"Kolya," the official Czech entry for the Oscars and the winner of the Golden Globe for best foreign language film, is a heart-tugger that teams a happy-go-lucky middle-aged Prague musician and an abandoned 6-year-old Russian boy on the eve of the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989. The beguiling Miramax release, which opens today, also teams its writer-star, Zdenek Sverak, and his director son, Jan.
The Sveraks' earlier collaboration, "Elementary School," set in the brief period between the end of World War II and the advent of Communism, won a 1991 best foreign film Academy Award nomination.
An esteemed veteran of the Czech stage, screen and television, Zdenek Sverak, 60, is a Sean Connery look-alike--trim, handsome, bearded, silver-haired--who speaks fluent if hesitant English. Tall, dark-haired Jan, 31, is a dynamo so at ease in Hollywood lingo you'd think he'd been through a year of power breakfasts. Indeed, he first visited Hollywood as the winner of a student Oscar back in 1989.
"The first time we worked together was an accident," Zdenek said over a hotel dinner with his son during a brief stopover on their way to this week's Sundance Film Festival. " 'Elementary School,' which was about my own childhood, was written for another director. But after the revolution, this director rejected it because he had an opportunity to work on a picture with a bigger budget."
Without Zdenek's knowledge, the production company then went to his son.
"I came from a documentary background, had never made a feature film, but I was 'hot' because of my student Oscar," said Jan. "The project fell from the heavens on my knees--a fully financed production!"
Zdenek admits that the thought of, in effect, playing his own father in "Elementary School" and being directed by his own son gave him pause, but he went ahead. "Acting under Jan's direction is a pleasure," added Zdenek. "I am sure of his talent, and he appreciates my work. It's a good collaboration."
As for Jan, he said, "If you know each other well and are sure you won't betray each other, a strong father-and-son relationship gives you power." But, he added, "You're still your father's son, and it's very bizarre when you find yourself choosing the girl for his love scenes."
The two are now preparing a third film, to be shot in English in the Czech Republic.
While Jan went on to make two more features after "Elementary School," Zdenek, who was a teacher before turning to acting, started thinking about another script for his son and came up with the idea of a nonchalant, womanizing musician who loses his position with a symphony orchestra and is reduced to playing at funerals at a state crematory.
Zdenek's friend, film historian Pavel Taussig, with whom he collaborates on a regular TV program on the history of the movies, came up with the idea that the impoverished musician should agree for a fee to marry a young Russian woman eager to gain Czech citizenship who then leaves him with her child just as the Velvet Revolution commences.
By the end of 1994, Zdenek had completed the script it had taken him nine months to write. Throughout, he discussed the script with his son over the phone, faxing him pages as he wrote them. "I was so nervous waiting for the script I made another film," said Jan. (It was the ultra-low-budget "The Ride," a Czech box-office hit which Jan describes as the Czech "Easy Rider.")
"I had only one condition: I wanted to act the leading role," said Zdenek. "I don't know anything about message [movies], only touching stories." Even so, the film's turbulent political context gives a wry twist to its emotional father-and-son tale.
With a planned start date for "Kolya" in late 1995, Jan began the task of interviewing hundreds of Moscow schoolboys to play the title role. "They were all either too cute or too plain," Jan said. "Nine months had passed and still no Kolya and only a month till shooting. So I told the Moscow casting agent to send us tapes of the worst troublemaker from each kindergarten in the city."
That's how Jan finally found lively, adorable Andrej Chalimon. Jan's insistence on a high-spirited kid did not come without a price, however. First, he had to scrap his first week's shooting because it took that long to keep Andrej from staring into the camera. Then the child had to be put on a diet because he started outgrowing his pants early in the 10-week shoot. "Russian food is to Czech food what Czech food is to American food," explained Jan.
And then Andrej discovered his own star power--that he could shut everything down by simply saying, "I want to pee!"
The prestige of his father's name and a series of four successful, prize-laden films has placed Jan Sverak, who now has his own production company, in an enviable position in a post-Communist country where film financing remains a formidable challenge. (The typical Czech budget is only around $800,000.) "Don't forget you're in a special situation," said the father to his son.
With government subsidies now minuscule, Czech filmmakers look to television for key financing, as their Western European counterparts have long done. They look for financing abroad--"Kolya" has some French and English money behind it--and for private investors.
Although he may be luckier than most Czech filmmakers when it comes to financing, Jan said most Czech private investors do it "for the prestige," without hope of a return. He said that before the revolution, Czech audiences saw only the best American pictures but that after it, their screens became saturated with Hollywood's lesser efforts as well. He added that this has had the effect of turning off audiences from moviegoing while perversely making it extremely difficult for most Czech films, of which 20 to 30 are made annually, to get screen time. He believes he has broken through these barriers and hopes that other Czech filmmakers will be able to follow.
As is the case for many talented foreign filmmakers with a film that's been picked up for American distribution, Jan Sverak has already being courted eagerly by Hollywood. He sold Buena Vista International most of the principal world distribution rights to "Kolya" without giving up the remake rights.
"I will raise the financing myself on my next film, even if we shoot in English," said Jan firmly. "That way I can keep my artistic freedom."
As for Zdenek, he laughed when he joked that Sean Connery could play his part in an English-speaking version of "Kolya," if one were ever made.