his tormented lover Paul Verlaine is … well, it’s kind of a miracle that it exists, honestly.
She also has a great new movie out right now and is about to release another. Mr. Jones, currently available on VOD, is a powerful historical drama about Gareth Jones (James Norton), a British journalist and erstwhile diplomat who traveled to the Soviet Union in the 1930s hoping to interview Joseph Stalin about what seemed like an economic miracle in the USSR. Instead, Jones discovered the harrowing truth: the Holodomor, the genocidal, manmade famine in Ukraine, one of the great mass murders of world history. He published some of the first exposés about it, at a time when much of the press turned a blind eye to Stalin’s crimes. Another Holland movie, Charlatan, is slated to premiere this fall, depending on the festival situation. (It was on the lineup for the recently canceled Telluride Film Festival.)
After making a number of controversial titles in Poland, Holland emigrated to the West in the 1980s and proceeded to carve out a versatile career for herself. Along the way, she has proven to be a terrific visual stylist and savvy storyteller but also a highly adaptable one: Even as she continued to make features, she became one of the go-to directors in the TV renaissance of the aughts, directing some of the most notable episodes of The Wire, Treme, The Killing, and House of Cards, among others. We recently had a long-ranging discussion about her new film, her life and career, how she poured her own bedridden childhood into The Secret Garden (a remake of which is out in theaters this week), and the perils of directing Method Ed Harris.
I did not know anything about the subject of Mr. Jones when I started watching it, and I was surprised to see it open with a scene of George Orwell writing Animal Farm. I even thought, Wait, is this going to be a George Orwell biopic? Which it certainly is not. Tell me about the decision to bring Orwell into the story.
It was Andrea [Chalupa] the screenwriter’s idea, and it was one of the things which hooked me when I started to read the script. After we see Orwell, we see Gareth telling his story about interviewing Hitler; that was interesting. When I understood how this metaphorical dimension of Animal Farm connected with the story, I actually wanted more of it. We shot a lot more Orwell for the film, which I trimmed. Some critics say that it stops the action, but in reality it leaps forward the action because it lets us take shortcuts. And I think Animal Farm was directly inspired by several testimonies and by Gareth Jones’s recollections of the famine.
We really haven’t seen many cinematic depictions of the Ukrainian famine, which claimed millions and millions of lives and was effectively another Holocaust. Your film shows how the media at the time was complicit in covering it up. It really becomes a story about journalism.
Yes. I found those questions about the nature and obligations of the journalists very relevant, about the corruption of the media and fake news and the need for honest and objective investigative journalism. It was difficult then, but it is even more difficult today because we are so polarized, and with social media and the internet, it’s so easy to spread fake news. Everybody can be journalists now without fact-checkers. This is so important, fact-checking. It takes a lot of work, time, and money. And the media doesn’t have the money for that and maybe not even respect for this kind of person who’s essential for the survival of democracy.
Your film gets into the tribal aspect of it. The people at the New York Times who are covering up what’s happening in Ukraine and what’s happening with Stalin, we sense that they’re picking sides. I feel like we sometimes see that now, too: “Well, you want to be careful about criticizing the wrong side.”
I know. We have exactly this polarization. It’s very difficult to find common ground when people from both sides, readers from both sides, or viewers, can’t be sure that what they see is an objective report of the truth. Even if it’s subtle, this manipulation, it exists, and it’s very difficult to avoid it. That is so dangerous. I see it in Poland as well, which is very much like in France and America; it’s really divided. The liberal or left side hates the other side and the other side hates them, and it is a domestic war. And the media is in one camp or other. Like when you watch Fox News and CNN, you have the impression that you are watching completely different realities. People are so confused, and it’s so easy for them to be manipulated. But they are also so indifferent. On one hand is the passion and the hate, and on the other hand the indifference: “Anyway, I will never know what the truth is, so who cares?”
Your parents were journalists, right?
My parents were journalists in the communist time in Poland. My father was a young communist who spent the war in Soviet Russia, and he came back believing in communism. He was Jewish, and his family perished in the Holocaust in Poland. For him, Stalin was the response to Hitler and the Holocaust. So it was quite logical that he was on this side. After a few years, he became deeply disappointed and unhappy, having the impression that he invested his energy, hope, and work — sometimes very propagandist work — into a very unjust cause. And by then, he was a victim of this regime. He was arrested on false accusations and committed suicide during his interrogation.
As a child, were you aware of the kinds of challenges your father was going through?
