Discussion with Andrea Chalupa
11 February 2020
On 5 February, the British Ukrainian Society organised an intimate discussion with Andrea Chalupa, screenwriter and producer of the film Mr Jones, in Committee Room 4 at the House of Lords, hosted by Lord Risby.
The talk was an impromptu continuation of a packed screening of Mr Jones at the EBRD the night before, in order to give our members the opportunity to more fully discuss the film with Ms Chalupa, who travelled to London in order to be at these events.
Both evenings were moderated by Larry Sherwin, Director of Cultural Programmes at the EBRD.
Larry Sherwin: Tell us more about your incredible family connection to the story and the genesis of the idea for the film.
Andrea Chalupa: My story comes down to a quote from George Orwell from a letter he wrote to his friend Martha Kessler, the author of Darkness at Noon, saying that the refugees from the Soviet Union, like my grandparents and parents, are a Godsend to breaking down the wall between Russia and the West, through them telling the truth.
My Grandfather was a victim of Stalin’s crimes and my parents were born in displaced person camps in Germany. Through this personal history I knew what it was really like behind the Iron Curtain, and I could bring those stories to a wider audience.
This vein runs deep in my family and my husband’s family as well since my father-in-law led the Romanian anti-communist demonstrations in 1956 when Hungary was invaded. My husband and I met through our parents so it was like an arranged marriage! Our fathers got their post-docs at UCLA’s Brain Research Institute. They became friends because they were both anti-communist which was rare in 1970s LA, where Hair the musical was very popular. My FIL arrived at UCLA on a Fulbright from Paris where he was based and he took that scholarship as a young Romanian refugee to start his life over again and continue his medical studies which were interrupted when he tried to launch an uprising in Romania in solidarity with the Hungarian uprising that was happening next door in 1956. The secret police arrested him, he was quickly tried and sentenced to prison where the guard welcoming him said, “you have come here to die”. The prison quickly filed with university students and they continued their studies inside the prison; my FIL learned French, English morse code and he continued his medical studies by treating the torture wounds of the other prisoners. By the time he was freed, he had such an incredible imagination about how to treat people that he developed a reputation in Paris for being the person to see when all other doctors gave up on you.
As a little girl I was raised to be very proud of my Ukrainian heritage. My grandfather, Olexji Keis, was born in Donbas, the part of eastern Ukraine being invaded by Putin which holds a very significant place in Ukraine’s history. My grandfather grew up speaking Ukrainian and before he died felt compelled to write down his entire life story, in Ukrainian. I stress that he wrote in Ukrainian because today Donbas is primarily a Russian speaking area but historically, it was the hotbed of Ukrainian national identity with some of Ukraine’s biggest thinkers and artists coming from the region. That changed after Stalin’s man made famine. The most conservative estimation is that 5m people across the Soviet Union died between 1932-33, with nearly 4m of them Ukrainians, by and large from the Donbas region.
When my grandfather was dying he prepared a package for me with a framed photo, a necklace with my name on it and a copy of his memoir. We were very close. I was studying Soviet history at university, doing a thesis on the role of religion in Ukraine’s independence during the fall of communism, and I was very interested in what happened during the Soviet period to the opium – to the churches – so I started studying the catacomb churches. That became a very dense thesis so to escape, I procrastinated and fell into a rabbit hole looking into a man I had heard about as a child, Walter Duranty. All Ukrainian children in America grow up with the story of Walter Duranty, what he did, what the NYT did and how the Soviets stole Ukraine’s grain and sold it abroad to raise money to modernise the empire.
A friend of mine was doing his thesis and was researching black magic being in vogue during the interwar period; people had lost a sense of purpose after the war so they turned to people like Alistair Crawley, the great Satanist. It turns out Crawley and Duranty were lovers in 1920s Paris. The more I learned about Duranty and how eccentric he was, the more I became fascinated with what a great movie he would make and his story a way to bring justice to Ukrainians.
After university I went to Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute and learned about a programme at the International School of Ukrainian Studies in Lviv which game me a very cheap way to live and study in Ukraine for a month and the start-up opportunity that I needed. It was whilst living in Ukraine for several months after the programme ended that I found my anti-Duranty, the young man who was going to be my hero, and that was Gareth Jones.
It was a lightning bolt moment. His family had created a website in his honour, so I emailed his niece Margaret and flew to London to meet with her. It became very clear to me that Gareth was the world to her as a little girl, he had a wonderful sense of humour and was a very playful person. She was always very encouraging to me and would ask who I would get to play him in the film, joking about his big ears and having to find an actor who also had big ears.
I moved to NYC which was at times an overwhelming place and this character of Gareth Jones and my research on him kept me company. I was working as a journalist and in my free time, beginning in 2004, started working on the screenplay, which took 14 years to come to fruition on screen.
LS: How did you get from the script to the film? How did you try to flog it, who bought it, how did you get the money, how do you be a producer and a screenwriter and…have a job?
Andrea Chalupa: I had to go to Europe to make this movie! The US is not a very hospitable place for a story like this. There is no commercial value per se, no Marvel hero.
