Jaroslav Kratochvíl: “We’re telling personal, compelling stories”

26. 2. 2020

Author: Martin Svoboda

Jaroslav Kratochvíl is attending the Ex Oriente Film workshop with Comfortable Century, an unusual documentary about the life of buildings designed by the famous architect Adolf Loos. His famous interiors in Pilsen will be populated using projection mapping and meticulous historical research in order to explore their dramatic past in the turbulent 20th century.

Your trailer is really impressive.

Our film is in many ways specific, including its visual style. We’ve yet to see if it plays to our advantage or not. We’re chronicling the 20th century using stories set in five interiors designed by Adolf Loos. We’re using the metaphor of memories that stay with us as shadows, as a kind of projections that will be materialized in projection mapping. This will allow us to screen pre-shot scenes in the interiors that really took place in these apartments, according to our research. The result should be fairly unique and much more compelling than if we were to watch the scenes directly. It’s a great idea that comes with a number of production issues. For instance, we have to shoot the entire film twice – first, you have to film each scene and then shoot it again being screened in the apartment.

Can you maintain the viewer’s focus with this approach over the entire feature film?
I’m not worried about that because we have so many stories to tell. Episodes from the 1920s to the present contain separate plotlines, twists and endings, which should keep the viewer’s attention. We won’t hear dialogue in these episodes, just the voice-over. I know that the use of voice-over is generally discouraged, yet as I said, our movie is very specific and I believe we’ve made a good decision in this case and the result should be captivating.

What makes this a documentary film anyway? If you have actors reenacting scenes inspired by history, isn’t it more of a historical drama?
Genre divisions are always problematic and it’s common these days to reject clear-cut categories. Yet I still think that the ‘documentary’ category is not inaccurate in the case of our movie. All episodes will be carefully researched. If any of the real-life protagonists are still alive, we’re trying to convince them to play themselves. Our goal is not to offer dramatic reenactment of historical events because we’re watching mostly banal, everyday moments from the lives of the apartment owners. Our goal is to capture the zeitgeist. I believe that the way we work with reality is more typical of documentary than fiction.

Who ensures your movie is historically accurate?
Our scriptwriter Vít Poláček has a degree in history, which is a great asset. We’re working with a couple of experts from Pilsen and we also talked to architects who were involved in renovations of Loos’s apartments. We’ve done a meticulous research in this matter mainly to find out about the different ways people lived in these apartments.

Is projection mapping still very expensive or has it become cheaper?
It’s relatively cheaper compared to previous years, yet this technology is still one of the major items in the budget. Still, we’re trying to find a corporate partner involved in projection mapping. I think we can add a lot to the technology as well because lately it’s been associated mostly with overblown, kitschy public events. Events like that may provide quick buzz, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we can show a completely different side to this technology and its ability to capture intimacy and emotion. We don’t need to show grandeur because there’s already some of it inside the interiors; instead, we need to do the exact opposite. This isn’t really a movie about architecture but about people who were touched by it and we’re using technology just for emphasis. Even Loos himself becomes a figure in the background. We won’t keep talking about him, in a way, he’ll vanish from the film. The thing that always remains at the center, though, is his work and we’ll focus on its enduring impact as well as its transformations.

With so many stories to tell, it seems you need a lot of actors. That could substantially increase the costs.
But we’ll need each actor for just a couple of hours. Besides, we’re often working with non-actors, preferably with non-actors who have some link to the space. We don’t want any of the protagonists to be familiar to the audience. We want them to be universal so that viewers can identify with them.

What stage of preparations are you in right now?
Two and a half years in, we’re still in development and we’ll be applying for a production grant soon. We’ve had meetings in Jihlava, Ex Oriente Film, and in Leipzig. We’re trying to figure out how to reach out to the European market but our primary goal is to secure support from the Czech Film Fund – it would legitimize our efforts and facilitate negotiations with other entities. We’ve done a lot of work anyway, we’ve shot around 18% of the material.

Does the two-and-a-half-year period seem reasonable or have you encountered any unnecessary obstacles and delays?
Of course, I’d rather have the film finished by now but I feel we’re about halfway through. The greatest delay is certainly caused by money issues because everything revolves around getting funding. We’re applying with the Czech Film Fund for a second time now. Our first application was rejected based on logical arguments and so, looking back, it was a valuable lesson. We failed to present a good script idea and statement. Our initial concept relied mostly on technology and the rest seemed so automatic that we didn’t really think it through. Thanks to this mistake, we now have a much better idea of what we really want to do with the script.

