In the Fall of 2005, Oscar-winning Composer Jan Kaczmarek joined us as part of a panel that convened at Painted Saint Headquarters to discuss music, movies, and life in the film business. His credits include, among many others, Finding Neverland, Unfaithful, and Total Eclipse, as well as numerous other pieces for the concert hall and the theatre.
Joining Kaczmarek at the front of the room were two other film industry stand-outs: Director Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, Green Mile, The Majestic) and Composer Shirley Walker (Turbulence, True Lies, and all three chapters of the Final Destination franchise).
Each of the attendees had so much to say that it proved impossible to cram all their wisdom into just one piece, so we’ve separated their contributions into individual articles to give them each the spotlight they deserve.
“I was like a fighter knocked down in the first round, immediately. Down, penniless. Nobody paid any attention to who I was and what I’d done before didn’t count.” —Jan A. P. Kaczmarek
Jan Kaczmarek is a complicated man: Eastern European artist, award-winning Hollywood film Composer, and a philosopher on the fate of post-Communist Poland.
Born in Konin, Poland, Kaczmarek’s initial career impulse took him far from the world of the concert hall and the sound stage. As a law-studies graduate of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, he made the unlikely decision to study with famed theatre guru Jerzy Grotowski. (He credits Grotowski, whose pioneering techniques amounted almost to a form of artistic monasticism, as perhaps the biggest influence on his life.) It was with the ascetic Grotowski that his mettle as an artist was forged.
Dozens of film and theatre scores later, Kaczmarek completed an improbable journey to the pinnacle of his profession. In February 2005 his score for Finding Neverland won an Oscar, defeating perennial favorites like John Williams in the process. His native Poland honored him with commissions to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Solidarity movement, Cantata for Freedom (2005), and to mark the fiftieth anniversary of a bloody uprising against the totalitarian government in Poznan, 1956 (2006).
As of April 2007, Kaczmarek is working to set up an institute in Poland inspired by the Sundance Institute. He hopes his Instytut Rozbitek (Rozbitek Institute) will serve as a European center for the development of new work in film, theater music, and new media. Although the Institute has already sponsored a few small events, it’s scheduled to open officially in 2008.
Revealing an almost protean adaptability, Kaczmarek spoke frankly about life under Communism, his first impressions of Hollywood, and his difficult transition into American culture…
“I came from Poland when Poland was from the American point of view a Communist country. From my point of view it was a socialist country at the time; the Communism was very mild. When I was growing up, the worst was already behind us. There was always a certain oppression, censorship, but certainly nothing compared to the time of Joseph Stalin, when really Communism was the ultimate test. So I lived in a society, which had both censorship, but also an incredible respect for art. We were all equal in that there was no money in our society, so the only title to fame was your intellect, your accomplishments, and that was, for me, a paradise in a way. 1989 was when we came to America, a family of six, four children, and my wife, Elizabeta, and that was the year when the old system collapsed, when Communism collapsed. I missed that in Poland, but there was a lot of excitement here.
“For the last ten years I lived there, Poland was buying the ten best American movies. Very few movies were coming, but those that were, were the best. It was like a festival and I thought that Hollywood was the place that produces absolutely the highest intellectually challenging pictures. I was fully unaware that there was this crap that was the majority, and those ten films were really special.
“So that was great, but at that time I was very radical, a follower of Jerzy Grotowski. He was a theatre guru, and at that time I was involved in anti-government activities… we were young artists fighting as much as we could for art, for music. I deeply believed in the theatre, and live things like live theatre, live performance. Music was really my world and I never could understand why people applauded after the premiere of a film. I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ I thought the feeling was something artificial at the time.
“I came here with this attitude, hoping to promote my little orchestra, The Orchestra of the Eighth Day. I came to Hollywood which was a huge mistake for any radical or avant gardish person. The rejection was complete and total. And it was a great, great moment, because I was an arrogant artist from Eastern Europe. I was successful in Poland before I came here and it was a system which was terrible in the sense that it gave you too much comfort. I mean, because no one had money, we were the only class of people who actually had something. At that time if you worked as an avant garde, improvising musician it brought… let’s say I made $500 which was nothing in the West, but when it came to Poland, it was a huge amount of money. I mean for $1,000 I built a beautiful house in the most beautiful part of my country. So imagine how easily we were corrupted. We were geniuses and our power was unlimited! So coming to America was a great lesson in humility. I was like a fighter knocked down in the first round, immediately. Down, penniless. Nobody paid any attention to who I was and what I’d done before didn’t count.
