moodswings

Amanda's diary entries

On Production in Prague

Prague Diary

In the diary entry following, are my notes taken while producing for an American ad agency, hired to make a campaign for OSKAR, formerly the Czech Republic’s national cell service. We had hired the theater & documentary film director, Alice Nellis, to direct our spots, all featuring real people. In 2003, the Czech Republic was only 13 years out of communism, the sharp smoke of which was still in everybody’s noses. But, also in evidence was the bright excitement of the young and - everywhere - the politically engaged. Václav Havel had served his two terms, and a new president was to be elected. Elections were held twice, and – for reasons I could not quite understand – it took a third election to elect Václav Klaus to the post. I remember sitting in a pub, swilling Pilsner excitedly with the Prague locals, watching the bar’s several televisions for the results. The thrill of the wait was palpable, and of a different character than here in the US, because – at least then – absent of bitterness, rancor and contempt. I could feel the pride, the brotherhood in the Czechs’ experience of their developing democracy. I smiled inside, thinking that the Czechs loved democracy so much they took a vote three times.

It is impossible to overestimate the value people placed on those elections. As a US citizen, I have known no other way to move our national leadership forward, backward or sideways. My opposite number, the EP at our Czech production company, took me for a long lunch one afternoon. After 50 minutes of dining and chat, I told him I was growing anxious to return to his offices to continue our work. He mocked my American-ness gently, told me our tasks would wait for us, admonishing me to enjoy myself for a few minutes more. Then he told me the story of when he was a young punk-rocker in Prague. Mohawks and dyed hair were not indulged there then. He was at the avant-garde of the counterculture. For real. He was picked up once by police because of his hair and tattoos and thrown in jail overnight. The next time he was taken, the cops cut off his hair, and scraped away his tattoos with a metal brush.

It was difficult to hear this story, sitting with this skilled and prosperous man in such a fine restaurant. But then I told him about how my father had ended up panhandling for food and loose change. How, at 60, he found himself destitute, but not destitute enough, or in the right way, such that there were no social services available to him. My father’s is a complicated tale, but that is the essence of it. It was difficult for my Czech producer to hear that story, nearly impossible for him to comprehend that such a thing could happen in the rich democracy where I was born. Where I’m from.

Here's my diary entry:

From Prague, with Love, 3/11/2003

I'm in a situation in Prague where I'm working nearly every day, but I have been taking a few notes about this town and what of it I'm able to see. Oh my but this has been a magic time, amazing on so many levels, creepy on a couple of mutant corporate levels, and mundane on at least 4 individual levels that I can think of offhand. Lots of hot chocolate, lots of spaghetti, lots of dogs, paving stones, puppets and Pilsner. We just completed four days of location shooting, real people, real animals (pets, that is) and now the editing begins.  I think we've got about 20 or so hours of dv and 35mm to work with. Formidable task that, given the schedule, which is tight.

As for Prague, oh boy, oh boy, but this is truly my city: a City of Dogs. Canines rule here, unleashed, coddled, coddling, in restaurants, salons, and lobbies of every public place.  And I haven't stepped in any poop yet. People here are famously fastidious - one takes shoes off in every family foyer. (And we were in quite a variety of these on the location scout.)  Yes, the dogs are marvelous, a cheerful part of this formidable city landscape. As opposed to the puppets, which here proliferate in every shop and street stall: I have seen thousands of puppets, marionettes in the main, most of them ghoulish, many unsavory, none worth the price of the cheapest ticket to the meanest of bad dreams.

