It was 2006, and Piotr’s film Tsotsi won an Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film. It was an overnight success based on ten years’ hard work of preparation, which included producing The Last September starring Maggie Smith, Fiona Shaw and Michael Gambon, Trial By Fire and The Helen West crime series for ITV starring Juliet Stevenson and Amanda Burton, as well as Bugs 3D, an IMAX film which grossed over $35m worldwide. He was also involved in the production of Keeping Mum, starring Rowan Atkinson, Kristin Scott Thomas and Maggie Smith, Piccadilly Jim starring Brenda Blethyn, Tom Wilkinson and Sam Rockwell, and In My Country directed by John Boorman, starring Samuel Jackson and Juliette Binoche.
His latest film, Secret Sharer is inspired by Joseph Conrad’s short story. It is Piotr’s directorial debut based on a screenplay that he wrote together with his wife, Henrietta Fudakowski. The film was shot in Thailand and China with the promising English actor Jack Laskey and acclaimed Chinese actors like Zhu Zhu, Leon Dai, Ching-ting Hsia, as well as non-actors.
We are sitting in a cosy living room at Fudakowski’s Soho home, which is also the Premiere Productions office. There are plenty of film trophies on the mantlepiece, but Piotr is much happier talking about his family and his wife, Henrietta – his best friend, script editor, and mentor. But, of course, I wanted to find out about his experience of winning an Oscar, about his new film Secret Sharer and his future plans.
Piotr, you have travelled a long way to the Oscar, to be where you are now. Was it your dream to be a film director?
– When I was a teenager I saw Cabaret. I fell in love with the film, and movies in general. I realised how much film could move and educate, and how much joy it could give, and even how it could change my life. But I followed my parents wishes and went to Cambridge to study science, then economics. I then did my MBA at INSEAD in France and started my banking career in the City of London. Although the bank I was working at financed film productions, I did not enjoy the job. I quit after two years, married and for almost a year and a half, together with Henrietta, went travelling around the world. I wanted to burn some bridges behind me. That was my first jump into the deep water, so to speak. With a limited budget you have to start thinking differently. My father was concerned, my father-in-law even more so. Engineer and diplomat respectively, they were expecting a traditional career path from me. When we came back to London, I found a job in a small media company and used my creative skills producing entertaining training videos. It was something new, it was exciting. I used the themes of well known films, like Casablanca, to explain how foreign exchange works. Banks and other clients loved it, so I set up my own company and enlarged the operation scope to include Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. I then moved to Poland with my family for a year to build our house in the Tatra Mountains. It is now my place on Earth. Some years later, we sold our house in Putney and moved to Soho, to be in the heart of the film business. It has taken me over 40 years, too long I feel, since I saw the Cabaret to become a director. But it was worth taking all that time. I loved directing the Secret Sharer. It was an experience of a lifetime. If you are persistent in following your dreams and prepared to work hard for it, you will get to where you want to be. But still, I consider myself lucky because without my wife Henrietta I would not have achieved any of my great dreams.
You live and work together. Many people would find this difficult, if possible at all. What is your recipe for such a successful and fruitful relationship?
– It is true that my life has been blessed in every way, and the story of our married life would be tedious as a movie because of its harmony and lack of conflict. It is rare that a husband and wife can work so closely together, but it is a blessing and a great force for success in the balanced sense. As for a recipe, all I can suggest is that men find women like my wife and marry them.
Did you know straight after reading the script of Tsotsi that it would be such a successful film?
– It sounds arrogant, I know, but my honest answer is “yes”. For well over 10 years, we had been reading plenty of scripts and looking for stories which were universal, touching, emotional, intelligent and enjoyable for viewers around the world. The story of a young gangster who is touched and changed by the vulnerability of a baby and discovers his own humanity seemed to be perfect for a film. Athol Fugard’s original story was set in Apartheid South Africa. It was a moving story but full of the politics of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which frankly would not interest most people. My wife’s and my creative vision was to set the story in contemporary South Africa, making it apolitical and producing a film which, despite its tough theme, would look beautiful and have a powerful soundtrack and, in other words, be entertaining. Stories about hope and forgiveness, are always uplifting and universal.
Did you expect to win an Academy Award?