“I’m still promoting this in Poland when I’m there and I talk to students… that this is the best lesson—go to America, you have to go there. You need to be humiliated to learn who you are. And real life begins right after that. And that happened to me and slowly I discovered the real world and also I discovered film as a very important thing. Also the world changed—theatre became not as important, especially in America. The message was that everything in the theatre was secondary here. And film was (independent film especially) much more important in terms of what it was doing, how it was communicating with people. It seemed like a much more powerful medium. Also, for a composer who wants to write for the orchestra there’s no other escape. Only film could really give you this chance.
“So I fell in love with film and slowly I discovered that this is the most exciting place to be and then I understood why people applaud the premiere—such an enormous amount of work is behind that piece of, what do you call it, celluloid? So that was my journey toward really appreciating what film is, and how much talent, how much strength, how much character we have to have to survive and to succeed in this business. It took me five years to reprogram fully and be compatible. And then, I managed to reestablish myself as a composer and discover the pleasure of working in a free society.”
Kaczmarek spoke openly about the challenge of finding guidance for his work and his career. “I wish I had had a mentor—somebody I would really be groomed by, but that didn’t happen. I have a few people in my life who are important, who changed my mind. Grotowski was one of them. He destroyed my mind. I went for a series of, we call it stash… he was a great manipulator with no responsibility whatsoever. It would never work today, I mean, especially in America. In Poland you could do this with no consequences. You invite young people and you subject them to very intense, let’s call it training. The training was like going into the military, but it served a different purpose. It’s the same idea, to remove from your mind whatever you have there and restructure it. But not restructuring, he didn’t put any idea in your mind, he created this deep sense of unworthiness that nothing which you had done before had any value. So you come out of Grotowski’s laboratory totally and completely ruined which you immediately recognize because your girlfriend runs away. Perfect! This is the first thing which happens to you.
“The second person to help me was Agnieszka Holland, a Polish filmmaker. She was the first person to give me a serious film to score, which was very important. The film was Total Eclipse. It never really had a big audience, but it was very important for me. (Leo DiCaprio was playing Rimbaud, and it was a story with Rimbaud and Verlaine, two poets.) I had encounters with creative people, inspiring people, but again, none of them was my guru.”
Jan’s habit of candid self-assessment then carried him into a discussion of his work habits. “I have a big problem with concentration. I need a deadline. I’m a very simple animal, so a deadline makes me really very creative. My work ethic is fully and completely related to stress; I need the stress. My family, especially my wife, is a victim of that and we go into this time when I’m approaching a deadline, then life turns into a nightmare for everybody else… but suddenly I’m in a trance, and I feel ecstatic. And I always wait for the moment when I go into the trance and that’s the moment that I write the best stuff. I also like to revise what I’ve written. So, my first cues are always kind of incomplete and when I’m at the end of the process, then I revise my first cues. It’s a very nice process.
“Also, that’s how I’ve been structured. I deeply believe in a structure in a film and these days it’s very difficult because there are very few movies that actually have structure themselves, so it’s no longer easy to write like before, one, two, three themes and they will serve the whole thing. There’s a much more complex situation that’s needed. But still, no matter what, when you are at the end of writing, you see what actually happened and you can end up with a pretty good score.”
Clearly Oscar voters found Jan’s work for Finding Neverland more than pretty good. But ever the realist, he was quick to downplay his big win. “The Oscar is great. But it didn’t change anything. Every day is a challenge. Of course, it’s a great moment, but then life comes back and you have the same choices and the same insecurities, and maybe not just yours but also the insecurities of other people. In our profession each of us has a different set of problems, but they are all based on a certain common thing which I would call a neurotic mind, the mind of contemporary man. This means our partners at the studio, other people we work with, most of us operate out of fear: fear of losing money or losing something else. How do we still offer some coherent vision or some positive emotions knowing that this industry is to a serious degree run by the success of the film?
