Director Tells Story of Haunted Survivor

Jeremy Podeswa’s third feature, his first since The Five Senses almost a decade ago, is not called The Sixth Sense, although it very well could have been, since it also concerns a young lad who sees dead people throughout the film—periodically into middle age, too, until the love of a good woman finally asserts itself and keeps the dark memories at bay.

Fugitive Pieces, which Podeswa adapted and directed from Anne Michaels’ international best-seller, is about an orphan of the Holocaust storm whose parents are killed by Nazis and whose sister is dragged off to an uncertain horror. “I did not witness the most important events of my life,” the grown Jakob Beer says as he begins narrating his story.

“I really wanted to make this movie, and I really only wanted to make this movie,” says Podeswa firmly. “Off and on, I worked on it three or four years. Then I shot it in 40 days.

“It has been a process to write the script from a complex novel, then raise the financing. I was devoted to that, and while I was doing that, I went off and did shorter-term projects.”

“Shorter-term” here means “smaller-screen,” and it makes Podeswa a handsome living. “I’ve been doing a lot of television directing in the last few years—some movies for television, high-end cable, a lot of work for HBO, ‘Six Feet Under,’ ‘Carnivale’ and ‘Rome.’ Now I’m directing HBO’s ‘The Pacific,’ a World War II mini-series for Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks in Australia—a companion piece for their ‘Band of Brothers.’”

But, for the fleeting present, Podeswa is focused on the intimate saga that has had his heart a good nine years—ever since first he heard Michaels, well-known as a poet in his own hometown of Toronto, had turned novelist. “We’d never met, but we had mutual friends. That’s how I heard about it. When I read it, I was blown away. It took her ten years to write it. It’s her first novel—an absolutely exquisite piece of writing, extremely moving.

“I didn’t think about it as a movie originally. I just thought of it as an incredibly beautiful book and went away and made The Five Senses. Actually, some part of me had thought it would make a gorgeous film, but never in a million years would I have believed I’d get my hands on it, because it was just too big and successful. It was a huge best-seller in Canada, like number one on the best-seller list for a year and a half—one of those rare ‘literary successes’ where a book was a complex read but it somehow became a popular success as well.”

Right after launching The Five Senses at Cannes, Podeswa checked out the film fate of Fugitive Pieces and found it had been sold to a Canadian company which hadn’t yet signed up an adapter or director. So he screened The Five Senses for them and—voila!—got both jobs.

Podeswa, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, insists being Jewish doesn’t necessarily help you appreciate the story more. “Yeah, if you’re Jewish, you bring something to it in particular, but what I loved about this book was, even though ostensibly it’s about the Jews of World War II, it’s really about anyone who has suffered a loss—how you overcome that loss and find a reason to go on living. That universality appealed to me as a filmmaker.

“There are many, many films that are made about the Second World War, and many books have been written, and you sometimes can feel there’s nothing left to say—but I thought this was such a compassionate book that something about it transcended the subject in a way and made it not about just what it’s about but about a lot of other things.

“And, clearly, that was Anne’s intention—to not make a work that’s only contributing to the body of Holocaust literature, but also to write a book that would be for everybody.”

Both novelist and filmmaker assemble the psyche of the hero, scattered since childhood, like a jigsaw puzzle, and they take their own therapeutically leisurely time doing it, too.

“The most interesting way to tell this story is to reflect these ‘fugitive pieces’ by weaving in and out of different periods.” Hence, the movie bounces about in three different time zones and locales (the ’40s in Poland, the ’60s in Greece and the ’70s in Canada).
“I didn’t feel obliged to tell the story like that just because the book is that way,” Podeswa notes. “I thought there was something very strong in doing that—in presenting a kind of prismatic view of this character’s life—because the book is a lot about memory and how we assimilate the past and transcend the past or how to find a way to live with the past and move forward at the same time rather than be paralyzed by past experiences.

“Jakob’s childhood is as vivid for him as an adult as what he is going through now. One way of demonstrating that formally is to have the past and the present co-exist. For Jakob, they are the same thing—the past is the present—till he meets someone who makes the past less important. Then, his past starts to disappear a bit—at least assimilate in a different way.”

