Fugitive Pieces: A Chat with Robert Lantos and Jeremy Podeswa
by Ryan Nadel
Eleven years ago, across Canada and the world, many avidly turned the pages of Anne Michaels' bestselling novel Fugitive Pieces. Among them was Robert Lantos. Like many, when Lantos turned the book's final pages, he was touched. Unlike many, one of his first thoughts was "this could never be a movie." And when Lantos, a Canadian movie mogul, says it can't be done, it usually doesn't happen.
Despite his initial reaction, the movie Fugitive Pieces will be released on May 2 across North America. Lantos, the film's producer, and director/screenwriter Jeremy Podeswa were in Vancouver to present the film at the International Film Festival in September 2007.
Michaels, who is more poet than novelist, tells the story of a young boy, Jakob, whose family is killed by the Nazis; he runs away from the shtetl and buries himself in a pile of leaves. A Greek archeologist working on a dig in the forest finds the boy quivering and takes him in. They move to Greece from Poland, then to Toronto, where the boy becomes a man and a writer. Through the experience of one broken relationship and, later, a redeeming one, Jakob discovers the ability to confront his personal history and the trauma that plagues him. Ultimately, Jakob finds redemption through his writing and true love.
The critically acclaimed novel is lyrical and poetic, and it cuts across time with a blatant disregard for physics, moving from one locale to another with no respect for geography. Yet, as Lantos thought the story could never be adapted to film, Podeswa, another fan of the book, believed it would make a wonderful film – and he started writing the screenplay.
"I read the novel and thought there was a great movie beneath the poetry, a strong narrative which spoke about a journey from trauma to light," said Podeswa, who is the son of a Holocaust survivor.
It was Podeswa's vision that convinced Lantos to produce the movie: "Jeremy convinced me it could be done, by writing a screenplay that worked in cinematic language ... to my surprise, he did it."
One gets the sense that Lantos is a man who is rarely surprised; he thinks deeply before he speaks and does everything with total confidence. Born in Hungary to Holocaust survivors, he moved to Uruguay at the age of nine, then to Montreal. He built one of North America's largest independent film companies, Alliance Communications, which he later sold. He now runs a boutique production company called Serendipity.
For both Lantos and Podeswa, personal experiences with the Holocaust affected their relationship to Fugitive Pieces, but both are adamant that it is not a Holocaust film.
"At the heart of Fugitive Pieces is an act of kindness, a man risks himself to save a little boy. That single act changes the life of the boy," said Lantos. "This is not a Holocaust movie but rather a movie about an act of kindness and how that affects others."
Podeswa sees Fugitive Pieces as a story about loss and redemption: "The goal is to find the universal of the subject; everyone has experienced loss in one way or another. It was the universality of the story that appealed to me," he said.
The process of translating a novel of such complexity into a film was a rigorous one for Podeswa. "It was a process of reducing the novel to its essence, a distillation and reorganization," he said.
Lantos' commitment to producing such a difficult movie comes from his personal fascination with the subject – both of his parents survived the war due to the acts of kindness of others. "Parallel with the stories of horror and suffering are the stories of heroic acts of kindness," he explained.
But, personal history aside, producing a movie boils down to economics. Fortunately, Lantos is in the rare position where he can value both the art of films and the business of movies, defining trends as opposed to following them.
"I choose to make films that are important to me. My hope is that if they matter to me, they will matter to others. At this stage of things, to spend time on a movie just because it will sell is inconceivable," said Lantos.
Fugitive Pieces, although fictional in detail, is historical in essence and Podeswa sees the medium of movies as ideal for telling historical tales. "It is immediate and accessible to everyone. Unlike a history book, movies distil the history to a personal experience. They are not only about facts," he said.
The film is set mainly in Toronto and Greece, and filming in Toronto allowed Podeswa to draw on his experience of growing up there. "Toronto is really a character in the movie," he said. "I have an intimate understanding of the city, a city of immigrants, and everyone brings their stories to it."
Always with a slight smile and a boyish dimple, Lantos reaffirmed his filmmaking philosophy: "I only work on material that matters and needs a light to shine on it."
Fugitive Pieces is a testament to that notion, as the opening line of the film declares, "I did not witness the most important event of my life."