Writers' Chat with Magda Olchawska on Filmmaking and Writing

Differences, Similarities and Where Filmmaking is Headed

Literature has been radically changed by filmmaking.  Before the advent of films, novels were full of detailed descriptions and back stories. The great writers of the 19th century, from Dickens to Tolstoy are prime examples of this. No more. Successful novels nowadays are all based on the "show, don't tell" rule that implies a minimum of description and a maximum of dialogue and action. 

Today, I'm having an unusual writers' chat about filmmaking with Magda Olchawska who's that rare bird: both a writer and a filmmaker.  Here she is, smiling in her garden:

Magda has directed The Man with the Spying Glass and 9mm, both award-winning short films and some of her film work can be viewed on her website:  www.magdaolchawska.com. Plus she is the author of Mikolay & Julia Adventures series for children, available on Amazon  with more books scheduled to come out in March. Magda's next film is about human trafficking and how this illegal “business” profits not only criminals but also people in the public eye (this is a work of fiction: there are no similarities to any real life characters). The film will commence shooting in May 2012 and will be available at the beginning of 2013.

So here’s our chat, published simultaneously on our respective blogs:

Claude: To write a novel takes very little investment beyond buying a computer and linking up on Internet. My biggest effort so far has been to set up a blog, trying to write two posts per week - a daunting challenge as it takes time away from creative writing. Though blogging is arguably a good exercise for a writer, keeping her nimble with the writing pen. As a film maker, life is different. You are immediately confronted with the challenge of raising the necessary funds before you can even think about starting to shoot the first scene. What has been your experience in this regard?

Magda: You are absolutely right. Filmmaking is a very expensive, time consuming and energy consuming activity. Pretty often filmmakers don’t see their finished film for two years, if not more. It’s a long process to ready a script, then shoot it and edit the whole thing. As a writer you are pretty much on your own. When you are making a movie, you have to deal with a bunch of different people. Harrowing work but the thrill of seeing your movie up on a big screen is indescribable.

Claude: How do you get the funding you need?

Magda: At the moment there are  two ways of getting funding for a movie. Investment (popular in US) or some sort of Film Institute funded production (popular in Europe). Many established filmmakers have access to either investors or money from several film institutes across Europe.

Claude: But what about young film makers starting out like you?

Magda: Oh, most of us spend our own money! Or we have to run campaigns on crowds funding websites such as Indie GoGo or Kickstarter. A lot of fantastic movies have been made through crowdfunding. Movies that otherwise wouldn’t have a slightest chance of being produced neither in Europe or US.
I’m going to run a campaign for my new movie on Indie GoGo as well.

Claude: Why Indie GoGo rather than Kickstarter? Why not both?

Magda: It’s simple as a European I can’t run a campaign on Kickstarter. Kickstarter is only for US citizens. Indie Go Go is more flexible.

Claude: What other advice do you have for young filmmakers?

Magda: At the moment, in my opinion, with such an easy access to any kind of equipment, if someone wants to be a filmmaker they should just make movies and practice.

Claude: Maybe work for an established film director? How do you feel about that? Have you ever worked for someone like that – someone important in the filmmaking industry?

Magda: I never worked for anyone important in the industry. If you get the opportunity to do it you should. However I wouldn’t  waist time chasing those opportunities.

Claude: Don’t you have to build up contacts in the industry – go to film festivals? I know that as writers we all try – within the limits of our budgets – to attend writers’ conferences …

Magda: Yes, I go to a lot of film festivals. I do enjoy film festivals ‘cos they’re real celebrations of film and filmmakers, especially festivals in USA. I think European festivals could learn a thing or two from their friends across the pond.

Claude: Like what? What is it that Europeans could do better at their film festivals?

