How They Did It: The Producer of Destination Unknown Spent Over a Decade Collecting Interviews With Holocaust Survivors

Despite being clad in all-weather gear, I remained chilled to the bone on an early morning visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau back in April 2001. I was totally oblivious to the enormous odyssey that lay ahead.

Previous knowledge of the Holocaust among our entire group was limited to what we had read in books and seen in various documentaries and film. Standing at the epicenter of global mass murder was an entirely different experience to anything in the written form, and the weather conditions of this late Polish winter added to that somber feel.

Hundreds of images the Nazi machine failed to destroy line the walls and corridors of various blocks in Auschwitz. One 13 year-old Krystyna Trześniewska stood out amongst all the other victims and impacted me deeply. She arrived in Auschwitz in December 1942 and died a few months later in May 1943. She bore a striking resemblance to my daughter Nia, who was also thirteen years old at the time. The scene was now set for something quite unexpected, a fifteen year journey that culminated in the production of Destination Unknown.

After returning home from Poland, I immediately started to research the holocaust in a naive attempt to grasp an understanding of this scale of horror. Several months passed as I was working predominantly for BBC at the time. In Fall 2002, after a few weeks of failed contact with a client, I eventually got through to Mark Hersly who apologized for his absence explaining they were closed due to the Jewish holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. We immediately started speaking about the holocaust, and he told me that his father Sam Hersly had been captive at Block 11 in Auschwitz. This block is regarded by many historians as the waiting room for the gas chambers and crematoria. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and even more dumbfounded when we were all on a conference call within minutes. Mark invited me to New York to interview his father and many others his father was in contact with. By March 2003, we were ready to start filming testimonies in the UN Plaza hotel.

Method Challenges

Conducting accurate, comprehensive research into each subject was impossible for many reasons—online information was not so readily available at the time, much of the literature and books were novelized, existing documentation might be based on previous selective testimonies, i.e. answers to specific questions from previous interviews, and lastly, survivors that previously refused to provide testimonies may be more willing to share their stories now, due to recognition of their impeding mortality.

The solution here was to start at the very beginning through to the present day, “Please take me from your childhood to liberation?” An editor’s nightmare? Quite possibly, but all the important information comes out, and you can always tie up loose ends at the end of each interview or at a later date. Those well practiced in disclosing their experiences provide their testimonies in chronological order with breathtaking accuracy. You soon realize while obtaining these intimate accounts that there’s no room for the clip-board, or an agenda. You might as well use it as a coffee tray. The “childhood to liberation” method obviously took much longer with some testimonies lasting several hours. No commissioning editor anywhere would allow you to do this, due to costs and time constraints.

At a rate of three interviews per day between 2003 and 2004, this intensity along with the naivety of taking on such a large project took its toll. Depression matched with crying myself to sleep alone in the hotel at night became a regular occurrence. Something had to change, but I could not turn back and abandon everything we had gathered. Our initial intention of a broadcast documentary was now growing into a monster—an epic that seemed too costly at all levels. The solution was to keep going but to limit the testimonies to one in a day and take at least a one day break between each one. It worked, at least for a while, until the breaks turned into weeks.

Reluctance

My third interview was with Ed Mosberg, a survivor of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, made famous by Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s Ark and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation Schindler’s List. Mosberg spoke of the importance of obtaining an interview with the only living survivor that could provide an accurate account of what went on in Płaszów and how Oskar Schindler compiled his famous list. This man was Mietek Pemper. While working as the stenographer for the camp commandant Amon Göth, Pemper intercepted telegrams between Berlin and Płaszów. Based on this information, Pemper could alert Schindler to the fate of the Płaszów prisoners allowing Schindler to save the lives of so many. Pemper just wouldn’t agree to be interviewed. During many conference calls with Ed and Pemper, Pemper would say, “I’ll think about it” or “I have a problem with my throat.” We eventually discovered the real reason behind Pemper’s reluctance to speak. While on the film set of Schindler’s List a journalist asked him why he chose to work for Amon Göth. As though he had a choice! From thereon, he didn’t trust any journalist. Eventually he agreed to be interviewed at Vienna’s Hotel Europa in summer 2005. Pemper had reassurances that all the other survivors would receive the uncut version of their testimonies.

