Universum Brdečka, a feature documentary film by director Miroslav Janek and screenwriter Tereza Brdečková, will be released December 21. On Christmas Eve this year, the screenwriter, director, artist and journalist Jiří Brdečka would have celebrated his 100th birthday.
Lemonade Joe, The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians, Dinner for Adele, The Emperor and the Golem... These are just a few of the successful films written by Jiří Brdečka. Brdečka was a screenwriter, author and artist. In the Czech context, he was famous as a collaborator of Jiří Trnka, Jan Werich and Oldřich Lipský; abroad he was mostly a well-respected director of animated films. What was Brdečka really like? What inspired him and what shaped his imagination? How was he able to hide from the totalitarian regime so that he could eventually display his free and timeless work to the world?
This feature documentary was made by Miroslav Janek, a four-time Czech Lion Award winner (Citizen Havel, Olga, Film Spa, Normal Autistic Film). His latest movie has a natural flow, made up of interviews with Brdečka’s loved ones, including his daughter – the journalist and author Tereza Brdečková. With one exception, the filmmakers didn’t use any archive footage. “When we were trying to find the right kind of language and tone for this movie, we quickly ruled out interviews with Brdečka’s peers – well, very few are still alive anyway – and we also decided against using period footage as it might just gratuitously illustrate the movie. Our goal was to really get to know Brdečka. We needed all of our time just for him,” says director Miroslav Janek.
Universum Brdečka was made by Evolution Films led by producer Ondřej Zima in co-production with Czech TV and with support from the State Cinematography Fund. It is distributed by Aerofilms.
INTERVIEW WITH MIROSLAV JANEK
It was Tereza Brdečková, Brdečka’s daughter, who initially reached out to you. How did you respond? How familiar were you with Brdečka’s work?
Basically, I knew just the super popular Lemonade Joe from my childhood. Or that’s what I thought. During my initial research, I found out he wrote several other films I really liked, such as The Emperor and the Golem and The Cassandra Cat, and that he wrote the narrator parts for Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous World of Jules Verne and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. So I gradually got more familiar with Brdečka’s work; for instance, I had no idea he directed 34 animated films. I probably saw Dinner for Adele in the 1970s but it didn’t stick with me because at the time I was a kid from the mountains who’d just moved to Prague and I was mesmerized by Fellini, Bergman, Buñuel and others. I didn’t know The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians because I’d
already left the country. All in all, I knew he was a major name in the industry but I didn’t know anything specific. What was my reaction to Tereza’s proposal? At first I didn’t feel like accepting but then I felt curious and wanted
to find a way to tell this story. I read everything there was about Brdečka and I watched all of his films in order to get some insight into his soul.
Your film feels very fluid and spontaneous. Was it deliberate or did it just happen in the moment?
It was intentional and we came up with it on the first day of the shoot.
You make a lot of documentaries with your own script but this one was written by Brdečková. Did you discuss it a lot and how did you end up shaping it?
To be honest, none of my documentaries had a conventional script and this one is no exception. A script means a set of facts on a given subject along with a search to find the right approach to the story. In this case, the process involved many debates with Tereza who then translated them into something akin to a script. Yet the content and form kept changing even during the shoot. The script was being written on the go. What was my main contribution? Perhaps my curiosity and thoroughness. The key word in filmmaking is “searching”, another, just as important, is “uncertainty” and “doubt”. That’s a general point.
Brdečka’s extensive body of work includes drawings, storyboards, animation, features... What approach did you use to present such vast amount of material and to introduce this major figure of Czech cinema?
The key to selecting material was simple. Excerpts from Brdečka’s movies are not used to illustrate or inform about his work. Instead, we used them to create meaning so that they fit in with the subject discussed in individual scenes and enhance them both emotionally and aesthetically.
You make your documentaries with your wife, editor Antonie Janková. What is her share of creative input? What would you point out as her contribution in the making of this film?
I might have collected and delivered all the archive material and shot a fair amount of additional footage but the film was put together by Tonička. That’s the case with most of our films. That’s how we divide up the work. And still, Brdečka sticks out a bit; it was uncommonly demanding and complicated – we spent five months in the editing room – and it involved roughly three and a half thousand cuts compared to the usual one thousand something cuts, hard cuts.
How many cuts are there in total?
Over five thousand, that’s including sound. It seems like we were trying to break some editing world record here but that’s obviously nonsense. It’s about the way we tell the story. We picked a style that requires a lot of cuts but many would be hard to notice even for professionals.
With one exception, there is no archive footage in the film. Was it a deliberate choice?
When we were trying to find the right kind of language and tone for this movie, we quickly ruled out interviews with Brdečka’s peers – well, very few are still alive anyway – and we also decided against using period footage as it might just gratuitously illustrate the movie. What we really wanted was to really get to know Brdečka. We needed all of our time just for him. It made things a bit more complicated but I’m a strong believer in obstacles because they can lead to creative acts. And in case you don’t run into any obstacles, you can
always create your own.
How long did you prepare and shoot the film? What was the most difficult thing during the shoot and was there also anything that turned out to be surprisingly easy?
It all happened really fast. Tereza first contacted me in the summer 2016 and I started researching film and text materials. In the fall, I selected material from various archives and we were discussing the script. We were shooting from January to May and the movie was released in December 2017. That’s one year and a half. The easiest bit was to shoot photographs, letters, texts, storyboards, etc. I tried to do some simple animation, which requires a lot of time alone in a dark room and a lot of time to think about where to take the film. Nothing was too difficult.
What aspect of Brdečka’s work do you find the most interesting and why?
The great sense of humor in his features and his great imagination in animated films. And then there are some great letters addressed to his wife but that doesn’t count, does it?
Brdečka was an artist, screenwriter and director. Having learned so much about his work, can you tell which job defined him the best?
Hard to say. He always used to say: I liked to switch from being a director to being a screenwriter.
What would you like to ask Brdečka if he were still alive and could be in your film?
I’d ask him to teach me how to play Hearts and then we’d sit down to play a game.
Watch the trailer here.
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Directed by: Miroslav Janek
Created and Written by: Tereza Brdečková
Script Editor: Hana Jemelíková
Producer Evolution Films: Ondřej Zima
Creative Producer Czech TV: Alena Müllerová
Co-produced by: Evolution Films, Česká televize
Director of Photography: Miroslav Janek
Editor: Antonie Janková
Sound Design: Vladimír Chrastil
Story Editor Czech TV: Ivana Miloševič Pauerová
Executive Producer Czech TV: Jiří Vlach
Production Manager: Kateřina Doležalová, Tereza Keilová
Distributor: Aerofilms (Ivo Andrle, Jan Noháč)