An Interview with Janusz Madej – By Duane L. Martin

Last month, Jason Lockard reviewed Janusz Madej’s film, Stigma. Unfortunately, he was unavailable to do the follow up interview with Janusz, so I stepped into the role of interviewer, even though I hadn’t had a chance to see the film. I asked Janusz mostly about the creative and production side of things, but I also found out some things about him that fascinated me. I’m glad I got to do this interview, because Janusz is not only super talented, but he’s a super nice guy as well.

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DLM: Let’s start out like I always do by having you introduce yourself to everyone and tell us all a little about yourself.

JM: My name is Janusz Madej and I’m an actor/filmmaker of Polish descent, living in Amsterdam, The Netherlands for the last 12 years of my life. In 2009 I arrived in Los Angeles to study acting at The Ivana Chubbuck Studio and filmmaking at the Los Angeles Film School. I’ve lived in LA for about a year and a half and I must say it’s been a great experience. Growing up in Poland I’ve always admired movies made in Hollywood and it was my dream to one day be able to come here and study with true industry professionals.

DLM: Now you didn’t start out as an actor or a filmmaker. You had a very different career that you fell into at a very young age that would probably surprise most people. Tell us about that and some of your more notable experiences with it.

JM: Indeed. Before I became an actor and filmmaker I was a professional ballet dancer. As a child I had an abnormal flexibility in my joints. After consultation from the doctor, my mother decided to utilize this talent and put me in Ballet School. It was either this or the circus, but my mother thought that I would get killed on a trapeze so the ballet would have been a much safer profession in the long run. I passed the examination with flying colours. Not having any knowledge beforehand about ballet, I was very skeptical about this new career. The only thing I knew about it was that men wear tights and women dance on their toes. Not the greatest selling point for a ten year old I might add. However because of my physical ability I was excelling at my training and slowly I started to build an admiration for this profession. I built up to be at the top of my class and started to get attention from teachers and other students due to my physical and artistic ability. Even as a young boy I already had a lot of acting talent that was often utilized in character roles. With the Warsaw School of Ballet I was fortunate to tour in many countries including France and by the end of my education to Osaka, Japan. Due to a great reception in Japan, I realized that I wanted to leave Poland and search for a better life abroad. Eventually I arrived to the United Kingdom and I auditioned for the Central School of Ballet, where I received a scholarship granted by their director Sir Christopher Gable. I didn’t speak English very well, however I was determined to succeed. Mr. Gable eventually offered me a contract for a ballet company, which he was the artistic director of, called The Northern Ballet Theatre (NBT). NBT was a touring company of about 35 dancers based in Leeds and at that time known as the fifth best company in the UK. Due to the fact that Sir Gable was a professional actor in the later stages of his life, in his company he paid a lot of attention not only to the technical aspects of the performances, but also to the acting that was adding the drama of the performances. After two years of touring all over Great Britain as well as a few international tours, I decided to move on with my career and audition for Het Nationale Ballet (HNB) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. HNB known as one of the best companies in the world with 85 dancers was a huge step up in my career. It enabled me to test my abilities on the highest levels. I stayed with this company for ten years performing classical ballets such as ‘Romeo & Juliet’, ‘Swan lake’, ‘Nutcracker’, Sleeping Beauty’, just to name a few as well as hundreds of contemporary choreographies. With HNB I toured countries like Canada, France, Germany and United Kingdom.

DLM: What was going on in your life at the time that made you decide to leave the career that had been the biggest part of your life, and to make such a drastic change in direction by going to film school?

JM: The career of a ballet dancer is relatively short. Usually you have to retire when you’re about 35 or 40 years old and most dancers go on to become ballet masters, teachers or directors of ballet companies. I was never interested in that. I always knew that when I retire I want to use the skills I learned through the grueling dancing training and use it for another profession. Even when I worked as a ballet dancer, in my free time I already studied acting at The Department of Acting Amsterdam. This allowed me to work on my technique as an actor but also gave me the confidence that I found a new calling and a natural progression from a dancer to an actor. Coming from a theatre background my goal was to eventually become a film actor. For that I needed experience in front of the camera. I started to audition at different film academies in Holland for roles in short films made by film students. I acted in over a dozen short films and commercials and this convinced me to pursue this career even further. Working with film students I was able to contribute even further to their projects. I realized that apart from acting I was also interested in filmmaking. I helped to direct, produce, costume design and edit some of the projects and I started to realize that my filmmaking knowledge would allow me to be a better actor and vice versa. I bought a MacBook Pro and the editing program Final Cut Pro and started to actively work in the filmmaking field.

