Interview: Edgar Dutka

Interview: Edgar Dutka

23 | 06

Edgar Dutka: Contemporary Czech animation needs dramaturges

Yesterday, the Lifetime Achievement Award for Animation was presented to university professor, writer, director, screenwriter, and dramaturge Edgar Dutka, who has contributed to more than 43 films over the course of his prolific career. Many of these films were awarded at renowned film festivals – for example, the film The End of a Cube won the Jury Prize at Cannes. In our interview, he explains how he came to work in animation and talks about his project Golem – a film he has been working on with Jiří Barta for the past several decades.

You are well known as an exceptional writer, screenwriter, and dramaturge – many of the interviews you’ve given so far focused on your literary work. What I would like to know is how you came to work in animation in the first place?

I got into animation by sheer chance. I originally wanted to be a writer. When I was twenty-three, I wrote a book called U útulku 5, and I thought it was good, but I couldn’t have it published because my mother was a political prisoner, and if that weren’t enough, she later emigrated overseas. I started studying scriptwriting and dramaturgy at the Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) because it had to do with literature. After I graduated, I joined the Screenwriting Department at Barrandov, but after a year, Ludvík Toman dismissed me (again due to my family history). However, professor Vladimír Bor presented my graduation script Bláznivý čáp to his group Šebor-Bor, and the script was included in their shooting plan. He sent me a letter to Australia, where I was visiting my mother, telling me that if I want my script to be made into a film, I have to come back. So I did, but in the meantime, the situation in the Czech Republic deteriorated, and the shooting of my script was cancelled. Luckily, I learned by chance that the Barrandov Animated Film Studio was looking for a dramaturge. I didn’t know anything else about it, but I went there to ask about the position, and they hired me. It turned out that dramaturges were in high demand because all the authors there were artists and directors, and they needed someone to help them with scripts commissioned by Czech Television and soon also with their projects for the big screen. In one year, I became a sought-after animated film dramaturge. After the first year, I started writing my own scripts, and I simultaneously worked both as a dramaturge and a scriptwriter. I started to enjoy my work, and everything was going swimmingly with one exception – I was not allowed to work on co-produced films that paid in German marks, and I was only allowed to go to festivals in socialist countries. I wasn’t supposed to be allowed to work in the culture sector at all, but since the director back then, Kamil Pixa, was a seasoned State Security colonel, he was able to employ me. What a paradox! At that time, we were bringing home at least ten awards a year from renowned foreign festivals. And I was writing scripts for young artists, for example, for Dáša Doubková (Křesadlo), and I really enjoyed writing for Zdeněk Smetana (Všehochlup, The End of a Cube, or The Tinker’s Tale). And then, when he started shooting Malá čarodějnice, I met Jiří Barta, with whom I’ve been working happily ever since.

What did the world of animation mean to you back then under the communist regime and what does it mean to you know?

At first, it was just about getting a job and surviving as I’ve already hinted, but very soon, I was able to put my education in dramaturgy to excellent use. Had the regime not changed, I would have kept working there to this day. The new director of Krátký film Praha fired all the dramaturges because he decided he would hire them as needed for individual projects. At that moment, I knew it was over for me. Luckily, they were looking for a scriptwriting and dramaturgy teacher at FAMU where I eventually made professor and was later simultaneously lecturing on the history of Czech and world animation (and I was also lecturing at the Academy of Arts, Architecture & Design – UMPRUM – and at the Film Studies Department of Charles University), which I loved doing. I even wrote two textbooks on the history of animation. In the end, I taught Erasmus students as an outside lecturer, but when classes were moved online, I realized that my time as a teacher was done. But I didn’t quit. Recently, I delivered a screenplay for a live-action film based on my book U útulku 5 to the State Cinematography Fund. And I’m working with Jiří Barta and our new producer Vladimír Lhoták on our old project Golem, which we have been developing for many years. At the moment, we’re waiting for foreign co-producers to decide whether they want to get in on it or not. Hopefully, it will finally work out!

As you mentioned, you contributed to many animated films as a scriptwriter – what do you personally think is the most important aspect of writing a screenplay for an animated film? Are there any dramaturgical rules that always need to be observed in animation or do you see it as relatively freer branch of filmmaking?

Essentially, animated films should follow the same rules as live-action films – Aristotle’s Poetics. Nowadays, there are many versions and extensions of these poetics, but the underlying principles are still the same. I recently watched some new animated films, and a lot of them felt like a pure happening. All that work wasted... They really could use a bit of dramaturgy. But I’m not going to tell them what to do. Back in our time, we were praised for making films that viewers could understand, that were thought out, and that had a clear message. The more profound the message, the better – that’s essential to every animated film. Just watch Švankmajer’s shorts or Chuck Gamble’s Shadow puppets on the internet, and you’ll see how powerful animated films can be.  

In your books, you deal with heavy, rather personal topics, but in your animated films, you mostly steered clear of autobiographical and political topics – even after the revolution. Why?

