Petr Zelenka - writer and filmmaker

The Buttoners

In this week's One on One join Jan Velinger in conversation with acclaimed Czech filmmaker Petr Zelenka, the director of such popular films as The Year of the Devil and the highly original The Buttoners. Among the topics discussed in the interview: Petr Zelenka's approach to filmmaking and his latest project - The Best Films of Our Lives.

What was the first film that you can remember seeing, what was your first experience with the world of cinema - as a viewer?

"Well it was... it wasn't a film. I remember a television series and I remember I forced my father to record music from the television series, on an old two-reel tape recorder. I must have been like six years of age or something, at that time. So, I don't remember the films I remember the music, and I still have the music."

What kind of music was it?

"It was very simple opening-title music, or closing credits music, you know, like forty seconds, on e minute maximum. But, it somehow stuck deeply in my mind because it was a television series. Ctyri z tanku a pes for instance, a famous Polish television series about four guys in a tank, you know, going through Europe (laughs) at the end of the Second World War, things like that, you know, heavy propaganda stuff. But somehow this connection of music and film, or pictures and music, was probably very important."

The Buttoners
At what point did you realise that you might go into screenwriting, into films, when did that start becoming a serious consideration for you.

"Well, at the point when you have to decide, at the end of secondary school, of course you have to decide, and the choice was mathematics or arts, mathematics or scriptwriting, basically. And I have chosen scriptwriting because my parents are such a good example. Also, I thought that it would be very creative. But I consider mathematics as very creative as well, so... I wanted to be free, independent on the outside world, you know, independent on reality, which both mathematics and arts are..."

What were years at FAMU like? The film academy here in Prague...

"FAMU gives you time to think about whatever you want to think about. It doesn't teach you anything., which was quite cruel, you know, regarding these professors there. But it was probably true that we learned more from criticising each other from a small group of students - there were five of us - than from actual professors. So it gave us time and it gave us sort of a small family in which we criticised each other, and that was a good, good lesson. "

Did you for instance meet people from technical spheres: cameramen, editors, that sort of thing?

"You know we were almost sort of forbidden to meet these people. At that point scriptwriting was one of eight departments, but it was completely out of everything, you know. It was locked away, so we were not supposed to do anything practical. We were not supposed to touch the camera or the editing table or film stock. We were supposed to write only and write. At the point where we studied at FAMU this began to change because Jan Hrebejk, my schoolmate there, a scriptwriter also [director of the Oscar-nominated Divided We Fall -editor's note], made his own small film based on my short story, and he won sort of a student competition there. And that was surprising that two script-writers can make a film, you know, and win something."

The Loners
Let's discuss then, specifically, some of your projects. There are certain similarities between characters in The Buttoners, The Loners, and Tales of Common Insanity. They share certain eccentricities capped by a kind of defining loneliness that they're trapped in. And, they're framed in kind of absurd situations, but all of them are struggling, all of them are fighting against the situation and often the reaction is very funny. What is your inclination to characters of these types?

"I try to feel compassion for my characters and I consider them unique people and unique human beings. That's what I want to feel about my characters, I want to know that he or she is unique. That was what made The Buttoners rather popular here, this belief that every small person is unique. The audience can identify with a guy that's really special but just like everybody else."

Many of your characters fail in love - now I'm thinking specifically I guess of this character Midge from your play Tales of Common Insanity. What does it say about our sexuality because he's going to extremes to satisfy basic sexual needs - is this the fate of the failed Romantic, the person that has been burned by love that ultimately has to turn to objects to satisfy this huge loneliness?

"I think it's just a tease, you know, I don't think this aspect is important about this character, I mean, you can create fifty ways to masturbate and it's always going to be funny, so it's just a vehicle for us to focus on him. I think his main problem is that he mistakes women for God's messengers, mistakes women for angels. And it's his twisted idea of God, you know, and women being a part of God's language. This misinterpretation of religion, you know, when you don't believe in God and you believe in women as such... that, that can really screw you up. Whenever he fails he thinks it's his fault and he thinks 'That's God punishing me', through these women of course, and it's nonsense, of course."

What films have been important for you, what films had an impact that you still think about them occasionally or often?

"Well, there are two kinds of impact, you know, there are films that you like and you think you can make similar films, and there are films that you like and you know that you'll never be able to make a film like this. So the first example is Woody Allen, you know, he's sort of very simple, his humour is based on dialogue mostly, on situations, and I love him and I think I can do something like him. And we always tried, with Jan Hrebejk to be something like 'Czech Woody Allens' - Hrebejk even more than me. And, then there's Oliver Stone, on the other hand, and I love his films, but I don't know how he does them. I'll never be able to make a film like his films. So, you admire various kinds of filmmakers."

What are you working on now?

The Year of the Devil | Photo: Negativ
"I'm writing a script that's set in the United States and it doesn't work and I've been fighting with this script over the last year, actually. It's called 'The Best Films of Our Lives' and it's about three motifs of three people that have been influenced by films somehow. There's a couple of Japanese guys, sixteen, seventeen years, and they're following the route of Easy Rider, and they want to meet the guys that made it and they actually want to sort of adopt Jack Nicholson in a strange Japanese ritual. And then there's another guy, fifty years of age, whose daughter wants to disinherit him because he acted in a porn film in the '70s. And they actually watch the film at court and it's really awful, but at the end he gets invited, with this film, to a very strange festival in Manila, Philippines. And there's a third guy, from Tajikistan, who comes to a film festival in L.A. with a film of his dead friend, who died in the civil riots there in Tajikistan. So, these three story lines, you know, people influenced by films and people searching for their icons, or other relations, relationships, than in their families. They're searching for their artificial families, basically."

So you would be filming that in the States...

"It's just set in Arizona, California, Nevada, you know, New Mexico. It's set around there; it doesn't mean we have to have American money, it doesn't mean we have to have an American distributor. Well, probably it would help if we did have somebody like that, but it could be done for European money."

Have you yourself than travelled throughout the States? Do you know these areas?

"Yeah, many times, yeah. And recently I've been there to really look for the locations, and it will work, you know? My idea is to combine these wonderful landscapes, mostly desert on the west coast, with Russian rock music. It's something nobody's ever done so far, except Leningrad Cowboys, and it's a different sort of music and at that point it was more of a parody than anything else. But I want to really mix American countryside and Russian music. I can guarantee that it would work fantastic."

Do you think that there are a lot of similarities between the two countries, being huge nations?

"Yeah, yeah, there's a pathos, in both of them. Yeah."