Petr Kotlár: Filming with Václav Marhoul was a colossal experience
The film "wrapped" in the summer of 2018. It had been preceded by several years of preparations, 17 drafts of the screenplay, and tireless efforts to finance the drama that is "The Painted Bird", in which the main role of a Jewish boy has now been portrayed by a Romani boy, Petr Kotlár of the Czech Republic.
The black-and-white film, based on the 1965 dramatic novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosiński, a Jewish author of Polish origin, held its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and its Czech premiere in September 2019. Péťa, who is 12 years old today, spent a year and a half on set with the film, not just in the Czech Republic, but also in Ukraine, for example, after director and screenwriter Václav Marhoul spotted him and cast him several years ago.
"We filmed in Ukraine for about a month. My grandmother was the main person who accompanied me the entire time," Péťa tells us, and Věrka, his grandmother, immediately adds her perspective.
"The filming was demanding, altogether it lasted a year and a half. Once it was all over, I marveled during the premiere in Venice at what an admirable film has been made about a child's lonely encounter with cruelty and violence," she says in praise of what is one of the most widely seen films in recent years, adding that young Péťa's brilliantly-launched acting career will not end with "The Painted Bird".
According to the other offers for film roles that quickly were made to Péťa, it's clear he may one day join the ranks of famous actors. "We were contacted by a Czech-Danish production company with an offer of a lead role. The main plot will be that the protagonist sees something he wasn't meant to see, so the mafia will attempt to silence him once and for all," his grandmother reveals, and Péťa then humbly adds this interesting information: "There should even be passages there where Romanes will be spoken. We'll see how it turns out, though, for the time being I've completed the screen test, I had to learn the lines the producer sent to me, and maybe tomorrow or the day after I will find out whether I've been cast."
The filming itself would just be 20 full days, eight in Denmark and the rest in the Czech Republic, which is a significant difference compared to the filming of "The Painted Bird". According to his grandmother, the adolescent actor has received many offers, but when she read the different screenplays with him, the Czech-Danish co-production was the one that captured his attention because of the action.
The production should begin filming in February. Because one of Věrka's sons is wheelchair-bound and needs 24-hour care, and because she is also running the Cikánská Jizba restaurant ("The Gypsy Room") in Český Krumlov with her husband, she is glad that this time around, if Péťa is cast, she would share the job of accompanying him to the set not just with her husband, but also with her other son, Péťa's father, who works Monday through Friday at an automobile factory in Austria, where he has lived for several years, and who usually returns to the Czech Republic just on the weekends.
I don't want to be typecast as an aggressor
An offer also came to Péťa to perform in the television series "Ordinace v růžové zahradě" ("The Surgery in the Rose Garden"), which would have been an opportunity to work with the actor Radim Fiala, who became a favorite of his when filming "The Painted Bird". "I always say Radim is the best, we got along awfully well, it's a lot of fun with him and we're friends," Péťa says of his fellow actor.
"The role they wanted to give my grandson wasn't for him, though," his grandmother says readily, explaining that he would have played a boy bullying his schoolmates, which Péťa didn't like. Despite the fact that one of his big dreams is to once again act with Fiala, he eventually had to refuse the role.
"We rejected that role for Péťa, but nobody got angry about it, that all happened absolutely without any friction. We are open to further collaboration with them, so who knows, maybe a role will be offered in the serial that my grandson would love to play," his grandmother told us hopefully, revealing that fame has decidedly not gone to Péťa's head.
She says they have lived their entire lives in Český Krumlov, that people know each other well there, and that people have come to the restaurant for a meal just to be able to take a photo with the young actor. Despite that, she says he pays no attention to the increased interest in him or the curious looks he gets.
"I do not believe I am different from my peers, I am still the same guy who I was before making the movie," Péťa says with humility in his voice, adding that sometimes he can tell his schoolmates are slightly envious of him and would love it if he could get them into a film too. "I always tell them that's not how it works, I don't have the power to promote anybody anywhere. However, if a friend of mine appeared in a film or a series I would certainly be a fan."
Péťa's grandmother nods approvingly at her grandson's worlds. "Everybody believes working behind the camera is just like strumming a guitar, but I always answer that it's not like sitting at home on the couch, turning on the TV and vegging. The work done behind the camera is really hard," she explains before describing some experiences behind the scenes.
"Before it's all filmed they set the lighting, check the camera angles, in short whether all is as it should be, and you're waiting to take the shot for as long as five hours, easily," she says from experience, recalling one of the scenes in which Petr had to lie down beneath a moving train. According to him, he didn't like the idea of a stunt double doing it and preferred to do the demanding scene himself.
"The director explained that I could have a stunt double, but in the end people would be able to tell that it wasn't me under that train, and understandably that wasn't what I wanted. I decided to risk it. The scene took several hours to film, in the beginning I was also afraid, but it was an experience to see a train from that perspective. Mr Marhoul might have been praying the whole time, but eventually we accomplished it together," the young actor says.
Acting is drudgery
Petr also recalled the iconic scene from "The Painted Bird" in which the crows were standing around his head. "I wasn't afraid of them because I knew they were domesticated and trained, but it's true that in between shots one of them hit my head and then I was a bit more on alert," he reveals.
"We filmed all day, I was hidden in a hole, covered up with boards that they then scattered clay over," he says of the film-making trick that has a big impact onscreen. The most difficult scene, though, was unequivocally the one on a log that gets carried away by the river.
"Before I knew it, I found myself very far away from the crew," Petr recalls. "The fear I had at that moment wasn't really acting. I was wearing a wetsuit and there were divers everywhere, but I was already half-dead from fear. I really don't like recalling that scene,” he admits.
Petr, who today is one of the most famous teenage actors, sometimes still likes playing musical instruments. "Dad is a musician, my brother Míša is too, he can actually play all the instruments. I play something here and there, but I don't stick with it long," he admits.
"This time, though, I've decided I will attempt learning the saxophone, I have a borrowed one at home, so I'm honestly practicing," he reveals, and his grandmother warms to the topic. "Péťa sings wonderfully, he has perfect pitch," she says, but her grandson immediately interrupts her.
"Well I don't know about that, Grandma," he says with his typical humility. He is just that modest about the reaction of Czech audiences to the film, which has been seen by almost 100 000 cinema-goers here.
According to the young actor, nobody anticipated the film would have that kind of audience success at home. His grandmother closes the conversation by adding that it's not clear whether her grandson will want to continue to act in the future.
"He's still at an age when he isn't certain about his future profession yet. We'll see once he's grown up a bit. However, one thing is sure, I would like him to go to high school and then to college. I want him to study and achieve something and then if he decides to continue with acting I will support him, just as I would support him in anything he eventually decides to do," Věra Kotlárová concludes, and Péťa agrees.
First published in Romano vod'i magazine.
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