I may have panned his latest, Honeymoon, in this week’s issue, but Jan Hrebejk is still my favorite working Czech filmmaker. A gifted director of actors and a perceptive chronicler of domestic life across all social strata, Hrebejk exhibits a warm (but seldom sentimental) understanding of character regardless of whether he’s working in comedy or drama. He’s also one of the most prolific figures in contemporary Czech cinema, having directed about 15 films for theaters and TV since Divided We Fall became an international success in 2000. Hrebejk’s movies can be slight (e.g., the recent sex farce 4Some) or overstated (e.g., Kawasaki’s Rose), but they almost never lack nuance or curiosity about how adults choose to lead their lives. If you haven’t seen one, I recommend starting with Divided We Fall or Up and Down, both of which are readily available on DVD.
In April I met with Hrebejk when he came through town to introduce Honeymoon at the European Union Film Festival. With the help of a translator, we spoke for almost two hours about his films, his collaborators, and the state of Czech cinema on the whole. My thanks to Barbara Scharres at the Gene Siskel Film Center (where Honeymoon closes this year’s Czech film series tomorrow at 6 PM) and Dana Hunato at the Czech Consulate of Chicago for making this possible—my further thanks to Hunato for sitting in on the interview and helping to clarify some of Hrebejk’s allusions to Czech culture. Read the first part of our conversation below.
Ben Sachs: You’ve managed to direct at least one film a year for the past 15 years or so. That’s something not many American directors are able to do these days, especially if they work on relatively low budgets.
Jan Hrebejk: What about Woody Allen? He even writes his own scripts!
He’s one of the few. For directors who aren’t as well-known as Allen, it’s much harder to get steady financing. Do things work differently in the Czech Republic? I don’t know much about your country’s film industry.
Hrebejk: I made my first movie [the musical Sakali Leta, which translates to “Big Beat”] in 1993. It took a very long time to get moving after that, in terms of finding financial resources for the next movie.
Dana Hunato: Your first movie was very expensive, though.
Hrebejk: It was very expensive. So I decided with my screenwriter, Mr. [Petr] Jarchovsky, to write a script that would be easier to get money for. This movie was actually very successful. My second, third, and fourth movies, which were not very expensive [to make], all made a lot of money, relative to the size of the Czech audience. Producers are aware of this, and it’s become my comparative advantage. My films aren’t very large productions, and they can be shot in relatively short periods of time.
How do you and your screenwriters produce one or two original screenplays every year, now that you have the money to shoot them?
Hrebejk: It’s all about the timing. When I’m cutting my new film, the scriptwriter is already working on the next one.
Hunato: They are extremely hard-working. He probably won’t say it about himself, but he never stops. If you look at his bio, you see that he isn’t only making movies, but that he’s also active in theater and TV.
Hrebejk: It’s a matter of motivation—the determination to express yourself and the hope that what you’re doing is actually coming to be. For many years and on various movies, I’ve worked very closely with a producer, a colleague from the film academy in Prague, and with some very good writers. There’s always somebody working on a script and somebody engaging in activities to find money for production. That keeps me productive and hopeful.
Shooting the movie is one thing, distributing it successfully is another. If you produce movies very often, you encounter certain problems. Woody Allen is a great example of this. He’s my absolute favorite filmmaker, but he produces movies so regularly that sometimes I realize I’ve missed the last two. Another problem is that distribution is getting more and more expensive. In some cases, the costs of distribution and PR are higher than the cost of shooting the movie.
American filmmakers have the same problem. I’ve read that Hollywood studios now spend an average of $30 million on the promotion of any theatrical release .
Hrebejk: The situation isn’t exactly the same for us in the Czech Republic. In many cases, we don’t know from the beginning how much will be spent on distribution. It’s difficult to compare the situation of European cinemas with that of American cinema—not only Hollywood, but also independent American movies. We have a production system that supports the whole movie industry, from the newspaper reviews and so on. Also movies are often coproduced by the TV stations.
One consistent quality of your films is their sense of character. The people in your movies possess a range of interests and they often contradict themselves. A lot of them I could imagine meeting in real life.