Magda: Make a “big fuss” about filmmakers attending the festival (please do appreciate us and our films: without our hard work you wouldn’t have a festival) , treat us better and don’t ask us to pay for festival passes. The most filmmakers friendly festival I’ve been to is the Newport Beach Film Festival. It also would be nice if European festivals concentrated a bit more on European films and not limit themselves to those made by established filmmakers.

Claude: Wow, life for a young filmmaker sounds harder than for an aspiring writer! What about inviting writers to film festivals and maybe film makers to writers’ conferences? Do you think that would work? Would it provide some needed cross fertilization between the two industries?

Magda: This is a brilliant idea. I think it could make writers & filmmakers life much easier.

Claude: Yes, I’ve always felt bridges should be built between literature and filmmaking – institutional bridges that would help draw attention to new books that are highly “filmable” and that would give those writers with the necessary visual imagination a chance to work on film scripts. But tell me, Magda, I’m curious: since you're both a writer and a filmmaker, how does your writing impact your film making? I know that when I write, I literally "see" the story unfold in front of my mind's eye and try to write - at least the first draft - as fast as I can to keep up with the action. Do you feel the same way about writing or do you view it is a totally different activity from film making? Do you write you own scripts or do you use others and get a team together to write the film? In your experience, what works best?

Magda: I write my own scripts. I have to say that writing has chosen me. While writing, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a story, a book or a script, I see everything in my mind. Just like you do. However when it comes to filmmaking seeing and writing and executing afterwards on the set is a totally different story. Each scene is going to be shown from various angles and you don’t write this in a script. But I have to think about this before I make a movie. Movies are made by  large teams of people and each person brings something different to the whole experience.

Claude: So what is your job as a film director?

Magda: My job is to give everyone instruction and tell them, which way we are all going so we take the written words and turn them into a picture. When I’m on a set I’m a 100 % filmmaker but off the set I’m more of a writer than a filmmaker.

Claude: Film making involves a lot of people beyond the script writers. That's very different from a writer's life. For us writers, life is lived largely in isolation, in our ivory towers dreaming up novels. I know because that's what I do and that's what I like best about writing: the time I have alone in front of my computer, time to let my imagination go. That of course doesn't make it any easier for me to change gears and start promoting my books: a writer is uniquely unprepared to do marketing. But a film maker like you, Magda, has to interact with all sorts of people on a daily basis or the film doesn't get done and doesn't get distributed! Does this constant interaction with people help you bring your film to a happy conclusion or is it a cause of delays? How do you survive the film maker's life as a writer?

Magda: I do spend a lot of time in isolation, just writing and coming up with the stories. However once the pre-production period begins (this is the time when all the important stuff is being done such as getting actors and crew and secure all the equipment so we can go into the production) I have no time for writing and spend most of my time on the phone or sorting out stuff I didn’t think of while I was writing.

Claude: With the digital revolution, the writer’s life has been radically changed. All of us, indie writers but traditionally published writers too, are pushed into the driver’s seat when it comes to marketing. Willy-nilly, book promotion eats up our writing time.  Any similar change in filmmaking?

Magda: The times have changed for indie filmmakers as well and just like writers we need to promote and distribute our own movies.  The promotion of a movie begins when the pre-production begins. The big studios start promoting some of their movies way before they even know who is going to make it or star in it. Just to make the general public aware of the upcoming movie.

Claude: That’s amazing, that means starting the promotion at least two years ahead! As a writer you start promoting only once the book is published…But do indie filmmakers like you do the same?

Magda: We do. With my last short film I spent a year promoting and screening it at various film festivals. With feature films filmmakers often spend 2-3 years promoting the movie. You spend a year making the movie, then another two years promoting it. To have any kind of balance and sanity (three or more years on a project can drive anyone insane) filmmakers do other stuff too. I started writing.

