Tereza Kopáčová on documentary filmmaking and the series Private Traps

Tereza Kopáčová, photo: www.jacketbros.cz

TV dramas in the Czech Republic often aren’t bad, but occasionally something comes along which is a head above the rest. Last autumn, it was a dramatic series on commercial broadcaster Nova, entitled Soukromé pasti (Private Traps). 12 separate stories centering on characters in everyday dilemmas - which critics praised for excellent writing, acting and psychological depth. The project was overseen by filmmaker Tereza Kopáčová, one of the best-known names in the Czech TV business. Her work and Soukromé pasti are the subject of this Panorama.

How did Tereza Kopáčová get her start? She studied documentary at Prague’s FAMU film academy in the 1990s, following largely in her family’s footsteps, her father was a filmmaker as well. Soon she broke into the business by shooting for TV. Her first involvement was in a documentary series called GEN, focusing on the famous Czech personalities. She taped profiles of stars like singer Karel Gott, Olympic javelin thrower Jan Železný and footballer Pavel Nedvěd. She admits, to a large degree, she has always been attracted to individuals highly successful in their fields.

“I think that I have been fairly consistent in this: most of my career I have shot films about extraordinary people. The one exception was my first film Gentle and Velvet, which was metaphorically about the Velvet Revolution but was really about striptease. If before 1989 you had busses of visitors coming to the National Theatre, now you had people coming for strip shows. Since then, I have focused on individuals who are very dedicated in their areas, gaining fame as a result. For me, the stories can be very intimate.”

It isn’t always easy for filmmakers to get up close & personal, but Tereza Kopáčová says for her it has never been too great a problem. There can be exceptions: Pavel Nedvěd, guarded about his privacy, was not an easy person to shoot.

“Pavel Nedvěd was tricky and it was difficult there to go far because he had so little time. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much there really was to uncover. Of course, it can be a bit of a battle with famous people. In the early Nineties it was easier. Back then, even Karel Gott was not completely sure about how he wanted to be viewed. Now stars are more guarded about their image and it’s harder to get underneath. Which is too bad. Abroad, I think celebrities are far more open to the media, which generally makes for more interesting entertainment.”

In many ways, Kopáčová has had unique opportunity in dealing with celebrities, first as a documentary filmmaker, and later, as the editor-in-chief of Story, a popular Czech tabloid originally founded by writer Halina Pawlowská. While there, Tereza Kopáčová focused on capturing those in the limelight. But she also came under a good deal of criticism from some colleagues.

“In this country this is a really huge thing and a lot of people refused to accept that I might do both! Basically, I was oscillating between the tabloid and serious documentary and had a lot of problems with people who wrote me off for it. On the other hand, not all Czech tabloids are the same. You have the lowest of the low – people with few ethics and poor writing for the worst titles, then you have better writing but still sensationalist, like Blesk, and then have friendlier celebrity magazines, which I think is the case with Story. You don’t have to lie, although there is still exaggeration involved to sell the story. For me it was tough: I wanted to use the tabloid to tell the truth! It was problematic, I admit.”

Tereza Kopáčová left Story behind to again focus on film, eventually coming to her most successful project to date: Soukromé pasti (Private Traps). Approached by TV Nova, she was given the opportunity to head a series unlike any other on Czech TV screens. While focusing – at first glance – on everyday problems, the series achieved fair success as TV drama through well-written scripts and excellent direction. The hook: we all fall into traps of our own making. Individual episodes saw characters deal with various dilemmas such as choosing between a career and having a child; having an extramarital affair, and experimenting in a same-sex relationship. Tereza Kopáčová produced, and also directed two of the TV films herself. I asked her which of the episodes in the series were among her favourites:

“For me that’s difficult to answer, since all of the episodes in a way were my children. I was really involved from beginning to end, even in the episodes I didn’t direct. But if I had to choose I would say the episodes by Lenka Wimmerová: Něžný vetřelec and Fajn brigáda. Those stories were really strong: Fajn brigáda, for example, is about a university student who begins making money on the side as a high-end prostitute. That was the somewhat controversial phenomenon we focused on.”

Another episode was Jiná láska, starring Zuzana Stivínová and Zuzana Norisová about how a married teacher falls in love with her female colleague, throwing her world into upheaval. A story of loss, difficulties, but also finding one’s identity. Producer Tereza Kopáčová makes clear good scripts are few and therefore at a premium, and in this case it wasn’t difficult to enlist some of the country’s best actors including Tatiana Vilhelmová, Anna Geislerová and Saša Rašilov.

“A lot of the actors were really happy with the roles. Of course, there aren’t that many good scripts around, for various reasons. I think that of all the jobs in filmmaking, scriptwriting is the hardest. So when you give a good actor quality material, they want it.”

As it stands the commercial and critical success of the first series means that Soukromé pasti will be back: a continuation is planned and is expected to air on TV Nova sometime in 2010.