Milena Jelinek – member of golden generation of Czech filmmakers now teaching screenwriting at Columbia

Milena Jelinek, photo: Ian Willoughby

Milena Jelinek teaches screenwriting at Columbia University. Half a century ago she herself studied at Prague’s FAMU film school, and was surrounded by many of the people who later created the Czech New Wave. She herself had a hit film while still a student, though her life soon became complicated – after getting engaged to a “foreigner”, JFK no less intervened to help her get married and leave Czechoslovakia. In recent years Milena Jelinek has enjoyed success in her home country with the film Forgotten Light and a theatre play about Adina Mandlová.

Milena Jelinek
When I met her at Columbia, we first discussed her generation at FAMU.

“For instance Ivan Passer was in my year. In the year ahead of me was Miloš Forman, in the year below me was [Jiří] Menzel. [Jan] Nemec was in the same year. I was in the screenwriting section and that was very small – there were only four people and some of them didn’t continue as writers…I was friends with Věra Chytilová, she was behind me although she was older. I was with them at that time – it was ’55, ’56, ’57.

Was there any sense, or was there a feeling in the faculty, that this was a special generation of students?

“I don’t think so. We really didn’t know what was going to happen to us. We just behaved a little differently – we were not so afraid, I think. Most of the professors were really professionals and some of them had been making films before the war – they were kind of pretend communists, but not much.

“Some of the professors were only older by a couple of years, like Milan Kundera or Frank [František] Daniel. Milan Kundera was known at that time as a poet – he wasn’t really writing novels yet. But he had tremendous erudition and overview of literature, so we were really well educated by him, and by others too.”

In your first year you already succeeded in having a film made from one of your scripts [Snadný život,1957]. That must have been extremely unusual – it’s unusual today.

“Well, it was unusual and perhaps not so lucky for me in the…view of my life. I did write one little story about students and it won a competition – I think it won because not too many people submitted screenplays.

“A professor at FAMU, Frank Daniel, who was not by professor, picked up the screenplay for a production, because I think there was a role for his wife, so I’m not claiming it was so brilliant.

“Also I was assigned a professional scriptwriter who rewrote the screenplay that I had written and a director who was not a top-class director. So I had very little influence on the film.

“Another thing that was not my…I didn’t plan it – there was the first use of rock’n’roll in Czech film, which made it extremely popular in eastern Europe.”

I’d like if I may to ask you about your husband – I believe Miloš Forman introduced you two.

“Yes, my husband [Dr Frederick Jelinek] was born in Czechoslovakia and emigrated with his mother in ’49. His father died in a concentration camp during the war and they moved to the US.

“In ’57 he planned a kind of unexpected visit to Prague – he was in Vienna and decided to ask for a visa because he wanted to see his friends, he emigrated at the age of 17 and he really missed his friends.

“So he came to Prague and one of his acquaintances was Miloš Forman, who he knew through the boy scouts. Miloš Forman didn’t know what to do with this American so he introduced me to him and I talked to him because he was a Czech – to me he was not an American but a Czech. So yes, we met through Miloš Forman.”

When you wanted to get married it was very difficult – I believe the American president, John F. Kennedy played some kind of role in helping you get married.

“Yes, my husband on my advice, decided to ask for help. At first he asked Cyrus Eaton, who at that time was connected…he went to the Soviet Union…so my name was already raised at that time.

“And then he asked a president of MIT who was a scientific advisor to Kennedy. When Kennedy was elected the very same day two people came to announce to my future husband that I will be allowed to leave Czechoslovakia. That was after three and a half years of trying.”

Now you teach screen writing, in a language that wasn’t your first language. How hard was it to get to the point where you could do that?

“It was very hard. I didn’t know what I would do in this country and I didn’t imagine that I would continue with film. I thought I could always write, but it was not that easy, because to write in Czech I would have had to have a connection to life in Czechoslovakia.

“And I was not yet a finished writer, a mature writer like some of the people who some of the people who left, like Kundera later, or Arnošt Lustig, who brought the language and the culture with them.

“I was also too addicted to movies by that time. So it was kind of hard for me to reconnect. Instead of that I went back to linguistics – I studied linguistics and I was teaching Russian and doing all sorts of things, bringing up children. Then finally I decided I just have to make movies.”

In the mid 1990s the director Vladimír Michálek filmed your screenplay Forgotten Light [Zapomenuté světlo]. How gratifying was it for you to have a success with a screenplay in Czech, so many years after leaving the country?

“Well, it was mortifying, I would say. I clearly was paying my dues. I was connected to the Prague Spring and I felt that there was something I didn’t manage to say and I needed to say it. The way Michálek directed it…we worked together very well, but still it’s his film.

“He is constantly referred to as the author of the film Forgotten Light, which I object to, but it was in collaboration with him that it changed in some sense and was no longer connected so deeply to the cinema of the ‘60s. For which I’m grateful, by the way.”

In recent years you’ve written a theatre play [Adina] based on the life of the famous Czech film actress of the 1930s and ‘40s Adina Mandlová.

“I wrote the screenplay 12 years ago and I wanted Michálek to direct it, but he couldn’t raise the money so I dropped the project. Ten years later the theatre in Vinohrady [Divadlo Na Vinohradech] contacted me and asked me if I could rework it for the stage. It took a little time, and a little co-operation with the theatre. But I did it.”