Vladimír Smutný: Both Freedom and Responsibility

07 September 2018

Introducing

Vladimír Smutný: Both Freedom and Responsibility

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Vladimír Smutný (b. 1942), winner of seven Czech Lions for Best Cinematography, has worked with legendary domestic directors František Vláčil, Jiří Menzel, and Karel Kachyňa, as well as with international crews on genre pics including Love Lies Bleeding, starring Faye Dunaway, and the French TV series Maigret. Recently he wrapped up shooting on two much-awaited features: a cinematic adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s war story The Painted Bird, by director Václav Marhoul, and the sports film The Golden Betrayal, with Radim Špaček.

Interview by Pavel Sladký for CZECH FILM Magazine / Fall 2018

The Painted Bird is your third collaboration with Václav Marhoul, after Smart Philip and Tobruk. But this time is different, right? It’s in black-and-white, with an all-star cast of Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård, and Julian Sands, and tells the story of a Jewish boy trying to survive on his own amid the brutal landscape Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe...
The Painted Bird is so big and complicated, with such tough subject matter. What i realize more and more is it’s about Václav’s work as an auteur, his personal storytelling. I’m just the intermediary, bringing the images to the screen. There won’t be much dialogue in this film, we’re telling the story with images. And because that’s how we’re doing it, which is what I always wanted, every composition, every movement of the camera, every single thing in the frame is so important. Fortunately, Václav and I are on the same wavelength, which helps the DoP-director dialogue a lot, on every single detail.

Would you say you feel more responsible as the DOP on this project?
I wouldn’t put it that way. You can’t have a heavy hand. You always need both freedom and responsibility at the same time.

The Painted Bird is going to be in black-and-white. How do you feel about that?
That was Václav’s brilliant idea, not mine, and i couldn’t be happier. Thank God! Black-and-white images tend to be a bit more abstract. You can simplify the landscapes and you aren’t so distracted by the color of the structures. even faces are more abstract.

How about the technical aspects? How do you control colors on the set, for example?
I don’t think everything has to be fully under control. Movies are scripted. They’re thoroughly thought out, and the more it’s all structured by rationality, the more you risk it’ll end up dry: reserved, too rational. For instance, I do use color filters, but I don’t try to control my method in every single detail. I try to simplify the lack black-and-white images, but I don’t want to completely control the style. Every professional has their own opinion on this, but this is the approach that feels right to me.

In recent years, you’ve made films that are  pretty much the opposite of what The Painted Bird is going to be. Your collaboration with Jiří Vejdělek on Patrimony, for example. His films are focused on a Czech audience, using a broad palette of colors and fullfilling viewer’s expectations when it comes to emotions.
As a cinematographer, I’m interested in switching up genres, trying different approaches and solutions. Patrimony is a mainstream film. That doesn’t mean it should be dumb or dull. It still takes skill on the part of the cinematographer. Eearly in my career, I used to think there was something wrong with being skillful. I tried to make every film an existential message. This was under the Communist regime, and my way of protesting was to shoot images that showed how ugly the world around us was. We used a lot of handheld camera, mixed colors. Basically, we were out to deconstruct reality. In Polish cinema, it was very much the same. Kieslowski, for instance. So it was nothing new, but that was how we felt.
My personal turning point came with Kolya. My style changed after that. Or maybe it started earlier, when I was doing The Gentle Barbarian with Petr Koliha. Already then, there was less randomness and destruction of the image. I felt I needed to go in a different direction. My path changed course during the ’90s.

How do you look back on your early work on the films of František Vláčil, or with Jiří Menzel and Karel Kachyňa? You were gaining experience as second-unit director of photography, but you were nearly forty years old already.
Checking the camera after František Vláčil was nothing short of a miracle. I worked as camera operator on two of his movies, Smoke on the Potato Fields and Snake Poison, with František Uldrich as director of photography. I stood right next to Vláčil, checking the mise-en-scène, and even though we were both looking at the same set, I couldn’t see what he did. The images he made were unbelievable. That was the real start of my career. I learned more from him than anyone else. The way he worked with rain in Smoke on the Potato Fields was incredible. At one point, there’s an ambulance, we see the world through the windshield, and Vláčil decided to have it rain on the windshield, so reality became blurry, abstract. Unbelievable. I also learned a lot from a technical aspect back then.

