Olmo Omerzu on “Winter Flies”

OlmoOmerzu

Me and Olmo Omerzu following his well-deserved win for Best Director at the 2018 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Olmo Omerzu has quickly emerged as one of my favorite filmmakers yet to be discovered by the majority of Americans. By age 33, the Slavic director has helmed three features that portray the complexities of youth with an arresting honesty and sensitivity. His haunting 2012 debut, “A Night Too Young,” followed a pair of 12-year-old boys as their awareness of adult life is awakened in the span of a most unexpected evening. I was lucky enough to catch Omerzu’s riveting and startlingly funny sophomore effort, “Family Film,” when it screened at last year’s European Union Film Festival in Chicago. The picture is a provocative dissection of familial roles in disarray, with an increasingly uneasy dynamic being forged between three teenagers—splendidly played by Daniel Kadlec, Jenovéfa Boková and Eliska Krenková—while the adults find themselves shipwrecked. The largely wordless final act centers on the family canine, who delivers the best stranded-on-an-island performance since Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” As soon as I was assigned to cover the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for RogerEbert.com this year, the first person I looked up was Omerzu, and sure enough, his third feature was among the official selections.

“Winter Flies” reaffirms Omerzu’s gift for eliciting authentic and richly textured work from young, often inexperienced talent. First-time actor Tomás Mrvík is flat-out revelatory as Mára, an adolescent outcast revolting against an indifferent world by opting for a life on the road. He’s joined on his misadventures by Heduš (Jan Frantisek Uher, equally impressive), a misfit whose horniness is rivaled only by his social ineptitude. Like many kids his age, he has a cavalier way of discussing his sexual obsessions, yet is most comfortable when glancing through the scope on his toy gun, magnifying a world that consistently feels out of reach. Seeing through all of Mára’s games is a police officer played by a stealthily unnerving Lenka Vlasáková. Her interrogation of the boy is juxtaposed with the events that led to his capture. Křenková provides invaluable support as a hitchhiker who temporarily becomes entangled in the boys’ tale. I was thrilled when Omerzu deservedly earned the festival’s Best Director prize for this sublime film, which receives its theatrical release in the Czech Republic tomorrow.

A few days prior to Omerzu’s victory at the KVIFF awards ceremony, he joined his fiancé and frequent collaborator—the remarkably talented singer/composer Monika Midriaková—in chatting with me about their methods for capturing the subjective truth of childhood memories.

Who were some of your artistic heroes while growing up?

Olmo Omerzu (OO): I grew up fascinated by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avery, and later in high school, I discovered Bergman. I also was equally interested in John Cassavetes and Maurice Pialat. They are quite similar directors, though one is more pessimistic while the other is more optimistic. Pialat is kind of a misanthrope. I realized when you are studying directing, no one knows how to teach you how to work with actors. We had a lot of film classes, but it was always about theory or the technical side of things, so I realized that I should watch movies in order to learn that way. Cassavetes is great about analyzing his own work with actors as well as how he works with subtext in a given situation. There is a scene in “A Woman Under the Influence” where the characters are eating spaghetti, and there is so much going on below the surface. Subtext is always present in this film, and it is so unpredictable. You don’t know why you remain fascinated watching a scene where nothing appears to be happening. That’s what I like to do in my films. I also like Terence Davies very much. His first three films are so amazing, and they are so different from anything else out there. I’ve never seen a movie quite like “The Long Day Closes.” It’s like an island unto itself.

Monika Midriaková (MM): I was 16 when Bergman died, and there was this huge retrospective of his films. That opened the door for me to art cinema, and I started to go to the cinema clubs in my town.

How did you get your start in filmmaking?

OO: There is kind of a long tradition of aspiring directors from ex-Yugoslavia regions coming to study in the Czech Republic because FAMU, the film school in Prague, is really famous, not just in Europe but in America. We have also film schools in Slovenia, but FAMU was my first choice. Once I was accepted, I had to learn the Czech language, because it’s a better program than if you take it in English. And it’s much cheaper—actually, it’s for free. I was there for seven years, and “A Night Too Young” was my graduation film. We didn’t know if it would be 30 minutes or 60 minutes long, and though we got some money from Film Fund, it was a middle range film and I had total freedom making it. After that, it was accepted at Berlinale, and that opened doors for me in the Czech Republic to work. I was initially contemplating how I would spend my life traveling from Slovenia to the Czech Republic, but then I eventually decided to stay here and start not only a working life but a private life. Monika and I were friends at school, and she was studying in the editing department.

MM: While I was studying, I had a band. We had a successful first album, but after that, we disbanded. Now I have a solo musical project called Leto s Monikou.

