ON LOCATION : Tending Her Dark ‘Garden’ : Agnieszka Holland, who explored the horrors of the Holocaust in ‘Europa Europa,’ is finding murky depths in a children’s classic
Given the controversy and strain in the life of Polish-born director Agnieszka Holland in the last year, it is understandable that she might be looking for some light relief.
Nominated for an Academy Award for her screenplay of the film “Europa Europa,” she found herself at the center of a storm when Germany did not submit the movie as a candidate for the best foreign language film Oscar.
Holland had spent much of last year on a harrowing French film called “Olivier, Olivier,” which deals with the reaction of a family to a child who is missing for years.
So when she met with studio executives and producers in Hollywood earlier this year, she reacted with pleasure and relief at a suggestion that she might direct a film version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1909 book for children, “The Secret Garden.”
“Growing up in Poland, it was my favorite book,” said Holland. “I read it in Polish. It was my mother’s favorite book, and my daughter’s. So I said yes. I thought it would be the easiest movie I’ve ever made. ‘Olivier, Olivier’ was very heavy. I felt I needed a break--I wanted something lighter.”
Her decision brought her to Pinewood Studios, 20 miles west of London, to shoot “The Secret Garden” for American Zoetrope and for Warner Bros., which will release it next year.
The story deals with a rich, neglected and often petulant girl called Mary, who befriends both Dickson, a country boy, and Colin, the bedridden son of her bereaved guardian Lord Craven. Together the children bring a secret garden in an old ruined abbey back to life, an act that becomes a healing process, physically and mentally, for themselves and those around them.
The book has already been made into a 1949 feature film starring Margaret O’Brien, a 1987 television movie and Broadway musical that opened last year and is still running.
In Holland’s version, Mary is played by 10-year-old English actress Kate Maberly, who appears in almost every scene of the film. Of the adults in the cast, the best-known is the acclaimed stage actress and two-time Oscar winner Maggie Smith, who plays the stern housekeeper Mrs. Medlock.
On Pinewood’s grounds, production designer Stuart Craig, another double Oscar winner (for “Gandhi” and “Dangerous Liaisons”), has created a remarkable garden. Roses, cornflowers and foxgloves were planted; rabbits, geese and baby goats have been brought in to inhabit it alongside the child actors.
Craig has also built a magnificent ruined abbey with vertical, age-worn columns covered in moss. They look disarmingly realistic; it is a shock to tap them and realize they are hollow.
The combination of children, animals and unpredictable British weather has caused Holland to revise her prediction about this being an easy film. “It’s not true,” she said flatly. “All these factors cause stresses.”
There is an added pressure, in that this is her first Hollywood movie. At $16 million, the budget is far more than she has ever handled previously. “The process is the same,” she noted, “but what is very different is the attention of the producers and the studio. There is the danger working this way that if they do not like my conception, they can throw me out. On my previous films, I’m the director and what I say goes.”
In fact, Fred Roos and Tom Luddy, who are producing “The Secret Garden” for Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope, are delighted with Holland’s work. Roos said that the choice of Holland actually came from Lucy Fisher, Warner Bros. executive vice president of theatrical production, who had formerly worked for Zoetrope.
“Agnieszka might seem a quirky choice, particularly for a mainstream studio film,” he agreed, “but we were all for it and happy Warners was open to it.”
First choice had been Carroll Ballard, who directed “The Black Stallion” for Zoetrope. But Ballard was directing “Wind,” “so we went out looking for directors, had a lot of meetings and discussions,” Roos said. “Lucy had just seen ‘Europa Europa,’ and threw the idea of Agnieszka at us, which pleased us no end.
“Then it turned out Tom Luddy had known her for a dozen, maybe 15 years, so he spoke from personal experience of her, and we pulled her in for meetings.”
Agnieszka Holland knew from the age of 14 that she wanted to direct films. At 17 she was the youngest student in the Prague Film Academy, and in 1970 was imprisoned for two weeks for working for a dissident Czech publication. During the 1970s, she worked in the collective headed by legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda, whose 1978 film “Rough Treatment” was from a Holland script. She has now made seven films, among them 1985’s Oscar-nominated “Angry Harvest” and “Europa Europa.” “Olivier, Olivier” was the opening film of the recent New York Film Festival and will be released in Los Angeles in March.
The success of “Europa” heralded Holland’s arrival on the international scene, and she is now much in demand. After “The Secret Garden,” Holland may do a film adaptation of a work by French novelist Andre Gide. She is also interested in “The Substance of Fire,” an adaptation of the play by Jon Robin Baitz, which she said Sydney Pollack may produce.