We did make a film with Jiří Barta that deals with a political topic – The Club of the Laid Off (1989). It was about people who disapproved of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and were sacked from their jobs and ostracized (Švankmajer’s seemingly purely surrealistic film Darkness-Light-Darkness deals with a similar topic). But in general, films about serious topics were taboo under the communist regime. The totalitarian regime practiced political censorship, and many films were destroyed, often senselessly, or weren’t even allowed to be made in the first place. For that reason, authors usually opted for civil satire (Bulgarians were especially good at this) or harmless artistic topics or fairy tales. And, absurdly, even those had to be edited and shortened sometimes. For example, we were shooting Děvčátko se sirkami (directed by Milada Kačenová), and the film was originally meant to combine live-action and animated scenes. It was a variation on Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Match Girl about a little girl from a rich family who has everything she could wish for from a materialistic point of view but suffers mentally. However, we had to edit out all the live-action scenes from the finished film because Kamil Pixa was not fond of our producer, who was supposed to play in them. So in the end, nothing was left of the original message of the film.

You have already said a little bit about what you think of contemporary animated films. Do you think that it is justified to call them “a new wave of Czech animation”, as they have been often referred to lately?

There are undoubtedly some very good new films like, for example, Daughter by Daria Kashcheeva, but overall, I don’t think there are many. A lot of films are beautifully drawn, but they are also oversimplified, absurd, or lack proper structure – in short, they’re all missing something. This has been going on in the Czech Republic since the 1990s when new studios were established but no one wanted to pay for dramaturges. Contemporary animation needs dramaturges that would be honest with the authors and tell them their ideas are not worth making the effort or that they need more work. I think it’s a little bit premature to talk about a new wave. Once there are, say, twenty or more such good films, then not just we but the whole world can start proudly calling it a new wave. I would really love to see it happen. Unfortunately, we have to accept that many incredibly talented animators choose and will continue to choose to work on computer games or even in advertising. But it’s also possible that one of them (not unlike Chuck Gamble) will feel like making their own animated film, and others will then follow their example.

Are there any topics that you think are missing from contemporary Czech animation?

If I started telling the young generation that they are missing this or that topic, they would just laugh at me and retort they have their own topics that interest them. And that’s how it should be. In the 1990s, after the communist regime had fallen, no one knew what to write about because everyone’s common enemies – bolshevism and totalitarianism – had fallen. Only now is the contemporary generation of authors coming up with new topics that are related to freedom and that are essential to them.

Which of your projects is the most important to you and why?

There are some five or six films that I truly cherish. They’re mostly films that won some award – because that means that it wasn’t just me or the directors who liked them, but they also appealed to the expert juries. One of those films is Maryshka and the Wolf's Castle that we co-directed with Vlasta Pospíšilová. This was a sort of initiation film for me that we did almost for free. No one wanted to help us with it, but it eventually won the Jiří Trnka Award at the Zlín Film Festival (1980). Two other films that are of great importance to me are the Club of the Laid Off and Golem, on both of which I worked with Jiří Barta. In the 1990s, we wrote two feature-length scripts for Golem, but they both had one crucial weakness. Back then, the most expensive film ever shot was Svěrák’s Accumulator 1, which had cost 42 million, while Golem was expected to cost 70 or 80 million. So no wonder no one wanted to give us any money for the project. We did completely rewrite the script back then, but it was still too expensive. Now we’re hoping that the third time will be the charm. If I added up all the time we’ve spent on Golem with Jiří, it would amount to twenty-five years of developing coming up with ideas and writing. In the meantime, we also wrote the film In the Attic or Who Has a Birthday Today?, which won the Czech Lion Award.

You also have some experience with directing, but compared to the number of films you worked on as a scriptwriter, the list of films you directed is rather modest. Did directing not appeal to you as much?

I got into directing under quite interesting circumstances. In the 1980s, live-action films were not very good, and in October 1989, we received 17 million crowns from FilmExport that we were supposed to spend by the end of the year because animated films sold well. As a result, absolutely everyone started directing, including colourists and inkers... I got into it a little earlier, but I found out, that I’m completely useless as a director. Over the previous seventeen years, I was continuously telling other people to change something in their scripts, and I got used to it so much, that even though I had prepared a perfectly timed storyboard for Lidský faktor, when I started shooting it, I immediately started changing and adjusting everything. As a result, the film just completely fell apart, and in the end, I didn’t even remember what it was supposed to be about. The same thing happened with the fairy tale O zlaté myšce. I approached Marek Eben with a song and asked him to help me include it in the film. He composed some music to go with it and told me that was the best compromise he could come up with. And I was so daft that I just thanked him and left. To this day, his music could have been the best part of my film… A true director comes up with something and then sticks to it, but I always come up with some new ideas later in the process, and when a film is nearly finished, I decide to change it even further. It is ironic that I taught my students to always invite their best colleagues to work with them on their projects, but I myself failed to follow that rule. Directing is just not my thing.

Are you working on anything else besides Golem and the screenplay for U útulku 5?

I still work on some projects as a dramaturge from time to time when someone asks me to. For example, at the moment, I’m doing dramaturgy for the brilliant Michal Žabka, and I’m also in contact with Pavel Koutský. And because I had too much time on my hands, I wrote a book, which has just been published by the publishing company Listen (Letní valčíky). I can’t just sit around doing nothing.