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Vol 2, No 22
5 June 2000
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David Ondricek
Ondříček: Dissing auteurs
Singularly Collaborative David Ondříček speaks to CER about his latest film, Samotáři
Tom Liška

Most love stories end when the couple passionately embrace. Samotáři (Loners, 2000), a new film by David "Šeptej" Ondříček and Petr "Knoflíkáři" Zelenka begins in bed in the morning two years after that first joining in an embrace at a moment when one might recall the Clash song, "Should I stay or should I go?".

Most of the seven central characters in Samotáři are only lukewarm both in their love affairs and in their professions, as Ondřej, a promising young surgeon, reveals. He takes his occupation merely as a means to something else - perhaps passionate love, yet completely misguided, a caricature of fatal attraction.

David Ondricek's Samotari (Loners, 2000)
Young love lives
Only Petr, a radio DJ who paints his face like a samurai before going on air, despite being unseen by his audience, considers his job a vocation. Samotáři was loosely inspired by the American film Singles (dir Cameron Crowe, 1992) which depicted the love lives of young people in Seattle in early 1990s, but Samotáři's superb treatment of a complex structure makes it comparable to Robert Altman's masterpieces such as Short Cuts (1993).

CER met Ondříček to discuss Samotáři

CER: Most young filmmakers prefer to focus on their own projects. Why did you decide to direct someone else's script?

Ondříček: Even at film school I noticed most students were too ambitious and, as a result, narrow-minded. They had a vision of personal success and pursued their goal individually. I myself like team sports and team collaboration, which was one of the reasons I decided to make films in the first place.

I consider myself to be a part of the machine. It turned out I became quite an important part, but I still feel my task is to keep the machine running and participate in producing quality films.

I have always felt this way. A long time ago, I told Petr Zelenka I would be interested in directing a film based on his screenplay. Petr is very ambitious and I was quite pleased he offered me the chance to participate in this project. In fact, the offer came from Olga Dabrowská, who conceived the original story with Petr.

Later, Olga withdrew a little and Petr took over, and finally he wrote the whole script. So this collaboration between screenplay writer and director came quite naturally. It is, after all, is a normal relationship, but many people seem to be puzzled by it.

CER: In Šeptej, you successfully blended professional and non-professional actors. Why did you choose only trained actors this time?

David Ondricek's Samotari (Loners, 2000)
Full of characters
Ondříček: That is not entirely true. Both Mikuláš Křen and Jiří Macháček have no formal training as actors. I simply did the casting first, I visited theatres and chose actors who would fit the characters Petr had written. They mostly happened to be experienced actors.

I kept in mind that the plot is very complicated. When I showed the script to my father, he advised me not to do it, that it might break my neck, because it was too literary, too elaborate. For example, when I first read the script, I had to write down the names of characters to remember who was who. It was horrible. I chose the actors so that they would help me to develop the characters, rather than having precise idea of these characters and just giving instructions to the actors.

I dislike films where the director has his vision and treats actors like puppets. I always look forward to those moments when an actors will surprise me with something and that he or she will do it as the portrayed character. In front of the camera, actors should live the lives of their characters.

CER: In Šeptej, there was much more space for moods and atmospheres, whereas in Samotáři one event follows another, something happens all the time, as if the script was twice as long.

David Ondricek and Petr Zelenka
Ondříček and Zelenka on set
Ondříček: I agree, but the script in fact was not that much longer. To describe an atmosphere also takes a few words. Petr is very rational being, and what I missed a lot in his script were emotions, things that escape rational description. In a sense it is an action film, not that there are any shootouts, but it is full of events.

We added some moods and scenes without dialogues, and I feel they enrich the film tremendously. The trouble with Petr Zelenka is that he is too clever. But at the same time he is sensitive, so he accepted the necessity of reducing the amount of action. It is a contemporary film; there is very little romanticism around us in the modern big city and the film reflects it.

CER: Basically, the film is quite realistic, yet it has magnificent visual style. Were you influenced by your cinematographer, who has so far shot more music videos than traditional films?

Ondříček: We have the advantage of being the first generation who grew up on music videos. Since about the age of 11, I shot some odd things on video, little stories to accompany music. So I mastered the modern language of music videos. Not only young people, but also older viewers have learned it and now accept it without problems.

David Ondricek's Samotari (Loners, 2000)
Music video culture
Thus, storytelling in films today is much closer to music videos. I emphasise the word storytelling, because I tried to keep the formal aspect relatively traditional, not to have it too stylised in terms of camera movement, lighting or atmosphere.

You will notice the film is very static, which, paradoxically, Petr complained about. But I wanted his absurd story, his absurd world, to be told in simple scenes, which would absorb the audience and would look as real as possible. Only in such moments when an emotion is to be emphasised - like when the couple is lying on a bridge or are in bed - are there strange camera angles or movements on a crane, similar to music videos.

