Peter Sís on new documentary and Bowie collaboration that never was

'Dreams of Stray Cats'

A new documentary about the highly acclaimed children’s author and illustrator Peter Sís has just entered Czech cinemas. Dreams of Stray Cats, which was made by his brother David Sís, traces the artist’s life story from Brno to the state of New York, which he has called home for several decades. The film is rich in fascinating nuggets from Peter Sís’s life and also includes magical animated sequences based on his beautiful, painstakingly created illustrations.

I discussed the film with its subject, whose latest book Nicky & Vera is coincidentally just now coming out in Czech.

How was the experience of having your life story filmed by your own younger brother?

“First of all it was fun, because you start with the things which are given, so you talk about how I grew up and the books which are most important to me.

“But then we got into the details, and then in became difficult.

“Because my brother is much younger, he’s 13 years younger.

“He’s my brother, we love each other, we grew up together – but we both had different perspectives on things.

“1968 was probably the most life-changing experience of my life.”

“So explaining the experiences of being a young Pioneer during the ‘50s is different from somebody who was a young Pioneer 15 years later: then it was a little looser, or whatever.

“The experience of 1968 was much more intense for me, because I was 19, 20 and it was probably the most life-changing experience of my life.

“For him, he was a little boy, he knew about it, we were all staying in Munich and thinking, Should we go back? Should we go back?

“So there were these little minutia, these little nuances.

“I was upset when they came to New York to shoot – I didn’t realise that even if you make a documentary you have to pay certain fees to be able to shoot in New York, in certain buildings to meet certain people.

“They were very creative in how we got around it, but I wish I could have taken them to the big publishing houses.

“And it’s hard for me to watch the film, because I think it’s just impossible for me to watch myself.

“I find myself annoying and I don’t like my voice.

“So I just get through it and sometimes I’m surprised that this is what it looks like, how people would see me creating my books.

“But that’s how it is and I’m grateful to him, and I just hope he will get some sort of attention.”

David and Peter Sís in 'Dreams of Stray Cats' | Photo: Czech Television

Did you feel like you learned anything about yourself from the process?

“What was interesting for me, actually shocking… it’s what happens with these documentaries.

“My wife who is wonderful – a very rational, very wonderful person – all of a sudden tells him, You know, every artist has a trauma, I’m living with this person who is traumatised [laughs].

“I do know that I’m traumatised by many things, but it’s interesting to hear her saying that, that she’s actually dealing with a nut – I’m a crazy person. Well, it depends how I translate it.

“The same was with the man who I’ve worked for at The New York Times for 17 years, who’s a close friend.

“And I know these things are cut out or whatever, but Steve Heller, who I would consider a very close friend, says, Well, I’ve known Peter for all these years and he’s got a sense of humour, but he speaks so fast I have no idea what he’s talking about for all these years.

“Then you go, Oh my God, I thought we were the best of friends?

“I left animation, which sometimes I’m sorry about, and my dream was to go back to it.”

“So there were sort of interesting discoveries, which is maybe a sort of ego trip, but I had no idea, yeah.”

I’m sure in both cases they were exaggerating for comic effect, and those moments were amusing. One thing that I loved in the film was the animation. You did the animation, I guess?

“No I didn’t, but it’s also my favourite.

“This is like a dream come true.

“I started in animation, which the film states. I left animation, which sometimes I’m sorry about, and my dream was to go back to it.

“And we always talk with my brother… Coming back to Prague, with Prague having this incredible tradition of animation, and also Prague needing to support a certain kind of animation, so it wouldn’t just be commercial animation…

“We were thinking about doing all kinds of books or projects, and always the question is ‘money money money money’, who’s going to pay for it?

“So he succeeded, at least partially, to do some of the animation for this film.

“It was done by Mr. [Michal] Žabka. They did a fantastic job and this is my joy to see that.

'Dreams of Stray Cats'

“I don’t know what we would have done, because I always admired Karel Zeman and I always admired [Břetislav] Pojar and I admired all of these films.

