How To Build A Dream: A Manual


Agnieszka Niezgoda

“I would like to take photographs of Poles in Hollywood,”

J. mused aloud, the nebulous thought taking shape in quite a bubbly manner, as if accelerated by the sound of the first cork popping from its bottle. The night was crisp. The sun had just set beyond the window of a ground-floor-Warsaw-apartment, where Richard-the-Boxer, of chocolate-and-cream stripes and monkey-like-face, gazed lazily at the red brick courtyard from the marble windowsill. Out there, spring 2009 A.D. arose cheered on by the grey-bearded and teeth-missing natives, raising a glass with their not-too-soft drinks.

“I would like to conduct interviews then,”

I embraced the concept out of courtesy. The second cork popped. Quiet waves of distant enthusiasm rolled in from the horizon. We opened the third bottle. The more we slaked our thirst, the closer they approached. Finally, the waves hit. Rippling outward. Scattering the news: “We’ve got a book!” Thus, this idea was conceived.

In vino veritas— truth in wine— such bravery in a tipsy man.

Four years later, after much turbulence and many re-routed flights, I am juggling both the Polish and English editions of the coffee table book: Hollywood PL. Beyond The Dream: Personal Roads to the Silver Screen, the fruition of our dinner party zest. The testimony of twenty-three people; all successful Polish filmmakers of world renown. Of different credits, of different ages, but all born on the same film-page. Written after a hundred hours of interviews that I conducted and recorded in Los Angeles, Malibu, New York, London, Paris, Warsaw, and Wrocław. Visualized through dozens of hours of epic photo shoots, captured and produced by J. in the locations mentioned above. Completed with the help of our undaunted friends, without whom we wouldn’t have succeeded. We established our own publishing house to preserve the project’s creative independence from start to finish, rather than relinquish that artistic integrity under the control of a publishing corporation. We became producers, and struggled through the fundraising process. The public donation of the Polish Film Institute has substantially supported this book. Had we known the extent of this project at the outset, we might never have found the courage to pursue it. But we had no idea where this road would take us. And it turned out for the best. An image arguably accounts for a thousand words, but words shape the feelings evoked by imagery. Hollywood PL enables us to look into our protagonists’ eyes, their minds, and their hearts. Many of them had already been friends of ours before we embarked on this creative journey. Many we befriended while working on this book. They are the winners of Academy Awards, Golden Globes and Emmys. Exquisite directors, demiurges charged with shaping new worlds and then guiding us through them. Agnieszka Holland, Roman Polański, Zbigniew Rybczyński. They are first class composers, whose music absconds with human souls. Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, Abel Korzeniowski. They are the legendary Polish directors of photography, masters of painting with light. Adam Holender, Sławomir Idziak, Dariusz Wolski, Alexander Gruszynski, Łukasz Bielan, Feliks Parnell, Ireneusz Hartowicz and Jacek Laskus, the author of the photographs in this book. They are great production designers, who build the fantasy we behold on the silver screen with their own hands: Allan Starski, Marek Dobrowolski, Waldemar Kalinowski. They are fabulous costume designers, who make our dreams materialize: Anna Biedrzycka-Sheppard, Mona May. They are beautiful actresses, who seduce our senses and hearts: Alicja Bachleda-Curuś, Iza Miko, Beata Poźniak- Daniels. Among our protagonists there is a brilliant screenwriter whose words give these worlds their first breath of life. Agatha Dominik. And a fantastic editor, who discovers the dimensions of a film’s soul: Lucyna Wojciechowski.

The list could be longer; we needed to make difficult choices. Regrettably, the narrative of two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kamiński could not be included in this book. We invited him to participate several times, but our attempts to secure his involvement were unsuccessful. We send him our best regards.

