Eben on Vary
The world constantly changes, but one of its few certainties endures. The beginning of July saw the start of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (4-12 July). It is the 49th edition of the major event, first held as far back as 1946. The festival means that for the first and last time during the summer season, the number of Czech-speaking visitors in the spa town exceeds the number of Russian tourists. But that is not the real point. “I dislike the fact that the Karlovy Vary festival is spoken of as a VIP event for high society,” asserts Marek Eben, adding: “For me, the festival’s biggest value is that it is still for the people. Unfortunately, the VIP people are the only thing that journalists are interested in. It always makes me angry.“
Together with actor and festival president Jiří Bartoška, for many years you have been a face of the Karlovy Vary festival. Do you still enjoy hosting this event?
Of course I do, yes. Each festival is original, and it is the people who come to it that actually determine its face. You tend to connect individual editions of the festival with the personalities who visit. And they keep changing. That is the type of experience one carries away, that’s why you can never be bored by the Karlovy Vary festival. On each occasion there have been several extraordinary personalities, some of whom are not even alive any more. You experience plenty of situations that will never disappear from your memory.
I was on the stage with Gregory Peck two hours before they took him to the operating theatre. And he was so professional that he even went to the party for a while, from where he was taken straight to the hospital. You didn’t notice a thing. He was a true professional. For instance, he was due to answer questions from the audience and he wanted to rehearse. I was telling myself: Goodness gracious, what does he want to practice for that? He had five bar stools fetched and he tried out each one to see which would be the most comfortable for him. He tested the microphone and looked at the arrangement of the lights. So that was a time when I encountered real professionalism, while people might be saying: He’s simply going to talk to people, what could he want to practise…
„The backpackers come more and more. I consider the festival’s biggest value to be that it is still for the people, it is not an event for VIPs “
Do you like rehearsing?
Always. I feel more assured after rehearsing, there is never any harm in going through the script over and over again. For instance, when it comes to the names of sponsors – you wouldn’t believe how many mistakes happen with these names. Many times they are fatal, they are not mistakes you can just skip over, they are rather crucial.
Just how crucial can such a mistake be?
One year there was a final soiree that took place, live on television, and straight after I left for a holiday. All of a sudden Jiří Bartoška called: “Man, you didn’t say the name of a single sponsor!” My holiday was ruined; I was shivering with fear that the mistake was down to me, but fortunately it wasn’t. The names of the sponsors had simply somehow been left out of the script. Such a mistake serves as a lesson that you’ll always carry with you.
An interesting thing is that the evening was broadcast live but not even the sponsors sitting in the hall noticed the mistake. It was noticed only when people at a company watched the recording in anticipation of hearing their firm’s name, and didn’t hear it.
You suggest that the festival is mainly formed by those personalities who visit it. Which star would you most like to see there?
Absolutely amazing would be Jack Nicholson. But I’m sure securing him would be an unbelievably expensive matter. As far as I know, the festival does not pay for any star, the stars simply turn up knowing that they will be very well taken care of. But you need to somehow bring over each such personality and some won’t accept anything less than a private jet. Of course, some stars such as John Travolta have their own and so they fly themselves, but others don’t. Hiring a private jet is so unimaginably expensive that it would disproportionately burden the festival budget.
What sum would the festival dare to invest in the ‘acquisition’ of a film star?
I have no idea.
So the chance that Nicholson would come to Karlovy Vary festival is just about zero...
It’s very small. Unless you know somebody who’d foot the bill for the plane. I won’t be paying for it, nor will the festival.
Some years ago you were moderating the Czech Top 100 [rankings of the most significant Czech companies –Ed.], so you therefore have good contacts among entrepreneurs... Do you participate in negotiations with sponsors of the film festival?
Not at all. That absolutely does not concern me. I am hired manpower that takes care of his own territory, I don’t have any insight into the negotiations with the sponsors.
In recent years people have been talking about how a film festival for backpackers has turned into a snobbish thing...
That’s absolutely not the case, such claims are entirely wrong and upset me a lot. The backpackers come more and more. I consider the festival’s biggest value to be that it is still for the people, it is not simply an event for VIPs. Unfortunately, the VIP personalities are the only thing the journalists are interested in. It always makes me angry.
