This last weekend marked the inaugural St. Lawrence International Film Festival, a decidedly global affair with several North American premieres and filmmakers from all over the world descending on the tiny town of Canton in upstate New York. With screenings in four cities in two countries (the US and Canada), the festival’s theme was announced as ‘Beyond Borders.’ No film in the program seemed to better encapsulate that than Gary Griffin’s LISTOPAD, a film set in the Czech Republic during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, made in the Czech language, but shot by an American. Griffin worked for years (and still works) in and around Prague, and found himself with a camera shooting for NBC on the front line for freedom. If that isn’t enough ‘beyond borders’ for you, the film concerns three teens, with dreams far outside their country, one of whom trades in illegal music from beyond the iron curtain.
An unlikely trio of friends, Petr, Jiri and Ondrej are bound together by their common desire for freedom. Petr plays hockey for the local Communist-youth organization and finds himself conflicted between the competition and ideals instilled in him by his father (played by David Novotny). Jiri feeds his friends dubbed cassettes from over the border and pushes Petr into more political and serious conflict with the authorities. Ondrej lives in a fantasy world of art and imagination, one where he can speak freely, even if he chooses to speak rarely outloud. And then of course there is Martina, the center of the three boy’s attentions. “As usual it begins with a woman,” says Writer/Director Gary Griffin about the foundation of the film, “there was a very cute Slovak girl who had escaped and this was back before the wall came down.”
I had the opportunity to interview Griffin and producer Jefe Brown a while back, and the New York premiere of LISTOPAD (Griffin is originally from Rochester) seems the perfect time to release our conversation. The film is a charming coming of age tale about playing sports, drinking beer, chasing girls and listening to underground music, all in the shadow of the Communist regime. In 1985, while photographing the restoration of a train station, Griffin struck up a conversation with a Slovak woman who was working on the gold leaf. ”She saw me with my cameras and she went ‘You want to speak brother? He want make movie.’ And I thought, well, you’re really cute and, well, why not,” he says.
BEARS: But he was already making movies, right?
Griffin: He showed me his film and I thought ‘Holy Shit – unbelievable.’ He was taking a super 8 cartridge and learned how to break it and rewind it and exposing the same piece of film 30 times. He was making these incredible animations and I Went gasp. And that’s how it began – their family was my introduction to Czechoslovakia and when the wall came down, I was working for NBC. I was in Poland, East Germany and Romania right after filming and I was in the Czech Republic or in Czechoslovakia in the middle of the revolution.
Griffin: I felt very strongly that it was Czechoslovakia, which is kind of a weird thing now because the Czechs are Czech and Slovaks are Slovak. And there is really very much of a divorce. But back then it was one country and I felt very strongly that it was a strong Slovak presence. And here we go, you’ve got this crazy animator who is this wild guy who when I first met him didn’t speak English at all – and he really is like a character in the film. He just whistled at me. And when I had to make him a part of the film, I went – that’s how he is going to be. He is not going to talk, he’s only going to whistle and do crazy things.
BEARS: It took me 20 minutes into the movie before I realized that he hadn’t actually said anything. It was a great moment for me – and I went ‘OH.’ When you have three characters, you’re always trying to remember, especially when they are all guys – to make distinctions. I thought ‘That guy hasn’t talked yet,’ he just does things. He’s the one who acts. The others watch from outside.
Griffin: The actor kept saying ‘I could say this!’ but I said ‘well, Pavo, remember you don’t talk in the film.’ He has one line in the film and it was this incredibly complicated shot where I am sitting on a crane going up and over and down under the guys as they are lying down in the goal net. He had one line and he kept blowing it. I said ‘Pavo, you have one line in the whole film!’
BEARS: He wasn’t practiced. I love the visual style of the animations –how did you talk about the look of the animations in preproduction.?
Griffin: I talked with Ondrej [Rudavsky, Animation Director] a lot. I spent a lot of time with Ondrej. There are some pretty serious things going on; how do you animate it, how do you show it, how do you combine it and how do you have fun with it. We talked about it an awful lot about the various themes and he was creating these things and he would send them to me. We would meet and talk at length. He would just do it, he would come out with just amazing things. There is some animation unfortunately that we didn’t actually put in that he created.
BEARS: It feels like this film is existing on a much wider pallet then most films because you’re using animation, then different film stock, then super8 footage, then old film footage, then footage from the 80’s.
Griffin: That I actually shot.
BEARS: That’s crazy – How did you get it?
Griffin: I was there.
BEARS: But you just kept it? Were you shooting for NBC?
Griffin: I was shooting for NBC but I was also shooting my own stuff. It’s original archive – it’s my own film. It just sat since that time, 25 year old original archive.
BEARS: did it have to be restored?
Griffin: No, we digitized it. It’s amazing how well betacam holds up after 25 years.
Jefe Brown: Because it was tv standard back then – betaSP.
Griffin: One of those object lessons. Keep your archives because they can become incredibly valuable somewhere along the lines. You just never know. That footage has been in at least 4 films because it’s kind of a rarity now. When I was filming it, [there were]tons of other people. But stuff kind of disappears as it goes this way and that way.
