Variety in my work keeps me refreshed

03 May 2020

Publications Introducing

Variety in my work keeps me refreshed

Publications Introducing

Variety in my work keeps me refreshed


Screenwriter and script editor Ivan Arsenjev (b. 1961) divides his work among many genres and likes to see his stories all the way through production, from shooting to editing and beyond. The main thing for him, he says, is working with the story. Learning to play the organ was what taught him creative discipline, and whenever he needs a break from writing, he travels around Europe with the Forman Brothers’ Theater.

written by Vojtěch Rynda for CZECH FILM / Spring 2020

You have several films based on your work in production right now: the animated My Sunny Maad, the documentary Those Who Dance in the Dark, and the feature film The End of the World. How do you manage so many different genres?

I guess it’s just one of life’s coincidences. I like to say I do the pentathlon: narrative film, animation, documentary, theater, and script editing. I enjoy all five and I don’t really care which one I happen to be working on. The important things for me are to be able to relate to the topic, the poetics, the people working on the project, and to develop myself professionally. Variety keeps me feeling refreshed. When it comes to film, I’m interested in every part of the production process: shooting, editing, music composition.

Aside from screenwriting, you also work as a script editor.

When I was in college at FAMU, script editing was basically on the same level as screenwriting. Our professor was Vladimír Bor, and every week we would analyze and talk through a text — its components, its structure, characters, themes. Also, you need to be available for the writer to help them figure out what it is they want to say. I see script editing as a craft that was put down as censorship and therefore kind of written off after 1989. It needs to be systematically cultivated again.

As a screenwriter, do you have a set creative method, or does it change from project to project?

It’s more about whether it’s film or theater. For me, theater is about teamwork: With the Forman Brothers’ Theater, Petr Forman and I usually write together. Screenwriting, on the other hand, is lonely work. I’m lucky to have studied organ-playing in a conservatory, because music teaches you to sit with things, practicing for hours a day. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to play anything. I appreciate having learned to put on blinders like a workhorse — sit down at the desk in the morning, start writing, and not deal with anything else. I remember Woody Allen, who says he has a wonderful job: He makes breakfast, sits down, and makes stuff up. Being able to do that is a gift. And whenever I’ve been doing a lot of writing, I start looking forward to being back in the theater with people again.

The first time you worked with Petr Forman was on Zdeněk Tyc’s film Vojtěch, Called Orphan, which at the time didn’t receive the praise it deserved.

Naturally, no one was all that interested in a ballad set in South Bohemia in the spring of 1990. For me, though, it was a one-of-a-kind thing. Because it was Zdeněk’s graduation film, it brought together our group of classmates, and it was our first big step in filmmaking. We learned a lot from it, we went through a lot of hardship, and it reinforced relationships we still have today. We lived in a village pub on the edge of Suchdol nad Lužnicí, 50 meters from the former schoolhouse where those 14 poor souls from Shadow Country were arrested in 1945 and later executed.

You’re referring to your screenplay about the dramatic cohabitation of Czechs and Austrians in the border region, which Bohdan Sláma has made into a film. How did you come upon that story?

The film’s producer, Martin Růžička, heard about it on the radio, on the Stories of the 20th Century series. He decided that people needed to know about an event of that importance, and word came to me through some people at the film studio in Zlín. At the time, he didn’t know much about how things work in the film industry, but he still somehow managed to get Shadow Country made. I think it maintains that ethos of a powerful story that just has to be filmed.

The Czech premiere of Shadow Country will be in September 2020. In the meantime, Michaela Pavlátová is making My Sunny Maad, which is something of a rarity in your filmography: an animated film that’s an adaptation of a book by Petra Procházková.

It’s true, I usually do adaptations only for theater, but I don’t mind also doing it for film. It’s the same as writing an original screenplay, only instead of collecting material you’re reworking another text: deconstructing it, dividing it up into film segments, then rebuilding it into a whole.

It was originally supposed to be a live-action film.

It’s the story of a Czech woman — in the original version, she’s Russian — who marries an Afghan in Kabul. The situation in Afghanistan wasn’t so bad at the time the screenplay was emerging. The director, Radim Špaček, and the cinematographer, David Čálek, who had already made some documentaries there, were determined to do it, but it ended up not being possible for security reasons. I was happy when Michaela took over the screenplay. We’ve known each other since we were 16.

Did turning it from a live-action to an animated film require major changes?

I had to simplify it, of course, because the animated film deals differently with reality, dialogue, and so on. But the main shift was that my screenplay was originally based more on a clash of cultures, while the more important thing for Michaela was the relationship between the main characters.

You’ve also taken part in several documentary films by Jana Ševčíková. What is that collaboration like?

With Jana, I come in when the footage has already been shot. I don’t take part in the shoot, so there is at least one impartial perspective from someone who hasn’t met the characters the film is about. Jana and I discuss everything, from the original idea to the sound mix. She’s an exceptional filmmaker in that she’s truly independent: She doesn’t rush, she works on every film for years, and she’s vigilant in making sure it’s actually “about something” and has a true cinematic quality.

What topics does your new film, Those Who Dance in the Dark, deal with?

It’s a reflection on the fortunes of several young people who are losing or have lost their sight. We examine how they come to terms with this tremendous loss and learn to live again. I’m fascinated by how incredibly strong and full of energy these people are.

The End of the World project is in the stage of seeking financing. Director Ivan Zachariáš, known for his commercials and TV series for HBO, is hoping to make his feature film debut based on your screenplay. What’s it about?

This is my most personal work, and it’s partially autobiographical, set in 1968 and five years later. Writing it was a kind of detoxification after Shadow Country, after that heavy story full of terrifying events and evil. The End of the World is lighter, “a little story about big things,” with elements of magic realism.

Czech Film Center
division of the Czech Film Fund promoting Czech cinema worldwide



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