OO: It was a smooth transition for me because I didn’t have this gap after school where I tried to find money for a first film, which is often very difficult for a new director. I had this luck that my first film was already at Berlinale, so I could present my script for “Family Film” to producers while “A Night Too Young” played at the festival. It wasn’t so easy to pitch the project because of the dog sequence. A lot of people liked the idea but they were skeptical about whether it would work in the film.

Yet I’ve never seen a dog anchor a narrative like the one in your film.

OO: I liked the idea that at the highest point of drama, the film would transition to the island. This was actually the first idea that I had for the film, after reading an article about an older couple that went sailing abroad. The boat capsized and they lost their dog. Fourteen days later, someone called them and said the dog was found alive on a small island. I started thinking about how the dog could, in a way, present the family with all their problems and show them that they could be solved. I wanted to cut to this sequence in a moment when enough questions are raised for which we don’t have answers, but we can think about the family while we are watching the dog. He is trying to save his life, but in a metaphorical way, he’s also trying to save the life of the family.

We shot the sequence in Thailand, and our animal trainer was from the Czech Republic. He actually worked with three dogs because we didn’t know how they would cope with the tropical weather, but in the end, it was more or less one dog who ended up in the film. After spending 25 days shooting a quiet classical drama with actors who want to discuss things like character motivation, it’s funny to then go to Thailand and work with a dog. You can’t talk to the dog, and I told the DoP that I wanted to find some moments where the dog would start doing something by himself. The problem when you work with a trainer is that when you have closer shots, you always see that the dog’s eyes are checking the trainer. Throughout the scene, the trainer will be presenting him with obstacles, and the dog is, in a way, quite stressed and occasionally doesn’t know what to do. This approach works for wider shots, but not for close-ups. Though my script was very precise, I started improvising and ended up rewriting every evening in a hotel room.

What was the experience like of screening the film in the Czech Republic? It received numerous accolades, including Best Picture at the Czech Film Critics’ Awards.

OO: Over the last few years, it’s been easy to make a classical Czech comedy from a producing point of view. If you have five names of popular actors and you put them into a script, that will guarantee a few hundred thousand viewers, even if the film turns out to be complete s—t. That’s when the producers start to get greedy, using the actors only for the purpose of getting money. Art house cinema hasn’t been as strong in recent years. Documentary films were stronger than the classical feature films, so I’ve been really happy how the critics have responded to all three of my films. Suddenly, students were like, ‘Hey, this guy just graduated, and his film is at Berlinale. We want to find a way to get there too.’

Now you must make a coproduction, because it’s the only way to get money for ambitious projects that don’t have the potential for mainstream box office success. My films fall under the label of “art house,” but I don’t like this sort of labeling. I like American films from the 70s which were successful financially as well, for example. There is a lack of intelligent mainstream films that reach a little wider scale of an audience in the end. “Family Film” surprised distributors by bringing in four times as many viewers as they expected.

The performances you elicit from young people, particularly the two first-time actors in “Winter Flies,” are astonishing in their authenticity.

OO: In terms of “Family Film,” Eliska is a studied actor. She is a pro. Jenovéfa never studied, but she is quite famous in the Czech Republic. It’s different working with her because she doesn’t have a method. Daniel Kadlec was playing the young kid of the family, and while we were improvising, I asked Eliska if she could help me with some exercises that she did during her first year in the acting department. When I read the script that Petr Pýcha gave me for “Winter Flies,” I was fascinated by how intuitive it was. It didn’t feel like the kids were written from the perspective of an adult. Petr works as a teacher, so he has a good ear for the language used by young people. He’s the total opposite of me in that I like more conceptual ideas, such as the sequence with the dog, but he starts with the dialogue. When he is sending me ideas for a new project, he is bringing me three pages of dialogue inspired by actual conversations he overheard and wants to incorporate in some way. For him, film is dialogue, whereas I tell him that the story should be told visually. It’s good to have this sort of debate.

I realized that in order for “Winter Flies” to work, I needed to find actors who could deliver his dialogue in a proper way, but that turned out to be a challenge when directing non-actors. The method one typically uses with non-actors is to give them a page of dialogue and have them say it in their own words. Then they have the content of the dialogue, but they don’t have the rhythm or subtext. If you try to deliver a page of Tarantino’s dialogue in your own words, the magic will be lost. I quickly realized this method wouldn’t work here, so I called Eliska and said that I’d be giving her the role of the hitchhiker. Then I asked her if she would like to be an acting coach.

The whole process took a few months, and it was similar to the theatre. She was playing and improvising with the actors, and for two months, we weren’t even reading the script. I was only asking them about stories from their life, because in the casting, we were looking for kids who were similar to the characters. For example, Tomás is living with his grandmother, and at an early age, she taught him how to drive. She’s the tough one in the family, much like Mára’s grandfather. Before we cast the film, he told me, “I know how to drive a car.” It was amazing. [laughs] Tomás and Mára are very much the same person. I started thinking about the actors’ own stories and personalities, while writing a situation that they knew from their own lives. This was the beginning of our improvisation, and through that approach, we taught them how to be themselves onscreen, and to not be afraid of acting. Only after all that did we start working with a script. I enjoy rehearsals, but when you over-rehearse, the scene becomes mechanical by the time you start shooting.