This book does not try to be something it’s not. It’s neither a film critic’s review, nor it is a scholarly anthology. I unraveled each individual’s story, guided by a reporter’s ear. My curiosity heightened by my personal appetite. After thirty years of a coherent life— more or less— in my hometown of Warsaw, I landed at Los Angeles International Airport: LAX. With a small suitcase, and not-so-small dog carrier for Richard-The-Boxer (check out the photograph of the lady in a red dress), I came to live in the city of West Hollywood. It could have just as easily been Uruguay or Papua New Guinea – I had no idea where I was heading. Having traveled all around Europe, and Africa, I was never really drawn to America, which seemed too distant, too foreign, too driven by money, just, somehow: not mine. California struck one particular personal chord with me, and that was my affection or Jim Morrison when I was fifteen years old, when I would watch The Doors over and over again. Wearing a punk-scarf on my head, emblazoned with the “anarchy” sign, sporting punk-shoes that I painted with hippie symbols for “love and peace” – to telegraph my contradictory craving for both world peace and some sort of social revolution – glued to the TV screen, I watched Meg Ryan walking to the song Love Street, and I captured the words “Laurel Canyon”. It sounded magical. Back then, I lived with my parents and my little brother on Stefan Kopciński Street, and the sheer comparison of the two sounds made it clear we were talking about apples and oranges: Stefan Kopciński. Laurel Canyon. So far apart. So far away.

Twenty years later, Laurel Canyon became Stefan Kopciński. My neighborhood. Yet, it possessed all the familiarity of a stranger. When I arrived in America, I wanted to embrace it immediately. Its rules. The law of the land. I wanted to learn, and to really comprehend this country. But it was like beating my head against a wall. Against many obstacles that I couldn’t overcome, the most crucial of which was language. Language, my professional tool. Language, my beloved friend. Language, my identity.

Now it transformed into something alien, that didn’t represent me, and even rebelled against me, not following my thoughts. I missed my comfort zone. I missed the support system I left behind at home. I missed this cozy feeling of belonging. Gazing at the vibrant, green hills on my morning hikes in Runyon Canyon, I saw isolated, pristine fields. Does emigration impose solitude detrimentally, or in a manner that enriches us? Does an identity, deprived of both social and national context, succumb to conformism, or rather, incorporate new influences in a way that clarifies its essence? Does a character, uprooted from his biography, crumble in defeat or rather forge the fight to be reborn? Emotionally dislocated, I was absorbing new cultural references. But at the same time, deep down, I was adrift in the void of these references, battling my doubts: am I visiting, or shall I belong? The road to this determination was paved with some bumps, which I hated back then but which today I love: writing is born out of longing, not abundance, out of steel-cut questions, not pre-cooked answers. At the beginning, emigration resembles an incubator, in which the human soul grows in silence to embrace the outside world.

Today, I am still roasting grains of quinoa and leaves of kale— LaLa Land’s ambrosia— and already I have learned a lot. The interviewees placed road markers that guided me on this initially hazy trip. I listened to their heart wrenching stories. About a childhood spent in the Siberian gulag. About fate, that scatters apart from us even those we hold most dear. About the hopeful, innocent youth suddenly shattered by political caprice. I listened to the testimonies of people who fearlessly decided to change their lives, and though they often paid a great price for it, the end of their bumpy roads was never dead, but always rewarding somehow. Change doesn’t just come. The greatest things don’t just happen. That’s the lesson I learned over the course of writing these amazing biographies. We need to go after it. Whatever “it” means. Perhaps this is not revelatory, since the ancient Greeks discovered a while ago that “our character is our future”. But it takes effort to embrace simplicity, to understand the obvious, as many of our book’s characters assess. Their stories gracefully meander across the porcelain layers of life: love, beauty, and friendship. They state that it’s important to have both a powder compact fashioned from crocodile skin, as well as a forged-steel soul. Last but not least, our stories reveal the true faces of Hollywood, without make-up, as they sparkle with candid celebrity-anecdotes. How did rotten eggs shape Leonardo DiCaprio’s career path? Who embarrassed Johnny Depp? What does Angelina Jolie look like, her and herself alone, face to face with her stress? We will get to that as well. Lastly, these remarkable stories uncover the broader landscape of an immigrant’s pursuit of the American Dream. They honor wonderful, contemporary Polish artists for their contributions to the world’s cinema, years after a boy from Sucha Beskidzka— just a small Polish village— knocked on Hollywood’s door to pursue his dream, instead of following in his family’s footsteps to bake cakes at a local bakery tucked inside a railway station. His name was Billy Wilder.

This four-year expedition has engraved upon our—the authors’— hearts mesmerizing lifescapes. It was a first-class ride. Since I am writing these words in English myself: I am doubly proud. But today there is a shift in the captains’ cockpit. From now on it’s you, the Readers, who join our Dream Builders in their journey.