Without an agent and without a manager, without even knowing how the film industry really worked, I knew the research and the current events connected to the story and that’s ultimately what got my film made.
I took all of my research and self-published it in a book called Orwell and the Refugees, The Untold Story of Animal Farm, which focused on the happy ending of how Orwell came into the script: Gareth may be murdered but his truth lives on in an animal farm. For a while the screenplay included scenes of the refugees discovering the animal farm like they did in real life. You see Prometheus bringing down fire and that showed truth was coming.
My book focuses on how these Ukrainian refugees discovered a relatively unknown writer at the time, George Orwell, and how, through written correspondence, they worked together to create a Ukrainian refugee camp edition of Animal Farm.
The refugees created a publishing company with the help of the United Nations. Germany and Austria – the conquered powers – were the holding pen for millions of refugees and in order to keep them within the confines of the camps, the United Nations offered grants for various things like musical instruments, or in this case a printing press, to keep them occupied so they wouldn’t stray and annoy the local German population. The publishing house that produced Orwell’s work in Ukrainian, the first translation of the book into any language, was called Prometej (Prometheus, in Ukrainian). My book was about that story.
In 2013, a group of university students in Toronto found my book and sent me on a two-week speaking tour at universities across Canada, which led to other speaking engagements that prolonged the trip. When I finally arrived home at the end of November, I saw the news that students in Kyiv were rising up against the Yanukovych government. I wrote an article in early December saying that this growing revolution would lead to civil war, and pointed out the history of the tensions in Ukraine were in fact created by Stalin, who through the mass murder changed the makeup of the east and partitioned the country.
Nobody wanted to publish that article in December 2013 – I got an email response from an editor at a major news outlet that said we’ve done enough Kyiv coverage for now – but two weeks later Kyiv was on fire and a few weeks after that, Putin invaded Crimea. Suddenly all the press wanted to talk to me!
Up until then you would have CNN showing Justin Bieber’s arrest in Miami as though it was breaking news. Meanwhile I would be watching a livestream online showing students getting beat up on the Maidan, but nobody seemed to care, the mainstream media in the US were not paying attention to what was going on in Kyiv, despite things really heating up.
So, with a group of complete strangers I met on Twitter, we launched the hashtag #digitalmaidan. We all wrote to our friends asking them to join us on Twitter in two days, when we would supply 100 tweets in seven different languages calling on world governments and major media to please pay attention to what is happening in Ukraine. I thought maybe 200 people would RSVP to this event but two days later, 30k people signed up and within minutes, we made #digitalmaidan trend globally and the hashtag was used by the PM of France, who also wrote a message of solidarity to us on Twitter, along with Russell Brandt, Bianca Jagger and Gary Kasparov to name just a few…
From that effort I became friends with the historian Tim Snyder who wrote Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which opens with Gareth Jones’ story. After Ukrainians vote in a pro-West government, Tim did a conference in Kyiv about the future of Ukraine and he invited Agnieszka Holland. I wrote to Tim immediately asking for her email but I didn’t have the courage to use it, as I was still struggling to find my voice with the screenplay.
At this stage I was considering giving up on the script altogether because I couldn’t imagine what to do next – nothing was happening, I felt I had no choice but to produce the film myself if I wanted to see it made and I didn’t know how to produce a film, let alone ask someone for money.
Then, something happened. A group of Russian friends invited me to a march in NYC, in solidarity with Boris Nemtsov’s march in Moscow against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Nemtsov was a charismatic opposition leader in Russia who said publicly that Russia should return Crimea to Ukraine. For that, he was murdered.
So, the march in NYC became a vigil for Nemtsov. I saw absolute fear in the eyes of my Russian friends and that just made me furious…so with all this happening in the background I did a page one rewrite that was very angry, and I grabbed the reader by the throat and said how dare you not care about this, how dare you not care that this is happening again, and I sent that version of the screenplay to Agnieszka. Right away she replied, “I care!”
I waited three weeks. People around her were telling me not to get my hopes up, that she was rejecting scripts with big names attached left and right. Eventually, in September 2015, I flew to Toronto to meet her. We had breakfast and right away she tells me that we’re going to have to film in Ukraine in order to keep it authentic, that I must ask the Polish Film Institute for money…this conversation was how I found out that Agnieszka would direct the film. So, I went to Poland and with Agnieszka on board, everyone shows up. They gave the money straight away, then the BFI gave us support, then Creative Scotland…
I was really concerned about working in Ukraine on such a sensitive subject, and in fact I used my husband’s surname when producing the film because I knew the Kremlin did not want this film coming out. But I’m so glad we did because the famine scenes are so authentic. I wrote snow into the script which Agnieszka fell in love with…I became increasingly worried about the cost implications of producing snow but because it was Agnieszka Holland, God listened – Ukraine got a historic snowfall that year, and even the Ukrainians were shocked that all of Kyiv was a blanket of white.
Larry Sherwin: That’s an unbelievable tale – your persistence, knowledge and to a degree, luck!
Andrea Chalupa: A massive amount of luck! A massive amount.