Pavel Strnad: Czech directors could benefit from looking outward more
Pavel Strnad is one of the Czech Republic’s top film producers. The company Strnad co-founded in the mid-1990s, Negativ Film, has been behind many of the most important Czech titles since then, with works including Year of the Devil, Alois Nebel, Ice Mother and several acclaimed documentaries by Helena Třeštíková; last week saw the premiere of her latest film, Anny, about an aging street prostitute.
You studied production at FAMU film school in Prague. How well did studying production at FAMU help prepare you for the actual job?
“I should say I studied electrical engineering before I enrolled at FAMU, so it was a nice comparison – completely different schools.
“They are universities that it’s kind of difficult to compare.
“But I enjoyed being at FAMU. I met a lot of interesting people and a lot of interesting teachers.
“I also worked in the film industry before I started studying there, so I wasn’t completely new to the job.
“And we had quite a start, with my friend Petr Oukropec.
“Whisper became a kind of cult thing of the Prague ‘90s dance scene.”
“We produced this film in the first year of our studies that was supposed to be a graduation, 30-minute film, and we ended up having a 65-minute feature film that went into distribution.
“So we became film producers.”
What was that film?
“It was Indian Summer by Saša Gedeon, in 1995.
“That film became quite a success. Nobody really expected that, so we started our career as film producers while still studying at FAMU.”
Also I didn’t know this, but you produced Šeptej or Whisper.
“Oh yes, that was the second film that we were offered right after we produced Indian Summer.
“We were offered Whisper, with the script written by David Ondříček and Tomas Mašín, which became a kind of cult thing of the Prague ‘90s dance scene [laughs].”
Absolutely. It’s really like a kind of snapshot of that era. It has some imperfections, I would say, but I love the film. You guys must have all been around the same age, mid 20s – you and Ondříček and maybe the actors also. What are your memories of making Whisper?
“It was a low-budget film, so it was really difficult. We were shooting in Prague.
“Indian Summer was a school film and it was quite easy to do it on a low budget, Whisper was quite the opposite.
“We were shooting at the Roxy club and we were kind of running out of money and it was a bit stressful.
“So I didn’t enjoy it as much as Indian Summer, I must say [laughs].
“Also we were shooting in the fall of ’95, while Indian Summer was obviously filmed in the summer.
“And it makes quite a difference you know, shooting in the almost winter.
“The film also went on to have more than 100,000 admissions and there was this great music by Colorfactory in the film, so there were some concerts and we met a lot of people from the music scene.”
Also though, if you had made that film in the summer, not the autumn, you wouldn’t have those iconic scenes from Střelecký ostrov with all the autumn leaves – it’s really beautiful.
“That’s the trademark of Negativ – that we really want to be involved in the creative process as much as possible.”
“Yes. I was actually just looking at the pictures, because we have scanned all the film stills from the shooting, after all those years.
“For each film we have like 2,000 film stills, so I was looking at those pictures and it was funny to see how young everyone was, at the time [laughs].”
Apart from those early movies, which films would you say were major milestones in your career so far?
“Speaking about milestones, I would say one was certainly Year of the Devil.
“It’s a film that started as a small documentary that we wanted to do with Petr Zelenka while preparing a feature film, because Petr had a script for a feature film.
“We were already preparing that film and he came with this idea of making a documentary about Jarek Nohavica and Čechomor, who at the time got together and played some concerts.
“He saw them and he loved the music, so we thought, OK, let’s make this, it’s going to be a small TV documentary.
“We started with a budget of, I think, two million crowns. And one year later we ended up with a feature film with a budget of 12 million crowns.
“It was shot at eight concerts and we had another 30 shooting days and it ended up winning the Karlovy Vary film festival – we got the Crystal Globe there – and the Czech Lions.
“It was a film that was warmly received around the globe.
“It was the first film where I finally felt a break-through internationally also, for us, because we had a great response.
“It was travelling around the festivals and it was definitely a film that helped to establish us on the international scene.
“And then we made a film with Bohdan Sláma in 2005 called Something Like Happiness.
“It was not an easy production. It took more than a year and a half of shooting – we had five shooting periods – but the film went to win the award for the best film at the San Sebastian International Film Festival.
“It also won at the Czech Lions and some other festivals.
“Those films were like three years apart, and that was also when we started co-producing internationally.
“And thanks to those films we felt like we were working on a different level than before.”
Many people see film producers as essentially money men. But how much are you involved, if at all, in the creative process? Do you get involved in things like casting?
“Unfortunately we don’t have so much success on the international scene, but I think that could change.”
“It’s a common mistake to think that a producer is just a guy sitting behind a desk with a cigar, counting money.
“But the truth is that though we are responsible for the money we get from different partners and we are responsible for delivering the film, we also are involved in the creative process.
“I think that’s the trademark of Negativ – that we really want to be involved in the creative process as much as possible, from the very beginning.
