Czech director Jan Sverak sums up his film Kolya as a story “that tells us that there is some good in every misfortune and the other way around.” For Louka, the sixty-something cellist at the center of Kolya’s story, finding the good in his misfortune is taking a little effort.
Set in the months before the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, we find Louka playing his cello at funeral homes. He used to play for the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra but when his brother fled the country, the Russian authorities punished him by forbidding such work.
Desperate for money, Louka agrees to marry a friend’s Russian niece who longs to get Czech citizenship and is willing to pay a hefty price for the paper wedding. But immediately after the ceremony, the woman flees to Germany and leaves Louka to deal with the suspicious police as well as her five year old son Kolya.
Louka, who never had children of his own, is furious about being stuck with the child. Louka had always been a selfish man who devoted himself to two hobbies – music and women. (But he always fooled around with married women so that there would be no threat of long term commitment.) Now Kolya threatens to interrupt his pursuit of both interests.
Slowly, though, Louka warms up to the child. The more time he spends with the boy, the more attached he becomes and the more he realizes the pleasures that love and commitment can bring. But once again, fate is about to intervene in Louka’s life as the Velvet Revolution forces the Russians out and Louka must face the possibility of Kolya’s mother returning to claim her son.
Zdenek Sverak, who plays Louka, wrote this script especially for his son Jan to direct. The result of this father-son collaboration is a magical and bittersweet film. The film evokes deep feelings but it avoids the cloying sentimentality that most Hollywood films of this genre wallow in.
Jan and Zdenek came to San Diego last month to discuss their film, which is the official Czech entry for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Film. Still in his twenties, Jan looks surprisingly youthful, especially when you consider the maturity he exhibits in directing his films.
He and his father have collaborated twice before – on Elementary School which Zdenak also wrote and which was nominated for a 1992 Best Foreign Film Oscar, and on Accumulator I in 1994. Jan is currently working on his first English language film and his father insists that they will collaborate again in the future.
BETH ACCOMANDO: How did your first collaboration come about?
JAN SVERAK: I did not want to collaborate with my father because he’s very famous in the Czech Republic and I did not want to be in his shadow. I wanted to go my own way. But somehow it happened. The revolution came and he had script written and the studio had the budget for it and the director for whom it was written decided to do something more commercial.
So they offered me the script. And the script was wonderful. To make a feature film when I was only 24 years old was a great opportunity. Then the film was nominated for an Oscar so there was no doubt that we would have to continue our collaboration.
BA: What do you like about working with your father?
JS: I like it. [they both laugh] It’s very rare when the connection with your father is not lost the moment you leave the family nest. That you can continue sharing experiences with your father, that you can become closer friends with him rather than just to have the relationship of father and son, that is rare. So once we found this common hobby, we could share the same passion for what we were doing and we found that we could be friends.
BA: Is it difficult to direct your father?
JS: Well, when there are scenes where he is lying naked in the bed with a woman who could be my mother, it is a little bit strange. [his father laughs] I was trying to find some way to enjoy it but I am too shy. So I would like to avoid directing him in these scenes. But he is writing them in his script all the time.
ZDENEK SVERAK: In these moments, I thought what do you know about this, you’re a greenhorn.
BA: Do you find it difficult to take direction from your son?
ZS: No it’s very good work to act under him. He is talented director. His first feature film, Elementary School, was nominated for an Oscar. When I saw the first rushes of the film, I was surprised because in the past, with different films that I had written, I was disappointed by the way directors visualized my scenes. The scenes were better in my imagination than on the screen. But in his case I was surprised because they were better than I had imagined.
BA: Did you write this script knowing that you would both be collaborating on it?
ZS: This script which is called Kolya I wrote for my son. I knew he would be director and I had one important condition – I wanted to star in this film. He agreed. The reason I wanted to do this film was that I desired to act with a small child. It was my wish because I like children.
BA: Working with small children can be very difficult but this young boy was very natural. Did you tailor scenes to him?
JS: Everything you see in the film or almost everything was in the script. We made Andrej Chalimon [the five year old Russian boy who plays the title character Kolya] become an actor. My father helped him a lot because he was not a professional actor either. He explained to him that it was important to make sure that the mood or what you were trying to convey was not just a facade, pretending. Instead you must feel it inside. So the boy began to discover things from his own experiences, some similar situation to think about it to get into the right mood. So Andrej was thinking about his dog who died to get himself into the sad mood.
