For the North American release of her 2017 film, Spoor, Agnieszka Holland goes deep on her filmmaking process, working with actors, and how she develops a film’s aesthetic.
Since 2017, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland has premiered three films at the Berlin International Film Festival, all of which have all screened in North America in the last year. The first film, Spoor, from 2017, which Holland describes as “a feminist, anarchistic, ecological thriller with elements of black comedy and fairytales,” was only just released on VOD in Canada and the US. Last year, 2019’s Mr. Jones hit VOD in North America , which is about a few years in the life of the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton), who was the first to report on the Soviet famine of 1932-33, including the Holodomor — a story for which he would later be kidnapped and murdered. And most recently, the Czech Republic’s shortlisted Oscar submission for Best International Film, Charlatan, a subversive biopic about the healer Jan Mikolášek (1889–1973) who diagnosed hundreds of people by looking at their urine, and supposedly cured many with herbal remedies. Charlatan is still seeking North American distribution, but has screened at several festivals and screening series.
The films couldn’t be more different, and that’s partly because Holland always lets the material dictate the aesthetic style. Spoor — which Holland co-directed with her daughter, Kasia Adamik — is the story of a middle-aged woman fighting against a patriarchal society that’s destroying nature. It’s full of colour, set in the forest, and features sometimes hilariously eccentric characters and a hopeful ending. Mr Jones is a journalistic thriller that is harrowing to the bone, illuminating a horrifying but little-discussed piece of history. Most of the film is drained of colour, putting us in the same headspace as Gareth when he is alone in a wide expanse of snow in the Ukraine, uncovering starving people and dead bodies. It’s bleak to the core, despite being about an ultimately optimistic person, and it’s about how we cover up and ignore horrible things when it’s convenient — and the courage it takes to bear witness.
Charlatan (which I gave a rave review in December) is a character study of a slippery man whose own methods of treatment and self-advancement stand in as a metaphor for the totalitarian regime under which he was living. Like Spoor, it’s hard to pin down: it follows the structure of a biopic, but is about a complex, often unlikable and abusive man, which it refuses to pass judgement on. It’s at once about life under a totalitarian regime, the way people use and abuse others when they can, and a man who seems, at turns, altruistic and selfish. And it’s about a queer man and his lover, too, in a time when to be gay was illegal. It features hungry, explicit sex; stately interiors Mikolášek picked to give himself a sense of stature; and many, many vials of urine.
Yet all three recent films, and indeed much of Holland’s filmography, feature a protagonist who shares Holland’s “rebellious refusal to accept the world as it is, and care [for] the weaker, animals, and nature.” In The Secret Garden’s (which we podcasted on last year) twelve-year-old Mary, who refuses to let Mistlethwaite’s gardens stay in disuse, restoring them to life while caring for her sick cousin. In Spoor, middle-aged Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat), who investigates the recent murders of poachers while attracting a handful of lovers who are drawn to her fire. Holland’s protagonists are always looking to make a better world. Even Charlatan’s Jan Mikolášek, whom Holland portrays with some ambivalence about whether he was driven by altruism or selfishness — possibly both — was fighting against a regime that oppressed his sexuality while trying to help the sick, even if it was just as a placebo.
On the occasion of Spoor finally becoming available in Canada and the US, I sat down with Holland to talk about bringing the film to life, and more generally, her career-spanning approach to designing interiors, directing actors, and finding the best way to shoot any given film she works on.
Seventh Row (7R): The film is adapted from a novel. What got you interested in telling this story?
Agnieszka Holland: Olga Tokarczuk is one of the most prominent Polish women writers. I just love her books, which are very complex, subtle, and full of imagination. They have a very special perspective of the world, nature, and people. I was always thinking about adapting something, but most of her books have many layers and are pretty capricious in their storytelling.
When I read this one, it was about a woman of my generation, so I was thinking that it could be me, somehow. I share the rebellious refusal to accept the world as it is and the care [for] the weaker, animals, and nature. She is a strong woman who is very opinionated, with an appetite for justice. So it felt very close to me.
