With dramas like Eeeny Meeny, Little Girl Blue and Mamas and Papas, Alice Nellis has become one of the best-known Czech filmmakers of her generation. The director and screenwriter, who is 40, is now back at the box office with Perfect Days, a comedy adapted from the stage.
Over coffee at a Prague shopping centre we discussed her latest movie, her approach to filmmaking, the Lidice project, and more. But my first question to Nellis was: what drew you to film in the first place?
“I loved film as kid and as a teenager, but I never really thought this is for me. Till today I like to see films – I’m a good audience for films. But I never really thought about it. I didn’t know anybody who made films. As a kid I grew up in a small town.
“So only when I finished university here in Prague I already knew some people who worked in films and it kind of became an option. I started to think about it just the year I applied to FAMU [film school]. I think I was 26 – late.”
You had studied English and American Studies at Charles University. Did that literature background help you when it came to making films?
“Film is a story told by pictures and music. So yes, at the beginning there’s a story. Studying literature is kind of where it starts, just the means are different – it’s a story.
“Also it helped practically, because especially for script-writing there is not some real school here, or books in Czech. When I was studying at FAMU, most sources were in English.”
When you made your first film, Eeeny Meeny is the title in English, in 1999, there were very few Czech female filmmakers. In fact, very few come to mind even now, apart from Věra Chytilová and a few others. Did you have a sense that you were entering a kind of boys’ club when you made your first movie?
“I didn’t really, because when you are a director it’s a kind of lonely, individual job. You are the only director there, so I was always with a female director [laughs].
“I think the number is growing and the women are just starting to realise that directing films is not such heavy work and it’s a normal job like any other job.”
Looking back over your filmography, do you see any thread running through those films? One thing that strikes me as a viewer is that a lot of the films are about relationships, and about couples.
“We do, mostly, live in couples. It seems such a big part of our lives that any story you tell kind of touches on it. You are somebody’s kid. At a certain age you decide whether or not you’re going to be a parent. And through your life you look for a partner, and you might find one, you might not. No matter how I look at life, it always comes to this.
“Also I think women are more prone to talk and explore feelings that are within – not so much the reality that is outside, but what is happening inside one person or inside a group of people.
“I think part of it is the natural fact that I am a woman, part is that it’s a theme that seems to run under most other themes.”
Are there any directors that you feel a particular affinity with? For instance, I read one review that compared your films to the work of Mike Leigh, a great British director with a very naturalistic style.
“It’s a great compliment, but I would never dare to do that because he is a genius [laughs]. I admire his films.
“I think a lot of people who write their own films, who write a script and then shoot it – they tend to be more personal. Not necessarily autobiographical but personal in a sense that it’s about the world you know and people you come into close contact with.
“It’s something that interests me. I can go to a cinema to avoid reality, for a little time to forget about it. Or I can go to a cinema to explore it. And when I want to explore it, I want the exploration to be personal.”
You were meant to make the film Lidice about the notorious Nazi massacre of World War II, which I guess was a kind of ‘national’ film project in the same way the Polish film Katyn was a film of national importance. In the end you couldn’t make it because you were ill. Was that a great disappointment to you?
“I wouldn’t say so, because I think it was just a time when it was necessary to make a decision. I made it and I’m very happy with the way I made at.
“At some points there is no need to worry about certain things. If your health is in danger, that’s what you have to take care of.
“For me at that actual moment it was a big relief that the whole project didn’t collapse. Because the financing of the film was very complicated, and the possibility of postponing the shooting might endanger it.
“So I was much more worried about the film not being shot than it not being me who would do it. I think the theme was more important than the fact that I would do it.”
I was very surprised, given you deep involvement in the early stages of the project, to read recently that you haven’t seen the film.
“I don’t think I would be objective at this point, because every director works differently and must do it according to his vision. So that’s one reason I want to have a bigger time…perspective.
“The second reason is that for a year every journalist asks me this question. Imagine my situation. Maybe I will love the film and that’d be great, I’d say how much I loved the film. That would be my wish.
“But since I imagined it differently, I will probably have a different opinion. I would never talk badly about my colleagues, and on the other hand I would never want to lie.”
Your new movie Perfect Days is based on a play by the Scottish writer Liz Lochhead. It’s about a woman whose biological clock is ticking and who meets a younger man. What was it that attracted you to that material?
“I was offered to direct the play at the Na zábradlí theatre nine year ago and at that time it seemed a kind of new subject. When I was young women over 40 were…practically dead [laughs]. The times are changing and women over 40 are not dead any more, but they’re still not used to the new situation.
“So it seemed like a new theme. I like new themes. There are other new themes in it: the question of gay people and their relationship to parenthood; people who are successful in their work but still that’s not enough for happiness.
“That was my reason then. The play was fairly successful and it led me to believe that we had probably hit something that was kind of sensitive and important.
“When the producer Rudolf Biermann came with the idea to put it in a film, I said yes, because it gave me the opportunity to try to give it a different visual code and try to explore it one more time with a ten-year gap, which brought the theme to a different level.”
How was it for you working with somebody else’s material, given that all of your previous films were written by you?
“I wouldn’t have said yes to directing it at the point when I did if I didn’t feel I could bring something, and that I understood what it is about.
“In films I do write my scripts. But in the theatre I usually work with somebody else’s texts, so it’s not such a new experience. And I still had the chance to write the script.
“Liz Lochhead gave me quite a lot of freedom. So I took what felt was the core of the story. On the other hand, I had the freedom to give it more of a film feeling.”
Your colleague and friend Jan Svěrák announced just a few days ago that he’s making his next film in English because of the difficulty of getting funding for a Czech-language film. Is that something that you would consider?
“I would consider it. But Jan is also a producer and a very good one. I’m not a good producer, I’m not a producer. So for me it would a question of finding a foreign producer. I would love it, but I’m not as handy as he is.
I know you’re latest film Perfect Days has only just come out. But could I ask you are you already planning any other projects? Do you have any projects that you will do next, or in the near future?
“I do have some projects ahead, but from past experience I start to talk about things only when I know they will happen. For the winter I just plan to sit down and write, and take care of my kids.”