“Of course sometimes you receive a script that’s almost perfect, and that’s great.
“But we work with filmmakers like Bohdan Sláma and we are doing our fifth film together right now, and we have been involved from the very beginning – even finding the topic and working on a treatment and then working on the script.
“So we try to be involved as much as possible.”
I wanted to ask you about your collaboration with Helena Třeštíková, who just had a new film released last week: Anny. She makes documentaries following people who are often the margins of society and she makes those films over many years. When she is making a film for a long time does she inform you about what’s going on and what she’s got? Or does she come to you at the end and say, This is what I have, work with it?
“We met with Helena I think 15 years ago already, when we saw her films that were basically only on TV at the time.
“We thought it was really a shame that these films are not in cinemas and that they are not shown abroad.
“Usually she worked for Czech TV and the films ended up just on TV screens.
“So we met with her. It’s a funny story: She brought this big plastic bag of VHS tapes and started taking one after the other out and telling us, This is a project I’ve been shooting since 1990, and this is a project I’ve been shooting since 2000.
“It was this row of tapes [laughs] and we were telling her, Hold on Helena, we have to take one after the other.
“I think we found a system during all those years: We know that we can finance a certain amount of shooting days during the year and she can shoot pretty much whatever she wants, whoever she thinks is interesting.
“And then when we see that some story is coming to an end we sit down and say, OK, what is the story going to be like.
“Also the editor, Jakub Hejna, plays a big role in this, when we are deciding which story should be the next film that we are going to edit and release.
“With Anny she was shooting with [the protagonist] Anny from the late ‘90s and then there was a break and she went back to her and the shooting finished in, I think, 2012.
“So it took us a few years before we decided to this could actually be a feature film.
“And I was very surprised, because in the beginning I didn’t think it would be a film for the big screen, but then we saw the rough cut and we realised it’s a really strong story.”
I must say I really like her films a lot. And personally I often feel that Czech documentaries are often better than feature films these days. Would you agree with that? And do you prefer working in either area, or does it make any difference to you?
“Well, it is different.
“I don’t like comparing if Czech documentary is better than Czech feature film.
“I think Czech feature films are also very good.
“Unfortunately we don’t have so much success on the international scene, but I think that could change.
“For me as a producer documentary is always kind of a surprise.
“You never know what you’re going to get – it’s always surprising in the end.
“I’m not involved in the shooting, I’m not on the set, so I’ll see the footage that was shot later, or in the editing room.
“That’s different from feature film, where you really work on the script and you green-light the film only when you know that the script is perfect and you have all the financing, because it’s much more expensive than documentary.
“So that’s a different style of work.”
When you say that Czech cinema could have more success internationally, what could Czech filmmakers do to achieve that kind of success?
“That’s a tough question – it’s the million-dollar question.
“I think Czech filmmakers should be more open. I don’t see Czech filmmakers going abroad and shooting abroad.
“That would help a lot – if they more ambitious and not looking too much in but rather out, at what’s going on in the world.
“That would help [laughs].
“Otherwise I think we have a lot of talented filmmakers, directors and writers. I’m just missing the ambition, I would say.”
Do you think Czech filmmakers tend to think small, a little bit?
“Maybe a little.
“You see ambitious filmmakers from Scandinavia, from Russia, from Romania – the want to go and shoot big films in the UK or Hollywood
“I don’t see that so much here.”
Luckily for all of us, the whole Covid time seems to be slowly drawing to an end. But how did Covid impact your work, Pavel?
“Yes, they were weird times.
“First when cinemas closed there was this feeling of, What’s going to happen when they open, and if they open?
“We were hit only… we had two films that we wanted to release and we had to postpone.
“One of them was Anny, which was supposed to be released in January and we had to postpone the premiere till June.
“The other one was a Slovak film that we co-produced called Servants, by Ivan Ostrochovský , which already premiered last year at the Berlinale, with quite great success and great reviews,
“That I think really hurt the film, because it was planned to be released last April and we were postponing and postponing – and basically the film was released a year and three months later.
“So that was very unfortunate.
“As for production, I think it kind of slowed down. We were more focusing on developing so now we have quite a lot of projects in development, and going into financing soon.”
My final question is something completely different. I see on social media that you post quite often incredible images of historical Prague. Where does interest that you have, and also this expertise, come from?
“Well it comes from Covid [laughs].
“Last year, with the little bit more time that I had, I started looking at the old archives and I found this amazing photographic archive of the city of Prague with 14,000 photographs that are all digital.
“I was just amazed how Prague changed in the last 100 years.
“Yeah, it’s my new hobby [laughs].”
Has it given you a new appreciation of today’s Prague? When you walk down the street, do you feel of a sense of what was there?
“Absolutely. It’s just the best history lesson I ever had.
“I’m just walking the streets and looking up at the buildings and actually finally seeing the difference between now and then.
“Sometimes it’s amazing and there are some great stories that should be told also.
“So maybe that’s something for the next film.”