At the same time, the book was written like a thriller or a detective story. You have the murders, you do the investigation, and you have to discover who was guilty. By the end, of course, you have the surprise. The suspense was very important to keep in the film. It was easier in the novel because it was in the first person, in the perspective of the main character, Duszejko. I wanted to recreate this perspective in a cinematic way, which of course, is more complicated, because cinema is not such a precise tool as literature is. But I thought it would be easy to adapt and that we can do it without losing something important from the writer’s word.
We were all surprised by how difficult it was. Olga wrote the first draft, and it was terrible. It was so bad that we thought it would never work. After, we sat together trying to restructure it and come up with a new idea. We gave ourselves three months to complete the scripts, but, eighteen drafts and two years later, we still were not sure if it was solvable.
At some point, we asked for help from a young Czech screenwriter [Stepán Hulík]. He said something like, “You have a house. The house is constructed. It’s built up. Everything is good, but when you enter the house, there is not enough light.” He came in, and he washed the windows. When he washed the windows, everything worked.
When we tried to finance the film, it was a little more expensive than we expected, because I absolutely wanted to [shoot across] the four seasons [over which the story takes place]. The animal scenes also ended up being much more complicated than we expected, of course, so we were looking for some money to complete the budget.
We had problems because [potential investors] didn’t know how to box this film: what genre is it? And finally, in desperation, I came up with this pitch: “It is a feminist, anarchistic, ecological thriller with elements of black comedy and fairytales.” And suddenly, the buyers reacted, “Ah, OK.” Then, suddenly, everything became simple.
7R: I know that you co-directed the film with your daughter, Kasia Adamik, to direct the film. What was it like to collaborate, and how is that different from working on your own?
Agnieszka Holland: Kasia started as a storyboard artist because she wanted to design graphic novels. She graduated from art school, but then she came to Hollywood and started to work as a storyboard [artist]. She was fantastic so everybody wanted to work with her, myself included. But then, she started to get bored with that, and she wanted to do what the directors, who she was serving, were unable to do. So she did her debut [Bark!, 2002], which was a small American indie, which went to Sundance and fifty other festivals. Then together, we co-directed Janosik: A True Story, an eighteenth-century story in Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Poland. It was great.
She was very strong in the things that I was not so strong at or lazy at, like the action scenes and the visual effects. She was also great with the actors and the animals. For many of my films, she participated with the second unit, but an extended second unit, with the actors, as well. At the same time, she was doing her own films and television. In Spoor, her part of the work was much bigger in the second unit. It was practically 40-50%, so we decided to share the credit.
7R: I’ve watched quite a few of your films this year because Mr. Jones, Spoor, and Charlatan all came out or screened in North America, and I revisited The Secret Garden, too. I was struck by how visually different they all are. They all take you into a different world. What is your approach to start devising the aesthetic of a film?
Agnieszka Holland: The universe of the story, and the universe of the main character dictates the visual style. At the same time, [all of my films] are similar in some things: a certain simplicity of the light, for example, not using too elaborate lighting, to let it feel more natural somehow. It’s like that for most of my films, or maybe all of my films, even when working with different cinematographers. It has this visual transparency. It’s important for me to not be too stylish, not to make an extravaganza of the visual style take over the truthfulness of the story — even The Secret Garden, which is a children’s film, but a very realistic one.
7R: For Spoor, you worked with two cinematographers, both of whom you’ve worked with before. What is your process for collaborating with them?
Agnieszka Holland: They are both friends [of mine] and people I’ve done films with before. Spoor started with the woman [Jolanta Dylewska] who I did In Darkness with. At the same time [as we were making Spoor], she was doing another film in Russia with a director [Sergei Dvortsevoy] who is extremely slow. They were shooting this wonderful and very disturbing film called Ayka. They shot it for five years, I think.
For Spoor, we were shooting in four seasons, so it was difficult to fit [into] her schedule. So I had another cinematographer, Rafal Paradowski, too, who I’d worked with as a camera operator — a genius operator. I asked him to share the work with Jola [as cinematographers on Spoor].