How did you and the DoP, Lukás Milota, go about lensing the different narrative threads, contrasting Tomás’ story with his interrogation in the police station?

OO: It was a problem because all the shows currently being made in the Czech Republic seem to take place in a police station. Lukás and I were watching these shows and feeling totally depressed. It felt like they already did everything, all the way down to the stenography. However, in terms of choosing our actress for the role of the police officer, we wanted to avoid the typecasting prevalent through the Czech Republic, where performers are routinely cast as the same characters. Lenka was always playing empathic people, so I was amazed at how well she was able to portray her character’s fake empathy.

At the beginning, the story took place in the summer while containing flashbacks where we learn more about why they are escaping. For me, that was too easy. I threw out the flashbacks and wanted to add something that felt more urgent, some reason why they are on the road. Summer is about freedom. You can sleep outside without the danger of frostbite. By transferring the story to winter, suddenly the story becomes more dangerous, and you feel even more afraid for these kids. I’ve found that women—particularly mothers—who watch the film feel the tension much moreso than the men, who are more like, ‘I wish I had the courage to do that when I was their age.’ [laughs] Since everything occurs over the course of two days, Lukás and I wanted to show changes in the landscape that would suggest the transition from autumn to winter. As the landscape becomes covered in snow and the light starts to fade, the audience begins to have difficulty determining which parts of Tomás’ story are real or imagined. One of our influences was how Vilmos Zsigmond worked with cinemascope in Steven Spielberg’s “The Sugarland Express.”

The opening moment where Hedus points a gun at an oncoming car—only to reveal that his weapon is a toy—sets us up for numerous future sequences dependent on a slight of hand.

OO: We were thinking a lot about that shift between illusion and reality. From the beginning of the shoot, I wasn’t sure how to straddle that line separating lie from truth. Should the audience be aware what parts of Mára’s story are made up, and at what point? I eventually realized that it would be more authentic to portray the story as Mára would remember it, because between the ages of 12 to 15, what is true, what is false and what is part of your imagination all feel equally real. When the characters are on the road, we push the atmosphere about fifteen percent above the level of realism in order to capture the subjective truth of one’s childhood memories.

You’re also immensely skilled at portraying the ways in which young people explore their sexuality, a topic still considered taboo in American cinema.

OO: If you are exploring the topic of childhood during that period in one’s adolescence, and you erase sexuality, it’s really weird. You’ll never get the true portrait of this period. The macho dialogue that Petr wrote for the kids is funny and tender because they are so young. You know that they are saying something that they heard somewhere. I was really happy how you wrote about the masturbation scene, because it’s precisely how I thought it should work. At the beginning, it’s funny. Then you feel as if you are watching something inappropriate, until the gentleness and tenderness of the moment starts to override that embarrassment. These two young kids talk all the time about “finding chicks” and wanting to “f—k all the time,” and yet, this is where they end up. I was actually pissed off that I hadn’t seen a film that depicted masturbation without making it a farce. It is so easy to make characters laughable in this situation. I wanted my scene to be a realistic moment about this period of life. It depicts sexuality not only in the way that we label it as an adult. At that age, you want to feel everything, go everywhere, and it breeds an open-mindedness. Sexuality is probably the most intuitive feeling we have, and that scene is so much about the freedom of a world where the boundaries and prejudice enforced by adults don’t exist.

It is the elder characters—not the kids—who use homophobic slurs, which perhaps fuels Tomás and Hedus’ exaggerated macho façade.

OO: Exactly. They don’t judge anything, and are curious about everything. That’s what I am trying to bring out in every scene.

Their relationship reminded me a bit of the one between Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in “Superbad.”

OO: I saw that film last month! I like Michael Cera very much. He’s someone I’d like to work with. The Criterion Collection invites various people to provide their video picks, and he chose really great movies in his segment, like Kiarostami’s “Close-Up.” He’s quite a film buff.

I wasn’t surprised he liked “Close-Up,” considering his acting is so seamless, people often mistake him for his characters.

OO: He also probably has the same type of characters being offered to him all the time. I think he can play more or less everything. He’s such a great actor. Bergman would’ve directed him very well. [laughs]

I could easily see Eliska’s character in “Winter Flies” having her own movie. She’s perpetually on the run from men who treat her merely as a carnal object.

OO: I like how we finish her character in the movie. She’s gone like that. [snaps fingers] You don’t need closure.