“For me the biggest challenge is to continue working and continue aspiring to that illusion that our work has value, because otherwise it’s a waste of time. I’m not in it for the money in this business, because you can find more money somewhere else. (And maybe with less challenge, I don’t know.) But it’s very difficult to have very high aspirations, to serve some serious values and at the same time not be rejected. So it’s very difficult, but again, somehow we are so attracted to that. And for me, what I am doing now, even if there are so many moments when I think maybe I should do something else, it’s a kind of drug. There’s something addictive in the crisis which comes with almost every project… with the question of whether or not my score is going to stay in the picture.
“You may know that my profession is facing a unique time now when we are quite often replaced simply because relative to the rest of the picture, music is not so expensive. At the end of the process when the crisis comes, quite often people think that by replacing the music, they can save the picture. And they do it quite often. So suddenly part of my profession has this question mark. Sometimes we are all, the Director and Producers, we are all for a moment very happy, but then one month later there is a test screening with executives, and suddenly we discover that something which we believed was really well thought out and brilliant and we were ecstatic and champagne was opened and we drank together and made love together, suddenly it doesn’t work; it needs to be replaced. And how do you respond to this?
“My son, Szymon, was encouraging me to talk about my latest defeat. I agreed, I don’t know why, to score a film which is now in theatres. It was right after the Oscars, and it… it was a first time director and I have to warn everybody that this is the most dangerous situation. With a first time director and a big studio picture, you really have too much at stake in a way. So I did the music. The Director was a really lovely man, a sweet man, and very sensitive and we had so many good moments together; he’d cry occasionally while we were playing music, which was very moving. Then we went to Prague and recorded the whole thing, and the mood was absolutely spectacular. And we were really happy and then we gave hugs and kisses and I went to Poland and he went to mix it here. And then the mix was finished and still the mood was really great and I got these reports from the scoring stage occasionally saying it was all great… but then suddenly the day came when he woke up, a month later, after one of the screenings with the executives, thinking that it was all too dark. That the score, my score, was too dark and needed to be replaced with something light and they did it, you know! And he called me and he was very courageous, not many people do this, and he said, ‘You are being replaced.’ They just don’t call you directly. Usually your agent gets the message and, you know, your agent is your psychotherapist who tells you how wonderful you are and it means nothing and they’re a bunch of idiots…. No, this Director, to his credit, he called me. I was in the middle of a forest in Poland on my cell, and he told me what had happened. I said, ‘I really can not be depressed because I’m in such a beautiful place now and I’m in the middle of doing something really great, but I’m really shocked, and surprised, and I think this must be a mistake, but what can I say?’
“And it happened! They replaced my score and… and I believe it was a mistake, but that’s my right to believe that this was a mistake, and their right is to believe it wasn’t a mistake. I told you this story because you can get an Oscar on February 27th and be replaced on April 29th. And in a way that’s wonderful. And then you ask yourself how did I contribute to this? Was it necessary to score this picture? Was it, is it, my fault as well? And maybe it is, you know, and when I look at it today, I believe the score was right, but maybe I shouldn’t have scored another picture about children; maybe that’s unnecessary. Maybe one picture with a child as the main character is enough? Maybe I’m victim of, of my own kind of… I don’t know what. As a man from Eastern Europe I’m always thinking that I’m being treated as a composer who cannot write music for the mainstream American box office hit. I said, ‘No, no, no, I will do it!’ And even if it’s not the most sophisticated movie about a horse which breaks its leg and a little girl, I will try to prove I can do it. So, a certain vanity and maybe too much ambition was the reason that I wanted to prove something. On the other hand, I think I did it!
“But that’s the reality of our profession; we face incredible, unexpected events. So we all go through this and I’m sure this industry is being driven by incredible forces we cannot control. And my advice to myself and other people who are in my situation is to have another part of your life. I mean in order to be a composer who is always optimistic and full of passion and always looking for the unique voice and solution, I need to have something else. I also have to write music when I’m really enjoying freedom, then I can be much better psychologically, because it’s all about our feelings, yes, it’s nothing else. It’s our emotions and in order to be fresh and a virgin when I enter another production, I need to be somehow repaired in the meantime. So I’m repairing myself by writing and doing other things which confirm that I’m really in control. Then I can devote myself and be fully and completely curious about the next adventure.”