– The film received very good reviews and many prizes internationally. It was awarded Best Movie at Edinburgh and Toronto film festivals, and it also received the European Film Award. As soon as I saw the reactions of audiences in Toronto, I knew our film had a good chance of winning an Oscar. But most of all, I was happy that we made a good film, a memorable film. From my many years in the film business, I know how difficult it is to make a good or memorable movie. I always say it takes a miracle. You have to believe in miracles if you want to survive in the film industry, to make films that get wide distribution. Tsotsi was distributed in almost all countries around the world and is still played regularly on TV and Cable channels. It’s a miracle for a small independent film with no stars and not in the English language.
How did the Academy Award change your life?
– I think it reinforced my belief that it was worth struggling to make meaningful films, getting them financed against the odds, and then distributed, despite the small chances of success. It reinforced my passion for making impossible dreams happen. Producing films had been my dream since my teens. It became a reality only in my 40s. But directing a film… Well, that was, perhaps, an unconscious dream. The Academy Award probably made that unconscious dream a possibility, but my wife’s support made it a reality.
Let’s talk about Secret Sharer, your debut as a director. Why did you decide to take on a Conrad novel?
– I have been fascinated by Conrad’s life and stories since the early ‘90s. While I was working with a former Polish Minister of Culture, Waldemar Dąbrowski, on how to reorganise state support for Polish film makers, he said to me one day, rather tongue in cheek, “You’re an ‘Englishman’, why don’t you produce a film about your compatriot Joseph Conrad?” I took his suggestion seriously, and started reading everything I could find about Conrad. When I came across his short story The Secret Sharer, I was fascinated by its autobiographical nature. It is a tale from Conrad’s youth, a story of a young man’s growth into a leader of men, a true captain. It is a moral struggle with the matter of life and death of another human being. In Conrad’s story a naked man comes on board with a secret he needs to share with the young captain. The young captain hides the man in his cabin from a mutinous old crew on a difficult voyage, and has to share everything with him, starting with his clothes, food, then his bed and finally his personal insecurities, loneliness and a need for a friendship. I was drawn to this story by its climate of mystery and adventure, but my script editor wife insisted that if I wanted to adapt it to film, we should make it into a contemporary story. I agreed on condition that Henrietta allowed me to change the captain’s Secret Sharer into a beautiful woman.
Do you think that young people who face difficult decisions and moral dilemmas will relate to the protagonist?
– I think there is something in my film for all ages. When asked about Tsotsi, I would describe it as a parable about redemption. I think of Secret Sharer as a fable about that aspect of love which is friendship – sensual but platonic. These aspects of love often create difficult decisions and moral dilemmas. But I did not want to make this theme overbearing in my film. Conrad’s stories, when adapted to film, can often be quite dull and ponderous. I wanted to make my Secret Sharer an entertaining and romantic piece of escapism, yet about something important.
As a first-time director, you had to work with English, Chinese and Thai actors and non-actors in Mandarin. Was it another jump into deep water?
– I like your analogy of deep water. Maybe that’s another thing that attracted me to Conrad’s The Secret Sharer. I like attempting difficult or seemingly impossible things. But I don’t like failing. So I have to work very hard and push myself (and others with me) that extra mile every time I get involved in a film project. Early on in my career, a very smart friend advised me that I should “play to my strengths”; in other words, to stick to what you know and what you already do well. I chose to ignore that wise advice, being a contrary sort of person. So I have always kept changing what I do well to what I have never done before, slowly for sure, and not without due consideration and preparation. I think you will agree that deciding to direct Chinese actors in Mandarin on a huge cargo ship in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand was crazy, if not foolish – and as a first time director, pure hubris. But then I am someone who is blessed with good fortune, so it all worked out fine. I truly loved my first directorial experience.
Did you cast the actors yourself?
– Casting is half of the ingredients of a good film, the other half being the screenplay. I cast the actors myself, though with the help of a couple of excellent casting directors, Celestia Fox in London and Peter Mossman in Bangkok. I spent two years looking for my lead actor to play the young captain, and finally found Jack Laskey, a RADA-trained Shakespearian English actor whose career had been on stage rather than on film. Jack was perfect for the role and we had a perfect working relationship. The only small problem was that he didn’t speak fluent Mandarin. You can imagine the challenge of acting with fellow actors and non-actors who only spoke Mandarin, and being directed by a first-time director who could not speak Mandarin either. But Jack is a very brave actor, intelligent, hard working and totally committed to his profession. I think that he is convincing as a fluent Mandarin speaker. He was the only Westerner in the film, the rest of the cast being Chinese, Mongolian, Taiwanese, Thai and even Korean. I’m very proud of my casting and directing of the Chinese crew in the film. But I have to admit that my beautiful Chinese leading actress, Zhu Zhu, spoke perfect English, which made my directing easier in the more intimate scenes.