Was Eliska present in scenes where her character wasn’t onscreen, such as when Mára breaks down in the police station?

OO: She was onset all the time. Tomás is more of a sports type of guy, so for him, everything is a challenge that he’s eager to take on. But he was so afraid about this scene. He knew that the scene was scheduled to be filmed on the 18th of November, and he became so occupied with that fact that when the day finally arrived, he was so nervous that it ended up not working. We were shooting for half a day, and I kept the camera rolling on his face until he started crying. I didn’t want to use fake tears, but what we shot still didn’t get at the truth of the character. This scene is so important in the film because it is the moment where Mára pulls off the mask and is no longer telling stories. I really wanted Tomás to be brilliant in it. Yet on the day, it was a situation where you want something so badly that it doesn’t work out. You overthink it. A few days later, I came up to him and I said, “We are not doing the scene we had originally scheduled for today. We’re shooting the scene we did on the 18th over again.” I told Lenka what she should tell him during the scene, and this time, the emotions came easily for Tomás. Lenka was feeling guilty about putting him through that experience, but when I called cut, Tomás—while still crying—pumped his fist and said, “Yes! Thank you very much.” [laughs]

Tomás is brilliant in the film, and I think his performance will prove to be revelatory for audiences.

OO: He wants to act more. He said he already got a role for his next film. I think he will be everywhere in the next few years.

How did you and Monika begin collaborating?

MM: We began working together on “Family Film.” I sang one of the songs that ended up in the film’s trailer. It was composed by Simon Holy, who I wrote the music with for “Winter Flies.” Pawel Szamburski contributed to the score as well.

OO: I wasn’t using a film score so much in “Family Film.” I used songs because I was afraid to work with a classical music score. This is the first movie where I started to think about how to incorporate original compositions that would balance a documentary level of realism with the feelings of the main protagonist, who is focused on freedom and having fun. At the end, we thought it would be a nice idea to have a sound evocative of scouts…

There are definite shades of Alexandre Desplat’s compositions for “Moonrise Kingdom” in your score.

MM: That is actually one of the few film soundtracks that I’ve listened to repeatedly. It works so well in how it builds its own world much like the children do in the film. It very well could’ve been one of my influences.

I was struck by the childlike optimism in the music, embodying the spirit that propels the characters forward even when faced with daunting obstacles.

OO: Since this is a road movie in the winter, the atmosphere provides a contrast with the things that the boys are feeling.

MM: We were trying to balance their sense of freedom and adventure with the landscape, which can be a little bit depressing. The idea was to make music that reflects the spirit of their inner world.

When Tomás falls asleep at the wheel—in a sequence of dreamy surrealism—there is a hummed melancholic theme that I found quite hypnotic.

OO: That is my homage to “The Night of the Hunter,” the only film Charles Laughton directed. Remember the scene in that film where the kids are in the boat at night, and the girl starts singing? I like that scene very much, and it helped me figure out how to make sense of the moment in “Winter Flies” when the boys find Tomás’ grandfather lying on the ground at the perfect moment. It’s a bad idea to have a coincidence like that occur an hour into a film. Audiences will usually accept it more if it happens within the first fifteen minutes. Placing it at the 60-minute mark isn’t really a smooth or appropriate method of storytelling. That’s when I considered adding the dream sequence, which plays like a gesture from above, suggesting that someone is watching over the kids and that everything will be fine. It hopefully solves the problem of the coincidence that follows, because after they wake up, everything feels more urgent. I told Monika to watch “Night of the Hunter” to get an idea of what I wanted for that scene in terms of music. When the girl sings, I always felt as if she were dubbed by Björk. Her voice sounds like an adult imitating a child.

MM: As a matter of fact, that is exactly what happened. [Betty Benson dubbed over Sally Jane Bruce’s rendition of “Once Upon a Time There Was a Pretty Fly.”] You get the sense that a woman or a mother is singing it.

OO: I had originally asked Monika and Simon to help me with the music that the kids are listening to in the car. The five songs that Monika wrote for the soundtrack wound up becoming, more or less, her new album. I didn’t use them in the film. I couldn’t figure out what kind of music the boys would be listening to. If you are using rap or hip-hop, it’s such a cliché, and this is a film about outsiders. I was trying to avoid this caricature of coolness, so I began listening to the really early Beastie Boys records, where they were more punkish than they were later on. I liked the atmosphere of their songs, and thought it could be captured better in an original score. The landscape became a bigger character than we originally had intended. We didn’t know how big the impact of winter would be, and the music ended up serving as a contrast. It was nice to have a composer that you can talk to all the time. [laughs]

For more info on “Winter Flies,” visit the film’s official Facebook page. It opens tomorrow, September 6th, in the Czech Republic. Here’s hoping the film receives the U.S. distribution it deserves.

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