There is a challenge waiting around every corner, says Václav Marhoul, director of The Painted Bird

There is a challenge waiting around every corner, says Václav Marhoul, director of The Painted Bird

The Oscars 2021 are approaching and we want to present you interesting Czech film projects and great movie directors.

HomeThere is a challenge waiting around every corner, says Václav Marhoul, director of The Painted Bird
Václav Marhoul will come first. He has directed The Painted Bird in 2019, a film based on Jerzy Kosiński’s book. Although it is “only” his third film, it cost over 170 million Czech crowns and took about eleven years of his life to make it.
Over a hundred thousand people have seen the film in the country, and it is the first Czech film accepted in the main competition of the prestigious international festival in Venice after many years. It was also short-listed for an Oscar nomination. And now, Marhoul might make a super-film about the American senator and anti-communist McCarthy.

Mr Marhoul, The Painted Bird has been a great success, hasn’t it? Did you expect that, is it a satisfaction?
I would not call it that satisfying. It is amazing, but I don’t make films to get to the Venice Film Festival or go after an Oscar. I don’t even think it should be like that. I didn’t make the film with that ambition, I just wanted to render the story well. I felt the need to make it, to tell this timeless story of a small hero. So, I am incredibly pleased with the awards, but to be honest it is somewhat a standard added value to my work.

However, appetite comes with eating, so suddenly it looks like the film could receive some really big awards, but I don’t think that you regret that...
No, I don't, really. That’s not why art is made.

Do you remember the first moment when you thought: I will shoot The Painted Bird, the great book by Jerzy Kosiński? I know it started some time in 2007, but when did you get the inspiration?
While reading the book. I admit I realised that I had to make the film after I had read the first few pages. I hadn’t even finished the book, I didn't know exactly what it was about, but I found every sentence inspiring, emotional, almost every paragraph was extremely imaginative.

 Why did you decide to read the book?
It was recommended to me by my friend, the artist Jiří David. Unfortunately, one doesn’t have much time to find out what’s new on the book market, what is really worth reading. If life were generally longer, I would read more books, such books that I should really read. However, I bought The Painted Bird and that’s how it all started. It is an incredibly heavy story, heart-rending, and I can imagine that many people might easily spend more than six months getting through the book.

But that was not your story, I assume?
I finished it in five hours.

Where was that, I think it’s important to mention it?
I read it in a beautiful South-Bohemian town – Český Krumlov.

What happened next?
Even though I knew that I would love to make the film, I was also aware of the fact that I would probably have a hard time securing the copyright. And as I didn’t believe it, I kept pushing that intention away, I kept postponing it. Finally, I understood that there was no way out, that I simply had to give it a try.

But didn’t you say that it was impossible to make the film in the Czech Republic?
I wasn’t worried about the film being more than I could chew. No, that wasn’t the problem. Simply said, The Painted Bird is a global best-seller. That was the obstacle. I was worried that I would never be able to get the rights as an unknown director and producer. I knew that many other people had tried and failed.

So, how did you secure the rights?
Just finding out who owns the rights was not easy. Kosiński committed suicide in New York in 1991, and he died childless in spite of being married twice. So, in that situation my lawyer, Petr Ostrouchov, and I managed to discover that there were two institutions that assumed those rights – the large Jewish publishing house Spertus in Chicago and the foundation of Kosiński’s second wife. There was even an imminent lawsuit, but in the end they settled and the copyright was granted to Spertus. I addressed them and started negotiating with them. It took a total of twenty-two months from the first initiative to the moment when I was holding a signed contract in my hands.

The book is exceptional, but it is also hard. Was it difficult to film?
Filming is about two things. The first one is what you are experiencing as a director, what emotions you have. The second one is the complexity of providing all the technical and logistic matters. This film was difficult in all aspects.

Scriptwriting consists in finding an answer to why. Directing the film tries to find an answer to how. But if you feel how you want the story to be told, the images and shots logically start to appear automatically. The cameraman Vladimír Smutný and I became one body, one soul while shooting. Because he also felt it a lot. That’s why we didn’t even have a technical script, unlike our previous films. We knew what we wanted to shoot every day, but we came up with all the shots on site. We allowed each scene to drag us in emotionally. It was incredible.

Did you simply work chronologically?
Yes, as well. It was an incredible challenge because the story kept refining, changing, including the main child actor. Beautiful work. I looked forward to each day of shooting. But it was hard, that’s true.

