Poised to reap the rewards of a Golden Globe for best foreign language film and a nomination for the Oscar of the same name, the charming Czech New Wave-meets-Damon Runyon fable “Kolya,” has done more than put its young Czech director, Jan Sverak, its U.K.-based producer, Eric Abraham and its star and screenwriter (and the director’s father), Zdenek Sverak all firmly on the international cinema map. Don’t look for it at this year’s AFM; producer Abraham reports that “every overseas territory has been sold.”
It’s every foreign language film producer’s dream; you make a movie outside the Hollywood system (not in English!) and the whole world beats a path to your door to buy the picture and make deals for the future. Even industry insiders like Lauren Shuler-Donner and Steven Spielberg have made their inquiries about Jan Sverak’s availability to do a U.S. feature. And perhaps most impressively, “Kolya” is also being credited with almost single-handedly proving that the charms of modestly budgeted, brilliantly executed humanistic parables can overcome the wall of American indifference that greets foreign language filmmaking today.
How high is the cultural wall against subtitles? From the halcyon days of the ’60s when the moviegoing menu regularly included foreign language fare and nearly 7% of the tickets were sold to non-English speaking pictures, the market today has hit an all-time low of close to .07%.
In Hollywood for the Golden Globes ceremony, both Sveraks and Abraham were in an upbeat mood, given the fact that after the Globes win, “Kolya” was being touted as the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar. Make that upbeat, but not unrealistic. Though the elder Sverak is a veteran of the Czech New Wave of the ’60s and has several decades of film business, not to mention communist business, under his belt, both Jan Sverak and Eric Abraham are already seasoned players and well aware of the obstacles facing $1.3 million Czech language films with no car crashes, Tinseltown starlets disrobing or Hollywood movie stars firing large weapons.
“America knew that the Berlin Wall came down because it was the same year that Ivana Trump left Donald,” laughs Jan Sverak , as he drolly laments the current state of stateside cultural literacy. He also became acutely aware that America’s limited interest in geo-politics and foreign stories was also the norm all over the planet.
“Pandora (one of the film’s coproducing partners) did a reader’s report on the film,” recounts Sverak. Their evaluation on it was that everything about it was excellent, except the boxoffice prospects.” Obviously, Pandora ignored the reader’s wisdom. However, their participation was, if not “risk-free,” as one participant in the deal described, less risky based on coproduction funds from Czech TV, Abraham’s Portobello Pictures, subsidy funding from Eurimage and the Czech Culture Ministry and a video advance from the Czech vid firm Lucerna.
Having turned their back on several Hollywood offers that would limit Jan Sverak’s creative control, the trio have embarked on a new project, one that “‘Kolya’ has made easier to finance,” says Abraham, “provided we keep the budget low enough.” Meanwhile, their determination to keep the right to a final cut has led to new offers in Hollywood with this proviso attached, “up to a certain budget” says Abraham, so they have essentially leveled the international art film playing field, and with a movie deemed “excellent, but no boxoffice potential.”
While Abraham has been working internationally for several years — he produced the 1994 film “Private Chonkin,” directed by Czech New Wave master helmer Jiri Menzel from a screenplay by Zdenek Sverak — and Jan has worked almost his entire professional career in the post-Communist era, Zdenek Sverak is really the wide-eyed innocent of the trio.. Since he’s been a movie star and celebrity film artist in his homeland for decades, while virtually a complete unknown outside the Czech Republic or former Czechoslovakia, he must see the whole whirlwind of success and acclaim they’re all experiencing in an especially surrealistic light. From winning first-place at the Tokyo International Film Festival to hobnobbing with the glitterati of Hollywood at the Globes, it’s a hell of a third act for the soft-spoken, completely unpretentious “Czech Sean Connery” as more than one observer has tagged him.
“It was a great feeling to watch the film with an audience in Japan and see them reacting the same way as an audience in Canada,” says Zdenek, who says he’s been pleasantly surprised since he says “we wrote this mostly for the Czech audience.
“Thanks to Eric (Abraham) we made some adjustments to the script. He would point out when a joke was just a good joke for the Czechs, but not for foreign audiences.” Far from the success going to his head, Sverak is already concentrating on the challenge — and dangers — of the next project. The trio are planning an English-language film and Sverak admits to being afraid “we’ll lose the natural character of the script. I hesitate and choose each word carefully. I was watching to make sure how each word would be simplified in subtitles. Now I have a different concern.”
If that sounds like he’s less interested than becoming an international sex symbol than a master multi-lingual wordsmith, you’re on his wavelength.
“You don’t know him,” laughs his son. Through all of his success in our country, he’s most happy staying in his cottage in the country chopping wood. The only reason he likes traveling abroad is because he can be anonymous. In the Czech Republic he can’t spit on the sidewalk of say rude words.”
If the Oscar pundits are correct, the only words Zdenek may be saying on awards night are “Thank you very much.” If not, he’ll be happy chopping wood and carving out sentences in a strange language, blessed by the good fortune of having a son who can delicately bring his words and ideas to the screen and a producer who’s not afraid to buck the odds and make and market an “excellent” film, damn the reader’s reports.