In April 2007 the renowned acting coach Ivana Chubbuck came to Amsterdam on her first international tour to promote her book ‘The power of the actor’. At the time I didn’t know who Ivana Chubbuck was, but after some research I found out that she was the woman who discovered Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Jim Carrey, Elisabeth Shue, Jake Gyllenhaal and Halle Berry (Halle even thanked her in her Oscar speech when she accepted the award for ‘Monster’s Ball’). I applied for her two day intensive workshop and I was chosen as 1 of 16 actors in Europe to participate in her Masterclass. At her book signing we immediately connected and she assigned a scene for me from a play and film titled ‘Days of wine and roses’, with my scene partner Janna Fassaert (Couples retreat). After the workshop Ivana felt I needed to go to the next level and offered to train me at her studio at Melrose in Hollywood. This was a great opportunity that I needed to take advantage of and therefore I asked her to recommend some good film school for me in which I would be able to receive a full filmmaking education in a short period. I went with The Los Angeles Film School. In 2008 I retired as a professional ballet dancer and relocated to Los Angeles.

One of the main reasons why I chose The LA Film School was that they had wonderful facilities. I shot films in High Definition in the past, but what attracted me to the LA Film School was the fact that they had 35mm Panavision and Super 16mm Arriflex cameras. I wanted to shoot my thesis project ‘Stigma’ on film.

DLM: You made Stigma while you were at the Los Angeles Film School, but you had a tragedy in your life right before you were to begin shooting it. Tell us about that, and what impact it had on you personally and how it affected the film.

JM: Indeed, about a month before the shoot of my thesis project ‘Stigma’, my mother’s illness took a turn for the worse. I knew that she was sick before I left to Hollywood, however I was always hoping that she will be able to conquer the illness and will be able to see her son graduating from film school. I took a sabbatical from my study and went back to Warsaw, Poland, where I spent the last month of her life with her. My mother was always my biggest supporter, she had me when she was 44 years old, which back then was not a very typical age to have a child. I have three older brothers, 13, 15 and 17 years older than I am, who experienced her sickness and death in a much more accepting way. She was 75 when she passed away, which is a quite reasonable age, however for a young man as myself this experience became a huge emotional stigma that I’m dealing with until now. Her passing was a traumatic experience, however she had her whole family with her and me holding her hand during this most scary moment in every man’s life. I was completely emotionally destroyed. The most important person in my life was gone and the whole motivation behind the acting and filmmaking career did not matter anymore. Thanks to the emotional support of my girlfriend Jennifer I slowly started to realize that it would have been such a waste if I would give up on my and my mother’s dream. I took three months off to recuperate emotionally and came back to Hollywood to shoot ‘Stigma’.

As I mentioned the preproduction of ‘Stigma’ was already done before this tragedy, however due to my mother’s passing the whole production took on another dimension. Feeling her presence around, the whole film became a shrine to my mother. The experiences I went through in Poland allowed me to tap into the emotional luggage that was released through my acting in the film and to some extent it became an emotional therapy. Who knows, my acting might have been less emotional if not for this tragedy. I’ve dedicated the film to her in the final credits and I certainly think ‘Stigma’ would have been a different film if my mother wouldn’t have passed away.

DLM: How much of your acting and film work was your mother able to see before she passed away? What did she think of your work?

JM: On a weekly basis I always updated her through the phone how things were going with me and my career. Every year I came to visit her in Poland and I always brought with me the films I acted in and together we looked through them with me translating my dialogues from English to Polish so she would have a better understanding of what’s going on. She was always very proud of my abilities as a dancer, actor and a filmmaker. Even though she missed me and always asked me when I would move back to Poland, she knew perfectly well that my place was abroad where I had better opportunities to make something of myself. My biggest regret is that she wasn’t able to see the film that she inspired me to make, ‘Stigma’, and in some way I feel by showcasing this film I am celebrating her life.

DLM: You’ve worked literally all over the world. What are some of your favorite places, and have any of them had a particular influence on you and the way you see your art, be it dance, acting or film making, and if so, what new insights did you gain in these places?

