Vaclav Havel dies at 75

One of the major figures of 20th century politics and culture, the internationally celebrated playwright, key leader of the anti-Soviet Czech-led Charter 77 movement and former president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel has just achieved another career highlight: He’s directed his first film.

Based upon his celebrated 2008 play, “Leaving,” the film is a seriocomic look at fictional Vilem Rieger, a major politician in exile, and stars a virtual who’s who of Czech thesps including Josef Abrham, Jiri Machacek, Pavel Landovsky, Marian Labuda and Havel’s wife, actress Dagmar Havlova.

The Bonton Films release opens this week in the Czech Republic, and president Havel spoke exclusively to Variety about the close-to-home subject matter of the project and his experience as a first-time filmmaker.

VARIETY: This story seems to reflect an experience we can imagine as similar to your own. How did your own experience in leaving political office affect the writing of the play and direction of the film?

HAVEL: It did. I started writing the play during the period of Communist Czechoslovakia; i.e., long before the historic revolutionary changes that lifted me into office as president of the republic. When I took up writing again after leaving politics, I read the text and used it as my inspiration to write what was essentially a new play. So I was able to enhance it with some new experiences, such as political rhetoric, (political) horse-trading, or the theme of separating property into private and government-issue, which I personally experienced when I left office.

VARIETY: You were a stagehand and a president. Which experience prepared you for the tasks of the film director?

HAVEL: I wasn’t just a stagehand and a president. I come from a family whose entire property was confiscated by the Communists, and neither I nor my brother were able to study. I was literary director and assistant director of a theater, playwright, persecuted writer and a political prisoner who was dogged for two decades by the secret police which, for 24 hours a day, monitored who I spoke to on the telephone, what I bought and where I went — that is when they allowed me to go anywhere. Those are all experiences that are reflected to various degrees in my writing. But I expect my film direction was most influenced by my experience as an assistant director in the theater and my practice of writing detailed direction notes for plays that were banned in Czechoslovakia. For 20 years, I had no contact at all with the theater, let alone any influence over what people did with my plays outside the country. So I used to write a very detailed analysis for each of the plays. Actors were fairly surprised by my thorough knowledge of the text and my precise notion of the outcome, or at least so they told me.

VARIETY: I can’t resist asking for Vaclav Havel’s most precious films and filmmakers. Any titles, actors, directors that mean a lot to you? And why?

HAVEL: There are lots, such as Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, Bertolucci, De Sica, Olmi, Forman, Nemec, Polanski, Holland, Wajda.

VARIETY: In “Leaving,” the view of the press is ambivalent, at best. What is the state of the free press today, in general, what is their role, their function. And is it what it should be?

HAVEL: The role of the media is the same today as it was at any time in the past, namely to provide serious attested information and write the truth. Whether they do so, I’m not so sure, because I tend to notice their superficiality and general dumbing down. I’ve been frequent witness to slapdash journalism. Moreover, because of the new technologies, we are overwhelmed with information in which it is often hard to distinguish between what is reliable or determine what importance we should attach to it.

VARIETY: What does Vaclav Havel have in his life that is essential, that Vilem is missing in his life?

HAVEL: What I regard as important is a firm moral grounding, a clear identity, integrity of civic attitudes and responsibility. In other words, exactly what Vilem Rieger is lacking.