They’ve both been very gracious about it and collaborating together to fit the style. Quite often, we were shooting scenes at the same time with my daughter. So there was one crew with one cinematographer, shooting one set of scenes [with my daughter] while I was shooting another set of scenes. So it was like the collaboration of four or six cinematographers, because some cinematographers were only filming animals, and some only came to film special visual effects scenes. It really was the work of many.
7R: And how did you approach the aesthetic of Spoor?
Agnieszka Holland: The four seasons [of the story] was something that also dictates the visual style: to express nature as richly as possible and as tru[thfully] as possible, and the nature of this woman. I wanted to be as close to this woman as possible: the light is coming from inside her, like the light is coming from her face somehow.
We changed the [visual] concept during the shoot because I felt that it didn’t express the emotion of the scene, so we had to find a different storytelling [method]. To be eclectic but to keep the unity of the style is always my biggest challenge: how to not fit into one particular concept, but at the same time to have unity.
For example, when we were shooting Charlatan, in the beginning, my concept was that I will move the camera a lot. But any time we tried to move the camera, it was like a horse. It didn’t want to move. So after like three days of shooting, I thought, “It has to be static. Fuck it. The story needs to be watched in this way.”
7R: For Spoor, did you have a set of rules you used to coordinate working with all the different teams of people in the crew shooting simultaneously?
Agnieszka Holland: They are mostly the people I know and have worked with before, so it was a bit of a shortcut. I don’t like to [dictate to] my closest collaborators; I like to [have an open] dialogue with them. They would come with new ideas which infused more creative energy through the project.
I am the one that oversees all this, and when I feel that it’s going too far or disturbing the consistency of the story or the style, I have to correct it. But generally, the most exciting part for me is the shooting. If you’re open, such fantastic ideas are coming. Especially with this one. Sometimes, when the cinematographer went off by himself to find some lighting or some specific view of nature, it inspired the next scene, which was with the actors. So it was constant mutual inspiration. It was a difficult shoot because of some physical conditions, but it was a joyful one.
7R: How do you collaborate with your production designers? I loved the houses in Spoor. They just felt so lived in and really reflect the characters. I think that’s true for all your movies
Agnieszka Holland: I like [working with production] designers, and some of them are great. For example, the designer who did The Secret Garden (1993) years ago is a very famous British designer, Stuart Craig. He already had several Oscar nominations at this time, but he was careful about every detail and the credibility of everything.
I like when a designer is not only thinking about being spectacular or historically accurate, but to be faithful to the character, to add to the character who is living there — to always think about the sets through the character.
Mostly, [I’ve been] lucky with set designers and production designers who understood this sort of logic: that you can be, at the same time, very psychological and very spectacular. But if you cannot be both, the psychological is more important than the spectacular.
7R: What went into designing the house for the main character, Duszejko, in Spoor?
Agnieszka Holland: It is a real location. We had to find a house, inside and outside, in the setting, that reflects exactly who the character is. She is a woman in her late 60s or early 70s who’s retired, who was a world traveller, and had a man’s job, because she worked as an engineer. She’s probably damaged by several things that have happened to her.
She wants to escape somehow into some place where she can bridge her needs and the needs of nature. She wants to create somewhere where she can feel safe — but not safe just as in a comfort zone, but also challenged by nature. So there are a lot of reasons why she was in this very place.
When we found this place, we had to [transform] this place [into] her place, in terms of the set design and colours, and decide how to shoot it. [The original location] wasn’t one-hundred percent what we wanted, but it was ninety percent. We were able, for the shoot, to add her personal perspective to that.
And for the rest of the sets, every character had their own space. For Matoga (Wiktor Zborowski), we had to find the house and to create the interior, with the details and objects that reflect his past, his insecurity, and his need to have order around him. The bad guy, who has this fox farm, his interior is full of dead animals. We actually found two real interiors like that. It is not an invention. I think we did not even add [anything] to this interior. It was like that. We found another one that was even more bizarre; it was huge. It means those hunters [in the film] that seem like caricatures of hunters, we found models for them that are one to one.
7R: What is your process like for working with actors?