Claude: Magda, I'd like to explore with you for a moment the content of films. Movies are often based on best-selling novels - for example, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, a film that was made several decades after the novel had come out and become a cult book or Stieg Larsson's immensely successful Millenium trilogy. The latter inspired film makers twice: in Sweden an early version was made, followed now by a big Hollywood remake. Indeed, remakes abound in movie-making. Yet, at the same time, movies can be very innovative and sometimes make you feel they are ahead of literature. For example, there have been of late a series of films featuring older people, retirees that face challenges in their second life - a subject often played out in a humorous way. Films featuring old actors are making it to top rankings in the box office: for example, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (both 76), Helen Mirren (65), Meryl Streep (62) Sylvester Stallone (64), Liam Neeson (58) and I'm sure you can think of many others. Plots are focused on the mature (for example the current hugely successful Margaret Thatcher's biopic) or the retired and aging, like the 2010 hit "RED" which stands for "retired and extremely dangerous". That's something new, an area so far largely unexplored by novelists. We have a huge wave of Young Adult Literature, we are still waiting for a Baby Boomer Literature! Actually that’s what my next novel, A Hook in the Sky, is going to be: a BB novel!

Magda: A BB novel? Never heard of that!

Claude:  Yes, a Baby Boomer novel! My protagonist is just retired and looking for what to do with his second life while his marriage collapses. I think a lot can happen in the last stage of life – which lasts now longer than ever before and with more people than ever entering that stage. It could be the next wave in novel writing! What in your view, Magda, is the next big wave of movies? Where is the next big audience likely to come from? I'm thinking of how Hollywood is trying to get baby boomers back in the movie theatre, producing films to their taste. "True Grit", the "King's Speech", "The Fighter", "Black Swan", "The Social Network" have all been surprise hits at the box office and reaped Oscars. As the New York Times put it (see article in NYT, Feb 25, 2011), they've become hits "based on wit and storytelling, not special effects". So much for 3D! What is certain however is that pointless gore and violence and wild, unrealistic flings of fancy are gone. What is your opinion, Magda, where is film-making headed? What sort of film would you like to make, assuming you had endless pots of money at your disposal?

Magda: In my opinion there is room and audience for both “True Grit”, which I loved and also “Fast & Furious”, which I didn’t see. "The King's Speech", "The Fighter", "Black Swan" are considered independent movies because they weren’t made by any of the big studios. The big studios still think that the cinema audience is 16-25 years old. So I expect many more indie movies on bigger budget than a shoe string are going to be made.

Claude: But what about you? What kind of movie do you want to make and why?

Magda: I want to make challenging movies that will make a difference in human life. Adapting a well-known novel is an easy option for Hollywood as they already have an audience for certain films such as “The Hunger Games” or “Harry Potter”. Hollywood is more than certain to see the books’ fans in the theaters, eager to spend their money on tickets and popcorn. Even if it is just to confront their expectations. But in general a film is art as much as a book is.

Claude: Sure, movies are the 7th Art. But how do you decide what is art?

Magda: Depends on tastes of course. Some people prefer “Twilight” and others choose  Dostoyevsky.

As an audience member I do hope to see more challenging movies with actors not only in their teens but also mature actors, especially women. For I reckon this is another problem Hollywood doesn’t know how to deal with. Europe is a bit better when it comes to ageing actresses and writing scripts for them. But still it’s far from I would expect.

Claude: Let me move to another question. There's a movement in Poland as well as in many countries in the East European region, to explore the recent past and try to come to terms with the Communist inheritance, essentially to learn how to avoid making the same mistakes and falling back into non-democratic authoritarian system. Books and films are beginning to come out about this. What is your take on this? Would you consider exploring this theme either as a writer or as a film maker or both?

Magda: Well, more as a writer than a filmmaker. I was born in 1979, I was a kid but I still vividly remember the tanks on the streets and constant shortage of food. Yes, it’s true that a lot has been said, written and turned into a movie. I don’t think we should ever forget this part of our dark history.  However, I think that a lot of people my age have different worries and I’m not trying to be disrespectful to anyone and to the victims of the communism in any country.