Welcome aboard.



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A.N. During your childhood, where did you watch your first-ever film?

A.H. In a Siberian gulag, in the vicinity of Krasnouralsk, Sverdlovsk Oblast. After a very short spring, as springs in Siberia last about five days, summers bloom splendidly there. Nature springs to life at an accelerated pace, just like it does in cartoon films. The greenery is fertile and lush. Summers last for four weeks. One gorgeous summer day, a truck pulled through the camp’s gate. Armed Soviet soldiers jumped out of it, precariously juggling a film projector. My parents and I, in the crowd of other inmates, sat on wooden benches in front of a white cloth hung on the wall. In the labor camp there were a few hundred, perhapsa thousand people. They screen the film. Old Hollywood glamour. In the parlor of a magnificent mansion, with satin curtains and crystal chandeliers, a graceful lady emerges in a silk ball gown. The table groans with exquisite dishes, served on porcelain platters. The lady— her hand jeweled with diamond rings— plucks a piece of sausage from the table and tosses it on the floor, for her doggy. “Mommy, Mommy!” I get hysterical; my parents have to take me out of the screening. We were fed potato soup. Once a day, a tiny serving. A cauldron on a sleigh would stop next to our hut, and the portions were poured out of the big metal pot into our little metal bowls. That was all we possessed. Everyone owned an aluminum bowl, a mug, and a spoon. Our precious belongings. We lived in a wooden hut with no electricity, just a kerosene lamp, with no running water, that we shared with a family from Estonia and a nice, cultured lawyer from Moscow. We slept on the ground, on straw mattresses. In the middle, there was a stove, the most important tenant of the hut. Though there’s nothing to cook on it, at least in winter. And winter in Siberia is the primary season, the longest one of the year, when the temperatures plummet to 22 below zero, Fahrenheit. We would put a piece of wood inside the stove to keep warm, just enough to not freeze to death at night. One time, the sleigh with the cauldron didn’t show up for a whole day. The next day: same thing. On the third day, the sleigh finally appeared. I grab the bowl and eat voraciously, keep on eating until... I see my parents’ eyes. I’ve already devoured my mother’s portion, and a part of my father’s as well. They didn’t say a word, didn’t stop  me, just watched me. That was the first time that I realized I behaved poorly, that I acted unethically. That Hollywood film, or rather— that first scene, the Lady with a Sausage—was the first movie I ever saw. The only one I saw during my six years in the gulag. […]



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A.N. You’re 33 years old. You have your husband; you have your 9-year-old daughter; both in Poland. You take the risk of not seeing them for years. One could call it boldness; another might call it egoism.

A.H. If I had returned and gone to prison, I wouldn’t have seen them either. Outside Poland, I was at least able to do something about the situation – in prison, I could have done nothing. I knew that Kasia was well taken care of by Laco and my mother, so I wasn’t afraid for her. My marriage at that stage was no longer working. Was I thinking about going back? Sure I was. Theoretically, I could have done it, but when my passport expired, I couldn’t get it extended. So I was living out of a suitcase, and remained convinced that I would find a way to bring my family to me, sooner or later. From Stockholm, I traveled to Zurich, where the Swiss labor unions were organizing a “Solidarity6 panel” for exiles—Solidarity members and supporters who were kept out of Poland once martial law was enacted— at the very same building where Lenin had his Bolshevik assemblies. In Zurich, I met some friends who persuaded me to go to Paris: Poles in exile are mobilizing; there is work to be done; we need to act now. So I go to Paris. There, I meet up with Sewek Blumsztajn, Jacek Kaczmarski, actresses Gosia Zajączkowska and Joasia Pacuła, and soon the Wajdas are to arrive. The Polish authorities had to let Wajda out of the country, since the contracts for the Polish-French co-production of Danton had already been signed. In Paris, the other exiles and I slept side by side, two to a bed, in an apartment of a Polish woman married to a French man, both of whom were willing to harbor Polish exiles. From the very beginning, I fought for the documents necessary to get Laco and Kasia out of Poland. Krzysiek Kieślowski—a colleague and friend of mine— helped me with this quite a bit. He ran around town, trying to convince the necessary bureaucrats to get everything processed on our behalf. But all this while, the phones remained dead, so I ultimately had no contact with Kasia and Laco for several months. […]



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A.N. But you did fly. How well prepared were you for this adventure?