On the whole, the weather here has been uncharacteristically (I am told) clear, the cold air brilliant as diamonds, and as breathtaking. We Americans, a small pack of happy-go-lucky dogs, have brought the California sun to Prague, tied like a kite to our wagging backsides. And, dogs that we are, we eat like Kings at every turn, although some turns have been sharper than others and one does well to avoid them. For example, at an pan-Asian style restaurant which specializes in 'healthy' eating, I did not choose the 'Nightmare Soup' which, in addition to whatever particular stone, included shark fin and crocodile. At a fancier place, called Pravda (specializing in bizarre international gastronomical pastiche), I passed over the 'African' appetizer of Ostrich carpaccio served with parmesan, olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes. I also declined the 'African' special entrée of ostrich steak baked in a tortilla with potato purée, asparagus and truffle sauce. There was a moment when I began to wonder if ‘Africa’ was Czech for 'ostrich.' I decided not. Though at Pravda at least, Ostrich IS Africa. Last evening's restaurant was less ersatz in its approach to cuisine. I was tempted by a roast venison, but was put off my feed by the next offering on the menu: Horse.

Other curiosities:

There is no word in Czech for 'value.'

There is no phrase in Czech that expresses the stale admonishment ubiquitous in the US, and in our entertainment age, 'Enjoy!'

It's Sunday and we're making our first foray into the edit suite today. They did a best-light transfer to video (with the dp) of the 35mm and loaded it into AVID the day after the shoot. Alice Nellis (our director) started looking at all the footage on Friday, commenced editing Saturday, and will receive us today, I hope with some equanimity. Hers is a stern, yet humorous character. Since there are only about 10 feature-film directors making a living in the Czech Republic today and she - I believe - is the sole woman among them, Alice exhibits the goofy grandiosity of any large fish in a small pond. What else can be expected from someone who wins the film awards here every year when there is almost no one else to win them? With expressive freedom so new and welcome and sweet? It's an odd situation for any young person with artistic aspiration. Alice is amusing and very intelligent with an engaging charisma. Although she is inexperienced as far as making commercials, she grasps the strategies and client situations instantly, developing her own stratagems about them and articulating her thoughts beautifully. I will see what the film looks like for the first time today, but - judging from the wittily orchestrated chaos of the shoots - I have every confidence it will be tops.

On the other hand, Alice does not listen easily. It's really quite funny to observe, once one gets past what looks like rudeness. Simply put, one cannot stop her from talking. Ever. And while she occasionally stops to breathe (into which intervals one leaps waving whatever idea overhead like a tattered white flag) she never stops to really hear her interlocutor. This happens again and again, not just with Alice, but with lots of folks around here. It's a kind of social deafness. Combined with a limitless capacity to talk one to death. Many Czechs I’ve met seem prone to this sandbagging, which - perplexingly - can also take the form of long silences.

Could it be born out of Czechs having had so little for so long? Perhaps one holds fast to everything here, even the ephemera of one's own ideas, because even these - not so long ago - might be carted away.

Alice Nellis with her dear wolfhound, in the mixing studio

There is also extraordinary corporate rigidity, which is clearly and intimidatingly evident even within a progressive entity like our client's. It's bureaucratic beyond anything I’ve experienced at P&G or Hunt-Wesson.  Some days I do feel I'm turning into a cockroach while, inside, my tiny cockroach soul cries out, "Somebody!  Step on me, please!!!" For instance, the idea of a project, its means and goals, evolving naturally as we go, is beyond the immediate scope of many among our Czech clients. Always we come back to, "But we agreed ..."  "But you said ..." "You promised ..." Such accusations are accompanied by old boards, evidentiary e-mails, notes scribbled on bathroom walls and so forth. Nor do the corporate people ever assume direct responsibility for anything. Early in the game, I tried to hand a production invoice to one of our clients who threw up her hands and backed away from me as if I were handing her a pile of shit on a tea-tray.  "No, no!" she protested, "this must be given to so-and-so and STAMPED."  Official Stampings by Official Stampers are very big here.  Stapled documents are tape-sealed over the staple and stamped. Restaurant receipts are stamped. Even the toilet paper rolls at the hotel are stickered shut with an insignia.

