Václav Marhoul • Director of The Painted Bird
“During these 11 years, I’ve had the best producer in the world: Václav Marhoul”
by Jan Lumholdt
- VENICE 2019: We chatted to Czech director Václav Marhoul about his gutsy and divisive competition entry, The Painted Bird
Václav Marhoul is the director who boldly went where only Buñuel and Fellini were granted entry – into Jerzy Kosiński’s war novel The Painted Bird [+see also:
interview: Václav Marhoul
film profile], screening in competition at the Venice Film Festival for those who can take it.
Cineuropa: When Lars von Trier made Europa, a film with a style and feel not dissimilar to The Painted Bird, he said he “consciously made it look like a masterpiece”. Do you share this sentiment?
Václav Marhoul: Ha! Absolutely not.
The question still feels valid, given that it looks like a classic, in the vein of Ivan’s Childhood or Come and See…
…Don’t forget Andrei Rublev! You know why? Because I really like these movies. I like classic cinema, not television.
Of course, the images originally come from the novel by Jerzy Kosiński. How was the process of translating it to the screen?
The first half of the book is better than the second, which is somewhat repetitive. When I was preparing the adaptation, I was initially a little bothered by this, but then I remembered what the great screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière said: “If you want to adapt a novel, read it, and then open the window and throw it out. Then only use what still sticks in your mind.” He was right. I read the book, not once but 30 times, then I picked up the scenes that really stayed with me.
It reportedly took 11 years for you to make this film. Why so long?
It took two years to get the rights. While Kosiński was alive, he is said to have allowed two directors “entry” to the book: Fellini and Buñuel. And now Kosiński is dead. It took me eight months to find the rights at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. To my surprise, they met with me. Three men in handmade silk ties that must have cost as much as a small car interrogated this Czech guy in jeans and a T-shirt for one hour and ten minutes. To my shock, I got the rights. It then took 14 months to close the deal. Then it took three years and 17 different versions to write the script. Then four years to finance the movie. Not easy. You go to the Cannes or Berlin markets and tell them you want to do a three-hour war film in black and white, with no English dialogue. Not easy. Then two years of shooting – chronologically, so that the boy would age naturally. And then ten months of post-production. But during these 11 years, I have had the best producer in the world: Václav Marhoul. Not once did he say, “Forget it!” to me.
How did you approach the period and the setting of World War II and Eastern Europe?
I told myself that I was doing a timeless, universal story and not a war story or a Holocaust story, even though there are scenes indicating it. This could be science fiction. It’s a sad story, about us. Kosiński’s best present to me was that he never moralises in the book, so neither do I.
There were audience members at Venice who had to leave the cinema, and in order to get to the end of the story, you are confronted with the darkest sides of human nature. Are you prepared for some divided reactions?
No; I’m just open. I wasn’t prepared for the fact that the film would go to Venice. People ask me if I’m nervous or even why I’m not nervous, but I’m not. I have done this by instinct and with plenty of heart.
The horrors on the screen are the results of acting and visual effects, thankfully. One thing that looks unusually realistic is the animal cruelties. How did you go about this?
With the help of some very good handlers who sometimes worked for months on end. Plus a few digital effects.
How did you manage to get probably the most evil performance ever out of Udo Kier?
Ha! Udo especially loved two scenes. Number one is the one with the spoon. The second one is from a sentence in the book I had missed: “The miller sat in front of his house, staring at a dried-up fly stuck to the wall.” Udo came to me and complained: “I can’t find the fly in the script. You need to put it in – it’s important for my character!” I told my prop people to find a fly and put it on the wall. Udo did his thing – all thanks to a dead fly.
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