Jan Hřebejk: Improvising from the director’s chair
Written by: Monika Mudranincová
Photo: Pavel Veselý
The director of the film Pelíšky (Cozy Dens) doesn’t play at being an omniscient authority who everyone must obey. This winner of many film awards believes in the division of labor and individual responsibility.
The same actors often appear in your films. Do you intentionally select people who have already proven themselves?
Yes. I like to work with a team whose members I’ve known for a long time. Mainly because the team is made up of fine professionals. It isn’t easy to find an actor with charisma who isn’t spoiled by having already played an important role in a series. There aren’t too many good film actors in this country, but this is a general phenomenon. As for Bolek Polívka, who was outstanding in the film Musíme si pomáhat (We must help each other) and will appear again in Pupendo (ed. note: his next film), there is no doubt that he’s an extraordinary actor of international quality, of whom there are but a few. So when I find such actors, I try to keep them.
What criteria must one meet if he wants to work with you?
When I started directing I had to meet certain criteria for people to even work with me. Film requires teamwork, and I’m the sort of director who delegates responsibility and leaves lots of room for individual creative professions to display their skills. Cameramen, costume designers, and architects are all competent to choose the people they work with, and they are responsible for them. I can’t pretend I can handle everything myself. Trust that goes both ways is very important. You have to build trust among your subordinates step by step, because no one knows you at the start, and you have to be able to catch people’s interest. It’s very important for a director to have a good reputation, to have something to offer. For example, Miloš Forman has these prerequisites, and I admire him as a director.
Is there anyone you would never invite to join your team?
I don’t like people who can’t experience joy. I couldn’t tolerate someone who would say I was “filming something pretty stupid.” I don’t like aloofness due to individual professions working at odds with each other. A cameraman needs to take time to set up the lighting, and an actor doesn’t like to wait around, and so on. Reasonable people understand this, and anyone who won’t accept it will have to leave. Such a person can wreck an entire film; it’s is the “one bad apple” principle.
So how do you resolve situations that endanger team unity?
I have to nip it in the bud. I ask the person right out if he has any doubts. And I call on the others to speak openly and not whisper behind people’s backs that we shot a stupid scene. I feel a great responsibility for the amount of time and money it will take to shoot the film, and for its being around forever. So I remind people that others will ask why something wasn’t done well. So when worse comes to worst and a professional error can’t be resolved, I turn to my producer, who will arrange for the person in question to leave. Fortunately, this happened only once to me, when I was just starting out.
What kind of a boss are you? Do you occasionally scream on the set?
No director screams on the set, no one would pay any attention anyway. You have an assistant for that. I can’t evaluate myself. It’s as if I asked you what kind of wife you are. Only your husband knows. Nonetheless, I try to be kind and demanding. But if you’re only well behaved and people feel awkward about the result, that’s no good. I try not to make waves unnecessarily, but I want everyone to go all out.
Do actors like Bolek Polívka, Jaroslav Dušek, or Eva Holubová demand special star treatment?
Absolutely not. I’ve known them for many years, and this is my third film with Bolek. On the contrary, sometimes I’m a bit gruff with them, but they accept it because they’ know me. It’s different with people I’m working with for the first time, and I don’t know exactly what I can let myself say. My cameraman sometimes reproaches me for using bad words. But if I tell Bolek he did something badly I won’t destroy his confidence. On the other hand, if it’s a fifteen year old boy I’m working with for the first time, I could upset him. Leadership requires an individual approach.
Where do you see room for you to improve as a director?
I have no problems with communication, but I’m too impatient. I’m not the perfectionist that (Czech director) Honza Svěrák is. As in every human activity, directing and acting represent the art of what is possible. I can’t give someone a hard time forever and believe that I can pump him up to give a better performance than he can deliver.
Are you referring to the deaf boy who acts in your latest film Pupendo? How was it to be his director?
Simply great. He had his interpreter, and he reacted beautifully, even though at first I was afraid that he wouldn’t feel at ease among us. The shooting was demanding, both physically and psychologically, but there was a certain family atmosphere, and that probably helped.
How many people did you coordinate while shooting Pupendo?
The film crew comprised 30 to 50 people at different stages.
How often do you have to improvise when filming a movie?
All the time. First you plan everything perfectly, but then you have to improvise anyway. You can improvise if you know what you’re doing. In my experience, sudden changes sometimes benefit the whole. For example, this summer we couldn’t film on Libeň island, as originally planned, as it was under water. We had to find another location, and this we did. Or sometimes the screen play calls for the sun, but it doesn’t want to shine through. Or sometimes an actor says he can’t perform. We resolve countless such situations, and I’ve learned how to live with them.
Filming is very intense, tiring work. How do you overcome exhaustion and personal crises?
By sleeping. It’s best for me to spend two days in bed, and then I feel like a new man.
What do you do about declining morale on the team?
Fortunately, I have a team where that rarely happens. But sometimes, when we’ve been working for thirteen hours, people get tired, and we try to encourage each other and somehow stick with it. It’s like in sports. But sometimes you can’t force the issue, so we decide to shoot a certain scene another time. But during this year’s floods I was very pleasantly surprised by my crew’s reactions. In that situation, when people affected by the floods were spelling each other, we were still able to keep up our work tempo and a positive attitude, which was far from easy. Try filming a comedy when you’re beset by such a disaster! But the team managed beautifully.