You read the book in Český Krumlov and you also wrote the script there. Is it an important place to you?
It is my place of sorts. It might sound a bit mysterious, but sometime in 2002 I was at military training in Boletice, which is a large military area nearby. When it ended, I told myself that I hadn’t been to Český Krumlov for a long time and decided to go there. So, I was walking through the old town, along Radniční Street from the Old Bridge up towards the square, and I passed a beautiful medieval house on the right, the Hotel U malého Vítka. Something suddenly caused me to stop, I turned around and felt the energy of that place. I understood that it was my place. And so I wrote all my films there – Smart Philip, Tobruk and The Painted Bird. In the course of time, I have become the immigrant from Prague, I know so many people there, I have been to every corner. But above all, it is a place where I can work incredibly well.

Those are the things between heaven and earth that one sometimes has to listen to, right?
I listen to them a lot. To me, intuition is something of a lighthouse in a pitch-black night and a violent storm. Writing is creation, not work.  Work, that’s a lot of various pragmatic actions that are not very uplifting. But creation, that’s a completely different category. You have to concentrate in a different way, completely cut off from the rest of the world, at least in my case. You have to activate the female part of the brain, in the best sense of the word. The only way to create is to vent emotions, not to follow any templates, instructions, rulers and calculators. In my opinion, there isn’t any other way. But that’s just my own opinion.

How did you put together the cast for The Painted Bird? When did you think about involving international stars – Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Julian Sands, Barry Pepper?
I could talk about that for hours because it was not easy at all. As a director, I did not cast them in the roles because they are global film stars. It was simply for the reason that I believed and felt that they would do an excellent job, that they are a great match for the roles, that they are simply the best. I remember the moment, quite clearly, when I suddenly realised that I could actually ask anyone thanks to the fact that The Painted Bird is a best-seller. I was suddenly like a little child in a confectionery shop, if you know what I mean. Coincidentally, it happened in Český Krumlov, once again.

And who was first?
It was Stellan Skarsgaard. But that would be a long story to tell, because I happened to get to know him at the beginning of the 1990s. As far as the other ones are concerned, I faced the problem that they had never heard of me. Who is Marhoul? What films has he made? What is he about? They didn’t know that, but fortunately, they all knew the novel. They were curious how I managed to write a script based on the book. That was one thing that primarily saved me, helped me. And then the script itself. The last one was Barry Pepper, who a lot of people remember from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, where he played a sniper. It was much easier to work with his agent because the first thing that agents usually ask is who else is in the film? So, at the moment when we were trying to cast Barry, I already had Harvey Keitel and Udo Kier, in addition to Stellan, agreed for the film. So Barry’s agent took my offer seriously right away.

So, I gradually got everyone on board, except for John Malkovich, whose role was recast by the great Julian Sands. We met with John twice, he liked the script but he was offered a bigger role and a better offer than I could give, and he was shooting in New Orleans, if I remember it right, on the same dates. However, Julian’s engagement proved to be rewarding. Due to his different physiognomy and style, I had to partially rewrite the entire Priest and Garbos chapter, find other solutions, other psychological motifs. All of which was only for the best in the end. 

The cast of The Painted Bird is truly international. There are actors from the Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Germany, the Czech Republic, and also from Russia, namely Aleksei Kravchenko. I wanted him to be in the film so much. When he was thirteen, he played the main character in Come and See, Elem Klimov’s film from 1985, which I consider to be one of the best films in the world. And his child acting was phenomenal. It could be partially compared to my boy in the main role, Petr Kotlár from Český Krumlov. See, we are now back in that important town.

How was it working with famous actors?
The cooperation was amazing. Also thanks to the fact that I had a great crew. They immediately felt that they were in a place – and I don’t just mean the beautiful locations where we were shooting – where positive professionalism rules. They perceived how the crew worked, how they communicated, how they treated one another, what the atmosphere was like... I think that they felt good, that they were at incredible ease. In my case, our relationships were largely influenced by analysing their roles together with them, we talked about it an advance, we strived to get to the bottom of it. But I didn’t only work like that with them, I worked like that with every actor, no exceptions.

Did you get close to them?
We write to one another and we are still in touch. For example, today (13/05), I wished Harvey a happy birthday.

The story of the main hero, Petr Kotlár from Český Krumlov, is interesting. Wasn't his brother Michal supposed to act in the film?
We could philosophically ponder whether it was fate, or coincidence. I was never good at standard physics, but I love exploring the mysteries of quantum physics. It could be verbally defined by one beautiful sentence that I love: Fate, that is a mad coachman who is whipping a rabid nag called Coincidence. So, take your pick.
I saw Michal for the first time in the Cikánská jizba restaurant in Český Krumlov, which is near my hotel. I went there for some wine after work every evening. One time there was a gypsy orchestra performing there, I knew the people, but suddenly this boy appeared, playing the violin like crazy. He was a grandson of the manager, Milan, and he looked great, like a Roma Franz Kafka. I tried to screen test him, but it slowly turned out that Michal was an introvert and it was obvious that it would not work. It is not possible to film with children who are shy and keep things to themselves.

