“When I pick up an international phone call, my first question is ‘Are you an agent?’ ” Jan Sverak, the 31-year old Czech helmer of “Kolya” finds his career veering into the fast lane, following high-profile festival play, glowing reviews, a Miramax pickup, and now a Golden Globe nomination for his fourth feature. Nowadays, “Oscar” is the word most often heard when “Kolya” is mentioned.
Sverak’s been there before in 1992, with a best foreign-language film nomination for his first feature, “Elementary School.” “It was good that ‘Elementary School’ didn’t win. It would spoil me at age 25. No one would be able to work with me,” the young director says. Three films later, he faces the prospect of equilibrium.
Talk of an Oscar nomination already was buzzing through the crowd at the pic’s spring premiere in Prague. Like “Elementary School,” “Kolya” boasts another winning name. Both films were written by and star the director’s father, Zdenek Sverak screenwriter on yet another foreign-language nominee for Jiri Menzel’s “My Sweet Little Village.”
For the father and son team, collaboration evolved naturally, although Sverak says of his father, “I think he’s as surprised by it as I am. He was so popular when I was growing up.” As a youngster, he used to listen to his father, already a famous cabaret performer and writer, in the next room, “writing and laughing with his friends.” He gave his first stories to his father for comments and editing, pruning away each unimportant word. Sverak says he has transferred that type of tight editing process to his film work.
“When Jan was 12, I bought an 8 mm camera for the family,” Zdenek recalls. “Suddenly I saw it was his camera. He shot a silent movie about our family, full of black humor, but very merry. It was the moment I began to think about his future.”
Rejected from famed film school FAMU’s feature film department in Prague (training ground for Central Europeans from Milos Forman to Emir Kusturica), Sverak studied documentaries but managed to graduate without ever making a real documentary. Zdenek remembers, “The day I was sure Jan was a filmmaker was during the presentation of his school film ‘Space Odyssey 2,’ a parody of an American film where the end credits are longer than the film even the driver of the car was mentioned.”
When graduated, he had a packet of school prize money to spend on his first full-length film and needed a script. Dad had a script and had lost his director. It took a phone call from Barrandov Studio to bring the two together, but neither doubted the pairing would work. Sverak found himself filming his father’s childhood reminiscences.
“Because ‘Elementary School’ was so successful, producers were putting me into the box of films with children,” Sverak says. He turned to parody once more with the U.S. special-effects takeoff “Accumulator 1,” the costliest Czech film to date, and the top box office draw of 1994. “I tried to camouflage myself with ‘Accumulator 1,” he says. The same year, he made the low-budget ($30,000) Generation X road movie “The Ride,” which carried away the best film and Audience awards from the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
But neither earned the international recognition of “Elementary School.” Sverak compares that picture with his new film: ” ‘Kolya’ has the same mood, the same nostalgia. It has my father’s imprint.”
Zdenek says the film has the same quality that is typically Czech. “In Czech films, there is humor and sadness in the same moment,” he says. “You don’t know whether to smile or cry. Its a cocktail of emotion.”
Now Sverak junior is embarking on his first English-language film, to be produced by his “Kolya” partner, Eric Abrams of U.K.-based Portabello Pictures. Originally planning to use a British screenplay, Sverak eventually rejected the idea. Instead, he’ll be relying once more on the Sverak-and-father combination, and betting that the “Czech cocktail” can translate into an English-lingo pic.
Daily Variety caught up with the pair as they were concluding their first meeting on the new project. “Today we are beginning the English-language production,” Zdenek announced.
As he gears up for the new project, Jan Sverak already is projecting into the future and anticipating the vagaries of helming bigger-budgeted films.
“Of course it will be harder to make a film in English, but what I’m more worried about is being a hired hand for a studio. I want to have the final cut,” he says. To do that, he’s sticking with Abrams for the long haul. “Our collaboration is very friendly, so we have no contract. A human relationship is something else,” Sverak says.
Indeed, it is the base for Sverak’s films, beginning with the father-son creative give-and-take, through to the stories that end up onscreen. Sverak says of his father, “He knows how I work and puts all the details in he script.” Details that make for a rich film that ripens with repeat viewings. Sverak explains, “We are a small country only 10 million people so to make your money back, you have to make a film the audience will come to see two times.”
You just don’t know whether to smile or cry at that.