A.K. Perfectly. The first step: directions. I put the geographic coordinates into Google Earth: USA – Los Angeles – Beverly Hills, and enlarged the office building housing the agency. Then I printed the satellite image and put into a folder with a “location” tag. Second step: a uniform. What represents success? A Hugo Boss shirt. I went broke just to purchase it. Third step: a car. Friends kept telling me that in Hollywood, everybody who’s somebody has the wheels to prove it. I compared prices, models, and finally made my choice: a gold convertible. Thus prepared, I flew to LA. The meeting was to take place the following day. The first day I did a dry run. I checked the route, timed it; I checked out my parking options. In the afternoon, the agent’s secretary called me. My gut reaction was panic: “They’re cancelling.” Instead, she asked me how my flight was, and if they should send a cab to pick me up. I was dumbstruck by the thoughtfulness. The next day, I showed up at the glass office building in Beverly Hills, on the fifth floor, with a bright red neck- sun-burnt from riding with the top down, in my new, gold convertible.

A.N. Perhaps the gold convertible was like Yoda’s blessing from Star Wars: “May the force be with you”?

A.K. It makes me laugh today, but back then, it was driven by my inferiority complex. I didn’t want to come across like a nobody. I was petrified. For the first time in my life, I was going to have a business meeting with Americans, native speakers of a language foreign to me. The agents were asking about my career, but most of all, they wanted to know if I was willing to move to Los Angeles. One needs to live here, as meetings are set up at the last minute. Literally. Some time later, I got the film, A Single Man, this very way. In the morning, an agent called me about meeting with the director later that afternoon. You can’t answer: “Gladly, but in a week.” You need to be here. Once that first agency meeting was done, I drove towards the ocean in my convertible. I stopped at the shore, set my gaze upon the horizon: “Is this really happening? Or am I just window-shopping?” I returned to Poland to apply for an artist visa and work-permit. I completed the required paperwork: interviews, press cutouts, recommendation letters, prizes, certificates of being a juror, film screenings at festivals, and—bank statements. Criteria for the visa and permit included my salary history, which, in America, is a tough area in which to impress. Once I completed my application, a problem arose. I could not receive an artist visa without a job offer from the States. And I could not receive a job offer from the States without a US artist visa. Catch 22. Jan Kaczmarek offered me the assistance of his lawyer, who negotiated—for free —my contract with the agency, hoping that one day I would become his client. Months passed by. In the gloomy fall in Warsaw, Los Angeles was reduced to a souvenir magnet on our fridge. […]



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A.N. Did you start shooting Pirates of the Caribbean with the expectation: “we’re making a hit”?

D.W. Just the opposite. Everyone was afraid of pirates. In Hollywood, pirates had an awful reputation that the logistics were too complex, the cost was too high, and thus pirate movies always turned into a box office flop. Pirates have never really been a hit. Johnny Depp, a respected actor, was not yet a Hollywood superstar. The start of  filming marked the start of the studio sulking: you can’ t do this, you can’t do that. Johnny Depp’s performance paralyzes everybody with fear: is he acting drunk? Gay? Why does he need a gold tooth? And what that makeup or? For the first few weeks, Johnny was afraid that they’d fire him. Everybody kept asking everybody if it was funny. Bound by the lack of freedom from the terrified producers, we reached the moment, when Gore Verbinski and I looked at one another, with a silent question on our faces, whether we should resign. But we decided we’d persevere. “Even if the film sucks, at least the kids will like it.” With that attitude, we stayed on the project. My turning point came when we were shooting a scene in Los Angeles, in which Captain Jack Sparrow is being hanged. Suddenly, I notice a little woman sneaking by. Of a certain age, with a black mop of hair, in red stiletto high-heels, wearing a short skirt. I know her from music video I shot long ago: it’s Jane Rose, Keith Richards’ agent! “Jane, what are you doing here?” I greet her. “Johnny invited me over; he meets in secret with Keith every day.” Now we’re talking! I figure out the concept. Johnny based his creation on the image of Keith Richards, which is commonly known today, but at that time no one even from the crew realized. His pirate conquered the world, and made Depp a Hollywood A-list star. The studio rewarded us with carte blanche for the sequels. On the set of the third part of Pirates, we were shooting additional footage on a ship in California. We’re entering the harbor filled with thousands of awaiting fans. On board, we have three Jack Sparrow Captains: Johnny Depp, a stuntman, and a stand-in— a doppelganger used for lighting the scenes. We moor to a pier. The stuntman disembarks first, and the crowd runs after him. Soon, they realize it’s not Johnny Depp, and rush back in throngs. Then goes the stand-in. The crowd runs after him. In the meantime, Johnny sneaks off the ship. Another time, I worked with Johnny on an independent project in the south of France. We went to a club for a Bob Dylan concert. After the show, we go backstage. Johnny gets nervous, as he is just about to meet his much admired master, but not for the first time. Dylan can’ t recognize anyone without his glasses on, so someone from the crew whispers to him that Johnny Depp, standing right here in front would like to speak with him. Bob Dylan approaches, nudging him: “Hey, Captain Hook!” What a great moment that was. […]