When he died, I was 17. And before that, they went through a very bad divorce, and I was a confidante of both. I was somehow the parent of my parents in this moment. I didn’t understand everything about the politics. My experience with the regime and with the Soviet communists came when I was in Prague, at film school, during the Prague Spring and then the Soviet invasion [of Czechoslovakia]. I was in prison for some underground work for a while. So between 17 and 22, I knew pretty much about the nature of this regime. I read all possible underground publications — historical books, Orwell’s books and Arthur Koestler, and so on.
What was the underground work you were doing in Prague?
Well, with the Polish colleagues and with the help of Czech colleagues, we’d been printing an underground information bulletin with some articles that had been smuggled from France to Czechoslovakia, and after we printed them, they were smuggled to Poland. My impact was very minimal, between me and you. But I was caught and accepted trial. And actually, the accusation was that I tried by force to destroy the countries of the World Communist Regime. [Laughs.]
You said that your father committed suicide while being interrogated. Do I have it right that he jumped from a window?
Yes. During the interrogation, they took him to his apartment for a search, and then he somehow diverted their attention, opened the window, and jumped.
When I learned that, I was quite struck, because the image of someone jumping or falling from a window appears in your work a few times. It’s in Provincial Actors and To Kill a Priest, for example. When you take on a project, do you try to find a personal image or a personal connection?
It’s never openly autobiographical, so I’m projecting some of my experiences into the different stories. But mostly I try to find something which is important to me, which is awaiting my urge to tell the story. It’s like I’m becoming pregnant with the story.
I recently rewatched The Secret Garden, which is one of the best children’s films I’ve ever seen. And if one looks at the credits, you didn’t write it, it’s an adaptation, it was produced by Francis Ford Coppola and his people. From the outside, it might seem like it was a project for hire. But then I learned that you had been bedridden yourself as a child and quite ill. I thought, Oh my God, this is actually a very personal movie.
Yeah, it is. Maybe one of my most personal. Really a lot of my childhood is inside it. And Kate Maberly, who plays Mary, looks a bit like a little Agnieszka — even if I was more of a Colin because I spent a lot of time in bed. That is a book I read many, many times. It’s a wonderful book, better than most of the other books by this writer [Frances Hodgson Burnett], because it has such a strong emotional symbolism, which speaks especially to younger girls and to women but also to the boys, to sensitive boys as well. And to grown-ups, too: I watched it not long ago, a year ago probably. I was flying to L.A. from Europe, and I was sitting in business class. I see that somebody is watching on their screen The Secret Garden. I recognized the images. I wanted also to see how it looks on this screen. So I found it in the menu, and I watched it myself. I don’t rewatch my movies often, but after so many years, in this strange place, this night plane over the ocean, it had some magic quality. I watched the entire movie and was actually moved to tears when the father comes to the garden and sees his son playing hide-and-seek. That meeting between the son and the father I found really touching.
It’s one of the most powerful scenes in any film I’ve seen. It’s really an incredible moment.
Yeah, so somehow it doesn’t matter so much if you wrote the script yourself, because after a while you have the impression that you wrote it. Directors are terrible parasites. They are stealing from everybody.
When you were yourself a child and ill, did you have someone like the girl in Secret Garden who brought you out of your shell?
Even though I was often sick for quite long periods of time, I had strong leadership. I had friends, but I was the one who was telling them what to do. It was one of the reasons I decided to be a director. I wanted to be a painter when I was a young teenager, but I also told stories. I started when I was probably 3, and I never stopped telling stories and making home theater productions with my girlfriends. I wanted to have power over people’s wishes and to tell them what to do. When I analyzed those things, I decided these are perfect skills and needs for a film director. I was 15.
As a woman, was it hard to do that in Polish society at the time?
For me, it was hard because I was who I was: the Jewish daughter of a father who became an enemy of the regime and was dead. It was very hard to be admitted to film school. I went to Prague, where I was much more anonymous. And it was difficult to make movies because of my name. My mentor and friend Andrzej Wajda, who was also the producer on my early movies, wanted to adopt me to give me his name to protect me. The fact that I am a woman was the last problem I had, frankly. But in communist Poland, feminism was practically unknown. Maybe it was an instinctive thing but not really an ideological one. Because we all had one enemy then: the regime, and censorship and a lack of freedom and a lack of food. I realized that being a woman was a supplementary handicap only when I emigrated to the West, when I wasn’t able to come back to Poland after the martial law there. I stayed in France and started to work. Then I worked in Germany and the U.S. and other countries. That’s when I realized that it’s much more difficult for a woman to be successful.
Was it difficult to find a place in Western film industries at the time?