After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the opportunity came to work with international film crews. You seized the opportunity, working on productions in Prague and elsewhere. Did you just want to try it out, to grow professionally, or were you looking for something specific you felt was missing in Czech cinema?
To be honest, i thought at the time that international coproductions had more to offer than local filmmaking. It was fun to shoot in distant countries and steal little bits of their everyday reality for the screen. But at its core, the work is basically the same everywhere, regardless of nationality. There’s no great difference between Dutch, German, and Czech filmmakers, even though they work in different traditions. The differences are more on the level of personalities. But acting is very different! It’s interesting to see how much the cultures of acting differ. Rudolf Hrušínský and Stellan Skarsgård, to name two actors I’ve worked with, are both great. It’s unbelievable when you look in the camera and can’t see them acting, but then you see the scenes edited, and they’re definitely acting! Their acting can be so subtle that you can barely tell. A creative actor is sometimes the most valuable thing on a shoot.
Faye Dunaway came to the set when we were filming Love Lies Bleeding and I was preparing a shot with her in front of a window. Right away she came and asked, why wasn’t she in the light? I explained that I wanted her to be darker, to make it more mysterious. She checked every single shot during the dailies. Everyone was afraid of her. But I guess she liked the way I depicted her, so she trusted me. The relationship between DoPs and actors is extremely important. If you both feel the character the same way, it brings you closer together. The actors know you can help them. And when you work closely, then you can both do your best for the character.

"I don’t think everything has to be fully under control”

You mentioned the Academy Award–winning film Kolya. You still work with Jan Svěrák. Your latest collaboration, Barefoot, from last year, is narrated from a child’s perspective, or the adult memory of the child’s perspective. How did you go about that?
I like Barefoot a lot. The child’s perspective allows for a certain level of hyperbole. It doesn’t have to be so truthful. I appreciated that Jan brought in this happy, lighthearted perspective, and I also liked that the story doesn’t tell you everything. There are blanks you need to fill in for yourself. In your mind, in your heart. It was fun. And it did really well at the box office. We had a different film in mind when we started out, but once Jan and I start to work, it tends to follow our temper. It follows its own path.

You also recently finished The Golden Betrayal, directed by Radim Špaček. Was this your first sports film? What made you choose it?
I’d been wanting to do a sports film for a long time. It’s a rare opportunity in Czech cinema! Sports is so full of movement, and movement is a shortcut to emotion. That’s what really interests me. When someone scores a goal in football, or makes a basket in basketball, their emotions are right there. You don’t need a lot of words. That’s what drew me to Radim’s story about Czech basketball players, the European champions of 1946 whose lives were overshadowed by postwar politics.

At this point, you’ve tried all sorts of genres: mainstream, art films, sports, children’s, Ivan Fíla, František Vláčil. Looking at this diverse variety of projects, would you say you’ve left a visible mark that people can identify? Or is a cinematographer just in service to the visions of others?
I walk my own path. I adhere to the sensibilities of the material and also, more and more, I try to avoid lighting. Besides the directing and emotional aspects, there’s a photographic challenge to filmmaking, and that’s my job.
Jiří Svoboda’s The Downfall of the Secluded Berhof was based on oil lamps, with expressive colors and handheld camera. in Jan Svěrák’s Barefoot, I was even shadowing some of the daylight away. With Ivan Fíla in King of Thieves, I was dealing with colours, and in Lea with dark images. I have to be able to bring my professional knowledge to my service to the genre. Otherwise I’m not interested. I can’t be just a servant. The Painted Bird is my first work in black-and-white and I’m in heaven. Every film brings the challenge back to me in a different shape.

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