KARLOVY VARY 2021 Special Screenings
David Ondříček • Director of Zátopek
“I feel some similarities between the 1950s and today in the Czech political situation”
by Kaleem Aftab
- The Czech helmer talks about his new feature, raising big budgets for movies in the Czech Republic and making a period film resonate with today's audience
David Ondříček is a Czech film director, screenwriter and producer. His 2012 film In the Shadow [+see also:
film profile] won nine Czech Lions. His latest effort, Zátopek [+see also:
interview: David Ondříček
film profile], was the opening movie of this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Cineuropa: In 2016, you made a documentary about Emil Zátopek, so why did you feel the need to make this narrative feature as well?
David Ondříček: Actually, we always wanted to make a narrative feature film, but we postponed it because we couldn't find the money. The film's budget is very high from a Czech perspective, so I had to develop some inventive ways to raise it. As I studied Documentary Film at the Film Academy in Prague, I thought it would be perfect for my research to make a documentary, and it would give me something more than what I could obtain from just reading books. I had a great opportunity to meet all of Zátopek's friends and fellow athletes by making the documentary. It was truly amazing. A lot of them have passed away since. It was great material and provided a meaningful study on Zátopek. After that, I rewrote the fiction feature script, and then we found the money to make it.
What did you discover about Zátopek that you didn't find in books?
I heard some very sad things, like why they didn't have kids, and it was a big theme for the film. I didn't want to use that reason exactly, but I played with this fact in the dialogue. Secondly, I heard a lot of political things – why he did something wrong or something brave. It was challenging for Zátopek to manage the expectations put on him. When people spoke about him, sometimes they started to cry. When I met people in Helsinki who saw the last lap of the marathon, they said it was the biggest emotional moment of their life.
You put five different Olympic races in the film. How did you do this on the budget?
You know, in the Czech Republic, the biggest complication is finding the initial tranche of money, and I'm a well-known and experienced director in this country. It wasn't easy to find the first lot of money. We lost the Czech grant twice, and we only had one more opportunity to complete the financing with it. Finally, we managed it. It was something like 15 million crowns. If you have the first tranche of money, other investors start to believe that the film will really happen. The first instalment of money took about six or seven years to raise, and after that, it was easier. The budget is three times more than the Czech average. It was $5.5 million, which is high in the Czech Republic.
Watching the political battles that Zátopek faced as a well-known sportsman made me think of the recent case of Belarusian athlete Krystina Timanovskaya leaving the Tokyo Olympics. How is the political position of Zátopek remembered today in the Czech Republic?
I feel some similarities between the 1950s and today in the Czech political situation, and I don't mean that there is some kind of dictatorship; more that there are some similarities in terms of propaganda. You can feel some similar steps in the usage of it. If Zátopek has a speech about how nice it is to win something, and how it is even more important to lose something, it's a speech that’s believable in the 1950s, the 1960s and right now. I wanted to put something important in the film for the contemporary audience, so it's not only a historical picture, but it has some aspect that can teach us about today.
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