Ben Sachs: You often develop your characters through their sexual relationships. They speak openly about their sex lives, and when you show them having sex, there isn't a sense of voyeurism or condemnation. It's just sex as part of everyday life.
Jan Hrebejk: Usually I try to link sex to the humor in my movies, because humor is kind of contradictory to sex. It's problematic, though. When you think about it, sex scenes have got to be the most frequently produced, given the amount of porn being made all over the world. . . When I was in film school, a professor told me that the most difficult thing about shooting a "love" scene is being able to show love while also showing sex. Love is subjective, but humor is objective. When you look at sex from the outside [to see the humor], it's easier for you to also see the love.
You have to talk to the actors a lot to know what they're keen to do. I've never encountered a male actor who's had a problem with a sex scene. Actresses tend to raise objections, but it's rarely about getting naked in front of the crew and simulating sex with a costar. The issue is how it's going to look onscreen. They'll ask me to cut a few seconds here or there. . . You have to specify from the beginning what you want for the situation to look. Is it embarrassing? Is it exciting? You have to define it dramatically.
As for sex being part of everyday life. . . [chuckles] sure. The way the characters talk about sex has more to do with the screenwriters than the actors, because we rarely improvise those scenes. When Michal Viewegh [a popular novelist who wrote Shameless and 4Some] talks and writes about sex, it's always with a slight humor and a sense of romance. Mr. [Petr] Jarchovsky [who's written or cowritten most of Hrebejk's other films] doesn't like bon mots. Often his characters talk about sex when they're having an argument—you know, how people will say inappropriate things when they're arguing. Or they'll talk about sex with someone who isn't present in the scene or they'll comment on the sex life of a different character who's offscreen.
Do you change your directorial approach to fit the writer you're working with?
I don't think so, but since I always write with Jarchovsky, I know that if I change the script [onset], he'll be fine with it. He's often present during shooting anyway, so we can change the script there. Another time, I was making a movie based on a book, and when I wanted to change part of the story, the author [of the novel] wouldn't let me. I don't think I was being arrogant. Sometimes when you're shooting a movie, you encounter situations that you can see fitting into the story. If I'd known the author was oversensitive about his work, I would have avoided looking for them.
I don't think I've ever filmed Viewegh properly, not as he comes across in his books. The way he uses his kindness and respect for the characters add to the irony of the stories is very different from what I do in the films.
Chicago recently hosted a retrospective of films by Jan Nemec, which inspired some articles about the great Czech New Wave films of the 1960s. Could you discuss how you and other filmmakers of your generation relate to that period? Which Czech filmmakers would you say have inspired you the most?
I'd say Milos Forman and Jan Svankmajer are the most influential Czech filmmakers. Everyone making movies in the Czech Republic today is very familiar with their work. I admire them, and I also feel very close to the films of Jiri Menzel and Vera Chytilova [the Czech New Wave directors best known for Closely Watched Trains and Daises, respectively]. I went to [Chytilova's] funeral recently, and when I was there I realized she was the most significant [New Wave director]. Not only because of her movies, but because of her pedagogical work and social engagement. But if you were to ask Chytilova—or Forman or Menzel—who was the greatest New Wave director, they'd probably say Nemec.
I think the Czech films of the 60s are very important, and not only because of the New Wave. Many established mainstream directors were making some of their best films then. The film industry was very active then—the state financing was strong, and the state censorship was looser [than at other times during the communist era]. They'd produce maybe 40 movies a year, and maybe 15 or so of them would be good.
The 60s were also a great generation for Czech literature and theater. That sort of artistic community doesn't exist nowadays, but then, it's always very rare. If you look at ancient Greek civilization, which lasted for about 500 years, you see that the most important theatrical productions are from the 30 years we call the Age of Pericles.
What do you think are the most important things happening in Czech film today?
Documentaries. The younger generation of documentary filmmakers is really strong, and they're making some very nice movies. Documentaries are also cheaper to make [than fiction films], which might explain why so many young filmmakers are choosing that path. If you find a great subject, all you need now is a camera [to make a film about it]. That doesn't mean, though, that you can forget about the concept—how it is you make the movie.
There's a growing audience for documentaries too, and it's a serious audience. They know they're not going to the cinema to be entertained. Some of these movies are making a real political impact. In one [recent Czech] documentary, a young journalist installed hidden cameras in the offices of advertising companies and recorded these meetings about selling stuff to seniors. She documented them designing these obviously fraudulent, even brutal methods. It's not a great movie, technically speaking, but it went to our Parliament. Based on that film, they changed the laws.
The last movie discussed in the Czech Parliament was a Jiri Menzel movie that the communist government wanted to ban. Nowadays our politicians will never talk about fiction films. On the other hand, this means I can come to Chicago for a holiday rather than to search for asylum.