JM: Coming from Poland, known for a great filmmaking industry I’ve always been inspired by filmmakers like Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi and Steven Spielberg’s favorite Director of Photography, Janusz Kaminski. During the communism censorship was imposed on films and other media. The filmmakers had to find ways of surpassing the censors to get their ideas across to the public anyway. This is where those Polish filmmakers developed a visual language that indirectly would influence man’s subconscious mind. They would use the subconscious meaning of colours, esoteric symbols, music and speech patterns of the actors to show the hidden messages directed to the viewers’ subconscious minds. This technique was later copied by Western filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, who openly admired Kieslowski and if you watch Kubrick’s films you can really see how much influence he took from the Polish film style of Kieslowski.

As a young man I found Polish cinema too deep and intellectual for my liking, this is why as a child I was inspired by the movies from Steven Spielberg (‘Raiders of the lost arc’), James Cameron (‘Terminator’), George Lucas (‘Star Wars’) and Ridley Scott (‘Alien’), all with more commercial appeal. They offered me a form of escapism that I needed to survive the communistic depression. However the older and intellectually developed I became I started to appreciate the films of the Polish masters. I started to understand their symbology and depth. They inspired me to develop my own storytelling techniques through my acting and filmmaking. This is precisely what I was exercising in ‘Stigma’, ways of affecting the audience’s subconscious mind. Also having lived in the Netherlands I got inspiration from painters like Van Gogh, Rembrandt and their use of colours and composition. Coming to Hollywood I’ve gotten the understanding of how technology can help make your films look more professional with great facilities that generate amazing looking special effects. My goal as a filmmaker is to merge these two worlds of filmmaking, the European Arthouse cinema with realistic acting and stories on one hand, and the big Hollywood blockbuster scope on the other. To some extent Chris Nolan is doing that right now with films like ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Inception’, where highly intellectual stories are merged with the great scope of a blockbuster, but still maintain everything in a very realistic mode.

DLM: Ok let’s get to Stigma now. What gave you the idea for the story, and how long did the whole writing process take?

JM: The idea for Stigma came when I first arrived to Hollywood. On every corner I noticed a psychic center, mainly dedicated to all the actors and filmmakers who come to Hollywood in the search of fame and fortune. Those places are filled with psychics who claim that they have a gift to tell others their future. I have an interest in astrology and occult and know perfectly well that by having a bit of information from an individual you can paint a perfect profile of each person you encounter. However for a film to work it always needs an additional dimension and therefore I thought that it would be interesting to make a film about a psychic who is a fraud, mainly focused on making money and has absolutely no affiliation with religion. But after he receives stigmata his whole life is turned upside down.

The writing of the story took about a month and I went through roughly 11 drafts before I settled on the final script. Most of the time was spent on the research, the writing part went quite smooth.

DLM: Did the finished film match up to your original story idea pretty closely, or did you make some changes and edits to the story either before shooting or during production?

JM: While making your thesis film at the LA Film School, you get four days to shoot your film. Due to that fact there were scenes in the original script that were taken out to make the whole production fit into four days. For example, there was a hospital scene that we actually took out before shooting. During the shoot, which was an exciting process in itself, I as a director had to make some crucial decisions and instead of for example having three separate shots, by utilizing the dolly, I would use one shot that would work better and give a feature film look to the production.

DLM: Tell us about the cast of the film. Was it comprised mostly of people you had known or worked with in the past, or did you put out a casting call to find the right people for the roles?

JM: Using the opportunity of being in Hollywood I’m aware of how many talented people wander around in this town. I put out open casting calls, but I already had some people for particular roles in mind that I had worked with before. Frank Mavros, who plays father Nolan was someone that I met at the LA Film School on a project shot by a friend of mine. I noticed that Frank had a very minimalistic approach to acting, perfectly suited for film medium and he had something soulful about him, which I thought would fit with the character of father Nolan. Michelle Allaire, who plays Olympia, I had met on a previous casting call for another movie that I shot but that time I chose another actress for that particular part. However I always kept her in mind and when we casted for Stigma, I thought she would be perfect for this role. The widow at the beginning of the film is played by my colleague Rebecca Brooks, from the masterclass study at the Ivana Chubbuck Studio, who I thought was a good fit for this role. Sylvia Panacione as the blind girl was the only actor that I casted from an open audition. And I took the main role of Gabriel the psychic upon me, juggling acting and directing at the same time.

DLM: How closely did the cast, in both physical appearance and the way they played their roles, match up with what you saw in your head as you were writing the story?