Claude: Successful films have been made mostly in Germany so far (about the East German experience) but also in Poland. According to an article I read in the New York Times, there’s an on-going revival of interest in the past under the impulse of the newly established Institute of National Remembrance. They have a pretty big budget – some $65 million says the NYT – and the Institute has recently financed a “remembrance” film.

Magda: Yes, I hear what you’re saying. But the Institute of National Remembrance, which in Poland has been and still is used as a political tool, isn’t very much respected, at least not in the part of Poland I was born and brought up. I was born in Wroclaw. This part of Europe was German for 500 years and Wroclaw was one of the very last cities defended furiously during the World War II by the Germans. The city was destroyed by both the Germans and the Soviets who were planning to flatten the whole city but eventually “only” did 70% in. During communism, Wroclaw citizens were often severely punished for having been “German” in the past, as if it were their fault.  People in Wroclaw are a mixture of German, Polish, Chech and also Ukrainian culture. They are very independent in their thinking. When I hear the Institute is spending $65 million,  I get seriously pissed off  because Poland can’t afford that at the moment.

Claude: It’s a lot of money for cultural activities that could be better defined…

Magda:  I would rather see the money going towards educating young people, running proper cultural centers and keeping the children hospitals open, not closing them down. It is pretty difficult to get to the hospital if you don’t know the right people. The average salary in Poland is 800 EURO (this are just statistics, if people have 400 EURO it’s considered a lot) and everything in Poland is about three times as expensive as in Germany or the UK. My mom, after 30 years of work, is entitled to a 100 EURO pension! So the country called Poland in the middle of Europe isn’t as wonderful as our politicians would like Europe or the USA to believe.

Claude: This is terrible!

Magda: Young, educated people are still leaving the country for they don’t see a bright future for themselves or their children.

Claude: Same dreadful situation in Greece: the young are leaving to seek out jobs abroad…

Magda: So to answer your question. Communism was horrible and it destroyed people and the country as a whole. I guess Poland will have to struggle with the communist inheritance for generations. But instead of talking about the past over and over again I would rather talk about the future and think how we can make Poland and Europe a better place. We can’t be constantly defined by our past.

Claude: I agree, let’s think about the future. Let’s make Europe a better place for everyone, Poland included. And Greece included too. Instead of remembering the past, let’s remember the future…Yes, I know, I see the look in your eyes: that’s the title of Part 3 of my novel Fear of the Past. Indeed, that’s what I intended it to mean: whatever we do today determines the kind of future we’ll get. By the way, I’m curious, what is the title of your next film? Dealing as it does with human trafficking, how will you express that in the title?

Magda: The title of my film is “Anna and Modern Day Slavery”

Claude: Thanks for the chat, Magda, it’s been an eye-opener for me. Pity this is only a virtual chat and that you’re in Wroclaw and I’m in Rome or we’d go out and have a pasta and a bottle of wine and drink to the future of Europe!

Magda: I’m with you on that. Let’s move on and build a better future for a strong united Europe. We shouldn’t think about our differences but what unites us. United we are strong! And I’d also like to thank you so much Claude for this lovely chat. I’ve learnt a lot and you always keep me informed with the current affairs. I would love pasta and a bottle of good wine or maybe lovely coffee somewhere in wonderful Vienna!

Claude: Vienna? Why not, great! That’s the beauty of Europe, isn’t it, all that good food and cheer!

My thanks go to Magda for participating in this chat and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did! By now, I'm sure you're curious to see her film work. 

Here's a link to one of her short films, the one called "9 mm": click here

There's a trailer but to see the film, you have to sign up for her newsletter (the film is very short: about 8 minutes). Do it and don't worry, she won't spam you with her newsletter, because it's really worth seeing the film as a whole. Very atmospheric, a beautiful love story (in Polish with sub-titles) not to be missed!

Below, a picture of Magda at the beach (looks cold!): once you've seen her film, you'll understand why she likes this kind of landscape...

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