I have a script which I wrote with an American friend of mine, John Klein, and with a French friend, Jean-Claude Carriére. It’s a very simple story, a comedy about a family living in New York whose very young daughter runs away and then comes back, you know, but the film is more focused on the parents.
This is an American family?
Can you say any more about the theme or story?
It’s difficult, because it’s not a theme or story or plot, it’s just a chain of scenes from the life of the family, more focused on the parents, because I found out that when this happens in real life, when a daughter runs away from home, the parents are much more interesting than the daughter.
How old is the daughter?
About 15 years old.
Does she join a hippie movement?
Not really, not really. What often happens in New York is that a lot of kids just run away for the adventure of running away. They don’t really join this tough scene in the East Village, sometimes they just very innocently sleep over at some friends’ houses, you know, girl friends’ houses. Sometimes they spend some time with a boy friend, but they don’t really go through the so-called bad scene. And after a very short time they come back. That’s what happens very often.
Do you want to give the film a certain amount of local color?
Yes, I want to make the whole film on locations.
Partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs. I want to make the film in around New York, because I know New York the best of any place in the United States.
Black and white or color?
Do you have a cameraman?
I want to bring my cameraman over if it’s possible. That’s Miroslav Ondříček, who made all my films with me and who recently made IF…., Lindsay Anderson’s film. If he’s not available, I’ve met some young people in New York. But you know, here there’s a very strange situation with unions. You want to use someone, and the unions tell you you can’t use him.
Have you determined any sort of casting?
Yes. I have about 50% of the cast.
Are they amateurs or professionals?
They are mixed, half amateurs and half professionals.
How did you find these people?
At Fillmore East and in the park. But I always had American friends with me, because I thought people would be suspicious about being approached by a stranger with a foreign accent offering them a role in a movie.
Do you plan to do any improvisation?
I’ll certainly try. I’ll see if I can handle the improvisation in a foreign language.
Ivan Passer, who has worked on all your other scripts with you, is not involved in this film?
Yes, he’s in New York, and he’s involved as a friend, with whom I talk about it, so he helps me as a friend as I help him in his work. But I wanted to be forced to work on the script in the English language, so that I can learn and understand more about the language, which is important.
But you speak English very well.
I think I speak English well enough to understand the “first row.” But what’s behind that, the double meanings, and all the nuances, which are very beautiful, always this is difficult for me.
When, then, do you plan to start this film, and with what financing?
I’m ready to start anytime, as soon as I find the backing. The project was originally with Paramount, and Paramount turned it down, so at this stage I’m still looking for backing. It’s not easy to find this, though. Maybe I made a mistake in starting this project with a major company, because I found out now that I could find independent backing much more easily. But unfortunately, starting with a big company, immediately there is money involved, so I can’t now switch from a major company to independent, because so much money has already been spent, wasted, money which will never appear on the screen in any form.
And what’s the outlook now?
Now the producer on this film is Sidney Lumet, and I think it’s the first time he produces somebody else’s picture, and he seems to be very confident. He’s now negotiating with Joe Levine and with Warner Brothers.
Your films have been said to have a characteristic kind of Czech humor, a sort of dry and ironic quality. Do you think that making a film outside of Czechoslovakia will affect that? Do you think it’s going to be a Czech film? Or an American film? Or a Forman film? Or what?
I never speculated about what kind of humor my films have, but once I experienced that in the cinema people laugh at my films everywhere, I decided that this kind of humor is understandable everywhere. Of course you know the language barrier plays a certain role, it certainly will bring some difficulties and will influence my work if I make a film here, but I don’t think basically, because in my films the dialogues are not important, not as important as the situations, the type of people, and so on.
But the situation of FIREMEN’S BALL or of LOVES OF A BLONDE certainly couldn’t have taken place in the United States?
Oh easily! Oh yes. Now, I don’t think the concrete situation of LOVES OF A BLONDE could; but for example FIREMEN’S BALL: I was in a few little towns in the United States where people have seen my film, and they started to tell me stories about their own local firemen, and I tell you, those stories are better than my film, and more funny, but exactly in the same spirit.
I always thought of a type of humor, aside from the situations, as being characteristically Czech—or, say, English—and not duplicatable elsewhere. But you really don’t have any hesitation about making a film outside of Czechoslovakia?
No, No. I really don’t think people are so different that they should cry or laugh at different things.
You always use a lot of improvisation, don’t you?
Yes, but I always have a very exact script, with every single word, every dialogue. But I try to improvise, and what I like better than what’s written in the script, I keep from the improvisation.
Do you rehearse your actors?
Just on the set before the takes.
So when does the actor feel that he should improvise?