Brown: It looks good in our sister project about underground Czech music and art which is tentatively called the Vinyl Generation, which we are basically at a full rough cut. There is a lot of that archive in that. There’s more strength in what he is saying. For that specific time period in specific place we are talking about it works really well.
Griffin: I shot Frank Zappas last concert in 1991. It was the last time he appeared in public anywhere.
BEARS: Because he was sick after he went over there.
Griffin: He was already sick. I filmed it and said I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. And it’s in the doc and its footage that I’ve had for years and years.
Brown: And also Lou Reed when he came over in 1990, when he played…
Griffin: In 2009 too
Brown: In 2009, we snuck into the secret concert for Václav Havel where Lou Reed played. We got the soundcheck and got kicked out.
Griffin: I was sitting in the front – Nobody was talking to me and acted like we didn’t know each other. They threw them out.
Brown: A real mean-spirited guy came up and knew what was going on and we just pushed him off for as long as we could. But, point being is that there’s Lou Reed from 1990 – the Velvet Revival from 2009. There is all these revival bands in Czech Republic, like cover bands, like KISS Revival that plays all these KISS tunes. And there was a Velvet revival. And all the people in the Velvet Revival were also in a very famous band called the Plastic People.
BEARS: The Plastic People being the band from Tom Stoppard’s great play Rock N’ Roll, right?
Griffin: And the music, the driving force behind the Plastic People was Milan Hlavsa, who went on to have Garage and Půlnoc. We managed to get permission for LISTOPAD to use the original recordings of, I think, six of his songs. They took some of the original songs and they also worked with it and changed it. The musicianS are just incredible and it’s in the film.
Brown: And that’s the score. The score is just riffing on these original songs and you hear the original songs in it but it’s a new creation.
BEARS: So when you were doing some of the stuff in super 8, and some in Beta-style, how did you decide that ‘this scene is going to be in this style?’ What was the rationale?
Griffin: Most of the time our basis was 16 mm, super16. I have a philosophical feeling about the way that film is created and video is created. Video doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist anyway. You can’t hold it up. The fact is film you can hold it up and see it. Film is so simple, so incredibly simple compared to all these video machines in the world. I wanted something where I could interact with the actors. Like really close – I just had me and my camera. I have a background as a documentary cinematographer, so being able to work with my 16 mm camera, I could move, it’s a small camera, very flexible.
BEARS: I am guilty, I have never shot on real film. Having made 5 shorts and a feature, I’ve never touched a film camera.
Griffin: It’s interesting. My background is in cinematography now for about 40 years. So, I wanted to be able work with some of this stuff. I just wanted it to use video when I really wanted it to look and feel like video – want it to have that electric edge that video has and then other times, I want super8. Its just so funky. There is nothing else in the world that looks even remotely like super 8, except maybe sometimes your iphone app. Its like the closest sort of thing.
BEARS: Its like home movies. It always brings on a sense of nostalgia, that I think works really well for your film…
Griffin: The assistant cameraman – he had a super 8 camera in a cardboard box. He’s actually in the crowd of people running around and he’s part of the film. And we ended using all of that footage- in the film because it just felt right. No matter what you do with what medium, it’s still gotta feel right.
Brown: And there’s some video in there.
Griffin: Yea, there’s some video, not a lot. I like that edge that the video has, that sort of zingy high contrast video. You want it to happen.
BEARS: The news reports are all in English. So I am assuming that it’s the American radio…
Brown: Its the English language version, “Radio for Europe” or in Czech “The Voice of America.”
BEARS: So in the European version of this film, will that not be in English?
Griffin: I don’t know. I like this in English, because I like the idea that is a voice from outside. Now when they listen to “Radio For Europe” or “Voice of America, ” its in Czech. But you could still also get BBC and other things in English.
Brown: Because “Radio for Europe” was in Munich at that time. It was in Munich to beam in. The closest possible point to beam into the former radio stations.
BEARS: What is that giant tower in the film? Was that real thing?
Giffin: It was built specifically to block transmissions from the West, It’s the like most bizarre thing in my entire world.
BEARS: I find that more frightening than the Berlin Wall.
Brown: I lived down the street from that tower for 5 years …
BEARS: Is it still there?
Brown: Yes, it used to be a restaurant.
Griffin: Then it was a hotel where you can rent one bedroom for like a $1000 a night.
Brown: It’s one of my first memories. I went up there and it was this weird, strange hedonistic party up in that tower I wont give you the details, but the restaurant’s still open. So yes you can go up there.
Griffin: There is a film to be made about the early middle ’90s in Prague that would be fairly X-Rated. It was pretty wild.
BEARS: I think that happened anywhere where there was a lot of repression for such a long time. I think Berlin in the ’30s.
Brown: When I moved there it was a very hedonistic.
BEARS: How long were you shooting this, you started in 2009, but, I’m assuming you didn’t shoot consecutively. So..?
Brown: It was pieced together because Gary was in New York and back and forth. There were very much some blocks. A lot of the time-lapses were pick-up shots that Gary was doing by himself.
Griffin: We shot until 2011. We shot for two years.
Brown: Then we stopped to try and get Czech tv to finish the film. Gary was funding the film and Then Czech tv came in for post- production.
LISTOPAD made its world premiere last year and has been playing the festival circuit ever since. Follow them on facebook for news about their release.