You tried to shoot the film in China. Could you share your story of how this struggle came to be?
– That is a long story and a sad reflection on Chinese censorship. It is difficult to imagine that a Conradian plot could have anything that might offend Chinese censors. But every film, Chinese or foreign, has to go through the censorship wringer if it is to get distributed in China. After three years of working with the censors in Beijing, and believing that our screenplay was making progress up the chain of command at the Ministry, we received formal notification that our project could start filming so long as we used the Ministry’s version of the screenplay. You can imagine my surprise and then feelings of total disbelief when I finally read the screenplay translated into English from its approved Mandarin version. To decline the Ministry’s offer of a sizeable grant for making the film in China was one of the hardest decisions of my life. The project on which we have been working together with Henrietta for so many years lay in ruins. It felt as if it was going to sink without trace, that I was never going to direct a feature film. Weeks and months passed and Henrietta reminded me that I liked impossible challenges, and told me to pick myself up and go to Thailand where an old acquaintance was working as a film producer. He turned out to be the man of the moment – Tom Waller, my co-producer and a brilliant facilitator. The rest is history.
There was also a Polish crew involved in the Secret Sharer production. How was the cooperation?
– Most of my principal creative team were Polish, starting with the original writer Conrad, through to myself as screen-writer, producer and director, the director of photography, the editor and the post-production and computer graphics artists. It was always my intention to make a Polish film in a foreign country with foreign actors and not in the Polish language. The English are great at reaching out across cultures and making films about foreigners in foreign lands. The Poles have not had the opportunity to do this much for obvious reasons, but I thought it was time to start. I have got support for this project from Poland’s most successful producer, Michal Kwieciński (Katyń, Wałęsa), and from the Polish Film Institute, headed by Agnieszka Odorowicz, so I am most grateful to them. I’m not sure, though, that my film will be regarded by the Poles as a Polish film. Maybe that’s just my personal perception, and the film will be judged, hopefully, as memorable or unique.
The main music theme comes from a Polish patriotic song composed over 70 years ago. Were you aiming to stress the link between times and cultures or to pay homage to your ancestors and your Polish roots?
– I cannot imagine making a film which does not have a strong musical theme and score. As with Tsotsi, the songs and score are a character, a major part of the movie. The setting of Secret Sharer posed a challenge, because it was difficult to find or compose Chinese music suiting the dynamics of the film. I had to invent a credible reason to have western songs in my film. I had always adored the melody of the theme song which I decided to use in Secret Sharer. It is a romantic, patriotic Polish song; I imagined it could have been played to our hero captain as a child by his patriotic and principled father. That song is part of our hero’s psychological baggage. So it was a deliberate homage to the film’s hero’s father, rather than homage to my ancestors. It is also a memorably beautiful piece of music, orchestrated by English film composer Guy Farley.
It is a cross-culture film. The hero, a young Polish captain, speaks fluent English and Mandarin and works for the Chinese ship owner. Tsotsi was South African. It seems that you feel at home in this multicultural pot? Is this because you were brought up in two cultures?
– There is no doubt that my Polish roots and English education make me feel like a “cross-cultural” film maker. I’m very comfortable with other cultures, having always felt a bit of an outsider in both England and Poland, a bit like Conrad must have felt all his life once he left Poland at the age of 17 to go to sea with the English merchant navy and after he later settled in England. I like reversing stereotypes of people and cultures. I believe that film has an obligation to move people, to make them cry, laugh or even change in attitude. Being a cross-cultural filmmaker helps enormously in telling stories that do just that.
You are a man of faith, often stressing or addressing Christian values like redemption or sharing. What your next film will be about?
Most of what I have done and continue to do in life is informed or guided by my Catholic upbringing, to which I owe a great deal. Sharing is a more rewarding experience than receiving or even giving. I became involved in a childrens’ charity in 1994 by a stroke of fate, and I have benefited far more than I have given. The shared experience of helping that charity gave Henrietta and me lifelong friendships, huge satisfaction and probably the inspiration for our next film about Thomas Coram, who comes back to London from colonial America in the 1720s and fights the establishment to set up the first orphanage hospital for the abandoned babies of London’s poor women.