Karlovy Vary Festival: Czech List of Eye-Opening Moments

As I reflected upon the importance of the Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival on the occasion of its 50th edition, which opens with Oren Moverman’s “Time Out of Mind,” starring Richard Gere, I toyed with the idea of detailing what I’ve learned about film festivals, their audiences, filmmakers, the international film business and more in my years attending the festival. Since that would fill a book, I’ve carved that down to five eye-opening moments.

I first attended Karlovy Vary in 1994, shortly after it became a private business enterprise led by the great Czech actor Jiri Bartoska; the current fest team, including artistic consultant Eva Zaoralova, artistic director Karel Och and executive director Krystof Mucha, has consistently been aces at programming and organization.

I’ve had the pleasure of attending what one travel book deemed “the party of the year in the Czech Republic” a dozen times since 1994. Here are five key takeaway lessons from the past two decades in Karlovy Vary:

Subsidized arts aren’t without their drawbacks. During a memorable dinner with Roman Polanski and John Cleese, Polanski regaled us with tales of his days as an actor in Warsaw. Remembering how poor villagers were bused into the big city for shopping trips, but were required to attend state-funded theater, he picked up a napkin from the table, wrapped it around his head to create the scarf of an elderly babushka and began to play the character, rocking in his chair, muttering, “I want to go home.”

A man’s got to know his limitations. And his bank balance. During another dinner with director Gus Van Sant and Morgan Freeman, Van Sant explained that his ability to switch effortlessly between edgy indie pics like the Cannes Palme D’Or winner “Elephant” and Hollywood hits like “Good Will Hunting” was derived from the fact that “I never bought the farm. I still live in Portland and live close to the ground, so I don’t ever have to do a movie ‘for the money.’”

Scratch an actor, find a musician. During that same dinner, I discovered that Freeman served in the Air Force roughly the same year as my older brother, whose record collection of Elvis, the Everly Bros., the Coasters, Fats Domino, et al, I inherited way back when. This led to Freeman and me singing Coasters hits together at the table, which elicited a morning-after comment from Van Sant: “You really got Morgan going last night.”

Agents are constantly scouring the entire planet for talent and today’s obscure Norwegian could be tomorrow’s key creative to watch. When Norwegian helmer Joachim Trier was in the fest’s competition with his first film, “Reprise,” which garnered a director award, I was dazzled by his deft screenplay and direction, stunned to find a young European filmmaker with a fresh take on the travails of sophisticated, complex 21st century professionals. When I started getting calls from Hollywood talent agency UTA about how to help connect them urgently with Trier, my pleasure turned to giddy shock. Before long Scott Rudin was loudly in Trier’s corner, promoting this discovery who hailed from Northern Europe and was breaking out in the East, both of which were thousands of miles from any of the showbiz epicenters.

When you have a chance to interview a movie star, interview the movie star! When I got the call to go do an interview with KV honoree Michael Douglas I was less than excited. I was a big fan of Douglas, but not a fan of interviewing actors at festivals as they usually seem busy, overprotected, lacking any news to report or new insights, usually distracted and craving some respite from the press. After a few minutes of pleasantries, I just tossed out a reference to Douglas’s upcoming project at the time, the submarine thriller “U-571” and Douglas took a deep breath. “I’m sure my people will kill me, but I’m going to give you a scoop. I’m not doing the picture.” Cut to my page one byline!

The Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival runs July 3-11 in the Czech Republic resort town.

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