It was, for sure. I didn’t speak any other language except Czech and Russian, which wasn’t very helpful. Wajda helped me. He was very popular in France, so he connected me with some producers and his agent, who became my agent for a while. Polanski was actually quite helpful, even though I didn’t know him before. And Milan Kundera, who was my teacher in Prague, gave me a lot of advice. And fortunately, I had some movies which were shown in Western festivals before my immigration, especially Provincial Actors, which got a prize at Cannes and had some distribution in France and in the U.S.
Given your situation in Poland, was it difficult to get your films screened there?
After film school, it was difficult. It was really thanks to the solidarity of my colleagues, especially [Krzysztof] Kieslowski and Wajda, but also [Krzysztof] Zanussi, who had been fighting for my right to make movies. But the regime at the time was quite mild — it wasn’t the worst phase of the Polish communist regime, and people didn’t really want to harm you — so they let me do a second film, and after that I was somehow established. Also I started to be invited to festivals and get some prizes. It was difficult, but at the same time, I was not alone. When I found myself in France, no one was really helpful; it wasn’t like the wave of solidarity which I had when I came from film school in Prague to Warsaw and my colleagues started to help me. But I cannot complain, really. For someone like me, with my biography, with my accent, with my looks, and my strange, often difficult subjects, I think I was ultimately very lucky.
The figure of the outsider is a very prevalent one in your work. It’s in Mr. Jones but also in Secret Garden, in Copying Beethoven, in Europa Europa, even in something like To Kill a Priest. It seems you have been an outsider your whole life.
Certainly my identity didn’t fit into the majority ever. But coming to France was when I realized that immigration is very painful and deprives you of a lot of important things in your life. But at the same time, it’s probably the most pure and true existential situation. It’s what we are on the planet: We are existentially alone, born alone and dying alone. And in the most difficult moments, you cannot really share it with anyone. It is a good exercise, I think, immigration — to face the truth, which is difficult.
I recently rewatched To Kill a Priest, which is a film I don’t remember getting much traction at the time of its release.
The film practically was not released in the U.S. It had few screenings. Some in Chicago and someplace. And it was a victim also with the studio politics because it was supported by David Puttnam, who was fired. So the film became an orphan, and studio politics kicked it out and it disappeared. It was a difficult movie to make, actually. We did the movie practically two or three years after the real priest was assassinated by the secret police. And we’d been quite close to reality, of course. But some Polish patriots cannot forgive me for taking the point of view of the murderer, of this terrible cop, and not the priest. The priest is important, but he is a kind of an icon, and the story is told from the point of view of his killer.
I thought that was a powerful choice in the film because it shows the kind of power that this angelic priest, played by Christopher Lambert, has on the protagonist, the brutal cop played by Ed Harris.
It was probably two reasons. One: It is very difficult to photograph goodness. Hunger you can photograph with somebody who wants to eat. So goodness, you can photograph with somebody who has the temptation of good but cannot actually have it, who is stumped. The other reason, I thought to myself, I’m really interested in the psychology, in the inner world, of the kind of person who was responsible for my father’s death. That was something far more interesting to me than just to make a hagiography.
The opening shot of the film is incredible — this great long shot of a demonstration seen from inside a bus. You don’t get much credit for creating these bravura shots, but they’re all over your filmography.
Some are good, yeah. [Laughs]
Your films also have some of the best close-ups, and you seem to find the best faces. Nobody has shot Ed Harris more interestingly than you have over the course of your career.
I love this guy. He’s my best friend among actors, so maybe that projects in the way I’m shooting him. He’s younger than me, I think about one year or two, but we are born on the same day, so we shared our birthday on two shoots. When we started, he was very intense: He was such a Method actor; it was dangerous sometimes. When he played this secret-police guy [in To Kill a Priest], it was difficult sometimes to talk to him. He became violent or angry. He was living with this guy inside of him for a few months, and sometimes he was difficult to be around. Once, I kicked him off the set because, when shooting a scene, he became violent, throwing things. And we were shooting 20 kilometers from Paris, so he walked to Paris.
He walked to Paris?
Yes. It was long time ago. Now he’s a very self-controlled, wise man. But he was a Method actor at this time. When he played the character, he became the character. When you cast him as a nice character, he was very nice. When you cast him as a character who is violent, he was violent. But we had this very special bond from the beginning. I was able to tame him.
Who are some other actors you’ve had intense experiences with?
Bad or good?
You tell me!