Agnieszka Holland: The main thing is to cast them. When you cast them right, they know what to do. They need support, and we need a lot of discussion. Especially with [Spoor], the style of acting isn’t one-hundred percent realistic. It’s not like in a TV series. It’s slightly stylized. But when they finally grasped it, it went like a charm.
I don’t like to give too many notes. If you give actors too many directions, it can be confusing. You can destroy their own process. Mutual trust is the key. I am trusting that they will find the truth of the character, and I am giving them the space to find it, and enough rehearsal — or not rehearsing, if they prefer improvisation. And they trust me that if they go in the wrong direction, I will stop them.
7R: What kind of rehearsal do you do?
Agnieszka Holland: It depends. Sometimes, it’s just a conversation. Sometimes they are rehearsals like in a theatre, especially when I’m doing historical films or adaptations. Like in the ‘90s, I did Washington Square (1997), where the dialogue was very literary, so you have to rehearse it. When it is contemporary, it’s sometimes more talking about it or improvising around it.
We used improvising quite a lot [on Spoor] — not so much when we’re shooting, because we don’t have time for too much improvisation. But when we’ve been rehearsing, we’ve been changing the scenes and going through the different directions to find the emotions or find some pieces of dialogue that were better than what we wrote.
For Charlatan, we didn’t. For Charlatan, we were faithful to the script. We did rehearse for Charlatan, but not too much. It’s not so much dialogue; it’s not a very talkative film, which I like, actually. But we did rehearse. The main actor [Ivan Trojan] is an actor who plays a lot in theatre, so he has this need to rehearse to feel secure.
7R: Did you rehearse for Mr. Jones?
Agnieszka Holland: Not really. With Mr. Jones. We had the normal rehearsal during the shoot, during the weekends, but we had very short prep for this one. We practically jumped into that, and the actors came at different [times]. Peter Sarsgaard [who played Walter Duranty] came in the day before the shooting started. James Norton [who played Mr. Jones], we’d been talking and rehearsing and doing the costume fittings, but after, without very long prep, he jumped into very deep snow.
We started with the Ukrainian sequence [in the winter], which was very challenging for all of us. I knew it was the most crucial sequence for the whole movie, and if it didn’t work, the whole movie wouldn’t work. It was like going through a bootcamp somehow, forgetting all the expectations we had, and all the ideas we had to survive. Somehow, he felt like his character did. Every single hour was a challenge and a surprise. So it was very lucky. It was good that we started like that. We were in Ukraine shooting in these real places [where Mr. Jones visited during the famine], which also helped.
7R: Do you feel like rehearsal is more important when there is lots of dialogue?
Agnieszka Holland: I think we have too much dialogue in movies. Films are a lot more talkative now compared to the ‘60s or ‘70s. It came from Hollywood movies that don’t trust the visual imagination of audiences enough. After television series [became more popular], it is only natural that there is a lot more dialogue. I try to fight it as much as I can. In a film like Washington Square, they’re talking all the time. But many films don’t need dialogue really. Not so much, anyway.
7R: You’ve worked with lots of actors from theatre and television, in many of your films, including Spoor, Mr. Jones, and Charlatan, more recently. Is it different directing actors who come from a stage background?
Agnieszka Holland: Not today, anymore. It was different thirty to forty years ago when actors had been trained [only] for the theatre, and the theatre was a lot more formal. They had to impose the voice in some way. They didn’t [understand], when the camera is close, what it means for them. But now, actors are mostly multitasking [across mediums]. And the theatre techniques became a lot more civil, usual, and more realistic. Ambitious TV series and cinema aren’t that different — maybe not different at all, in terms of stylistic techniques you are using.
7R: You mentioned doing weekend rehearsals during the shoot. What do they involve?
Agnieszka Holland: We go through the scenes from the week to come, and analyse it, and change dialogue. For example, in Mr. Jones, we made several changes to the dialogue during the shoot, especially [in the scenes] between Gary Jones (James Norton) and the character Vanessa Kirby plays.