JM: I think the actors that we chose fit perfectly in their character roles. Before the shoot I had a lot of personal conversations with each actor, getting to know them on a personal level and being able to understand who they are as individuals and what motivates them in their lives. This helped me when it actually came to filming to bring up the best possible performances from all of them. I know it might have been a bit weird for them that I acted and directed the film at the same time, but having the possibility to act with them I was able to directly affect them during the takes.

In film school you learn that there are always three types of film that you create when you make a film production. The film that you write (script), the film that you shoot (actual filming) and the film that you edit (final product). Being a very visual person I always imagine how the film will look like as a final product and all the decisions that I make in preproduction and production are based on that principal. I have to say that Stigma indeed came very close to what I initially intended. In some way it even went beyond my expectations in terms of film production as well as the acting delivered by the actors. Making a film is not a solo sport, you need likeminded professionals to help you translate your vision onto the silver screen. This is why an essential part of filmmaking is to gather a great crew and cast.

DLM: What was a typical production day like for you?

JM: To be honest, nothing about this shoot was typical due to the fact that I had to act and direct at the same time. For example, we knew that in particular sections of the movie, especially in the end of the film and in the nightmare visions the main character needed to have a long beard. I’m a method actor and therefore I felt that a gluing on a fake beard would make it look artificial and not real enough for the sequences. In a few weeks a grew a really thick beard and therefore we had to adjust the shooting schedule in such a way that the scenes where I look like a Christ like figure had to be recorded on the first day of the shoot. Afterwards at night I shaved and when I came back to the set for the second day a lot of people from the crew didn’t recognize me. In ‘Stigma’ I tried to keep a realistic approach to acting as much as possible, trying to cross the line between acting and being. Therefore on the second day of the shoot I had a conversation with all the crew that when they are working on setting up the lights and dolly tracks, to try to work as quiet as possible to bring a very meditative atmosphere to the set. Especially because we were working on a set that was specifically built for the indoor locations that we needed. This allowed the actors a feeling of complete intimacy and there were times that we completely forgot that for example the interior of the psychic center was actually a built room in a sound stage. I on my part knew I had to be perfectly prepared in both functions as an actor and director. Due to the fact that we shot on film, you can’t really see on the monitor how the final product will look like. I had Jennifer Bhagwandin as my assistant who recorded the takes on a little camera and after each take I would review if the framing was correct as well as if I was happy with the acting performances I gave in particular takes. Once I was happy with what I saw, we were able to move on to the next set up.

Usually the production days started at around 7 AM and most of the time we worked till 10 PM. We worked on a couple of different locations, which gave us logistic challenges to move actors and crew from one location to the next in a span of four days.

DLM: What were some of the biggest difficulties you encountered in getting this film made?

JM: Due to the time restraint we had to work fast and sufficient which put a lot of strain of the crew itself. Most of ‘Stigma’ is shot on film and so we could not allow ourselves to take too many takes and make too many mistakes with the focus or other technical things, due to the fact that the Telecine process is extremely expensive. And of course like with any independent film the money was the big issue. Because we shot on film I needed a professional crew that would make sure my financial investment in this film would not be ruined. Of course you can get students to work with you for free, however from a lack of experience the production quality might be lowered because of that. Thanks to the Dutch Retraining Program for Dancers I was able to obtain necessary financial help to make Stigma happen.

DLM: Where was the film shot? Did any of the locations present any particular issues that you had to overcome?

JM: The interior of Gabriel’s psychic center and his bedroom was all build in a sound stage by our production design crew, led by Alessandro Marvelli. They did a wonderful job in designing the interior of both locations. For the outside of the psychic center we rented an actual existing psychic center just off the Sunset strip in Hollywood. The church scene was shot in an actual chapel on Wilshire Blvd. There were some outdoor scenes that took place in Beverly Hills and Downtown, which as you can imagine for a thesis film we had quite a lot of locations to cover. The main concern was to move the production from one location to another and still be able to maintain the timetable for the production.

DLM: Looking back on it now, if you could go back and change anything about the film, what would it be and how would you do it differently?

JM: Having a bit of higher knowledge of Hollywood right now I might have thought twice to choose a story that has a spiritual if not religious subject behind it. I felt this film was important to me and had a personal emotional impact on me. However I learned that sometimes it’s better to not go with a controversial subject like religion, spirituality or politics.