“And this would be one of the ways to have the person moving through the animated background.

“It also reminded me of a bad decision.

“When I did the book The Three Golden Keys it was with Mrs. [Jacqueline] Onassis [who then worked in publishing] and it got lots of attention.

“A producer from Paris wanted to make a film which would be based on a live person going through a painted background of Prague.

“It was supposed to be Ivan Král, who was a wonderful friend and a very significant and famous Czech musician.

“But Ivan said, You know what, I’ll show it to my friend… he was I think recording then with David Bowie.

“And somehow it turned out that David Bowie said, No, I could be in this film.

“A producer wanted to make a film based on a live person going through a painted background of Prague. It was supposed to be Ivan Král.”

“And it was purely… If Ivan Král were in the film, he’s from Prague so it would have been the story of him coming back home [Král moved to the US in the mid-1960s].

“But once David Bowie said he would want to do it, everybody said, Oh, this would be great with David Bowie – and we all started to wait for Bowie to make a decision about being in this film.

“But then David Bowie had all these other things going on and it never happened.

“If I had not got sort of blinded by all this it could have been a beautiful film with Ivan Král, similar to what I’m doing in this film, just as a sort of test.

“It could have been a very sweet film with his music and everything, but it never happened, so that’s one of my regrets.”

'Dreams of Stray Cats' | Photo: Czech Television

That’s an amazing story. I assumed that the animation was yours. Now that you tell me that it wasn’t, are you still able to technically?

“Probably not.

“Some animation in the film is the film I did as my diploma work. There was at least a little bit of all my films.

“The animation from The Three Golden Keys which is moving, and the cats, was done by Mr. Žabka, so that was recent.

“What surprised me was that the animation cost so much money.

“Another thing that has so changed is that the music in the film is so expensive.

“When I was a DJ I used to play music, which is expensive because some of these songs are famous.

“I travelled with The Beach Boys and it would be very expensive to get the songs of The Beach Boys.

“But for example when I did my diploma film, my personal friends were the musicians from the band Blue Effect.

“The Three Golden Keys is sort of becoming like a traditional book of Prague.”

“And just with an old tape recorder they recorded music with the lyrics of my father, which is my film.

“It was like a gift to me and I never thought about it as having any value.

“It was a diploma film and didn’t run in the movie houses, commercially.

“So when my brother is making the film now and he would want to use the music, the music is represented now by the record company that represents the late Radim Hladík and Blue Effect.

“All of a sudden the record company would have certain charges and says, You have to pay us 50,000 or whatever.

“And you go, Excuse me, this was music that was done for me.

“They say, That doesn’t matter.

“Everyone wants money so you have to use music that is completely on a different level, so that you would be able to pay for it.”

A quick aside – did you meet David Bowie in that period?

“Yes. David Bowie lived in the Puck Building two blocks away from my studio on Elizabeth St. [in New York’s Soho] that you see in the film.

David and Peter Sís in 'Dreams of Stray Cats' | Photo: Czech Television

“Unfortunately once the thing sort of fizzled out… that happens with lots of projects, like in Hollywood – that you don’t go back to it.

“The momentum of the book was over, but I didn’t realise the book would come back.

“In fact this book The Three Golden Keys is sort of becoming like a traditional book of Prague and lots of people point out, This is the book of Prague.

“Especially with everything changing with the tourists [coming in fewer numbers since Covid], it’s almost like memories of the past.

“That was a bummer. Ivan Král passed last year… He was such a nice person and he was always so generous to say, No, David will do it.

“But now when I think about it it was so silly, because Ivan should have been in it.

“I’m not from Prague, I was born in Brno. David Bowie was born somewhere in England, I don’t know where.

“But Ivan was from here and it would have been perfect.

“And I just didn’t do it.”

I felt like I knew a lot about you before I saw the film, but I obviously learned some things. And maybe the most amazing thing that I learned was that the babies [sculptures now installed on Žižkov TV Tower and elsewhere in Prague] by David Černý are based on a photo of your son when he was an infant.

