Student Oscar winner Marie Dvořáková: The fact Hollywood comes calling doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for you

Marie Dvořáková, photo: Ian Willoughby

In 2017 director Marie Dvořáková followed the likes of Spike Lee, Robert Zemeckis and her compatriot Jan Svěrák in winning the Student Academy Award for her film Who’s Who in Mycology. When we spoke in New York, the filmmaker told me the short had a long gestation – and that she was currently working on not one but three new projects. But I first asked Marie Dvořáková what had drawn her to film in the first place.

Marie Dvořáková,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Photography. I was very passionate about taking pictures and also about processing them and making prints in a darkroom.

“I applied to Charles University, where I studied at the Department of Journalism, and I was focusing mostly on journalistic photography.

“I fell in love with it. And of course it wasn’t enough for me at time.

“I thought, OK, I want to have the pictures be moving, so let’s get into documentary filmmaking.

“And that’s how I got into filmmaking, through photography.”

You studied documentary at FAMU [film school, Prague] and then you came here to the Tisch School of the Arts. How did those two experiences compare?

“They are quite different but they were both, I would say, quite beneficial.

“In Prague the advantage was that we were a small group of people and everything was financed by the school.

“With all the film exercises, the films we were making throughout our studies, we had a budget.

“So there was no financial burden or limitations, meaning that you don’t have to count for every project that you were working on.

“That is not the case here in the US, where you have to pay the tuition, which is per year like 50,000 dollars and then you have to finance your own film exercises and films that you make while you are studying at the school.

“The school chips in a little bit, but it’s not that significant. When you study filmmaking here, you really have to count and have a calculator in your brain.

“In Prague the advantage was that everything was financed by the school.”

“You have to count what you can afford and what you can’t, what’s too much.

“So that can be a little scary and limiting, but it teaches you something else as well.

“Here you have to be a director-producer.”

If it’s not too intrusive a question, how have you managed to finance your studies here?

“I was quite lucky because when I applied for the master’s programme here at Tisch School of the Arts, the graduate film programme, I was offered by Tisch a dean’s fellowship.

“It’s basically a scholarship and you don’t have to pay the tuition. So I was spared from that huge amount of money that I didn’t have to pay.

“I didn’t have the debt after leaving school, like many others do.”

You studied documentary in Prague. What did you take from documentary filmmaking into your fiction filmmaking?

“I think the ability to observe reality and take the best out of it and try to use it in fiction.

“Because the fiction I want to do is really great fiction, it’s almost like a fantasy, but the behaviour of the characters is inspired by real characters and people that I know or I’ve observed and witnessed.

“So I think that’s the part from documentary filmmaking that has stuck with me.”

In 2017 you had great success with winning the Student Academy Award for your film Who’s Who in Mycology. For people who don’t know, what is the Student Academy Award?

“Each year The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences gives awards to students that create their own projects at schools in the US and then around the world: there are different categories for international schools and domestic schools here in the US.

“And it’s a great thing because it helps you to, I would say, penetrate the scene on the West Coast and get in touch with producers, agents, managers.

“It can help you. I’m not saying it always does, but it can help you to open doors for your future projects.”

Some of the previous winners are really big names, like Spike Lee, Cary Fukunaga and Jan Svěrák. Have people been approaching you? Have they been coming to your door, offering your projects?

“Yes, there have been many people. Last year [in 2017] it was crazy, I would say.

“It already started not so much with the Student Academy Award but also when my film screened at the Telluride Film Festival, which is a very good and important, well-respected festival here in the US.

“Once the movie screens there… they are very selective and there are many agents, producers, managers at the festival.

“I was always telling friends who came to visit me in New York, Bring an extra suitcase and when you fly back I’m going to give you some film cans and you have to take them home.”

“So I was approached by many people back then. And then when the Student Academy Award happened I was approached by many more [laughs].

“But I think it’s not so much that people come to you and they offer you scripts.

“It’s more like they’re asking, What do you have? What is that you have that you can offer us?

“So it’s a little different. You have to be ready and prepared.

“And obviously you have to like what they are offering to you.

“The fact that people from Hollywood come to you doesn’t mean that it’s the right fit for you.

“Maybe you want to do independent films somewhere else, you know.

“It has to be something you wish for and that you believe would be the right match.

“And if it is then you have to be prepared and have the ideas, scripts treatments for future projects.

“Maybe you’ll click with someone and you will develop a project together.”

