Will Tizard - Variety's man in Prague

Will Tizard

Our guest for One on One this week is Will Tizard an American journalist who has been based in Prague since 1994. Besides writing regularly for the Czech Republic's English-language newspaper The Prague Post, Will Tizard is also also an editor for the prestigious Time Out city guide as well as the Czech and Slovak correspondent for the leading movie-industry publication Variety Magazine.

When we met up with Will at a Prague restaurant, we started by asking him what first brought him to the Czech capital thirteen years ago:

"Downsizing in the American newspaper industry. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It probably didn't seem that way at the time. I had been a crime reporter in northern California. I had worked at the LA Daily News doing court and crime reports, when they decided to lay off a bunch of folks. I had just recently been hired so I was one of the first to be let go. I thought then that it was a good time for me to take some action on a daydream I'd had for years, which was to become a foreign correspondent."

Why did you choose Prague as the place to come to?

"I don't think I did choose it. I think I chose Berlin. I had been studying intensive German, but somehow in passing through Prague I decided like so many others that I would stay and check it out for a few weeks. And here we are thirteen years later..."

In that time, you established yourself as a restaurant reviewer for both The Prague Post and the Time Out city guide. I presume the catering trade in Prague has changed a lot since you've been here...

"Well I think I missed out on the really wild and woolly days. In the early days of The Prague Post, they reviewed a restaurant that had some connection to the Vietnamese government.

"It wasn't a positive review and somehow one of the owners got wind of the fact that there was a review coming that wasn't going to be so positive.

"The first thing they did was offer reviewers a selection of girls. When that didn't work, they then moved on to death threats. This is what I was told...

"It hasn't been quite that wild in my experience but I did feel at times that I was entitled to hazardous duty pay reviewing Prague restaurants. Things have come a long way since then."

What were your worse culinary experiences in this city?

"Oh man. That's the sort of thing that ex-pats get together and trade stories about.

"I think one memorable time was at a pizza place in Prague 8. I had what I guess was supposed to be marinated eggplant or something, but the thing was just swimming in oil. It was inedible. The eggplant was burnt black.

"I informed them as politely as I could that I really hadn't been able to eat it. And their response was: 'Well, you don't have to eat it, but you will pay...' Service has always been primo in this city..."

Some people would say the catering industry has come on in leaps and bounds since then...

"Yeah, it has come on in leaps and bounds by Prague standards. You still sometimes get the fish eye from the waiter, of course.

"There are also a few old habits that are still fairly pervasive, such as having your food grabbed from you when you are looking the other way and have still only half-finished. Fun stuff like that still happens. It's always an adventure"

You have written regularly for The Prague Post and you were even the newspaper's managing editor for a number of years. What was the strangest or most interesting story you covered in your time with the paper?

"I oversaw some coverage of some pretty wild stories. I think one of the most interesting of the last couple of years was the discovery of the bodies of German soldiers, which had been stored in some facility or other for god knows how long.

"The diplomatic flap about what was going to be done with them and who was going to do it was one of those 'only in Prague' or 'only in the Czech Republic' stories."

In the last 13 years you have had a close-up look at the free media establishing itself in this country. How would you rate the standard of Czech journalism now, 18 years after the fall of communism?

"There's some very good reporting going on, especially reporting on the political scene and the government.

"It's getting more thorough, more aggressive and more professional all the time. That's nice to see.

"What's still troubling though is the fact that the president - before appearing on national TV for an interview - is shown the questions that he's going to be asked. And he has approval over these questions.

"If he doesn't like a particular question, he just won't do the interview or that particular question will be dropped. This sort of stuff actually happens and I think Czech citizens deserve a lot better than that."

Besides your journalism work, is it true that you are now working on a documentary based on a story that appeared in The Prague Post?

"Yeah, I'm actually working now on a documentary about the 20,000 children who are being raised in state institutions in this country.

"This is a shocking number. If you take the UK, for instance, which has six times the population, there are only about 2,000 children in institutional care there.

"The whole system is kind of a holdover from the old regime. I think it's going to make a mind-blowing film.

"It's going to be called 'Warehouse' because that's basically what these kids have been put into. It's a great story, which originated from some reporting done for The Prague Post.

"But this is a chance to sort of capture some sights and sounds of the daily life of these kids and how they're faring under this system. It's also about how their dreams of getting out of it are being frustrated and what people are doing to change that."

You're not only making films now. You are also the Czech and Slovak correspondent for the film publication Variety Mmagazine. How do you think Czech filmmaking today compares with the golden era of the 1960s, when you had people like Milos Forman and Ivan Passer working here?

"Well that was a particular era. Hardship and danger really forge the best in any artist. It's like that line from The Third Man, when they refer to Italy under the Borgias producing all these greats.

"I think that era has passed and you are not going to see auteurs of that stature emerging from a democratic, free-market country very often.

"Having said that, there is a huge number of talented people that are doing really innovative films. You've got writer-directors, writer-director-producers who all seem to be able to put together enough funding to get their movies made.

"Czechs are very good at doing a lot with a little. Their output and range is phenomenal. It's really exciting to cover it as a journalist and it's really inspiring to meet these folks."

Mission Impossible
Some years ago, the Czech Republic was very popular as a destination for shooting films. Big Hollywood blockbusters such as Mission Impossible were shot here, for instance. Do you think this is a trend that has come and gone and that foreign studios are now looking for cheaper locations east of here?

"When it comes to big mega productions, they've usually already got their funds. They're not always trying to save every penny. The element to consider with a huge production that's shooting for six months is that there's a big morale factor.

"Actors and crews really enjoy being in Prague for six months. That sometimes has as much sway in the final decision to come here as anything else.

"They wouldn't enjoy being in Sofia or Bucharest or out somewhere in the hinterlands in the same way.

"So I don't think that Prague needs to compete dollar for dollar with all of the other locations further to the east. I don't think you're going to see the death of shooting in Prague anytime soon"

You've now been here for 13 years. There's been quite a lot said and written about the changes that have taken place here over the last decade or so. What do you think have been the most striking changes in that time?

"It's not like we're the Gold Coast of Spain or something, but you sometimes wish there was a little more restraint on developers.

People on Wenceslas Square in 1989
"When people were jangling their keys on Wenceslas Square in 1989, I don't think that any of them was envisioning the whole place bathed in the neon light of strip clubs and with packs of British stag parties wondering all around the town

"That's obviously disappointing but I don't know what can be done about it.

"Other big changes? Well, we're sitting in a wonderful Greek restaurant in my neighbourhood. Lifestyles have become pretty comfortable.

"Things aren't as affordable as they used to be, but you definitively have the sense that you are living in a real European capital and yet the place still has all it's character and charm.

"I think this is still one of the great cities of Europe and it's getting greater all the time."