Hrebejk: I see the complexity of my characters as an artistic signature. I studied screenwriting, and screenwriting in Europe is taught on the basis of complex movies, complex characters. In a Czech film academy, they make you analyze a Chekhov play rather than a Batman movie.
Your movies show the influence of Chekhov’s plays in that they tend to focus on the characters’ everyday lives. The conflicts are rarely extraordinary.
Hrebejk: If you want to make movies on a smaller budget, you’re going to depend more on the story and the performances.
Still, that doesn’t explain their strong interest in psychology and character. I was curious to know if you and your screenwriters start by coming up with the characters of a film before deciding on the story?
Hrebejk: It varies from film to film. For example, Shameless was based on several short stories written by one of the screenwriters [Michal Viewegh]. We began by gluing together several different stories, which had different characters. With Beauty in Trouble, [Jarchovsky and I] started with the characters rather than the story. We first wanted to develop the character of the stepfather. From there we developed the main character’s mother, and the main character only after that. We didn’t define her very well in the script—we ended up working out a lot onset with the actress [Anna Geislerova].
On which films did you begin with the plot?
Hrebejk: In Divided We Fall, story was more important than character. Innocence is another example. The characters change very significantly over the course of the story.
Which aspects of character interest you the most?
Hrebejk: Paradoxical ones. In Kawasaki’s Rose, for example, the main character is a dissident who once collaborated with the communist regime. In Divided We Fall, all of the characters can be described in terms of their paradoxes. Even when I’m directing comedy, I take the characters’ bipolarity into account, so there’s an element of tragedy. The main character of Up and Down, you know, is this racist soccer fan whose girlfriend adopts a black child.
You mention developing the main character of Beauty in Trouble with the actress who played her. Is that a typical process for you? Or does it vary depending on the actor you’re working with?
Hrebejk: After casting a movie but before shooting, I bring the cast together for a read-through of the script. Everybody comes, even actors who never appear together in the film. We all sit around a table and go through the script. I often work with a mix of stars and nonactors, and I think it’s important, when you have actors with different levels of professional experience, to talk about the roles. Based on these readings, we might even modify the script. Sometimes we find that something is missing or that we want to give certain actors room to improvise.
How long does this process take?
Hrebejk: We normally spend about a month on it before we start shooting. I changed the process somewhat on Honeymoon. For this film, I talked to the actors individually and didn’t introduce them until three days before filming. We did some character development then, on the set. It was there that Anna Geislerova proposed that her character could be pregnant. That wasn’t in the script. Normally that sort of sudden change takes more time [to accommodate], but we arranged everything to make this possible, with all the impact it might have on the story.
Do you feel that your preproduction process affects the finished film?
Hrebejk: It’s good to talk to the actors when you’re presenting certain situations. I made one movie that had a lesbian love scene, but the actresses [in the scene] were not lesbians. It was important that we were all comfortable with the scene. In Kawasaki’s Rose, I cast a photographer [Antonin Kratochvil] to basically play himself, someone who had lived 40 years in exile, never returning to the Czech Republic. I liked this person very much, thought he’d be perfect for the role, but when I took him to the script reading I thought that he was terrible. I thought he just couldn’t do act, especially when compared with the professional actors and actresses I’d cast.
But later that evening, I was talking with some of the actresses and they thought he was terrific! I asked, “How is this possible?” They said, “Because he can’t read the script! He’s himself.” So the next day, I told him not to read. I said, “I’ll say the line, you repeat it in your own words.” And then it started working.
Sometimes I’ll work with an actor several times before I realize I’m doing something wrong. For instance, I’ve made four movies with Emilia Vasaryova, who’s an extremely talented, beautiful woman. In the first three, I cast her as a very sick mother, an alcoholic, and a religious fanatic. In all these roles, she was made to look much uglier than she really is—in real life, she’s like Sophia Loren—so I wanted to give her a role where she’d be the beautiful one. In Shameless, she played this glamorous singer with a younger lover. She thought it was ridiculous and told me she didn’t feel comfortable in the role at all.
Read part two of this interview.