Genevieve Anderson: A decade bringing a classic Hrabal book to life, using puppets

Genevieve Anderson, photo: archive of Genevieve Anderson

In 2007 Genevieve Anderson brought out a short animated film based on Too Loud a Solitude, a novella by the great Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. Now the US director has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a feature-length version of the magical story, which centres on Haňťa, a reclusive paper crusher who over the years has absorbed a great deal from the books that have crossed his path. Like the short, the new movie will be puppet-based – and voiced by the charismatic US actor Paul Giamatti, known for the Oscar-winning Sideways and a host of other projects. On the phone from her home in Arizona, Genevieve Anderson explained how she had first come across Hrabal’s classic book.

Genevieve Anderson,  photo: archive of Genevieve Anderson
“A friend of mine went to Prague for a movie. I think it was maybe even in 2003.

“She was a fan of my films with puppets. She found it and read it and said, This is an amazing book – it might be great for one of your puppet films.

“So she handed me a copy of it and I read the first page and was immediately in love with it.

“I felt that it was great for puppets and animation, simply because of the way the book is structured.

“There’s a real-time element to it but there’s also all of these segments of memory and hallucination and fantasy.

“So you need a technique that will allow you to move fluidly between these different states of time and consciousness.

“That’s why I thought it would be particularly good to tell with puppets and with animation.”

You have fantastic looking puppets [in the first film]. Where were they made?

“I made the puppets. I had help from a small team of a mould maker, a costume designer and a costume creator.

“And we’ll have a bigger team. We created the 17-minute version and now we’re creating the feature film.

“We’re reconstructing the puppets. We’re making them a little bit bigger.

“We’re working with a puppet designer named Eli Presser, who is really quite brilliant. He’s redesigning them right now.

“We’re also working with a bit of an armature inside, so that they can have a little bit of mobility, in their fingers and their mouths. Just a little bit – not much.”

“I felt Too Loud a Solitude was great for puppets and animation, simply because of the way the book is structured.”

I wanted to ask you whether you were planning to redo the first film or to add to it – obviously adding a lot. But it sounds like you are going to remake it completely.

“We’re going to remake it completely. A lot’s changed in the last 10 years.

“I have some new ideas about how to tell it. I want to improve the mobility of the puppets – not too much, because they still need to seem like they’re handmade.

“But I want to remove all the rods, for one. We removed some of the rods in the 17-minute version, but I’d like to remove them entirely.”

The first version came out in 2007 – what’s caused the gap between the two versions?

“[Laughs] Life! Mostly I had a child, in 2008. I also went back to school for my Master’s degree in critical studies, film and television.

“I also produced a lot of work for a video artist, Phil Viola, and he was very busy between 2010 and 2014. And I was quite busy with him.

“So that’s why. But during that time, interestingly, the project never went totally dormant, because it had such a substantial fan base, globally. People have stayed in touch with me about the project

“And the people on my team – Steve Gaub, Kelly Miller and Alex MacInnis, and certainly Paul Giamatti – have all stayed involved. No-one’s left the project and that’s helped to keep it going.”

For those who don’t know the book, it’s about this character Haňťa who has been compacting books and wastepaper for 35 years. Is it fair to say it’s a celebration of the power of books, or the power of reading or even the power of knowledge?

“Absolutely. One of the things I loved about this book is that I love reading, I love literature, I love the power contained in words.

“I’ve never read anything that so celebrates the power of a beautiful idea in literature.

'Too Loud a Solitude',  photo: official website of the film
“This is the most elevating thing. And it’s a thing that transcends cultures, it transcends time and space, it transcends Haňťa’s terrible conditions – working to save these books in Russian-occupied Czechoslovakia.

“So, absolutely. It’s a celebration of the tactile, it’s a celebration of ideas and it’s a celebration of the indestructibility of knowledge and beauty.”

Many Czechs have told me that Hrabal is such a peculiar and distinctive writer that he can’t really be translated that well into English. Be that as it may, are you a fan of his work and other books, apart from Too Loud a Solitude?

“I’m a great fan of his work. I feel like he writes like he’s talking to somebody at a bar.

“He tells these little stories that weave from one into the next into the next, so it’s very stream of consciousness, which I love.

“And it’s very human. He’s an everyman.

“But within this kind of common…sometimes he can be a little off-colour, sometimes he can be downright naughty… are these gems that he’ll elucidate just within the context of telling a very relatable story.

“That to me makes him incredibly special. He’s truly a poet.

“I don’t read Czech and I’ve heard the same thing.