Ask yourself how many years it is since the festival has put its ticket prices up? I have a feeling that it is 16 years. With the accreditation and the purchase of the film festival pass the ticket price comes to 30 crowns. Show me a cinema where for 30 crowns you can see a European or world film premiere. And also meet the creator. Again, I repeat, all this for 30 crowns.
The festival gets money from the culture ministry that contributes to, for example, keeping the ticket prices so low. And I regret that every year, for instance during internet discussions, the festival is described as a snobbish thing for high society. Of the thousands and thousands of people who repeatedly arrive and enjoy the films, just a few of them write to say: Excuse me, what are you saying here? I go there every year and it is a festival for the people.
How has the festival changed over the past 19 years?
It has been professionalised, very strongly. When Bartoška first arrived at the festival, its entire car fleet consisted of two hired Jaguars. Today it has 60 limousines at its disposal which is just about sufficient. The interest of the print and internet media is 10 times bigger compared to what it was at the beginning. The same applies to television coverage. TV stations discovered they can live off the festival till the end of August because they are able to collect a big amount of material at Karlovy Vary.
I’ve also had the chance to compare the professionalism of the film festival with the organisation of the European Film Awards which I participated in directly.
„A record has become merely some sort of signature card, nothing more. It is terrible that you need to invest, hire a studio, pay for the musicians, the album cover and so on and then they steal it all from you “
And which event is more professional?
The film awards come across as some kind of provincial festival, while Karlovy Vary is like a ‘big Berlin’ [festival]. The organising of the two events can’t really be compared at all. At the European Film Awards, I was set to present one of the live broadcast prizes. And at 10pm the day before the announcement, I still didn’t know which one it would be. On the incriminated evening I was sat with Saša Gedeon, who was nominated for Return of the Idiot, in a hotel lobby waiting for transport.
And did you get your transport?
Everyone was leaving but I and Saša were still sat in our places. We told the organisers we needed to get to the awards ceremony. They told us we were not on the list of guests. We made it to the hall at the last minute. I’d not even had time to sit down when a hostess suddenly came to me to tell me I had to go on stage. It was all very hectic.
When I compare it to Karlovy Vary, the organisation at the festival is very professional. I speak to the stars on their arrival and very often on their departure as well. And their enthusiasm for the festival is genuine. The best agents also attend the festival, with many stars turning up simply because a friend tells them: Go, it’s great there.
The stars also tell me how enthused they are, even though in the end they need not say anything, I’m just a hired hand, a moderator, I’m neither a sponsor nor a festival president. But still they comment and I’m happy about it.
Is Karlovy Vary festival definitely a ‘big format’ event or is it still a bit provincial?
Vary hasn’t been provincial for a long time, it is an A-list festival and it certainly deserves to be. What I like about it, in comparison for instance to Cannes or Venice, is that an ordinary person off the street can get into the cinema showings.
Vary has a uniqueness, it is a festival for people who like films. Compared to Cannes, for example, it is not just about hard business. Vary is truly a feast of film in the true sense and that’s what the film stars enormously appreciate.
You host and act in the theatre, but what about music? Are you still an active musician?
After six years, Bratři Ebenové [the Eben Brothers] are working on a new CD. I write slowly, that’s why there’s been such a time gap. I’m looking forward to the CD very much.
But I very much regret that today a record has become merely some sort of signature card, nothing more. It is terrible that you need to invest, hire a studio, pay for the musicians, the album cover and so on and then they steal it all from you. I don’t like the fact that this is considered as the accepted way. I’m not that much bothered by it as I don’t do music for my living, but the boys in the band don’t have another livelihood.
Do you still have time to do theatre?
I’m only finishing up things really after having been freelance for a decade already. It’s become that way since the talk show Na plovárně [At the Swimming Baths] was added to my schedule. Maybe it doesn’t seem that it should be that way, but the show is every week. And if your guest is some really substantial personality, you receive 80 pages of background research in English that you read for an entire day.
I endeavour to ask something different or something that my counterpart hasn’t done to death yet. It is frustrating when people ask the same questions, but you only have one life, I understand it.
What is the question that you currently hate the most?
We had it already. Which star is most fixed in your memory.