On receiving a life acheivement award, Miloš Forman's favoured cinematographer, Miroslav Ondříček, tells Igor Pop Trajkov why his work is so important to him.
At the annual 22nd Manaki Brothers Film Camera Festival in Bitola, the life achievement award went to the Czech cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček, the director of photography for such masterpieces as Lásky jedné plavovlásky (A Blonde in Love / Loves of a Blonde, 1965) and Amadeus (1984), both directed by Miloš Forman; If (1968) and Oh Lucky Man (1972), directed by Lindsay Anderson; Slaughterhouse Five (1972), directed by George Roy Hill; as well as the unforgettable Awakenings (1990) and A League of Their Own ( 1992), directed by Penny Marshal. Suave, forever cheerful and spirited, Ondříček talked to Kinoeye just before he received his award.
What inspired you to choose this profession?
As a high-school student I used to go to the cinema almost every day; I saw all the movies and wanted to be part of that world. So, because I felt that I want to be a part of that world, I decided to go to the film academy.
Together with other members of the "summer of love" generation, you were a big idol in the 1970s and influenced major changes not only in European cinema, but also in European society at large. How does it feel to be such an idol?
It all started in 1963, [there were a few of us] in this Czech generation [...] and we called ourselves the Czech New Wave. You must understand we were very young men. The sixties were a big moment not only for the Communist Party, but for all of Europe. It was all happening then: the hippies, the music, the Beatles... And it was so exciting. [...] For me, meeting George Harrison in London was a very important moment. You know, in every other respect it was regular business; I am on the market, people buy me. Nothing spectacular.
It seems that you were having a lot of fun while filming. Do you think it is very important for a filmmaker to have a lot of fun while making a movie? You are famous for being able to create a nice atmosphere while working as a cinematographer.
Yes—especially [important]. I like life. I like people. I don't have any problem communicating with them. That is my philosophy. I am a liberal democrat. I am a tolerant man. When I come here, I want to meet people, to be friendly with everybody. I don't want to cause trouble anywhere, that's why nobody has a problem with me. I was in many countries: Germany, France, England, Spain, Italy, Russia... And in America the most.
A friend of mine told me a great thing: "Mirek [the diminutive form of Miroslav—ed], you are an easy-going guy." I never make any problems on the set, like [saying] I need more time. I never ask for anything special. They were always asking me questions, like what do you need for your camera. I would ask them: "Tell me about your budget. Do you have a lot of money? If yes, we will shoot with this camera; if you don’t have, then it is also OK, we will shoot with the other camera." Because for many film-makers their ideas are what makes the film. It is like in a democratic parliament, they fight each other, talk to each other. I hate it. Everything should be simple. If you like it, then we should shoot it that way; more important: if people really like it, than we shot it the right way. If you like me, you should work with me. This is very simple, as simple as human beings are.
You have worked with Czech directors and directors from the West. Do you think there is any particular difference in their approach to filmmaking or the sensibility between Czech and Slavic directors in general and other ones?
This is not a problem of directing; this is a problem of thinking. You have British drama; you have American productions—where everything is more posh. And everything is clearer. The Slavic directors are the ones that are making more breaks. You know, they are different types. I like time and I like music; I like to counterpoint pictures with music. Sometimes I feel like a musician—this is fun, this is OK. I hate movies where everything is [about] tempo because I prefer to edit while filming.
You met Lindsay Anderson in Prague. How did you become friends and end up making movies together? Why was Lindsay in Prague?
Lindsay came to Prague having attended the Karlovy Vary [film] festival first. He went there with his first movie, This Sporting Life (1963) and, after the movie, the Czech government gave him a schedule—like [it happens] here in Bitola. So he was travelling and he came to the studios. He visited us while we were filming Lásky jedné plavovlasky with Miloš [Forman]. He planed to stay only one day, but he stayed with us a whole week. He played billiards with us and drank beer. We changed our schedule. One day we were shooting, the next we were together the whole day. So he asked me: "Can you come to London and make a movie with me?", and I said OK and goodbye. After that I was sitting on a table with Ivan Passer, and he asked me: "What do you think about those boys, making a movie in London?" This is 1965.
And then you started The White Bus (1966) in England. Were you surprised that there was a different system?
"Another way" is what they say. The English producer of The White Bus had some job with the the Communist Party. We were criticizing the Communist Party, and he would contradict us and say: "But that's a great idea. Everyone says that, you mustn't think it is stupid."
When you started to work with George Roy Hill, when you went from Britain to America, did you feel the difference again?
First [of all], I had never seen George before in my life. At that time, almost everyone could make a movie in Czechoslovakia. We were making 35 movies a year, and we had our "Film Export" [line] and an agency. I was their work horse. So, George sent a telegram to the agency: "Please ask Miroslav if he could work on my movie." So he sent me the script. And yes, there was a difference.
First we filmed in Minnesota, and then in the LA studios of Universal. It was a long schedule: 26 weeks. Jan Němec, the director and my good friend, read the script and said: "This is bad script, it is stupid. I will tell you why: because nobody has read it before. Nobody has read anything about the character, because nobody has read the book; it has not even been published properly." But my nose told me there was something in it—something different or something fine. He [Hill] flew to Prague and I met him, we went on locations in Prague, and we flew to LA and prepared it for two months. And then he came to Prague again to discuss it once more.
I can tell you that, at least in Yugoslavia at that time, you, Miloš Forman and a few other Czech directors, were quite popular as some of the main leaders [of the protest] against the war in Vietnam. How did you feel about it? Was it really like that, or you were you just an artist?
I don't know about this.
Like Hair—it was a deeply anti-war movie...
Have you seen our Hair, the musical? There is only one Vietnamese girl. It would have been a stupid thing to do [to criticise the Vietnam war], because both of us are Czech, and first of all I love American freedom. And I should go to the US and criticize the US!? And [expect the] US to do battle for us? That was 25 years ago. This year, I went to New Jersey in January and walked in the park. I saw a 50-year-old Afro-American man walking in the park, and he tells me: "You were filming here"—and that was 25 years ago. You see, I live for this.
Who were the most important colleagues and friends that influenced you in your creative work?
A very good friend of mine, Chris Menges. We get together sometimes and we are very good friends. Then, the Hungarian-American Vilmos Zygmund. Many, I was influenced by a lot of names; open American cinematography, almost everyone.
Your son, David Ondříček, has made the Czech hit Samotáři (Loners, 2000) and is a very promising young director, did you help him or influenced him in any way?
I will tell you honestly. I am glad he has his [own] way. I never helped him. Because I don't understand teenagers or young people like him. It is a different philosophy. However, I helped some young American directors like Bob Mandel and Michael Gerob—he was 37. I went with him to Europe. He is very promising. You know, this is very different. He is not like my son. I like to help him. But I never say anything [concrete to David]; just "this is very good." We are two separate entities.
What do you think is your personal style after working with so many directors?
Firstly, our job is (which is very important) to study what you do very hard. Your look shouldn't be different from day to day. It must be the same all the time while you are working. You can change your image, however, it depends on the director you are working with. It is not I that makes a movie sexier, or have more drama, or be more flat- I have really avoided that. Only once, with a movie called Special FX: Murder by Illusion, which is a parody of action movies, have I crossed that line. And it is a very good movie. One of the producers was Dodi Fayed—he was my friend.
What do you think of Bitola and the festival?
It is nice when someone cares about you; I wish it were like this all the time. People are nice and warm. But you don't have to be around me all the time, so I won't take it the wrong way...