New series “I, Mattoni” not a biopic but a dramatic take on life of 19th century bottled water magnate

“I, Mattoni”, photo: Czech TV

At the beginning of September, Czech Television will begin broadcasting a new 12-part series called “I, Mattoni”, inspired by the life and times of late 19th century businessman and industrialist Heinrich von Mattoni.

“I,  Mattoni”,  photo: Czech TV
The story of the man who founded one of the first bottled water firms (a major company today) it is important to note, is by no means a straight-up bio-pic. A first look reveals a tale with many dramatic twists and turns from elements in the story such as a difficult marriage, infidelity, illness, and the struggle for power in the world of business. One should not expect an historic retelling, director Marek Najbrt says:

“The series is not an attempt to present history. There are many areas where the scriptwriter took creative licence for dramatic purposes, especially areas of Mattoni’s life which we know little about. Those parts were filled in by the story writer and anyone expecting an historic reconstruction of his life will be disappointed. There are some tough moments where the character does not behave well at all, but on the whole I think we treated Mattoni with respect.”

“The series is not an attempt to present history. There are many areas where the scriptwriter took creative licence.”

Anyone involved in period productions knows they come with a whole set of conditions which must be met, most notably a dedication to detail, accuracy and authenticity. Martin Štepánek was the director of photography (DOP). In our interview, he told me more about the project, including the “look” he and the director settled on before shooting began.

“This was the first time I worked with director Marek Najbrt in my career and the starting point was to answer the question of how we wanted to shoot this project. Either by using modern approaches as seen in some productions, such as in The Knick, Downton Abbey or Sherlock Holmes – or to go a more traditional route in terms of the visual style. The story is a very strong one so we agreed that the method of capturing the story would look like classic cinema. There was no reason to use more contemporary methods of lighting or composition, to tell the story. So we opted for a classic approach and feel. All of the camera work (on dollies for moving shots for example) and the composition use a classic style.”

I,  Mattoni”,  photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary
When you are lighting a period piece it means that the light sources have to be justified and have to appear authentic, if you have a scene where there are candles, it has to look like they are the only source for it to feel natural.

“Yes, in the scene you may have a practical light and you may add a few lights to that to be able to successfully do the shot. Over the last three, four years the technology has really moved forward. This was shot on the new Sony F5 motion picture camera which is very sensitive. It was 2000 ASA and the camera is more sensitive than the human eye. You can use practical light sources: daylight, candles, chandeliers, and maybe add one of two lights to help create more contrast. That’s it and it worked perfectly.”

“In this series, we opted for a classic approach and feel. All of the camera work and the composition use a classic style”.

You mentioned before today’s screening that the series was shot in many different locations, a lot of exteriors, with some locations serving as other sites, for example, a part of Prague served as Long Island, New York.

“A lot of locations were easy to find: the story is set in the 19th century in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Some of the locations were castles in the Czech Republic and Austria and some served as other areas. Long Island served as a case in point: we have no sea, so we found a very nice location on the border between Poland and Germany, the Baltic Sea, and we used some locations which evoked elements of Long Island plus added props. In Prague, we used part of a bridge in Karlín, evocative of New York and the time when the Brooklyn Bridge was built. Of course, it was tricky – when I first saw it I wondered how it would work out. But it did.”

I,  Mattoni”,  photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary
That is the fun part, in a way, isn’t in it? Working with the challenges and finding solutions?

“Absolutely. I have been working in this field for a long time, now as director of photography but before that as second camera operator or second D.O.P. on many shoots. It was good experience and I saw how many things were done. For this series we really wanted to go for it, to create a series not just for the Czech market but for a much wider audience and to offer a top level experience. You can always use long lenses, to get a tight shot, to shoot a scene somewhere in a location that is meant to be, for example, New York, but it won’t have the right feel. You need to go wide, to have the wide shot for the audience to go ‘Wow! It’s really New York’. So you have to have a location which can act as that.”

“Long Island was a case in point: we have no sea, so we found a very nice location on the border between Poland and Germany on the Baltic Sea.”

There is a famous quote which I think was attributed to Kurosawa when he was asked why he framed a shot exactly in a certain way in one of his historic films and the answer was something like well a couple metres to the side there was a factory and on the other something else, like a parking lot. So how do you get around those limitations if you want to use the wide shot?

“There are different ways. Some of the exteriors the director said we just simply needed and things like antennas on roofs or TV satellite TV dishes were just removed digitally in post-production. In another example, we shot part of a scene with the castle in Vienna as the backdrop but all of the closer shots, including the second wide shot which was still tight enough, were done at a different time in Kromeříž. So it depended on what Marek needed and finding the right solution. In the case with Vienna, it was a case of saving time and money but still show the maximum.”

Heinrich Mattoni
You have a story which covers some 60 years in scope, it is obviously epic; at the same time, it is intimate look at some of the characters especially Heinrich Mattoni himself where you have to accent what is going on in his head…

“Yes, there are many points where the character withdraws into himself, many ups and downs in his life and relationships and business when he is wondering what will happen. In those cases, we used the 50mm lens to get really close to him, to feel like we are in the same room, to relate to the dilemma he faces. The audience is very close at that moment. At the same time, the wide shot was essential: to show that Mattoni had a lot of money and was a commanding figure.

“One element which was important is that the character, in old age, is looking back on his life, writing his memoirs, and this was an element which featured 40 or 45 times in the series. It was shot in a library room in Konopiště Chateau. But the shoot it the same way each time would quickly become very boring. So I had to come up with different set-ups to reinforce the moment but show it in a different way.”

Martin Štěpánek,  photo: Czech TV
So it becomes a sort of ‘anchor’ to which we return. The character of Mattoni is played by David Švehlík. Very strong features... What was it like working with him and some of the other actors?

“Working with David and with Táňa Vilhelmová (who plays Mina Mattoni) is paradise. You need to give him room – he’s not the kind of actor you can just tell to stay on his mark, according to the lighting. He needs room to move so you work with that in terms of the lighting set up. He likes the camera so he and others had freedom. David likes the camera, so it was easy to figure out different shots and angles with him. He was very happy to do it, as was I.”