Podeswa’s fidelity to Michaels yields a film that moves like a novel, with a deliberate stateliness: “I’m a little suspicious of conventional structure,” admits Podeswa. “There’s always the level of manipulation involved when you’re writing something, and I think the less obvious that manipulation is, the better. I prefer not to just hit those beats—‘Okay, here’s the first act, here’s the complicating factor, here’s the resolution’—because such tidiness doesn’t exist in life, so I react against it in filmmaking. The things that play with that structure are things that make a plot where you don’t know what’s going to happen.

“When you arrive someplace and it takes you by surprise, it’s much more satisfying. I hope that emotional aspect sneaks up on you. It’s not like you feel manipulated into an emotional response. As you’re watching it and becoming more engaged, you start to feel things in an unexpected way, and I think that’s a more powerful experience, really.”

Robbie Kay and Stephen Dillane tag-team the lead character as a 12-year-old and as a 30 to 40-year-old. “Stephen is a spectacular actor with all the qualities of a leading man,” Podeswa declares. “He’s a Tony-winning stage actor [for the revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing eight years ago], and, around the time we were casting this, he did his one-man Macbeth in L.A.—he played all the parts—and it was like a master class, what he was doing.

“The thing with Stephen is that there are very few actors like him in movies who are handsome and of a certain age and intellectual. I call it ‘The Daniel Day-Lewis Thing.’ He should be a movie star. For me, the right actor in the right role is what it’s all about.”
Serbian-Croation actor Rade Sherbedgia, who plausibly passed for Emile De Beque to Glenn Close’s Nellie Forbush in the TV-movie version of South Pacific, here convinces as the Greek archaeologist who rescues young Jakob and raises him as a surrogate son.

Rosamund Pike from Pride & Prejudice and Ayelet Zurer of Vantage Point are the two women in the life of the adult Jakob, Alex and Michaela, each of them with radically different levels of toleration for the character’s ongoing (if not galloping) melancholia.

“There are phases in people’s lives—even with people who have been through things like that and have reached a place where they can have several kinds of responses—where they can relax and enjoy life. Their life isn’t over. I think that’s part of the point of the book.

“When Jacob meets Alex, he’s not ready yet. He hasn’t gotten to that point. Some people never get to that point. Everybody’s journey is a different journey. But there’s a potential in people to find a way to still engage with life after experiencing these kinds of things. It’s almost unbelievable that they can, but they can, and they do. It’s the human connection.”

And basically, that’s the thing that Podeswa wants audiences to take away from his film, which Samuel Goldwyn Films releases on May 2. “The biggest thing is that I want the audience to be moved—and moved in the right way,” he hopes. “I want the audience to have that sense of community and connectiveness that you, watching this character, go through. I want you to discover the importance of other people in your life—no matter what you’ve been through, allowing yourself to have love and pleasure. A lot of people who go through horrible things don’t think they deserve happiness, especially if they have survivor guilt. Everyone has to go on their own journey, and nobody can presume for anybody how to react to any kind of horrible situation, but I think that people deserve to be happy and have love.

“One other thing that’s in this movie that’s very important is that Jakob is saved by a Greek man, who is not Jewish, who puts his own life at risk to help this orphan boy he finds. I think great acts of kindness and charity have a ripple effect in the world. If you save a life, you save a world. It’s true. I think one thing the film demonstrates is that things have ripple effects. Good deeds, bad deeds—a trauma that’s inflicted on somebody has effects for generations to come, and good things that one does for another person also have effects forever in the world in the most positive way. That’s a very important thing to put out in the world.”

Once he finishes promotion for Fugitive Pieces, Podeswa is off to World War II again—to execute the battle plans of Spielberg and Hanks—but he promises to pack a laptop for his personal use. “I’m writing something now that I’m kind of excited about, which is a little bit more like The Five Senses. It’s the story of three women in three different countries.

“It’s hard to do everything at exactly the same time, so I may go off and direct something, then take off four weeks to get a draft.” Hopefully, another decade will not have elapsed.