Interview with Brendan Foley about his “Wojtek the Soldier Bear” film project

Following media reports Wojtek film that film maker Brandan Foley was possibly going to make a film about Wojtek the Soldier Bear, I contacted him to ask if he would give an interview. What follows is the result.

RL Can you tell us the start of your “Wojtek” story. When did you first become aware of Wojtek, what was first reaction, how did you feel when you began to realise that it was based on fact?

BF I came across the story when I was researching a book, Under the Wire, about ten years ago. I think the first things that I noticed. apart from the great story, were the wonderful pictures. Wojtek has a very expressive face and is interested in the world and what’s happening around him. Those are good qualities whether you are a human or a bear.

RL You told me you love war stories and the hero of one of your books “Under The Wire” spent time in Poland. What appeals to you about war stories?

BF Good stories, for me, tend to have high stakes. If the stakes are life or death, freedom or slavery, then the decisions people make really matter a lot more than if some is just having “a bad day”. And high stakes make for compelling viewing.

RL What appealed to you in this story ? What makes you think that it had the potential to be a film worth making?

BF I think it will make a great film because of two ingredients. The story connects with people at a very primal level because we all love apparent contradictions – a huge animal that would naturally be wild and aggressive being gentle and loving, or at the start of his life a tiny, vulnerable cub reminding tough soldiers who had already been through hell that there were things that mattered beyond the grim business of war.

The other ingredient is the character of the bear. There are so many stories of little specific moments where he did something interesting or remarkable that will engage an audience, and in what is increasingly a small world, it is great that his stories joins up so many people and countries from Poland to the middle east and north Africa, then Italy and Scotland. Of course that presents challenges for a filmmaker too, but I am in this for the long haul to make the best film I can.

RL You told me that the reason Voytek’s story has endured is that he in some ways represents the best of ‘humanity’ in the worst of times, and his links and travels show that those feelings and aspirations are universal. Don’t you think that there are other reasons too, like the way that bears with human characteristics somehow have a magical appeal to adults and children.

BF Absolutely. Some people have likened the story to Warhorse for obvious reasons. For me, the best thing about the stage version of Warhorse was that the puppeteers managed to bring the horse to life as an animal with character. But bears are in a different class. I’m not just talking about the ‘anthropomorphism’ of an animal that looks a lot like us, but something deeper. There is a reason teddy bears are so popular and a contradiction between the small and cuddly and the huge and fierce that always fascinates us. Even in ancient art, bears are one of the most common and powerful symbols. On a more basic level, as well as being scary, they also just make us laugh, and remind us of ourselves. Wojtek’s endless quest for food and adventure gets him in a great deal of trouble along the way.

RL Do you think that Wojtek has the potential to become much better known, and if through your work he does, what are the most important goals for you in so doing? If there was one thing someone who sees your film is going to remember what would you want it to be?

BF It’s very early days yet for the film, but I would hope that people would leave the cinema wanting to find out more about the people and the bear. Good drama tends to spark interest in the world, rather than being ‘the final word’. It does not pretend it is documentary. It has a different function and that is to reach people at an emotional level as well as an intellectual one.

RL Your work encompasses campaigning journalism, drama, history satire, horror and thrillers. How do you decide what you are going to put your efforts into?

BF It’s a big, interesting world. None of us are quite so two dimensional as to only be interested in one thing, although there is a tendency to typecast actors and filmmakers into one genre. I try to resist that, because I never want to put the effort into making something unless it is something I care about. Having said that, one of my core interests is WWII because it was the defining event not only for its generation but for anyone born in the 50 years that followed.

RL Some of the survivors of the deportations from Soviet occupied Poland who were Wojtek’s companions during the war are concerned that the appalling suffering and mistreatment at the hands of the Soviets will be glossed over. Can you reassure them that there will not be a Disney-fication of the Wojtek story. You told me that you “aim to do the bear and his comrades justice”. Can you elaborate ?

BF No feature film drama will please all of the people all of the time, but what it can do is make people want to explore further. If people do not believe the ‘human’ connection between the soldiers and the bear, then they are never likely to discover the tough history that underpins that part of the war. If I use Under the Wire as an example, a war hero, now 95, and one of the greatest prisoner of war escape artists of the entire conflict, entrusted me with his life story. It had to be entertaining throughout, but it had to touch upon history, politics, death and destruction as well. That’s why capturing both the human and the gritty sides is hard work and they should never be seen as in opposition to each other. For Under the Wire, that resulted in a bestseller that really connected to hundreds of thousands of people all over the world and I hope that a Wojtek film will eventually do the same. A film version of that one is a bit further along , which i why I know how long the road is to get any period drama film made.

RL You told me that along with the movie drama, you hope to have a DVD documentary so that people who fall in love with Wojtek on screen can learn more about the real bear and indeed the real war (given that in the UK a recent survey of 16 year olds found out that a third of them thought Churchill was a nodding dog who sold car insurance…). One of my motivations has been to use Wojtek’s memory to help teach young people about this forgotten period of history, as per my TEDxKrakow talk. Why do you think that young people should know about history?

BF Yes – either a new documentary about the history surrounding the drama, or else perhaps using some of the existing material which is already out there but which deserves a wider audience.

RL There are some powerful similarities between the suffering of the Polish victims of Soviet aggression, Poland’s imprisonment in the Soviet Union, the “rescue” of Wojtek, and the way in which that he spent his last years behind bars in a zoo. Are you planning to highlight these in the film or is it too early to say?