And then, after three years had passed, I was in Český Krumlov again, where I moderated an American football match at a local athletic stadium as part of the Military Days to mark the anniversary of the liberation. And suddenly, this small boy was yelling at me: “Hey, uncle, it’s me!” It’s me! Škubánek!” I had no idea who he was, but then I started to remember and I told him: “Wait... You are Petr, Michal’s brother. Right?” He was like an epiphany, I completely forgot that Michal had a sibling, because when I wanted to work with him, Petr was so small that he completely went off my radar.

But he remembered you and announced himself...
That's right. Petr... Fate or coincidence... In any case, the complete opposite of Michal. An extrovert, ants in his pants, he wouldn’t stand still, sit still, he was always interested in everything, curious...

I heard that it was not always easy, that he sometimes did not enjoy the filming. You also had to be careful that the harshness of the film did not affect his mental psyche. What did you do to ensure that?
He went through a test interview with the clinical psychologist Václav Mertin before filming. And he came out with flying colours. He is simply a happy guy. He is almost always in a good mood. And even though he is incredibly sensitive, it’s a paradox that some things don’t get to him because he has so much stuff in his head, so many other things, that he is only able to hold on to his perceptions for a short time. So, when we were shooting a very difficult scene, believe it or not, if you asked him five minutes later what he had just shot, he would have a hard time remembering it.

I also used film craft so he would not be present during some particularly strong scenes, even though it looks like he was there thanks to the editing. As an example, there is one of the most brutal scenes when the village women are killing Ludmila, portrayed by the Czech actress Jitka Čvančarová, on a meadow and Petr watches the whole insane act. In reality, the aspect of that scene was from two angles, Petr on the left, Ludmila on the right. I first shot all the scenes with Petr in the morning and then sent him away.  In the afternoon, we turned the camera in the other direction and shot the rest of the scene without him. Editing is a great wizard. Thanks to editing, Petr’s presence looks absolutely plausible.

Petr had to live with the crew most of the time?
Yes and I think that was one of the hardest things for him. That he didn’t have any peers around during the filming, that he spent the whole time, with some exceptions, among adults. However, his grandmother accompanied him, and there were also two coaches available, they took turns. So, they played with him or did homework with him, or they were just silly between shots. There wasn’t a minute when Petr was alone. 

Did Petr’s family trust you?
We have known one another for so long... Yes, the trust was deep.

Before The Painted Bird you made Tobruk, a war film about Czech soldiers on the African frontier during WWII. The Painted Bird is also set during war. Is it a coincidence or do war stories attract you somehow?
Tobruk is truly a classic war drama, based on the fates of individuals who got caught up in the turning wheels of war... However, I consider The Painted Bird a different genre. To me, it is a timeless universal story that could happen anywhere. The fact that it is set during the period of WWII is determined by the novel. However, the particular time is not important. In some aspects, it is the war that is important. A war brings out the worst, it evokes and supports the worst human traits. So, I think that The Painted Bird is a psychological film, not a war film.

You are a director, producer and scriptwriter, but you are also a soldier. I’ve heard that you are going to serve for six months. Why? Why did you choose to do this?
I was supposed to go on a mission in Afghanistan, but that’s been cancelled because there was a reduction in numbers and some time limitations on my part because of my work obligations. But since we are talking about the army... A lot of people think that I volunteer because I like guns or uniforms. I don’t blame them, they don’t know anything about it, but to me that’s the silliest and most simplistic explanation. I am a person who was brought up to respect soldiers and all people who have ever fought for our freedom. So, am I an idealist? Yes. Precisely. I believe that evil has to be fought. Unfortunately, there are situations in life when you have to hold a gun to do that, because there are no other rules. However, it is important to be aware of the fact that we live in a democracy, that we can use a weapon only on the basis of a political decision, it is important to understand that the use of force is institutionalised. Unfortunately, the opposite applies to countries where the system has collapsed, where nothing works, often including local laws and rules, and where people suffer due to terrorism or organised crime.

I’ve just thought of the Srebrenica massacre, during the war in the former Yugoslavia, when the Dutch contingent retreated and allowed the Serbian troops to kill civilians...
They did not retreat, they became direct and passive witnesses to the killing of more than eight thousand people. The Dutch general in command followed orders. And his mandate above all. That is, not to intervene. And that’s what he did. If he acted otherwise, he would have to face the military court. That must have been a horrible dilemma. I have thought about it a lot... If that happened to me, I think I would have rather faced the charges than to live with my remorse and nightmares with the images of all those horrible things for the rest of my days. To live with incessant heart-searching, incessant apologies... That’s hell on earth. Who cares about some military orders in situations like that. In short, it is not possible to passively watch murder and torture without the option to intervene. Another variable in that equation was that if they had intervened, they would have probably lost their lives. Things can be really hard, so terribly hard...