It didn’t take much prodding for Jan to reveal his newest endeavor. “The Institute is my latest passion and obsession. I started visiting Poland after years of not going there. And I discovered this new world. And Poland is from my point of view a new frontier, not just Poland, Hungary, all Eastern European countries are a new frontier. It’s the equivalent of the Wild West intellectually and in terms of the battle which is happening between the forces of globalization and big corporations, and independent thought. Poland is now more democratic than America, and that’s very exciting, but this will not hold. I don’t think this will survive. I believe in creating an Institute, a place where you offer some resistance and at the same time bring what’s best from America—the method of how we develop films here, how we develop new projects here. It’s a very important thing to do. Sundance inspired me first, but I also went and observed other places. I thought it very important to create a place for artists from Europe to meet, from Eastern Europe mostly, but also with you Americans, just to transfer blood (obviously metaphorically speaking).
“Let me speak as a Polish person for a moment—for us Poles it’s very important to have you there because the lack of structure is overwhelming, at least in my country. There are so many talented people there, people with talent and soul, but the structure is not there. The old system collapsed and the old system, in a strange way, resembled the American system. You had all this conflict as the essence of filmmaking. Instead of big studios we had oppressive governments. A filmmaker in Poland was always facing censorship and other government influence which was colliding and forcing the filmmaker to really be very smart. In the end Polish film benefited enormously from this collision. And suddenly this all collapsed and nothing else was created, so the filmmaker got all the freedom he or she dreamed about, but it was a terrible discovery, because freedom with no limits is no good. If we don’t have a challenge, somehow we collapse.
“At the same time we were fascinated by the West. Not only myself, but let’s say the population of Poland, artists of Poland were attracted to the splendor of the West—making money, being successful, and copying the works of Hollywood. But people knew nothing about how to make a commercial picture. And those attempts were a total disaster— really miserable caricatures of American filmmaking. So, fortunately this period is gone and people now are looking for their own voice, but still the structure is not there.
“So, I decided to create a place which brings, let’s call it, the American method there. That’s the premise, professional exchange, but also ideological. I want this to be a place of philosophical and political discussion, and also very rewarding for people who come from here to there because you are confronted with young minds who are very, very bright and uncompromising and very idealistic. The place is all property created in the 19th century—a castle and a few outer buildings and a beautiful park which was built by a woman who was a poet. Not a great poet, but she had a soul which you can feel, and in this way I was seduced by this place, because it has incredible soul and has a charm. And really when you are there, suddenly you want to write, sing, dance, make love, all those things which are so important.
“I started this process almost two years ago and the most important and most difficult challenge is to restore the old buildings, and most of the effort went to finagling loans from banks in Poland and also proselytizing the European Union to bring some funding as well. And we recently did our first workshop. Fifty-five composers and five film directors came for this workshop which we did half in a neighboring city and half in the open air at Rozbitek, which is the name of the place. And it was a great success, a great success in terms of people really responding to the place in a way that I expected they would. We could hardly remove them from the premises at the end. They wanted to stay there. Some of them were saying, ‘I want to cook; I want to do something useful. I’d say great, but we don’t have a kitchen here! So that’s more or less the story of the place. The name of the village and the place is Rozbitek which means castaway or shipwreck.”
Asked about how he’s survived and thrived in Hollywood, Jan summed up his thoughts with typical clear-eyed candor. “We are all being tested all the time. I’ve been here for fifteen years, so I have all the viruses of this culture; I’m not free from material desires. Sometimes I desire something which I shouldn’t. So, it’s great to be growing as a human being… which means learning how to say no to yourself without losing your charm! I believe that part of our success is from our own character and our own work and our own discipline and our own aspirations, and the second part is purely a bit of luck. I haven’t really been tested to such a degree as some of my other colleagues have. During the last ten years, I was never unemployed for three or five years at a time so that I needed to do shitty work in order to survive. I was never tested like that. There’s no food on my table, I have nothing to eat, and along comes this movie which is really the worst of the worst. And I have the choice to do it, and stop starving, or not to do it. I was not faced with that kind of black and white situation. So, I have an illusion that I’m in control, which is an illusion.
“I want to preserve the quality that I believe deeply in what I do, and maybe that’s the power of believing. If you aspire to something you send a certain signal that attracts others to you, maybe that’s the way. But I don’t want to patronize people by saying, you know, that you always need to go just for the masterpiece. Sometimes life is so terrible that in order to survive you need to do something shitty and if it doesn’t destroy you spiritually, mentally, intellectually, if you are aware that you are doing a shitty thing, there is redemption, you know, there is eventually.”
Director of Development/Assoc. Producer
Painted Saint Entertainment