What language versions will you make?
From the beginning, we wanted to do a Czech and English version and we could make others as well. Since there’s just the voice-over, you don’t need a proper kind of dubbing and making different language versions would be relatively easy and could be done efficiently. Of course, as the director, I’d like to retain control over the selection of voices and the direction of dubbing to make sure the soundtrack would be in keeping with our concept. But we don’t insist on having just a single language version and force viewers to read subtitles; that would be a shame in a movie that focuses on visual style.

But presenting information to viewers of different nationalities isn’t an easy thing to resolve. You don’t have to explain what happened in 1938 to Czech viewers who might even find it boring. But you need to explain it to viewers from other countries or else they’d feel lost. 
e don’t want to focus on specific historical events, though. It shouldn’t matter whether you know what happened in Czechoslovakia around that particular time. The basic background is the same in other neighboring countries and specifics are important only as long as they impact the emotional aspect of the movie. History should be presented in general terms so that we can focus on more private details in the life of the apartment owners. For example, after the rise of Nazism, people had to rename their pets – “Nácek” used to be a common dog name but people renamed them as “Macek” during the protectorate. Details like that will provide all the necessary information you need to know in the context of the film.

Are you in talks with any broadcasters?
Czech TV will only consider involvement if we receive support from the Film Fund. We’re trying to get cooperation with Arte. We believe our movie would be a good fit for their architecture slot. We know we will have to make a shorter cut for TV – we can discard some of the stories and quite easily cut down the running time.

Isn’t your concept too experimental for television?
Not really. It might seem that way but we’re really not involved in any complex conceptual art. We’re telling personal, compelling stories that will be easy to understand and relate to. That’s why we’ve opted for the voice-over – to keep the movie easy to understand. It shouldn’t be a difficult film to watch.

Was it difficult to get access to the apartments?
We’re working with the city of Pilsen and the Gallery of West Bohemia in Pilsen. They seem to view our collaboration as promotion and a good opportunity to do something mutually beneficial. Most of the apartments are owned by public institutions and one of them was returned to Mr Brumel. He spends most of his time in Prague but he uses the apartment whenever he comes to Pilsen. That makes this interior the most attractive because it’s still a living space and it isn’t just a dust trap.

Who will be behind the camera?
For some time now, I’ve been working with Honza Balcar, a good friend of mine from Pilsen. We met seven years ago when I was making a charity promo for a festival supporting people with disabilities. He was the only DoP in Pilsen who was willing to work for free all afternoon. I found his work ethic really inspiring and so we stayed in touch and made most of my films together. I pick other crew members in a similar way. It’s mostly people I know and can rely on, including our producers and our script editor Jan Gogola.

Is it a good thing to have a crew made up of friends? Aren’t strangers better equipped to reveal any kind of mistakes and flaws?
There will still be ‘strangers’ once we start getting co-production deals. Often times, these involve the need to hire a crew member of a specific nationality, for example, from Germany and Poland. Right now, we have a vacancy for a camera operator who will pre-shoot footage for projection mapping.

Johana Ožvold told me that when she attended various pitch sessions across Europe, people expected her as an “East European filmmaker” to tackle issues related to communism in her film Sound Is Innocent, and she really resented that. Have you faced similar stereotypes?
I’m certainly a Central European, not an East European filmmaker – we shouldn’t let others label us just to make things easier for them. We actually do deal with history in our movie, particularly communism because it takes up a lot of the period we’re interested in. I can imagine that if somebody tried to force it on our movie, I’d be as irritated as Johana but in our case, history is just a natural part of our focus. Though tackling communism is not my personal or priority subject, yet it inevitably comes up in our film and it will be given a proper amount of time. Maybe that’s why we haven’t felt any kind of weird pressure in this regard. But you also have to learn from other people’s feedback – we want to screen our film abroad so it’s good to know what international producers appreciate. And you have to consider how much of it you can take onboard or if it strays too far from the original concept.

How has your concept changed compared to your initial idea?
The most important changes took place at the Ex Oriente Film workshop where we met with different experts from around the world. We were able to watch their reactions and talk to them. For instance, I realized that we’d have to find a different audiovisual language for each apartment so that the viewers are able to tell them apart. Each apartment must have their own character using specific attributes, such as the sound of different musical instruments. Most viewers aren’t really interested in dates and facts, like the names of the apartment owners. We were surprised to find out that most viewers don’t even care who Adolf Loos was. Even viewers who declare their interest in architecture don’t feel the need to find out more about architects. We believe we can hook them by giving these extraordinary apartments a special character.

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