DLM: Do you have distribution for Stigma, or is there some way our readers can see the film?

JM: I don’t have distribution as of yet, and it’s very difficult to find distribution deals for short films (Stigma is 29 minutes long). At the moment Stigma was shown at different festivals around the world, including Temecula Valley Film and Music Festival and the Polish Film Festival. I am finalizing the final DVD as we speak that readers can purchase from the Stigma website and I’m also working on making a digital file that you will be able to upload onto your computer or Ipod.

DLM: You’ve worked both in front of and behind the camera. Which do you prefer and why?

JM: I love them both! I was an actor before I became a filmmaker, however I am still growing in both professions and at this moment in my career it is very difficult to choose. I do think though that I would like to establish myself first as an actor, because later in my career I might be able to establish myself as a director as well. The other way around is extremely difficult to do.

DLM: Tell us what you’re working on currently.

JM: Currently I’m working on the post production of my feature film ‘11’ (www.11-film.com) that I wrote, acted in and shot back in Amsterdam. ‘11’ is a story of a US military, who after being discharged from the army finds himself in an Amsterdam five star hotel. He wakes up at 11 AM on the day of his birthday and realizes that his girlfriend is missing. Slowly he realizes that she might have been kidnapped and takes the matter in his own hands to solve the mystery of ‘11’.

DLM: What kind of a film would you ultimately like to make either as an actor or a filmmaker? What would be your dream project?

JM: My goal is to make films in which I would be able to act in and direct in a la Clint Eastwood and George Clooney. I’m currently writing the script of a science fiction thriller with a supernatural twist to it. I cannot reveal too many details about it, but the film is of epic proportions with a strong character driven storyline. It will be a trilogy. My ultimate dream is to make this script into a multi million dollar blockbuster in the likes of ‘The Matrix’.
As an actor I would love to work with some of the great directors like Roman Polanski, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky and many more. And I would love to act with some of my acting heroes like Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Mel Gibson, Halle Berry, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and many more.

DLM: Do you have any advice for the other aspiring film makers out there who are either working on or about to work on their first film?

JM: The main advice I would give to future filmmakers is that everything starts with a story. If you don’t have a good story, no matter how beautiful your film looks or what a great performances the actors deliver, if the story doesn’t hold people’s attention, the movie will fail. Film is a form of escapism. For two hours people want to get emerged into some other reality and they want to forget about their problems or sorrows. No special effects will save your movie when dialogue and story line make no sense. When you develop a script and you write dialogue understand what are the underlined meanings of your dialogue. In real life we don’t always say what we mean. There is always a message that is delivered between the lines. If you choose the path of a filmmaker as your career you must realize that it is a very difficult road and you might be rejected many times before someone will open their door and give you the opportunity to create the movie of your dreams. Also remember, when you’re making a film you’re also looking for the audience that would want to see the film, so choose a subject for it that will appeal to most. That’s extremely important. And last but not least, filmmaking is also all about networking. You can be the most talented filmmaker on the planet but if nobody knows about you, you don’t exist.

DLM: Where can people find out more about you and Stigma

JM: I have a website that promotes Stigma, www.stigma-film.com, where you can find information about the film and how things are going on the festival circuit. You can also check out the IMDB page for Stigma, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1948624. If someone wants to find out more about me as an actor / filmmaker they can check out my website, www.januszmadej.com and my IMDB profile http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3323737 for more info. I also have a YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/januszmadej, where you can find close to 100 different videos of me performing as a dancer, actor and a filmmaker.

DLM: Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we wrap this up?

JM: I want to thank a few key people in my crew without whom this project would not have been made, like co-producer and Unit Production Manager, Ilya Farfell who made the whole production run nice and smooth. Jennifer Bhagwandin, co-producer and costume designer, whose costume design created an additional story telling tool. Director of Photography Benji Bakshi and his camera and lighting crew, who with a great eye and professionalism made the technical aspect of Stigma work flawlessly. Of course our great production designer Alessandro Marvelli and his team who brought a sense of reality to all the locations. The first Assistant Director, Cedric Chabloz who was my eyes and ears during the times when I had to act and direct at the same time. The Los Angeles Film School for enabling me to use their facilities and gear to create ‘Stigma’ into the film that it is today.

And of course it’s been a pleasure talking to you, Duane, and I’m grateful to have this interview at your website that promotes independent filmmakers like myself. Keep up the great work and we indie filmmakers of the world salute you.