A small, dark, forceful woman who speaks excellent English, Holland, 44, said she was “amused” by the stir caused by “Europa Europa.”
“I’ve taken advantage of the success of the movie,” she reflected, sitting on wooden steps inside a sound stage. “It was important to my career, and a huge success in my native country; it was third in the Polish box office last year, ahead of ‘Terminator 2.’ ”
The film told the true story of Solomon Perel, a young German Jewish boy who moved to Poland, was rescued by a Russian soldier with the outbreak of war, then taken to a Soviet orphanage and trained for the military. When Germany invaded Russia, he was captured by Nazis and persuaded them he was German. After a skirmish with the Russians, Perel was proclaimed a hero by the Nazis and sent to an elite Hitler Youth camp, all the while concealing his Jewish identity. The film leavens its grim subject with black humor; Perel’s extraordinary story was filled with unbelievably narrow escapes and coincidences bordering on the grotesque.
German reluctance to enter “Europa Europa” in the Academy Awards was explained officially by the fact that the film was a French-German co-production and that Holland, its screenwriter and director, was not German but Polish.
But she believes that many Germans were simply uncomfortable with her treatment of the story, noting that German critics savaged it on its opening in Berlin. “It was a kind of hysterical reaction,” she said. “The Germans have a problem if you show this subject in a way that is different from what they expect. They can accept a heavy, melodramatic, operatic version of these events. For them, the Jew must be an innocent, dead victim, not someone who’s alive.
“I wanted to make this film funny and even grotesque. But the Germans can’t accept that. Still, there has been a nice reaction to it from German filmmakers.”
Now she is happily laboring on “The Secret Garden,” a very different project. (Because Holland’s last two directorial efforts were “Europa Europa” and “Olivier, Olivier,” some wits on the set have nicknamed this film “Secret Garden, Secret Garden.”) “It was difficult to find something I wanted to do next,” she said. “What I was offered were subjects that were very American or very conventional. I couldn’t see a reason to do them. But this story, it’s a part of myself.”
“Secret Garden” screenwriter Caroline Thompson (“The Addams Family”) had submitted a script that Holland felt “wasn’t so faithful to the book. It was more Gothic. She tried to find much more of the adventure side of the story; the characters and relationships were less present. Of course, she didn’t know who would be directing when she wrote it.
“She and I worked together on the script and brought it closer to the book. After the collaboration, I was very pleased. It’s the first time for a long time I have worked with a screenwriter. She’s very clever and talented.”
Given Holland’s sensibility, it is no surprise that she finds depths in “The Secret Garden"--some of them quite murky. “It’s not such a sweet, sentimental story,” she said. “There’s optimism and hope, but it’s also full of cruelty. There’s a black side to the story--it’s about the struggle between the living and the dead. And the children aren’t just sweet and cute; they’re often unhappy, sometimes selfish. But they learn how to open up to the world and each other.
“You can find erotic symbols all through it,” Holland said. “But I’m not pushing in that direction. I’ve tried to be as faithful to the book as possible. The reason it has stayed popular for 70 or 80 years means there’s something good, deep and clever in it. I don’t see a reason to change it too much--I just looked for the things that are most beautiful and original in the story.”
On this particular afternoon, Holland was showing signs of strain as she strode from set to set with her 19-year-old daughter Kasia, an art student in Brussels who is working for her mother as an assistant on the film.
One scene, involving both children and animals, and continually interrupted by dark clouds, required many takes. “Sometimes it makes me crazy,” said Holland, though she permitted herself a rueful smile. “It’s difficult for child actors to keep concentration. My normal tricks for working with actors don’t work with children. You have to be a teacher, a psychologist, a mother, a child.
“Then there’s the fact that English children are more reserved in some ways. They have problems, but they think it’s not comme il faut to show it.”
Still, the main villain on this day was a headstrong, recalcitrant goose named Gandhi, who, along with a couple of rabbits, was required to strut around behind two of the child actors while they exchanged dialogue. Despite prompting and little rods, Gandhi stayed resolutely out of shot--then waddled over to Holland’s feet.
“Gandhi,” said Holland sternly, “go to your position.” Gandhi simply strode past her, even farther out of shot, while cast and crew broke up. Holland looked about her, shrugging with mock helplessness. “Gandhi doesn’t seem to realize,” she said, “that I am the director !”