It’s about finding the truth of the scene and the truth of the dialogue. We see when there is too much fat in the dialogue, when we need something simpler. Or maybe it’s the opposite, where things aren’t clear enough, or not eloquent enough. It’s a bit like in the theatre, where you’re trying to find the meaning of the dialogue mostly. Because when we are rehearsing not on the set, you cannot know the mise-en-scène and the way the actors are moving.
That’s why I rehearse every morning on the set. I rehearse before starting the shoot. We have a serious rehearsal until we find the truth of the movement or of the situation. I don’t like this rehearsal to be too long. Otherwise, they are looking for so long to figure out what they did that was good, and they cannot repeat it. So you have to stop in the moment when they are still hungry to find the ideal solution.
7R: Do you block things very precisely, or do you follow the actors? What is your approach?
Agnieszka Holland: I block it with them, except the scenes where the movements have to be precise for action reasons or information reasons. But when it’s for psychological scenes with three or more actors, the scenes that can be shot in different ways, I start with them finding their natural places in the situation. Only once I was disappointed [by this strategy], because the actor was very lazy and didn’t want to move. So he sat, and I had to kick him in his ass and push him to move around a bit.
7R: What is your process for thinking about how to approach a film’s sound design?
Agnieszka Holland: I have been working with the same composer [Antoni Lazarkiewicz] for some time — from the beginning of the century, actually, for eighteen years or so. He was very young when we started, and he happened to be my nephew, as well. So it’s a bit of a family business we have going on, with my daughter co-directing and my nephew composing.
He is highly intelligent, so we talk with him about sound concepts, and quite often, he isn’t pushing for his music to be in the foreground too much; he uses it a bit like the sound design. He collaborates very well with the sound designer.
On Spoor, [the sound designer] was a Swedish guy because it was a Swedish co-production. So I picked a Swedish sound designer and sound mixer, and he was very creative. He came up with great ideas, so it was a pleasure. Usually, I sit and wait for good people to come up with good ideas and offer it to me. When it doesn’t happen, I just have to push them.
7R: How do you make sure that the music and sound feed into one another?
Agnieszka Holland: We are experimenting with it. We make some pre-mix in the editing room, in a primitive way, to try to see how it works.
We also have the composer present during the mix if we need to change something. When we record the music, I am also present in the recording. After, we have the mix of this music. Mostly, we record this music in several layers. If it’s orchestral, or some instrumental ensemble, you have the layers [of the different instruments]. Sometimes, when you mix the film, you see that, together with the sound design and the dialogue, and with the need for some kind of space, it’s too rich or too dense. And then, it’s always possible to come back to the first tracks of the recording and change it.
It’s why he [the composer] is sitting with his computer during the mix, and we are making changes if we feel like it doesn’t work. Same with the sound design. If it doesn’t work, it’s always good to have more, and then to cut it. Sometimes, we’ve found that even if we loved the music for one scene, after I’ve seen it as a whole, we thought it was too much. Suddenly, it’s disturbing the purity of the emotions. So we take it out, no ego.
You can collaborate with people, like my daughter, who have no ego. We are all serving the project, which at some point, becomes independent from us. Somehow, in a positive way, it alienates itself from us, and we have to watch it with distance and see: this is good for this; this is good; but this is not good, so take it out. Even if we liked [the scene] or even if we had a scene that we spent a lot of time or money on, but the scene somehow is unnecessary or disturbing, let’s cut it out.
7R: How do you approach editing?
Agnieszka Holland: Editors, for me, are very important. Editors and camera operators, if they don’t have the sensibility I have, I’m furious. I can be very cruel then. It happened to me once, and I fired an editor because we weren’t on the same page. But if we are on the same page… For Spoor, I worked with the same editor [Pavel Hrdlicka] that I worked with on Charlatan. He’s a Czech guy, very sensitive, and a musician, as well. The first thing we edited was a mini-series you probably haven’t seen called Burning Bush.
7R: Oh! I saw that. I did the marathon at TIFF!
Agnieszka Holland: You are very knowledgeable about my work. Thank you. We started with Burning Bush. After, we did Spoor and Charlatan. With another editor, I did In Darkness and Mr. Jones. When I’m working with guys like that, I know [them], and they know me: their rhythm and sensibility. I can totally trust them.