Well, I love actors. Actors are my family. Especially when you are in another country. With the crew, every crew in every country is different — they have their hobbies and tics, and you have to eat and drink with them enough wine or whatever to break this kind of reservation. But with actors, it’s immediate. Actors are the same in every country. It doesn’t matter if it’s a huge Hollywood star or a provincial actor from some Polish theater in a small town. They have the same needs. The same desires. The same kind of gratefulness. They are giving their emotions, they are giving their bodies, faces. And what they really need back is truth and trust. They immediately see if the director doesn’t know, or they hate if the director pretends. And when you can help them somehow, they are really grateful. Some bad experiences I’ve had, but not many. Sometimes you have somebody who is not talented and who is incapable of delivering, and that is always painful for him and for me.
What do you do in a case like that?
Well, the best is not to cast someone like that. But, for example, on a series, the character is established, and I cannot do much. I try to push it, and sometimes it really can be like pushing a piece of furniture.
You worked with Leonardo DiCaprio early in his career on Total Eclipse, about the love affair between the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Rimbaud is an odd part for him, but he gives a great performance.
Leonardo was a genius. He’s a great, very talented actor. When he was young, he had really the path of genius. He was like a medium who opens somebody’s soul, and he was able to play characters which were so far away from him. Rimbaud was not close to him, the American teenager, but he was so good in that and so graceful.
He was already a rising star, but could you tell he would hit the stratosphere?
Oh yeah. He already had the Oscar nomination for Gilbert Grape. But it was his beginning phase; it was before Titanic. I thought he would be huge, but I didn’t know in which direction he would go. And what was interesting was that, after Titanic, he somehow hated this kind of attention: He had become this rock star with this androgynous quality. And he put on weight and became this man and lost a bit of his angelic side. I think it was his decision to change.
And when you look at Jennifer Jason Leigh in Washington Square, she was not somebody a lot of people thought might do a Henry James adaptation at the time. But that unpredictable, modern edge to her performance really helps the film.
I think she’s a great actress. For others, she was maybe too specific an actress for American cinema, especially at this time. Washington Square is actually one of my favorite movies I did, especially because of Jennifer. I’m always touched when I remember the last scene, when she’s singing with the children. She’s also very talented in the way Leonardo was but without this kind of grace exactly. Her skills are against her looks somehow. But she’s the best prepared actress I’ve ever, ever worked with. When she was doing something like Henry James, she did all possible homework. She knew everything about everything, starting from how to wear the clothes to every single interpretation of every single Henry James novel. And period things — what would be possible, what would be not. Actually, I was a bit worried that I would not have directorial authority over her because she knew much more than I did. But when the work started, she put everything on the side, and she was just the character.
Do you work out the visual strategy of a movie beforehand, or do you wait to be inspired during shooting?
It evolves. And it’s always dictated by the story. Of course, I see it, I imagine it, so it’s my point of view. But sometimes I have the concepts up there before the start of the principal photography. I step in with my cinematographer and production designer, and we reference different images. It comes also from locations, from memories, from different sources. Before we start filming, we say, “Okay, we will be shooting in this or that way.” For example, the color palette and if the shots will be static, or if the camera will be moving and if it will be handheld or a dolly. With my last movie, called Charlatan, which is a Czech movie and has not been released yet, we had this idea to move the camera a lot because it’s an exterior film and we want to give some of that energy. But we started to shoot it, and the camera didn’t want to move. We had this scene, and I said that the camera will move like this and like that — and it didn’t work. The camera cried to stay. This happened several times. The initial concept, which was an intellectual concept, didn’t work. So the opposite visual approach came as a solution, which was more organic to the story.
You’ve done a lot of TV work in which you often have to adopt an aesthetic that has already been established for a given show. Is that a challenge?
The first important show for me was The Wire, which I still think is so good, genius. And the style for that had been very transparent — it was realism. But also I renewed somehow the way of shooting on my episodes. I used different lenses than they did and moved the camera in a different way and was more intense in directing psychological scenes between the characters. It became more immediately personal. And David Simon actually liked it. He offered me to come back with other seasons and to do the pilot for Treme, which I’m very proud of.
With other shows, it was a bit like a stylistic exercise. It’s like mimicking something. You know that you have to do it as it was established. The show where I came in the first season but didn’t do the pilot, and I really liked a lot the visual style, was The Killing. Veena Sud, the writer and showrunner, was such a filmmaking-sensitive and visual person that it was very inspiring to work with her. So sometimes it’s a really nice adventure. But of course, when I’m doing my own movie, it’s my movie. When I’m doing a series, I’m serving somebody’s vision.