On the set. I don’t give them the script, that’s the first thing. They don’t have the script at home, they don’t memorize. Not because I don ‘t want them to know what the film is about, I tell them exactly what the film is about, what their part is, but I just don’t want them to memorize, to fix some image beforehand. So they come on the set knowing nothing. Now I explain them the situation in every take, I know the script by heart, very exactly, so I tell them the dialogue on the set, exactly how it’s written in the script, but they can’t remember even if I repeat it twice or three times. Now they must improvise, they must. They must think what they are speaking about, not only remember what they memorized yesterday.
Do you think that works equally well with actors as with amateurs?
Not with everybody, because some actors just lose the earth under their feet if they don’t memorize the text. But if it works with professional actors, then the result is great. I love non-professional people, but I love most professional actors who are able to do this kind of work. But of course actors trained in theater acting have trouble with this because the theater asks the opposite way of working. With improvisation, 90% is worthless, but 10% is great. I try to capture fresh, real moments, so I try not to do too many takes in order to keep it fresh. Sometimes I don’t make long takes, because some actors can’t do it. The bed scene in LOVES OF A BLONDE is 10 minutes long, but not everyone could do that.
How do you go about casting non-professionals?
First I look among my relatives, then among my friends, then everywhere. It’s an advantage to know them beforehand.
How do you get them to act so well?
Actors are eager to be good. Non-professionals are much less uptight, because they are doing it for fun. You have to be careful, though, what lines you give them to say. They’re like a seismograph—if you give them something untrue, something fake, they immediately will reveal it in the way they say it. Professionals will say anything you want them to.
Do you try to get non-professionals to play themselves?
Not exactly—they have to play someone a little bit dumber than they are. For instance the mother in LOVES OF A BLONDE, who seems quite stupid and insensitive, is really a very smart woman, very intelligent.
Who are the professionals and who are the non-professionals in LOVES?
The boy and one of the soldiers were actors, and the rest were non-professionals. All the girls except Andüla really worked at the factory, as did the party official.
Of all your films, which one do you like the most?
Personally I like them all, but I don’t like them as films but as a part of my life and as the time I spent making them, because to make a film is at least one year of your life. I am unable to see my films as films, objectively, so all that I see in my films is the time spent. If that time was happy, so . . .
After each one was finished, did you feel that you’d done exactly what you wanted to do?
You never feel this, because the result, what you see finally, is always different than what you intended to do. Sometimes you’re unhappy, sometimes you’re happy, very often, when you expected to be unhappy it turns out to be the best part, and when you think you did a good job, nobody notices it. It’s really a strange thing talking about your own films. I think as a life experience, I like BLACK PETER the most, because it was my’ first film, I made the whole film in a little town, we spent the whole summer there, I was working with really great people, nice people, and I didn’t know anything about film-making, so I was happy. It’s really a free film, because I didn’t know anything, so anything was possible for me, any stupidity, any shot I made, it was just, “It’s good, it’s great, I like it,” because I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know why not, but I also didn’t know why should I, so I just did it. I was happy.
Your first film really, though, was the short, COMPETITION, in 1963. Did you study to be a film director, and was COMPETITION made as a part of your studies?
No, I studied to be a script writer. I finished film school in 1955, and made COMPETITION in 1963 with my own 16mm camera and no sync sound. In between I worked on the Laterna Magika programs.
Your last film was FIREMEN’S BALL, right? That was made in 1967 and was a big hit here in San Francisco at the 1968 film festival. Can you tell me something about how you came to make that film?
We were writing a script which didn’t go well, so we left Prague and went to the mountains, but even there the work didn’t go well. So one evening we went to a real firemen’s ball, and the next day we couldn’t stop talking about it. Almost nothing remains of the original film. About half of the firemen are real firemen. When the film was finished, the people who were in it loved it, those who weren’t hated it. Of course all uniformed corps hate to have comedies made about them, but the people in the film defended it, and thought that the people who were angry were so because they were jealous. The prologue shown in the American version was only made for release here, because American distributors felt it needed something extra.
There was talk some years ago of a deal between you and Carlo Ponti.
It didn’t work well. It just didn’t work. I can’t blame me, I can’t blame him, because it was just a misunderstanding. He was expecting something else from me, and I was expecting something else from him. We had been talking about a film to be made in Czechoslovakia, as a coproduction. FIREMEN’S BALL was finally made in co-production with Carlo Ponti, but when it was finished he refused to take the film, and Francois Truffaut and Claude Berri bought the film and put it in world distribution.
Was it financially successful?
Yes, not as much as LOVES OF A BLONDE, but so that the distributors needn’t cry.
I thought that FIREMEN’S BALL was really the better film of the two, but it wasn’t seen by so many people here as LOVES OF A BLONDE, maybe because of the peculiarities of American distribution.
No, I think that FIREMEN’S BALL doesn’t have the same chances as LOVES OF A BLONDE, because there is no pretty girl, no love story, no main hero, it has disadvantages for commercial exploitation.
