Filming of new feature documentary on Jan Saudek underway

Jan Saudek

Jan Saudek has long been recognised as one of the Czech Republic's most successful artistic photographers, whose pictures are easily identified for the photographer's particular use of light, hand-tinting and positioning of models, often nudes, against painted or plaster studio backdrops. Anyone acquainted with US band Soul Asylum's CD Grave Dancers Union will be familiar with at least one Saudek image. Mr Saudek's work was also featured in the worldwide Absolut vodka campaign. Here, in the Czech Republic, the photographer is no less well-known.

But the public here, due to the photographer's appearances on TV, is equally familiar with his striking and well-publicised libido and somewhat bad-boy persona. Even at 72, Saudek is showing no signs of slowing down. Now he is the subject of a feature-length documentary being shot in Prague.

The film's director Adolf Zika:

Laco Deczi,  Adolf Zika,  Jan Saudek,  photo: CTK
"The process of making this documentary is one that began five years ago. I knew Jan Saudek but I got to know him better, beyond his public persona as a clown and extrovert. I realised he was a very sensitive and even vulnerable person: someone who was strongly affected by the war as a child. Someone caught up in a never-ending battle with his passions. Once the film is finished - and of course right now it's still a work in progress - I hope to answer a personal question: 'Who is Jan Saudek really?'."

Saudek himself signed on, the director says, after much persuading and he hopes to succeed where others have fallen short.

Jan Saudek with his girlfriend,  photo: CTK
"We've got about 56 scenes planned. I approached this as a former producer who needed to know what he wanted in advance. Jan Saudek requested things be planned; he wouldn't do it otherwise. But even if things are set-up beforehand that doesn't mean there won't be unexpected moments. There are locations outside the studio, outside his home, when I think he'll be most removed from his element and I'll probably ask my toughest questions there."

So far the photographer himself has given Adolf Zika complete trust. I spoke to Jan Saudek at the film's first publicity event:

"He has a strong will and he really wants to make it. He has a very strict screenplay and that's what I like. Other directors never knew what they could ask from me: they asked me to take portraits of naked ladies, which is very superficial. This time he will try to get under my skin and make a real psychological portrait. Which I enjoy: not just showing me as a cheap guy coming on to women and drinking. Of course it is one of the facets of my life but I'd like to be seen from another, different approach. And maybe he'll make it."

Adolf Zika says Jan Saudek certainly deserves a serious look, dealing not only with the photographer's demons but just as importantly the photographer's work.

"Saudek's work is complex and has had a long evolution. He has had a big impact on other photographers, on advertising, on fashion. What he brought in the 50s and 60s had a far-reaching influence: the hands on the breasts, the nudes he shoots and then dresses up, portraits of subjects first aged ten, then twenty-five, then forty: he was imitated a lot for that. He's most well-known for stylised photography but characterising him isn't easy."

As many as five days out of an extensive twenty-three day shoot will be used to capture Saudek's photographs, on display at four different galleries. On other days as many as three separate cameras will cover Saudek in a range of different situations: in the studio, outdoors, and at home.

"Camera 1, in colour, has its parameters 'set'. But camera 2, shooting in B&W, will offer a far more subjective view: it has the freedom to roam. That camera has the potential to surprise, showing Jan Saudek's behaviour. There's also a third camera operated only by me when no one else but Jan and his subjects are around. We're talking about a 90-minute film here, so the film has to be entertaining. But it's complicated of course. I'm a bit afraid that our friendship may suffer. Jan says he trusts me completely but it's no joke when things stop going his way."

Whether uncomfortable "truths" will be addressed remains to be seen: so far the filmmakers screened only a short but tightly-cut trailer for journalists from the first five days of shooting: it shows Saudek in action. Visuals reflect the photographer at work, pushing himself to the limit through exercise, romping and horsing around in the studio with his models. The unofficial trailer, which will not otherwise be shown, was accompanied by a score by the Czech Republic's Varhan Orchestrovic Bauer, known for his work on Goya's Ghosts. Adolf Zika again:

"The film will be a little exaggerated: there will be pathos. We want to express a lot of Jan's moods through the sound and music. The music must be dramatic. His work takes a toll, the photos and the process 'hurts'. When Saudek stays up all night drinking or staying up with a lover till four in the morning he is exhausted. Then he runs. He exercises. He handles his demons through sport."

Varhan Orchestrovic Bauer will also write the final score for the final product. Here's what he told me:

"I'm not taking this as a classic documentary. This is more mystical. Jan Saudek is an unusual person so the music should be unusual too. For me it's a special experiment."

What's more, famous New York-based jazzman Laco Deczi will also provide trumpet overdubs for the track:

"I like this guy and I like Saudek's pictures and I also like Varhan, the composer. Adolf Zika is a world-class commercial photographer and he asked me to work on it."

Adolf Zika and his team plan to have completed the film for screening by December, when it should hit cinemas although final distribution is still under negotiation. For obvious reasons 90-minute documentaries are a rarity in multiplexes but Adolf Zika is certain Jan Saudek's story will draw big audiences. The final film will be given a title that could loosely be translated as Jan Saudek - Hellish Passions, No Eden in Sight.

Jan Saudek once again:

"I leave it all up to him: I'm not giving any advice. I'm letting him do what he wants. Because he is the creator and I am only an 'actor'. I do believe I'm not a very bad actor but I am just an 'actor'!"