About The Glory Of The Terrible Eliz, screenwriting disillusionment and fear of actors
Eliška Kováříková and Adam Struhala began their creative collaboration while studying at the Department of Screenwriting and Dramaturgy at FAMU in Prague. They also currently run Film Acting Courses for Children. At this year’s festival, as part of the retrospective of cinematographer Tomáš Frkal, they presented their short film The Glory of the Terrible Eliz (2021), which stands out for its playful visual stylization and its determination not to underestimate the children’s audience. This multi-genre ride full of film references is described as a revival of the declining tradition of Czech children’s film. First and foremost, however, it is a sovereign presentation of the authorial duo with insight and a feeling for film language.
Let’s start with the topic, I read that it was originally a short story for the FAMU admission process. When and how did the idea of making it into a film come about?
Adam: I applied to FAMU twelve years ago, we had to send three short stories and one of them was The Glory of the Terrible Eliz. I got accepted to the Faculty, they were happy with the story, and then it was “sitting” in a drawer for over ten years. Later Eliška brought it up when we wanted to make a short film in an amateur way for the Film Acting Courses for Children. In the meantime, however, I sent the story to the screenwriting competition of the Department of Screenwriting, where it was placed, and therefore we received our first financial incentive of fifty thousand crowns for its realization.
Eliška: During their studies, screenwriters often experience the disillusionment of having their scripts made by someone else or not being used at all. I’ve had a couple of collaborations where I’ve found that I have my own directorial visions and I felt disappointed that I can’t make them happen. So, I thought I’d give it a try. And I did in a short film that Adam even starred in. And then we got Eliz out and started working on individual short stories. We were thinking about the overall tone and finishing the ending so that it would have a working arc and a message.
So, the original literary form was also highly stylized and genre-specific?
E: The original framework was completely done – three guys talking about a girl they think they like and making up stories about her. The fact that one is horror, one about sports, and the last one…
A: …exploitative love story…
E: …was already in the original format, but it wasn’t fleshed out. Only gradually we found in the text that it is about first love and disappointment, about how boys first perceive the other sex. That Eliz is both intimidating and yet they are afraid to admit they like her. We tried to make each story reflect the character of the boy who tells it.
Was it a given from the beginning that the film would be primarily intended for a child audience?
E: I think so. But I never really saw it that way. I felt like we were doing it for ourselves. Yeah, it’s for the kids. But all the references were “adult”, like Scorsese’s Mafiosi, but we were adjusting them into a children’s world. So, we were counting on it to be for people like us, for film fans, and at the same time something for kids that’s not infantile and speaks in an adult language.
Does that mean you drew inspiration from cult films and classics?
E: Yes. Each story had a different inspiration, each has a different genre.
A: We were looking for inspiration mainly for the color and cinematography of the individual stories. It was like the Death of the Virgins, for the first Fargo story. Or Carrie – the inspiration is clearer there.
So, from your point of view, the film is aimed at the mainstream audience, not just the youngest viewers?
E: From my point of view, it’s for the mainstream audience. I feel like people still have trouble going as an adult to a movie that stars kids, which is a pity. It is said that a children’s film becomes a family film the moment there is a main adult character that the adult can identify with. But I think that may not be true. For example, Eliz is about first love, which is a strong theme that everyone remembers.
Let’s go back to FAMU. Eliška, you indicated that you weren’t completely satisfied with the cooperation with the Directing Department. Is this a larger institutional issue or just a personal experience?
E: I wouldn’t say I was unhappy with the Directing Department. I think you must have a special personality to be a screenwriter. For being able to write the material and give it to a director who puts something own into it. I’ve discovered that I don’t have that personality.
As for the co-operation of screenwriting and directing in general – it’s long been said that it doesn’t work. Screenwriters write feature-length scripts, while directors mainly make short films and there is rarely an efficient creative duo. But now things have started to change a lot. An initiative from the screenwriting department was created – a competition of fifteen-minute scripts, from which three are chosen each year to receive fifty thousand crowns to be realized. So, you have the means, and you can decide whether to find a director or whether to direct it yourself. In the last two or three years, screenwriters have been directing their own films. I feel a bit like there are two parallel departments of screenwriting and directing in one. But it’s great because it creates a lot of diversity. At the directing department there are other genres – there are a lot of social dramas, more serious themes. In our department, it seems to me that it’s both lighter and bolder. But you can’t generalize that easily.
A: There is more pressure in the directing department. Every film there is either a term paper or an exercise. They also have a sharp teacher, dramaturgical supervision, whereas in screenwriting it’s more about advice, not about rules. It’s freer.
At FAMU, purely genre work is still rather an exception. Why do you think that is? Is the division between high art and low art, art film and genre film still valid?
A: Maybe. Maybe the genre is also hard to work around. I can tell myself I want to make bizarre horror art, but making it really work is hard. I could make an adult western or a mafia movie with Czech gangsters, but it would probably look awkward. Our solution was to take the genre but make it with kids, so we had fun and hopefully avoided the danger of awkwardness.
You said that you don’t like to give up your own vision, but at the same time you work as a writer-director duo, isn’t that a contradiction in terms? How did you two get together?
E: We started doing courses for the kids and learned to work together. At the same time, we were friends and watched a lot of things together. It took so long that we created a shared library. And when you share a library, you pretty much share the same taste. When I compare that to when I was directing on my own, I was often hesitant with my decisions. When one communicates with other crew members, strange compromises can be made. But when we’ve both written it and we both know what it’s supposed to look like, everything is clearer and more accurate. One is not lost but has some certainty.
A: If five people came to the shoot with me alone, it might make me so nervous that I’d only decide to go left. Whereas when five people come to me and then Eliška and I talk together, I’m just more confident. It’s not a fight, it’s fun.
How did the idea of acting courses for children come about? Do you have a background in acting?
E: It started when my friend Luka Kryzová and I were making a film based on a real event that happened to my sister in elementary school. We went to many drama classes for kids looking for actors for the film. But it seemed to me that a lot of them were leading the children to overact and express theatrically and that they were rather spoiling them. We thought it would be nice to do children’s acting classes that are cinematic and not so expressive. We wanted to give them as much experience as possible, to make as many amateur films as possible, where they try out as many roles as possible. And that way they’ll understand what it is about. It’s not about acting and performing something; it’s about being natural.
A: My acting background is what I’ve seen in movies. After that, I made a film with Eliška, where I didn’t give the best performance, but it was quite an experience. And then I learned the most about acting by teaching in film child acting courses.
Working with a child actor is in many ways more difficult than with a professional. But is working with children easier in any other way?
E: We are afraid of adult actors, and so we make children’s films. (laughs) I don’t talk much about feelings with people in general. But I think that the most traditional school of directing is just that the director and the actor discuss what the character is experiencing and together dissect the psychology of the character. When working with children, it is more legitimate to give instructions of a more primitive type and for me, it is also much more natural. We also deal with feelings, but it’s not unnecessary intellectualizing.
The interview with Eliška Kováříková and Adam Struhala was led by Petra Chaloupková, external contributor for Cinepur and A2.