Llion Roberts’ journey began after seeing Krystyna Trześniewska’s photo. Courtesy of the Auschwitz state museum (Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau)

Outside of Pember, all other survivors that provided their testimony were willing to speak with many disclosing they would not have spoken five or ten years earlier. Spielberg’s film along with Roman Polanski’s The Pianist proved to be a catalyst that helped neutralize apathy surrounding the holocaust. The survivors realized that people do care and without these two dramatized versions many survivors that lent their testimonies for Destination Unknown would never have come forward.

Practical Challenges

One of the most challenging aspects of the entire process was the 11 year difference between principal photography and appointing an editor/director. I was already firmly attached to all the interviewees. I needed a storyteller at this late stage to come in from the cold with a fresh set of eyes. What further complicated matters were the basic rules that the editor had to adhere to if we were to avoid the trends of previous holocaust-related documentaries; we had to make something unique. I had already established these rules back in 2003 before principal photography began:

  1. Primary sources
  2. No narration
  3. No interviewer questions to be heard and nterviewer out of shot
  4. Non-Political (as much as possible)
  5. Must be emotive

By 2013, I had exhausted my search for a local storyteller and decided to compile a 20 minute teaser to pass around. This went from one industry insider to another, and eventually I making the decision in late 2013 to bring on talented editor Claire Ferguson. Claire was assigned the title of both editor and director, as we worked together toward a theatrical release. Unfortunately, most of the survivors that provided their testimonies had passed away before my meeting with Claire in 2013. From the very early editing stages, I felt the need for Claire to meet some of the survivors to get a deeper personal feel for the entire experience. Nearly two and half years and many assemblies later, the process culminated in the completed film.

Sustaining Momentum

Unless you’ve embarked on a film that’s been funded through the “normal” method of using other people’s money, e.g. SEIS-Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (My term for legal tax scam), maintaining your morale for an un-commissioned independent project can appear daunting, endless and very difficult to sustain. You don’t have the luxury of a huge network and a seven figure budget behind you. It’s very risky in the documentary category, and the producer and is often on their own. In our case, no financial help was available in the UK except for Ffilm Cymru Wales who provided additional partial funding for post-production. With looming post-production costs to pay for your director, theatrical distribution, grading costs, music scores, effects, etc. your back is against the wall. Without sound fundraising advice from my team to complete the task, it looked very bleak at times. My crew were bewildered by my perpetual rants from being so isolated with the stress. It’s futile for the producer who’s been on this for so long on a voluntary basis to expect anyone else to understand.

A thankless task? Yes, in many ways except for the honor and privilege of listening to the intimate testimonies of people who lost so much. Without post-production funding gathered from the families of the survivors in the US, and from the USC Shoah Foundation, Destination Unknown would have no doubt remained an unknown in the cutting room.

A scene from Destination Unknown. Image courtesy of Gigatel Ltd.

The Takeaway

Whoever you take onboard during post-production stage, you need to check for guarantees wherever possible. Ambiguity thrives in the film industry. Recognizing that you are dealing with a non-tangible product, you can still do so much by asking the not so obvious questions before you put pen to paper. Many of the people recommended to you may be well established, very efficient and serve you well; on the other hand, they may also be sitting on their laurels and thriving on ambiguity.

Your camera crew and sound recordists are your most transparent crew and easiest to replace or retain. You will easily see during the production stage whether they have a clue or not. We were lucky; they were very professional.

The most important time spent during post-production should be used closely examining agreements. Before signing any agreements, don’t be afraid to scrutinize all proposals and remember to shop around for quotes in all areas. No one is indispensable and despite what experience they have, they’re only as good as their last job. Your best service providers may be in your rural vicinity and not necessarily located within inner-cities. People you’ve signed agreements with will recommend others to bring onboard for additional work. Don’t take this on face value. Deal directly whenever possible.

Finally, the most important asset that you have after completing your film will be the PR firm you hire. They are the ones with an established relationship with the press, and they are your one and only real asset capable of sustaining relentless momentum for your project. Maintain a budget for this, and treat it as an absolute priority once you’ve completed your film. They are the ultimate influence for getting audiences to your screenings. Again, shop around and seek testimonials, rather than just scroll through a glossy web site.

Your first documentary film will probably be your most expensive one. It’s far from rocket science! A newcomer will eventually discover that a feature documentary has much in common with its broadcast counterpart. MM

Destination Unknown opens in theaters on November 10, 2017.

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