Tell us about the genesis of Who’s Who in Mycology. How many years ago did you start working on it? How long did it take to make? I know it was your student graduate film.

“Yes, but in my case it was a little bit different – quite different from what we have in Europe, or in the Czech Republic.

“I was at FAMU, the Prague film school, and I decided to go and finish my master’s degree in the US.

“So I applied for Tisch, but I actually didn’t graduate from the school, because I was offered a job as a creative director at an animation studio here in the US.

“I left the school and I worked for some time.

“But then I was sad that I didn’t graduate and didn’t finish the film.

“I decided to get back to school, finish the movie and then come back and graduate.

“So I had a big, many, many years long gap in my studies, which I don’t recommend [laughs]. But that’s what happened in my case.

“And I was very lucky at first when I conceived the idea of Who’s Who in Mycology – I applied for a grant that is given to filmmakers who incorporate some scientific element in their film.

“You can apply for the grant and I did that with a friend of mine. We received the money and then we were literally pushed to film it [laughs].

“But obviously the money that we got wasn’t enough so we had to look for more and it took some time.

“Also, as I said, I had a job at that time, so making the film was not a priority at the time, because I had a day job that I was passionate about.

“But throughout the years I was slowly collecting the money.

“I was also collecting the film that I wanted to shoot on, because I wanted to shoot on 35mm, so I was collecting 35mm short ends in Europe and in the US.

“Then at one point I thought, Yes, we are ready, we have enough funds and we have enough film.

“I was also waiting for my colleagues and friends that I knew from Prague that I wanted to work on the movie with.

“I was waiting for them, when they were available to give their time to me and to get on board and start the project.

“So there was a lot of waiting.

“But then it all came together and we finally we could film the film.

“We shot it in Prague and everything worked out pretty well. But it was a lot of waiting, I have to say.”

Where did you acquire the 35mm short ends?

“I love spending time between the two continents. As long as I’ll be healthy enough to do it and able to, I will.”

“Most of the film was acquired from the film short ends, or let’s call it the leftovers, from the film shoot Child 44, which was produced by Ridley Scott and was filmed in Prague.

“They shot on film and there were many film cans that weren’t used but stayed in Prague in one production house – they had them in the fridge.

“They were sitting there for, like, two years. I learned about it and asked whether I could purchase the film stock for almost a symbolic sum of money.

“We did and it was incredible, because the 35mm still looked great, even though it was two years expired. It still looks amazing.

“The other portion I brought to Europe, or to the Czech Republic, from New York.

“I had some friends here in New York who were shooting their feature films on 35mm and they were so generous that they had many short ends and just gave them to me.

“I was always telling friends who came to visit me in New York, Bring an extra suitcase and when you fly back I’m going to give you some film cans and you have to take them home [laughs].

“Then my sister had all the film cans in her fridge and she was complaining she was so skinny because she had no space to put food in the fridge because there were only film cans [laughs].”

What’s next for you, Marie?

“I have many things that are happening at the moment. I’m barely sleeping every day [laughs].

“I’m developing a script with a dear friend of mine. She’s Czech but she’s lived in the US for 50 years.

“In 1959 she wrote a short story and she kept that short story in her drawer and took it out a few months ago and showed it to me.

“I loved it and we thought we would adapt it into a film script. She’s working on it as a scriptwriter.”

Who is she?

“Her name is Milena Jelinek.”

I think I interviewed her before. She works, or worked, at Columbia?

“Yes, she teaches scriptwriting at Columbia University and she’s the scriptwriter of the movie Zapomenuté světlo [Forgotten Light], which is a beautiful movie and one of the reasons why I went to FAMU.

“When I was a teenager and I watched that film I was like, I want to become a filmmaker, and I wanted to go to FAMU.

Marie Tomanová,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“So we’re working on that together and then I have another project, which is an animated film which we would like to realise and make on the West Coast, in L.A.

“And then I’ve also been filming a documentary film about the Czech photographer living in New York Marie Tomanová.

“She’s a young photographer, very talented and a wonderful person.

“I’ve been following her and filming her about the first solo show, solo exhibit, that she had in New York and about the book that she’s now preparing.

“So I’m filming her and I think it’s going to be pretty good, because she’s a wonderful person.”

Where do you see your future? Here, or back in the Czech Republic? Or between both?

“I think it will be between both, because I’ve been here for so long that America is my second home, I have to say.

“I love this country and I have many friends here.

“I love spending time between the two continents.

“And as long as I’ll be healthy enough to do it and able to, I will [laughs].”