I assume that you are still fulfilling your obligations related to the successful film? What does it all entail, and when will the moment come for you to say enough?
I can’t say enough, because the lifespan of a film, or the need to continue working with it, is determined by the interest of film festivals, distributors, journalists... But generally, it takes about a year and a half after the première of the film. But now, there is coronavirus and everything has been postponed. I was supposed to fly out for film premières in Soul, New York, Amsterdam, Athens... But that may possibly all still come. I will continue giving most of my energy and time to The Painted Bird as long as it lasts.

Have you thought about what to do next, what film to make?
I have received and accepted an offer from America.

What is it?
Normally, I would have never admitted anything like that publicly, but since it has already been officially published on the American Deadline server, I can say I received an offer from the prestigious CAA agency in Los Angeles that represents directors and actors, thanks to the success of The Painted Bird. They offered me three scripts right away. The first one was a western film, which looked great because it has been my dream to make such a film. But I didn’t like the script. I didn’t even read the third script because I found the second one very interesting. It is a good, consistent, great story, there is a lot to tell and once again, it is about principles. It is called McCarthy and, as you have probably guessed, it is about Joe McCarthy, a senator from the 1950s who became the symbol of the frustration and destruction of thousands of lives in the USA during the hysterical pursuit of the so-called communists. So, a political drama.

However, I have not signed the contract at the time of this interview, so it’s not yet one hundred percent. But it looks promising and, honestly, it would be a great challenge for me. I would work in a completely different environment, I would have to face so many things that I have no idea about at this moment. Which is great, because I am a one of those people who is not worried about not knowing what’s around the corner. On the contrary, I’m curious about what could be there. Whatever it is. Every corner is a challenge. 

I heard that you carefully selected beautiful places to film The Painted Bird. Actually, it all started in Český Krumlov, the historic Czech pearl where you, for example, wrote the screenplay. But how did you find the other places, of which there were quite a few...
I started filming The Painted Bird in Ukraine, where we spent five weeks in western Volhynia, 15 km from the Belarus border. Rivers, swamps, deep woods, only a few people... And that fundamentally determined where to go next, what locations to look for, even in the Czech Republic, how to connect them with the initial atmosphere. And for that, the Šumava Mountains in the south-west of the country proved to be fantastic. I could never fully understood the Šumava patriotism, but by spending so much time there i had the opportunity to learn how wild the mountains are, and often so beautifully uncivilised in many places, that I began to understand. For example, there are such incredibly beautiful places between Český Krumlov and Sušice, Kašperské hory and Horská Kvilda, where you won’t see a single house or overhead wires. There are kilometres and kilometres of wild, unspoiled nature. I drove through there with my cameraman Vladimír Smutný, and he constantly stopped to take photos, each turn was amazing and opened a view over another fantastic scenery.

That’s the job of a location manager in many films today, isn’t it?
Yes, and then they show it to a director sitting somewhere in civilisation over Skype. But I have to drive there, I’m old school, I have to see it with my own eyes. Because one can only see the place at 360 degrees in person, as well as feel how the place speaks to them. Its language, spirit, history, charm... No, nothing can replace that.

You must know many such places in the Czech Republic, especially in South Bohemia?
Definitely dozens. In addition, our family partly comes from South Bohemia, and I often go there with a theatre company, where we sail with boats along the local rivers. For example, along the Otava River that passes by the impressive Rabí Castle, beautiful hills, forests, meadows, streams. Or the Rožmberk Lake on the Lužnice River, which is unique in that it is the largest pond in Europe. Or the absolutely captivating Czech Canada with Landštejn Castle. I wish the visitors to our country could see that sometime.

Who is Václav Marhoul
Václav Marhoul (born 30 January 1960 in Prague) is a Czech screenwriter, director, actor (a member of the Sklep Theatre Company and the Pražská pětka group), producer, businessman, cultural organiser and manager. After the Velvet Revolution, he was the General Manager of Barrandov Film Studios, but he also prepared the celebrations commemorating the end of WWII in Prague and Plzeň, and the cultural programme within the Prague NATO Summit. He made the films Smart Philip, Tobruk, and the most successful film thus far, The Painted Bird, which premièred in September 2019. Its production cost 174 million Czech crowns and most likely opened the door to shooting other great international projects.