BF Definitely very early days yet. I think in general I like to leave viewers to draw out comparisons rather than hit them over the head with them. I do think that this episode in the war saw human behaviour at both its best and worst, and that should come out of the film naturally. The soldiers were carrying the burden of what they had been through over the past several years before they encountered Wojtek, yet still had the humanity to care for him. I think people are basically optimistic despite the worst the world can throw at them.

RL What will be the biggest challenges in making this film. Is there anything the many 1000s of Wojtek fans around the world can do to help?

BF Hopefully the thousands of Wojtek fans will help spread the word and support us when the film comes out. It can regularly take many years to get from here to being on screen, and I hope in the meantime Wojtek’s popularity continues to grow. I think it is great that so many different people and groups are proud of the bear.

One thing that would be interesting on your facebook site is for people to mention if they have a specific story, visual moment or mental image of the bear that means most to them. For some it might be him carrying ammo at Monte Cassino, for others a tiny cub being fed condensed milk by a tough soldier using an empty vodka bottle. Great movies are built up of great visual moments.

On the challenges, this will be a big movie and they are always a battle to fund, using a range of public and private finance. But my entire focus in the coming months will be to write a great script. That is the foundation that everything else is built upon.

RL You are from Ireland and have worked in many different cultures and countries. You must have seen both how nationalism can inspire and destroy. Wojtek is strongly connected to Poland, Scotland Italy and many countries in the Middle East, Will you be trying to send a message or be emphasizing his connections with any of these countries in particular?

BF Coming from Belfast, I was certainly influenced by The Troubles, as well as working in conflict areas as a journalist. Maybe that’s why I think that looking at what unites people is often more powerful than what divides them, and Wojtek was definitely a uniter rather than a divider. On the other hand, there are a (very) few times when people have to fight to defend what is right, and Wojtek was clearly on the right side in WWII.

Wojtek was clearly a citizen of the world, and I think it is great that every country with a Wojtek connect takes a pride in their specific link. I don’t think that has anything to do with the downside of nationalism. If anything, it is a way of uniting people who all admire the bear and the men who cared for him.

RL Children, school groups, and clubs all over the world have done Wojtek competitions, songs, dramas, and events. Statues have been erected, others are planned, Wojtek Beer has been brewed. Would you like your film to trigger more awareness, activities and actions?

BF I’m a great believer in people doing things for themselves and the genius of Wojtek is that people all over the world seem to just get on with it at a local level. If the film inspires more of the same, I will be happy.

RL You are reported to have “bought the rights” to the Wojtek story, even though the history is in the public domain. Will the money you paid go towards a Wojtek Statue? What does mean in practice? Will your film be based on a particular book.

BF Much of the Wojtek story is in the public domain, but to make any film you also have to have some specific rights to specific copyrighted works, so we have an exclusive ‘option’ on the rights to the book by Aileen Orr and Neal Ascherson and the proceeds go to the Wojtek Memorial Trust. The film will not be based exclusively on any one source. It is a new work of drama drawing on public domain sources as well as the book and, with permission, from other publications. Most importantly, I am looking forward to talking to those people still around who were fortunate enough to know the bear personally. All of that source material will feed into the film.

RL Would you be available to come back and do a live chat with Wojtek Facebook Fans or a Google + Hangout in the future ?

BF Glad to. I will be focusing on the screenplay in the coming months, but when we get a bit further down the line, I will be glad to come back and chat.

RL The BBC and Deadline news here have reported about the film? Are the reports accurate what stage are you at?

BF Yes, the BBC report is very accurate – there is so much interest in the film from all over the world that it bodes well, but it really is a long haul from here to sitting in a movie theatre watching the finished film. I’m going to concentrate on writing the best screenplay I can as the first step in that process. Like Wojtek’s war, this is a marathon and not a sprint.

RL Is there anything else you would like to communicate?

Just to say thanks for the opportunity and best wishes to all the people around the world who love and care for the bear.

About Brendan Foley
Brendan Foley is a writer, film producer and director. and has written scripts for producers and studios in UK,USA , Canada, Denmark, South Africa and Thailand. His work includes an award winning action-thriller Johnny Was the thriller The Riddle , Legend of the Bog, a satirical horror film , a best-selling true story of a POW escape Under The Wire with the pilot William Ash,
Shelldon, a children’s environmental animated series on NBC (2010-12). his journalistic work includes feature assignments in 55 countries worldwide, covering people, business and conflict. on topics as varied as bomb disposal in Angola, to the clean-up operations that followed the Exxon Valdez oil-spill in Alaska.

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One comment on “Interview with Brendan Foley about his “Wojtek the Soldier Bear” film project

  1. krystyna mikula deegan Dec 11, 2012

    What a great article!
    I am particularly interested in Wojtek as I recently had the good fortune to have my book about him published (`Private Wojtek Soldier Bear’; Troubador Publishing Ltd.) .
    Wojtek’s story is told as a fictional account based on one of the soldiers; my own uncle, who served with Wojtek and the 22nd Company during WW2.
    it also describes what happened to Wojtek and his fellow soliers once they were in Edinburgh and were then demobbed. Also how and why the Poles couldn’t return to their own country and so had to either stay in the Uk or go abroad to other countrieds to make a new life for themselves, under very difficult circumstances.
    I hope you enjoy reading my book.
    It is availanle either from the publisher’s, Amazon or good bookshops. In addition, it is available as an e-book .