While TV is not usually viewed as an auteur’s platform (unless you’re David Lynch wreaking narrative and stylistic havoc with Twin Peaks), director Jeremy Podeswa is surely due a little credit for creating what is currently being touted as the new “golden age” of small screen entertainment. A quick scan of Podeswa’s credits reveals pretty much every acclaimed show of the last twenty years, with the director helming episodes of, deep breath, Game Of Thrones, True Detective, The Handmaid’s Tale, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, The Mosquito Coast, The Loudest Voice, Ray Donovan, Homeland, True Blood, The Borgias, Six Feet Under, Rome, Dexter, Weeds, The L Word, Queer As Folk, The Pacific, Nip/Tuck, Commander In Chief and many more. If anyone is deserving credit for maintaining the high levels of quality displayed by television recently, it’s surely Jeremy Podeswa.
This clearly highly skilled director, however, also has a few features to his credit, with 2007’s Fugitive Pieces his most high-profile work. It’s a beautiful film about the effects of an unimaginably traumatic event. Instead of being a harrowing viewing experience, it’s a healing one. The story revolves around Jakob Beer, who as a child in Poland witnesses Nazi troops invading his Jewish home, murdering his parents and dragging his sister away. The terrified boy escapes, and is found by Athos (the superb Serbian-Croatian actor Rade Serbedzija), a Greek archeologist working at a Polish site. Athos unofficially adopts Jakob, smuggling him out of Poland and into the German-occupied Greek island Zakynthos. With its non-linear narrative, Fugitive Pieces canvasses a broad timeline, moving seamlessly back and forth from Jakob’s Greek childhood to his Canadian adulthood.
“As a filmmaker, your first objective can’t be a political one,” Jeremy Podeswa told FilmInk in 2007. “I’m very careful about even thinking of it as a Holocaust movie. There’s no iconography of the war. There are no concentration camps – you barely see the Germans. The movie doesn’t have a lot of those immediate triggers where you go, ‘I’ve seen that before’. It’s about a very personal experience of the war.”
Fugitive Pieces followed Canadian-born Podeswa’s previous acclaimed features, Eclipse (an art piece about sex and the apocalypse) and The Five Senses (an interconnected suite of stories dealing with the five senses), and straddles a subject that he has a personal connection to – the director’s Polish father is a concentration camp survivor. It’s in spite of this, and not because of it, that he was moved to make the film. “I never thought that I would make a movie that even touched on that subject,” he told FilmInk in 2007. “There are many other films made on that subject, and I wasn’t sure if I would have something new to bring to it. There’s a very delicate issue of representation around horrors that are really unimaginable to most people.”
After he read Anne Michaels’ bestselling 1998 novel of the same name, the idea for the film was conceived. “When I read the book, I felt for the first time that there was something that was universal that was being talked about here, and it was a view of war that I hadn’t really seen before. It was really about the legacy of the war. It allowed me to deal with that part of my family’s story in a way that wasn’t really about my family.”
The novel, however, was widely regarded as unfilmable. “The book is like a work of sustained poetry. It has a very unusual structure. People really personalised the experience of reading it. The language just cuts right through. The qualities of this novel are so uniquely literary – how would you possibly make a movie from it? It has such a huge emotional wallop when you read it, and I knew that if I could capture that somehow, then I could hopefully make a really emotional film. I always felt that it was filmable…challenging, but filmable.”
Podeswa told FilmInk with a laugh that he “stopped counting” how many drafts of the screenplay there were. Ultimately the challenges laid not so much in adapting the novel for the screen but in other areas, such as one of the film’s locations: the hilly, road-less Greek isle of Hydra. “The idea of making a movie in a place where you can’t actually drive is kind of crazy,” he laughed. “We’re doing a period film – we needed props, furniture, all the regular movie equipment, big Panavision cameras and dollies and things that are very heavy. We moved all of our stuff up by donkey [Laughs], going up the hills, and carrying a lot of things by hand.”
The other issue for Podeswa was casting, which he believes is “ninety percent of performance.” Stephen Dillane (The Hours) plays Jakob as an adult. It’s a tough role, but Dillane delivers an internal yet accessible performance. The tougher role is that of Jakob the boy, who needs to carry such a heavy emotional load; it’s hard to believe that any child actor, no matter how talented, could be up for the task. “I knew at the very beginning that if we didn’t get the right boy, it would be impossible,” Podeswa explained. “Particularly because Jakob as an adult is so internal and so complex, you have to see how he became that way – you have to see the boy inside the man.”
A long and intense search uncovered Robbie Kaye, a Prague-based British boy whose amazing performance centres the film. “There’s something very uncynical about this movie,” Podeswa told FilmInk later. “In many ways, it shows the best of what people are capable of, and the kindness that people are capable of even in the worst circumstances. It’s so unfashionable in a way to talk about these kinds of things – irony is everything these days.”
Irony might be everything, but Jeremy Podeswa’s Fugitive Pieces is a deeply moving film, and it speaks to the director’s deep well of talent, which has been brilliantly showcased on television, but deserves a little more play on the big screen.
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