Interview with Ewa Puszczynska

Francine Raveney
Francine Raveney


And the Oscar award for best foreign language movie goes to... Ida!”

Indeed, “Ida” is none other than the extremely well praised and rewarded Polish drama directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and produced by the ultra cool and chic Ewa Puszczynska. Set in 1960s Poland, “Ida” tells the story of a woman on the verge of taking her vows as a nun when she discovers from her communist prosecutor aunt that she in fact has Jewish ancestry. Together they set out to find out what happened to their family during World War II. Ewa graduated from the English Literature Department of University of Lodz. While studying she worked as a literature researcher, playwright, editor and advisor connected to Polish puppet theatre. After university Ewa’s first contact with the film business came through translating and editing movie subtitles for TV and cinema. In Opus film company, Ewa is also the head of an international department supervising co-productions and foreign sales and distribution of the produced movies. Recently she was a co-producer of a movie THE KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND (dir. by Marius Holst) which is a Poland, Norway and Estonia coproduction.

When did you decide you wanted to be a producer? What inspired you to make that choice?

Directing this commercial movie Well, it’s a strange and funny story… Rather than graduating from film school, I actually studied English and then went into translating, at a time – twenty years ago – when few people spoke English in Poland. By chance I was brought into a company, Opus, which was producing commercials and doing line producing at that time and was asked to interpret during a contentious meeting. They liked my work and from there I was invited on set to work with an Italian director, where I interpreted 24/7. A month later I was brought onto the staff and then had my production break producing a car commercial for a North American company. Via a Finnish producer we managed to meet the requirements of the ad and it carried on from there.

What qualities do you think being a producer requires?

To be a good producer you need excellent social skills, so that you can really speak to people. That’s fundamental when you’re working with directors and different crews. Also, you need to be open to other people as well as capable of carrying out risk management. To obtain financing, it’s important to be able to talk to people easily and explain your requirements.

How do you feel about the transformative power of film to help individuals transcend their everyday realities?

I believe that film has a very strong role in this. It serves as a form of dialogue with people, namely the audience and it enables important topics for humanity to be discussed. For example, “Ida” allow us to face the dark history of Poland. Films can touch on what makes you who you are as an individual, your faith, migrations, searches for a promised land etc. These are important subjects and I want to continue making films on these topics. Films that make people think, make them talk about friends with or talk to strangers to.

Ida” has won many awards, including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (2015), EFA Best Film award (2014) and many others at the EFAs - do you consider this recognition a career high or is there another moment in your career that you consider the most fulfilling?

It would be dishonest to say that this isn’t a career high. After all of these years and working so hard, playing the game of film making it’s super nice to hear Nicole Kidman saying : “and the Oscar goes to: Ida!” And overnight you become a media person. Everybody wants to discuss Oscars with you! Even if we should absolutely value even more highly our own European Film Awards, which went so well in Riga and our battle against conveyor-belt movies. (Note – “Ida” scooped 4 awards including “Best Film” at the 2014 EFAs.) Now I will be working for a Palme d’Or! It’s also magical because a lot of the times the emotions you live through movies are impossible to experience in your daily life – at home or at work. A small miracle is produced when watching a new movie! What I particularly enjoy is to portray female experiences especially in love, pain or death – how women break and rebuild themselves.

How did you come to the project “Ida”? and how does a good producer balance creatively producing and leaving the director space?

The project actually came to me. Pawel Pawlikowski had been developing the project with a UK company for six years and when I saw the initial script for “The Sister of Mercy” it was a significantly different version, but I knew straight away that I wanted to work with him on it. I then became involved with the writing process and a new writer came on board… At a certain point we needed to close the script to raise the financing, but the director actually kept on changing it right until the last day. For the music, for example, the Bach piano piece was proposed by the director right at the very end, meaning I had to have the rights cleared in a two-hour turn-around time! Also, the director preferred to shoot chronologically, which we could not afford, but we found a compromise. On each location we were shooting chronologically which was not easy to convince a crew to do, but in the end it was certainly worth it and the crew were also pleased.A good producer needs to understand the director they’re working with. Directors can vary greatly and in the case of Pawel he needs time, trust and space. He agreed to a 35-day shoot, which was all we could finance at first, even though he wanted a 40-day shoot. However, the contract also stipulated that the number of shooting days is divided. After the first part there is a break for editing and later we continue shooting. In the end we needed to break shooting even earlier because of heavy snowfall – God’s intervention? – and it was during this longer than planned editing period that the director finally identified the film he wanted to make. Further discussions over days for the shoot ensued but in the end a shooting board was prepared and the shoot was very successful and everyone was extremely happy.

Women both on and off the screen is an EWA Network preoccupation - how does this subject impact on the choice of films you produce and the way you work creatively - e.g. with other cast and crew members?

I like working with women and indeed in “Ida” most of the cast and production crew were women… It can be an emotional experience, but usually we fight, cry and then make up. I also like working with young Polish directors; like Kasia Klimkiewicz. I very much believe in the magnetic forces which bring people and projects together. If we look at the recent EFA board we can see that there all the new board members are women.

What is your next project?

I have an upcoming project with Pawel. I would also like to work with a female director on a film for which I have the script, about “20 years of life of a woman”… The story is an adaptation based on a tale about a woman who is looking for her own identity… and trying to understand who she really is.

Would you say Poland is an easier country for women producers and directors to work in as opposed to some other European countries like Germany?

In my generation I was pretty much the only producer, but now there are more women producers coming through in the new generations. They are brave. There are also new women directors coming through, women cinematographers… I wouldn’t say it’s more difficult than in any other country.

What do you consider the value of a network like EWA?

It’s about knowing there are other talented women out there that really matters and for women to be recognised as excellent professionals more than their gender identity.

What’s your advice for being a successful producer?

You must do what you believe in and stay true to yourself. Otherwise what you are doing will be a lie.