“Michael Heim’s translation is amazing. I met Michael Heim, who has now passed away, early on in the process and I know he did a wonderful job of translating.

“But I’ll never really know the full flavour of the Czech version of this book, which makes me a little sad. But the English version is exquisite.”

“I’ve never read anything that so celebrates the power of a beautiful idea in literature.”

Tell us about your Kickstarter campaign. I’m particularly interested to know, if you know, what kind of people are pledging?

“It’s a vast array. It’s a vast mix of people, interestingly. Many of them were friends and family, of course.

“But also many people found the project online.

“We just met somebody in New York who’s a pledge, who’s a donor. He’s a Czech animator and a friend turned him on to it. She found it randomly.

“People found it through various portals, and then through Facebook.”

How much money are you hoping to raise? For you, what’s the ideal scenario from this point in?

“The ideal scenario? We were just in New York and had several really encouraging meetings with potential producing partners.

“We’ve been approached by one company in Prague to do a co-production.

“We have a lot of connections in Prague, so we’re sort of feeling out how much of it can we do in Prague. We’d like to do some of it in Prague.

“We do need to raise the rest of the money. We need to raise the next big chunk of money.

“Our budget is just under two million and we’re now in the stage of putting together the financing for the next stage of the production, which would be design and puppet development.”

As you know, lots of feature films have been made based on Hrabal’s books, including a version of Too Loud a Solitude that came out in the mid-1990s and starring the French actor Philippe Noiret. Are you aware of any other film based on Hrabal using animation or puppetry?

'Too Loud a Solitude',  photo: official website of the film
“No, I’m not. I’ve seen Pearls of the Deep, which as you know is a collection of shorts. And of course I Served the King of England and Closely Watched Trains, which are both little masterpieces.

“But I don’t believe anyone has tried to do Hrabal in animation before.

“And I could be wrong but I don’t think that an American has attempted to do a film based on Hrabal’s work.

“So we may be a first there [laughs]. I’m not sure, but we may be.”

Tell us about the involvement of Paul Giamatti. Do you know what it was that first appealed to him about the role, all those years ago?

“I know that Paul knew about the book. He had read the book. He was a literature major at Yale and had read Too Loud a Solitude and loves Hrabal.

“I had a friend who worked with him on a film and talked to him on set about what I was doing – and he sounded interested.

“Then I had my manager at the time approach his management and he said yes right away.

“He has been astonishingly supportive throughout all these years.

“We’re quite lucky to have someone like him involved, given his pedigree as an actor but also given his understanding of the book, and how much he appreciates it.”

I guess it means a lot for you in two ways. First you have this guy who’s a great actor with an amazing voice. And second he must immediately raise the profile of the whole project.

“I don’t believe anyone has tried to do Hrabal in animation before.”

“He does raise the profile of the project, sure.

“It’s been a bit of a point of discussion over the years because he’s very American, and Haňťa, the main character in Too Loud a Solitude is as Czech as they come.

“It’s arguably an autobiographical story. And if you think of Hrabal himself and try to map Paul Giamatti onto him, it’s kind of a leap.

“It doesn’t have to be a one-to-one equation, certainly. But there’s been a lot of discussion about the use of his voice for this particular material.

“Many people like it. Some do not. But again, I’m an American director, so my approach to this is going to be mostly American, with some foreign elements thrown in.

“I think that part is super important – to keep the book situated in the context in which it was written.”

What have been your experiences of being in Prague?

“We came to Prague in 2004 at the beginning of the project. We had a connection in Prague and that connection introduced us to some other individuals in Prague, and some people who had connections with some of the studios.

“We met one of Hrabal’s old friends, who showed us photo albums. We went to the Golden Tiger [the pub U zlatého tygra, Hrabal’s home away from home].

“We really, really got a good sense of the context in which Hrabal wrote this book.

“I also got a sense of what an incredibly rich and beautiful culture is there in Prague, and what an incredible history. And also just how warm and welcoming the people are.

“So we’re eager to come back and do some of the research there, and hopefully some of the shooting as well.”

'Too Loud a Solitude',  photo: official website of the film
If things go as well as they possibly could, when would you hope that this film would have a premiere or would actually come out?

“Well, it would be 2018, hopefully. I don’t know when in 2018, but if things go well as they are now and we can get the financing together, we would like to be shooting the practical elements by summer.

“There’s a lot of animation and visual effects that will come into play. So that might take a little bit longer.

“An ideal scenario would be mid-2018. That’s a little idealistic, but you know, anything is possible.

“That’s when we would like to be premiering the film and showing it and getting it out into the world.”