“The Czech publisher never takes a book as it is – he always has to come up with some idea of his own.”

“My wife actually says that it’s based on both of our babies.

“David Černý was then, I don’t know, 20 years old and was on a Fulbright scholarship in New York.

“Somebody introduced us. We lived downtown and he was just working on a project with a baby and he needed somebody who has a baby.

“Matěj, who just was 27, was then a tiny baby. He was a very strong baby who was always pulling himself up.

“And he just wanted a baby with these little muscles, a naked baby, which sounded sort of strange, but it was like, I’m an artist from Prague, he’s an artist from Prague, so my wife said, OK, he can come.

“So he came to visit and he was taking lots of pictures of both Madeleine and Matěj, trying to find a universal baby for his project.

“Then I don’t know how it went, but he did some big baby which was crawling – this was before they came to Prague.

“Now it’s almost ridiculous, because I came to Prague a few days ago and then I go to Kampa and take a picture of the crawling baby and send it to my son.

'Dreams of Stray Cats' | Photo: Czech Television

“And I think he’s sick and tired of it, because the baby after all doesn’t have a face – it has this sucker or whatever.

“But the muscles, if you know his photograph, are a constant reminder of your baby when he was a baby.

“So it’s a funny sort of coincidence which means nothing.

“And then also that they’re crawling on that tower in Žižkov.

“The tower is connected to the Jewish graveyard where there is a little building.

“I think it is now an American school but [Petr] Klarfeld, the drummer of the group Flamengo, which I did the posters for, lived there.

“So it’s all connected to other things.

“The same thing is like the New York subway is connected to the poster with the whale [done by Sís] and then in Prague the Flying Man [tapestry at Prague Airport for Václav Havel based on a Sís drawing].

“This probably happens to every artist – if you live long enough lots of things become sort of connected.”

Around this time also the Czech edition of Nicky & Vera [based on the stories of Sir Nicholas Winton and Věra Gissingová] is coming out. Is that different in any way from the English version that you know?

'Dreams of Stray Cats' | Photo: Czech Television

“This is a very good question, because we talked about this project from the beginning, when it came out in America.

“It’s also coming out in Italy, in Germany, in Korea. It will come out in France and everywhere else.

“So this is a very interesting… enigma of Prague, because most of my books would be published the same way they are [in the original] – that’s how it goes – in different languages.

“There’s a translation, you hope it’s a good translation by a good translator or poet who will do it.

“But the Czech publisher Joachim Dvořák [of Labyrint publishing house], who I’ve worked with since 2003 – we started to work together with the publication of the book The Tree of Life – is very creative and very sort of like a Czech publisher of the old days.

“So he never takes a book as it is – he always has to come up with some idea of his own.

“And here he said, This is a story from Prague, these children were from Prague, these children were from the Czech Republic, and Nicholas Winton.

“The subtitle of the book in America was A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued and Joachim said, No, no, in Prague everybody knows who he is – we can’t call him ‘a quiet hero of the Holocaust’.

Photo: Norton Young Readers

“So in Czech it’s Nicholas Winton and his Children.

“Then he thought some of the backgrounds were too dark and the type on the cover was too dry, so let’s do it in handwriting.

“I think the same things appear in the translation, a little bit.

“It’s much more sort of thoughtful.

“So it’s interesting – it’s different.

“It is of course but some things are a little bit different.

“The same thing happened with The Wall: it’s slightly different, it’s extended. The same thing happened with The Conference of the Birds.

“I like the idea that he’s so creative but it makes it for me, as an older person… I have to say to myself, This is a slightly different version.

“And of course the language speaks to me much more than the English would, since the English language is not my mother tongue.

“He also put on the end papers of this book the lists of the children from the original documents.

“So I’ve seen the book for the first time yesterday and I’m still like taking it to bed and waking up in the morning and trying to get used to it.

“I think he did a wonderful job, but it’s always very interesting to see what he does with it.”