I strongly dislike films where two people are talking at a table, like we are right now, and the camera moves around them in circles, occasionally cutting to a close-up of an eye, yet their conversation is quite banal. I tried to avoid such approach. I wanted the cinematic form to strengthen the script and not to attract attention to itself.

CER: Parents are dealt with in more detail than in your first film, Šeptej. Vesna, a girl from former Yugoslavia, came to Prague because of her parents, yet she is more interested in meeting Martians than her family. Is it a metaphor about Europe in the 1990s?

David Ondricek's Samotari (Loners, 2000)
Tales of the modern city
Ondříček: Oh no, absolutely not. She is simply a confused person, always on the move, looking for something, and the parents are there just to support the motive of searching. But I am pleased by your question, because perhaps we had in mind something along these lines subconsciously, and it supports my belief that sometimes people look in films for things which were not intended by its authors, yet they are actually there.

CER: Hanka's case is much simpler. She is critical of her parents' petty bourgeois marriage, attempts to arrange her life better, yet she seems to fail.

Ondříček: I think she likes her parents. She is a curious character, oscillating all the time between being sympathetic and unsympathetic, and the same goes on in her inner life. Sometimes she is filled with anger, sometimes with happiness. Her feelings towards her parents are similar, she returns to them periodically and leaves them again. A sort of strange magnetism.

CER: You are also producer of Samotáři. Is it likely the film will at least earn back its budget at the box-office?

David Ondricek's Samotari (Loners, 2000)
Product placement
Ondříček: We have to give up the idea that Czech films will be self-financed. The prices for film crew labour were pushed quite high by commercials. The whole Czech film industry survives only thanks to commercials. So many commercials are being shot here that they have set the level of wages. Even if people are working on your film for half their regular salary, they are still too expensive. And you have to pay the full price for film stock.

Therefore, a modest Czech film is going to cost around CZK 15 million, a more expensive from CZK 20 to 30 million (USD 500,000 to 800,000)and with ambitions to reach international markets between CZK 200 and 300 million (USD 5 million to 8 million) - like the one Jan Svěrák is shooting at present. You will get back only part of the money invested.

Luckily, this film was financed in such a way that all investors might be satisfied in the end, or at least I hope so. It was also sponsored by some companies in exchange for product placement, and they do not expect to receive any money back. This might be the best solution in the future.

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For sure, Jan Hřebejk's Pelíšky (Cosy Dens, 1998), with its more than one million viewers, is an exception, but today, when tickets cost around CZK 100 (USD 2.60), even with 200 to 300 thousand viewers you can pay back the private investors at least 80 per cent of their money.

CER: So will it be possible to finance your next film in this way?

Ondříček: Undoubtedly, yes. Once you have secured a subsidy from the State Film Foundation and persuade Czech TV to co-produce it, you can manage to raise the other half of the budget from private investors and sponsors.

CER: Your father started as a cinematographer of Miloš Forman. Were you influenced by the Czech New Wave of 1960s?

Ondříček: I am not very happy about those comparisons to the 60s. I saw these films at the age of 18, but I do not watch them much nowadays. I like just as much the [British] Free Cinema or Cinéma vérité, but at present I am mostly influenced by contemporary films. Film critics keep on asking: Will there be another Czech New Wave? But that is their concern, not mine. They need labels.

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I am simply glad I am surrounded by filmmakers who have produced a succession of quite good films over the last five years and that Czech film managed to kick off the bad habits of the totalitarian era.

CER: Would you consider shooting a film in English to reach wider audiences?

Ondříček: So far, the stories in my films took place in Czech settings and required the Czech language. But if I come across a subject where the use of English dialogue is natural, I will only welcome it. I am fluent in English, at least in the English spoken in continental Europe as a second language.

The next project of my production company, Lucky Man Films, is a low-budget American sci-fi called Z for Zechariah. Shooting will commence on 12 July and will last 35 days. I will participate as executive producer, therefore I will be able to influence its shape only to a certain extent. But within one month, I intend to publicise details about my next film, which I have co-written.

Tom Liška, 5 June 2000

Also of interest:

  • Get Your Kitsch Off!:
    Labina Mitevska - star of Samotáři - in an
    exclusive interview for CER
  • The Straight and Narrow Path:
    David Ondříček's Šeptej
  • That Discreet Charm of the Czech Bourgeoisie:
    Petr Zelenka's Knoflíkáři
  • Summer of Discontent:
    Jan Hřebejk's Pelíšky
  • Finále Makes a Good Opening Act:
    Recent Czech film at the Plzeň film festival
  • The official Samotáři website
  • Kinoeye Archive Czech page
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