Of course, the blonde in LOVES, though she’s sort of pretty, is not really a heroine type.
Oh, but I think that she is, in certain ways. She’s a loser-type heroine, which I think many people, young people today, identify themselves with. I’m amazed how the time of losers came; look at the big successes today, such as MIDNIGHT COWBOY, EASY RIDER, and so on, where the hero is a loser.
Would you call your films real comedies, since they have such an undertone of pathos?
I like comedies which are based on serious situations. The more serious the base, the more comic the outcome.
When you photograph unattractive girls, like the beauty queen candidates in FIREMEN’S BALL, for example, how do they feel about it?
The girls know that people will laugh, but they don’t really find themselves to be unattractive. I am bored with beauty, really. I find more beauty in unrepeatable faces.
What current American films do you admire?
I like films like MEDIUM COOL, PUTNEY SWOPE, EASY RIDER. I prefer much more the independent American productions over the Hollywood ones. I think the people in Hollywood are just not ready for what’s going on in the cinema. You know, the whole system is still as it was. I went through the script writing period at Paramount, and the trouble is that before I make my films I have no proof that I am right. But, the discussions I had about the script were discussions in which we were talking different languages. In English.
Were you in Hollywood for this?
Once I had a meeting in New York, and once in Hollywood. The first was when I brought the first treatment, and the second one was when I was starting to work on the definitive version of the script.
You must have liked that scene in Agnes Varda’s LION’S LOVE then, the producers’ conference.
It’s very perfect. That’s it, that’s what I’m talking about. For example, they are now starting to understand in Hollywood that, for the good result of a film, the director today is much more important than many, many stars. But they don’t understand that the director must do what he likes to do, so you know, they want you, they want me, but they want me to do their things, and they think that I, me as a person, guarantee the quality, of things that I don’t like to do but that they like me to do. And they don’t want what I like to do, because they don’t like the script or they don’t trust the script, and it’s still not enough for them that I trust the script.
What do you think of smooth Hollywood productions like THE GRADUATE?
That’s the best of Hollywood.
Do you think it’s good, though? Or do you just think it’s good for Hollywood?
No, it’s good, I think it’s good. But it’s Hollywood. If there’s something that bothers me in this film, it’s the Hollywood in it, but as a film, it’s good. I also like very much BONNIE AND CLYDE, which also has a Hollywood-type image.
What do you think of modern movies in general?
Very few really excite me that way that 400 BLOWS, for instance, did, or the neo-realist Italian films just after the war.
And those hold up well, too, don’t you think?
Yes, some do. Recently I saw 400 BLOWS on a double bill with WILD STRAWBERRIES. WILD STRAWBERRIES disappointed me very much, but 400 BLOWS was just as good as I remembered.
When you finish your film, do you plan to go back to Czechoslovakia?
I don’t know, I never make very distant plans, but I do plan to go back.
What’s happening over there now in the film industry?
I just read that the director general of cinematography, Alois Polednak, has been replaced. What this will mean practically speaking, we’ll have to wait and see. I still think that some interesting films will come out of Czechoslovakia that were started last year. What this year’s production or next year’s production will be, we must wait and see.
But haven’t a lot of the film people left?
I don’t think that a lot of people have emigrated. Most of the people who are working outside are working with our passport—Czechoslovakian citizens, like [Jån] Kadår, Ivan Passer, me.
Have you seen any of the recent films from there?
Just the one at the festival here, Juro Jakubisko’s DESERTERS AND THE NOMADS. When I was there in January [of 1969], there were not many films finished. Věra Chytilová was working on her new film, which is now finished, and I think it will be interesting, and Jaroslav Papougek, with whom I wrote my scripts, has finished his second film, which I hear is good.
What was your feeling about the general atmosphere there in January?
Waiting. Waiting in what direction the whole interior situation will develop. People are afraid already, they don’t trust each other again.
Do you feel that film-making in Czechoslovakia is very different than it is here?
Film-making is the same throughout the world, the same in Czechoslovakia as here. Eighty-five percent of Czech films are really commercial; what you see here is just the top 15%. We made our films within the system, but they were “different” nonetheless. This is theoretically possible here too. There, production is divided into six groups. Each group produces four to six features per year. Each group has a certain pride in making one or two “artistic” films, so you have on the average of six to twelve attempts to make a good film per year. So some of these have to turn out good.
Then no one production group specializes in, say, “good” films, or “commercial” films?
No, there is no specialization to make trash.
Had you considered making a film in any other country, that is, besides Czechoslovakia or the United States?
When I thought of making a film in any country but mine, I found I could only do it in the United States. In any other country you are always a foreigner. Here, after one week you are an American. But the film bureaucracy here is different; here film-making is more ceremony than fun.