Then there is the slightly brooding quality of people. "I am from Bosnia," the cost-controller told me within the first eight minutes of our meeting. We were alone together, reviewing the production contract. "We had a war." His eyes were an agony to behold. Long silence. Something in the conference room creaked. I took a deep breath and replied, 'Right. And what about item 2A-ii, Contract Specifications?'

And finally, there is the obvious brilliance and attractiveness of everyone I meet. Which brings me to the most curious thing about this production, at the heart of which has always been using Real People instead of professional actors. Czechs talk about other Czechs as if they were describing a convention of funeral directors:  "Oh, no one will come to these auditions.  No one will pose for the camera. No one will smile. Casting will be impossible." There was a complex of social/historical reasons given for this, which the agency guys and I found unsettlingly credible. We wondered why our client ever would have agreed to signing up for a Real People shoot when obviously no real people were to be had. And yet, our casting sessions were FANTASTIC. I fell in love with every new group that walked in. Everyone was so game. So present. Vulnerable. The casts we wound up with are a delight.

In other news, yesterday morning, a nineteen-year-old boy soaked himself in gasoline, lit a match and burned himself to death at the top of Wenceslas Square. He left a long letter behind, citing his horror of the oncoming war on Iraq. Similar self-immolations protested the Russians in '68, and we all wondered last evening if this young fellow deliberately was linking himself to those furious suicides. The most infamous of these was Jan Palac's in '69, protesting the suppression of the Prague Spring and the accession of the Communists. Flowers and candles are still laid out on the spot where Palac died. Now another corpse honors him. What a place we've made the world, where a boy, not yet twenty, feels a hellish death serves him better than to walk about with us here.

I was in a pub when that story was told me. We were celebrating our wrap party. There were fried potato cakes, fried anchovies (which are eaten by the handful and are addictive in the way of McDonald's french fries), apple strudel, cheese, fruit salad, salmon spread, toast and so forth. Huge steins of Pilsner were handed 'round, and Stolichnaya vodka - unchilled - which I sampled and found delicious. One of the crew truck drivers has a French bulldog named UFO (pronounced Oof-oh), white with black spots dropped like ashes on her ears. She was at the party too, squat and dusty, stubbed out like a cigarette on a tall bar stool, looking on with sleepy beneficence. She's deaf as a post, which contributes to her Bodhisattva-like aspect, since nothing anyone says can offend her. In addition to the rest of the cast and crew, two professional folk dancers we'd hired for the shoot were at the pub. They disappeared briefly, reentering our midst wearing gorgeous folk dress, floating in on village tunes that would have made Stravinsky green. And they danced together, this boy and girl, and danced, and danced and they were enchanting. Watching their beauty, their freshness, their skill, I felt all warm and sticky inside. I loved feeling drawn along the ravel of a golden thread, through Time's tiny eye, where past is made present and perfect and real. What have we got at home that can can drop the ancient, like a new kitten, into our laps? I can't think of anything there living that can.

Burning boys, dancing boys, begging boys - some flesh, others stone - every city block in Prague is a universe. The architecture here, the statuary stuck onto every doorjamb, all so dense, so rich. And then the awful communist era cinderblock monstrosities.  The People's Movement certainly left nothing for the people to enjoy.  And - while the beaux arte, old stuff puts me in my place, makes me feel small yet part of something large and lasting, the contemporary stuff just makes me feel miserable.  Stand next to one of those unadorned, crumbling monoliths and you definitely feel the cold.

And here I am, a dot of soot blowing along the dreary banks of panelak housing.  I am running across the Karluv most. Standing stock still in the centre of Staromestké náme sti. I am wearing a thin red coat in the snow, my chapped, blue knuckles gripping tight the places where the buttons have dropped off. They rattle in my pockets. And I am having a rare adventure, my California shoes made foolish on the sly, cobblestoned streets.  Maps (and high heels) are useless here.  One simply steps into the city, takes a deep breath, and hopes for the best.

From Prague, beautiful city of dogs

-- Amanda Moody

 View from the castle

View from the castle