I often have them make the first assembly [by themselves], and after, we collaborate. We save some time [by doing this], which is very precious in [low-budget] films. It also gives me some distance to see things with clear eyes.
I would love to work with the same people on editing as often as possible. It’s very helpful. Cinematographers, as well, but cinematographers are maybe more people I can use and take advantage of. Editors are somehow much more personal, like a camera operator. Camera operating is like handwriting. One frame too much, and I feel sick.
7R: Does your editor start editing when you’re shooting?
Agnieszka Holland: Yes. It helps because when I see the edited scene while shooting, I can see what does and doesn’t work. I can repel the mistakes. I can correct myself during the shooting which is, of course, very important.
My friend, Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, has a special method — and [he has] producers who accept this method, which is rather costly. He shoots most of the script, and after, he breaks and edits it. And after a month or so, he continues with the shooting.
7R: Were you able to do the same thing with Spoor, to some degree?
Agnieszka Holland: With Spoor, it happened in a natural way because we had to wait until the next season. So after every season, we’d edit what we shot. It helped us to be more precise with the next season. Especially with winter, which we shot last, it helped. We had a very short window with the snow, so we had to hurry.
7R: When you say it helps you be more precise, is that the rhythm of it? How does seeing a cut scene change how you’re shooting?
Agnieszka Holland: Yes, it is the rhythm. It’s the way you film it, also: longer shots, master shots, tight editing, wide shots. Not moving the camera or moving the camera. How to shoot the main character to give a spiritual dimension to her. You can always correct yourself. Mostly, you can make it better every time you start again.
7R: Do you mean redoing some of the scenes?
Agnieszka Holland: Sometimes, you can redo, or sometimes, you can just not repeat the same mistakes. Or suddenly, you see that you don’t need so many scenes because the themes have already been expressed, somehow, so some scenes are unnecessary or redundant.
7R: How did the shooting style evolve as you made Spoor?
Agnieszka Holland: Most of the first two days, we were shooting around [and trying things out]. The first day, it was a very simple scene between Boros (Miroslav Krobot) and the main character, Duszejko, and I wasn’t exactly sure how to shoot it. I had to look for the style: to move them around, or keep them still; to shoot them in one wide shot, or maybe to cover [the scene]. I didn’t know, so I did everything. So we spent the entire day shooting a short scene.
It was funny because the writer, Olga Tokarczuk, visited on this day, and she had never been on a film set. She had been in the theatre several times when adaptations of her books were being directed, but never on a movie set. She was totally surprised. Why are we shooting for so long on such a short scene? Why are we putting cameras in so many different places? She thought she would be sitting and watching how it happens, but it was actually very fragmented. She planned to come back a week later. We told her that when she comes back, we would be shooting the same one minute [and] fifty [seconds] scene. So she thought we’d spent an entire week shooting this one scene.
The first day was like you are blind. You don’t know how it has to look. So you’re tapping, you are looking for the ground. Suddenly, something happens, click, and then you know. It’s a lot of intuition and inspiration. The people inspire; the spaces inspire; the script inspires you, as well.
7R: Are you able to get even more precise just by trying out different shooting styles on set? Or is it more that once you’ve seen a cut of what you’ve shot, then it changes how you’re shooting going forward?
Agnieszka Holland: The cut can help. But even while watching what I’m shooting, I can feel [how I want it to look], because I have enough experience to imagine how we can cut it.
I’m asking the editor to quickly cut those first scenes, to compare what works and what doesn’t, and to cut different versions of the scenes. If you are shooting coverage, you have many possibilities. After, you can say which variation is the best one, [and] we will go in this direction [for the rest of the shoot].
7R: Do you shoot less and less coverage as you go along?
Agnieszka Holland: After, I don’t need to shoot coverage which is unnecessary. I don’t shoot too much coverage when I know how to shoot. I don’t shoot too many takes — mostly, it’s two max, three — unless you have to shoot again because it doesn’t work for some reason.
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