BA: Was it difficult to find the young boy?
JS: Yes. We spent almost one year looking and we went to Moscow five times for castings purposes. We saw a couple hundred boys and one month before the shooting we were really very stressed and we were close to stopping the project because it could not be done without the boy. So we asked the casting agency to take some steps.
They took the video camera and went around the Moscow kindergartens and in each of them they asked for the worst troublemaker because troublemakers are usually personalities that are just trying to attract attention. We received this tape and one of those boys, of all trouble makers in Moscow was Kolya. His eyes were incredible. He was not too sweet but he shined and had what the camera loves.
BA: Why did you set your story in Czechoslovakia just before the Velvet Revolution in 1989?
ZS: The story is situated in our country before the revolution because it was a time when many Russian girls wanted to marry Czech boys to win Czech citizenship. They could emigrate to West Germany and Czech boys got big money for this paper wedding. That’s why the story was situated at that time because without the revolution these characters would have never met.
BA: It also seemed to reflect the character’s own progress. That he goes through a bit of a revolution himself.
ZS: Yes. My part, Louka, is in the beginning of the film selfish. He has two hobbies, women and music. And the visit of the small Russian boy is like a bomb. Gradually he recognizes that he has compassion, feelings that he didn’t know he had. Love. He recognized what the responsibility of love and commitment and so on are. I think this is the main ideal of this picture.
BA: How did you approach the visual style of the film? It had an almost magical quality at times.
JS: As we were collaborating we discovered that my father has a literal imagination, very verbal, and I have a visual imagination. So we are a good couple. I wanted to make the visual side of the story as rich as possible. But at the same time not attract too much attention to it, not to destroy the story. The right director of photography has to fill the story with nice images but he has to be a servant of the story as well.
He can’t attract attention only to what he is doing. I like to play with close ups, with animals, with small details, with wide shots. I like to observe reality from different points of view if the story allows.
BA: How was it shooting in Prague and trying to create the pre-revolutionary city in a post-revolutionary one?
JS: We were surprised because we thought it was a very contemporary movie because we were creating a Prague of only six years ago. But we discovered that it was really a period movie. We had to pull all the cars from the street because they were new. We had to replace them with old wrecks. We had to chose the right streets because almost everywhere the houses have been reconstructed and painted.
Before, the streets were gray, the houses were not privately owned but rather were government owned and as you know what belongs to government is usually in a very poor condition because no one cares. We had an old truck full of old leaves, several tons, to make the streets dirty again. We also had to remove advertisements and change the clothes not only of the characters but also of the crowds of the people in the background. Because people now are wearing much brighter colors.
BA: What was the most difficult thing about making this film?
JS: To find the boy and to teach him how to act because at first he was looking into the camera and he was having just a stupid smile on his face. To make him feel comfortable on the set and delivering the performance, that was difficult. You can’t rationally explain to a five year old how to act in a scene, you have to make it like a game for him, a competition very often between my father and him. Who would be better on the set. We also had to make sure that he would not get bored.
BA: What was the most satisfying thing about making the film?
JS: The same thing! [he laughs] When after two weeks when we saw in the rushes that the boy was. Because in those first weeks we were again talking about stopping the film and looking for a different boy because he was so wooden. But after two weeks he suddenly changed and it clicked. He started to act and then he started to shine. Animals and kids when they are at such an age and you take the right shots, they are 100% better than any superstar who is adult. Because very often it’s natural, it’s a treasure.
BA: Tell me about your choice of music for the film?
ZS: Many scenes of Kolya are situated in the crematorium, and that is why the music is from Antonin Dvorak and Bedrich Smetana, because their music is used at funerals and this was why it was chosen.
JS: I think that the film, the theme of the film or the message if there is any, is about the symbolism being so close to God. Because the funeral house is the last station before heaven…
ZS: Or hell.
JS: Or hell, for someone and this human fate watched from the perspective of God- which occurs several times in the film- it’s all about where we are going and who is watching us, what is right and what is wrong. So this music which has Biblical themes as well belongs to it. Me, personally, I am not religious, nor is my father, but we are afraid of god. [laughs]
This interview originally appeared in Revolt in Style. For archival purposes only.