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A.N. That very moment in your career, you switched from piloting a puddle jumper to piloting a jet. How did it change you?

A.B.S. It rebuilt my character. Returned me the place I’d always belonged. All of a sudden, fate switched the tracks of my life. Just a moment ago, I was sitting in that boutique and nobody cared two hoots about me. My friends tried talking me into accepting a job as a costume designers’ assistant, but I was stubborn about not following this path: I knew that in a hierarchical English system, once-an-assistant would make me forever-an-assistant. Just a moment ago, as a 42-year-old in the company of 20-something British moms taking their girls to private school, French or ballet lessons everyday, I felt reduced to the family function of being “Antonia’s mom.” So much in love with that beautiful little person, born by miracle at my late age, yet I floated in the void, undermined by my internal weakness. I erased five years from my professional life to commit myself to her. Spielberg’s offer forced me to make a decision: do I want to be a frustrated mom, or a happy one— of whom Antonia will be proud? There was no hesitation at all. As if on my own wings, I flew to the set. At 5 a.m., I wake up barely conscious and mentally motivate myself: “Ania, get up! You’re a costume designer for Spielberg! So what if it’s your seventh day of work in a row! So what if Antonia has scarlet fever! The exhaustion will go away, and so will the fever! You cannot ruin once-ina- lifetime-opportunity and go back to the boutique!” I return to London from the set in the blaze of glory. I get an agent, and a flood of offers follow. I make films all over the world: I start in England, continue in Morocco, and finish off in America. Living out of a suitcase, I enjoy the fantastic adrenaline rush. Antonia transforms into a little woman of the world. From plane to plane, Baltimore – Boston – Paris, on every set, she invariably reads The Sunday Times, on Sundays, obviously. Krzysztof and she come to visit me for holidays; I go to the set, and they go to the beach. Working with Spielberg brought me restoration. I reclaimed myself. […]



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A.N. Ten years from the moment when you nearly fled the States broke, you’re standing on stage holding an Oscar. The entire world is looking at you. What are you looking at?

J.A.P.K. Once my name is announced, I jump from a chair and hug my wife. I walk to the stage and enter it. I accept the statue. I just stand there. I look at director Martin Scorsese in the first row. Older than me, he’s been waiting years for his award. First, adrenaline paralyzes my brain. Then a reflection comes: I look at Konin, and who I was back then, a long-haired enthusiast plucking strings in a bathroom. It’s a long way from Konin to an Oscar. I’ve always been ambitious, but never so cheeky as to plan such a biography. Familiar thoughts prompt justification for the moment: you should have been writing scores for a symphonic orchestra, and composing for features all along! But I was walking my own path. I reached success through seemingly senseless choices. The counter-culture Orchestra of the Eighth Day had taught me how to avoid clichés, venture outside the box, and not to choose the obvious solutions. It gave me a backbone. Today, though I have at my disposal a fully equipped craft of a professional Hollywood composer, when I’m searching for a peculiar tune, I reach for the energy of Fisher’s Fidola, and use the old musical interpretation. That stands for my idiosyncratic memory. My virus of identity. […]






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