Patrik Ulrich: Our view of Mr. Čepelka is owed to the people around him

Miloň Čepelka Miloň Čepelka Authored by: Tomáš Teglý

The Gala Opening of the Patrik Ulrich's documentary about the co-founder of the legendary Jára Cimrman Theatre, Miloň Čepelka, who will celebrate his 85th birthday this year, will take place at the Golden Prague Festival on September 23. Čepelka is the author of film scripts, poems and prose and song lyrics. He has hosted programmes about light opera and he hosts brass-band music concerts as he also is a passionate singer of brass-band music. The documentary also discloses this slightly hidden artistic position of the famous Cimrman Theatre Company member who will lead the audience through his life with unmistakeable dark humour and his own original approach.

Why did you name your film Milestones of Miloň Čepelka? What does it refer to?

My first choice was Amadeus Čepelka – Miloň’s baptismal name was Amadeus. The Catholic priest at the time refused to give him the name Miloň, which he’d never heard before. The parents however insisted, but the priest stood by his act and translated the name into Latin – amo, that is: I love, and deus, God, meaning He who loves God, or is loved by God. When I approached Miloň with this idea for the film’s name, he was very upset: it was too crass for him, and he did not want to compare himself to Mozart. A subsequent contender was The Poetic Miloň Čepelka, but we eventually dismissed it as too pompous – even though it plays into one facet of the film, where Miloň recites his own poetry. We ended up with Milestones, which points to the various places where we shot the film, the various time shifts along Miloň’s life, but also his traveling between genres and artistic worlds. Shooting with Miloň felt like being on a holiday trip, an excursion with various way stations. 

Was it always your intention to intersperse the film with poems?

From the very beginning, we wanted to cram as much of Miloň’s poetry into the film as we could. However, it couldn’t be contrived, like a theatre recital! We wanted the poetry to be pertinent to his life, and to reference events in his life. He spent his entire life in Opočno – so he wrote a poem about Opočno. He worked as a teacher in Nový Knín – so he wrote a sonnet about Nový Knín. When he witnessed the Soviet occupation, he penned a sketch in verse about it. Thus, when I asked him during filming, whether some poem might not be related to what he’d just told us, he was simply intrigued: How could I have guessed? For instance, at some point during his childhood he was traumatized by the sight of a silver child’s coffin, used to lay a distant cousin to rest. Years later, as an adult, he used the motif in his collection Dvě básně o smrti (Two Poems about Death). This is a beautiful demonstration of how formative experiences are never far when he writes poetry, within reach for him to reflect them in his work. 

Eighty-five years is a long time. Did you have a preconceived plan as to what stages in life – what "stations" – would be given prominence in the film?

We had a few qualms over how much to reveal about Miloň’s personal life. He never stood in the limelight the way his fellow actors Smoljak and Svěrák did, and this allowed him to protect his privacy from the audience. For us, this meant we should proceed with circumspection. At the same time, we want to show that Miloň is not just a cast member of the Jára Cimrman Theatre. This is why the second plane of the film is given over to Miloň outside the theatre. We present him as a musician, as a man of letters. On the other hand, he has been an active artist since his twenties, which is why we had to let drop a lot of material to the floor of the cutting room. There is enough for a series, or two feature-length films! 

Miloň Čepelka is a founding member of the Jára Cimrman Theatre – what’s your take on this best-known role of Miloň?

Zdeněk Svěrák always spoke about Miloň as one of the most important people in his life. In fact, he jokingly referred to him as the Pointsman, because Miloň set his course so he would end up on the right track. For instance, it was Miloň who introduced him to Ladislav Smoljak’s drama group. He also acquainted him with Jaroslav Uhlíř, for whom Miloň wrote lyrics before Zdeněk did. He has been called the third most-important member of the DJC. In fact, he alone was a member of two Cimrman ensembles – at the Jára Cimrman Theatre and at the Salon d’Cimrman, an artistic endeavour of Jiří Šebánek who’d left the theatre toward the end of the 1960s. For years, Čepelka straddled two boats, crossing a razor-sharp line in the sand. But he prevailed, and of course we devote a good part of our film to his Cimrman connections.

Are you using current footage, or a juxtaposition of your own material and footage from the archives?

Truth be told, we found lots of rare footage which hasn’t seen the light of day for a very long time, especially recordings from the 1980s and the early 1990s. However, thanks to Mr. Svěrák, we had the opportunity to shoot a performance of The Act with different cast members, which could be seen only in recent years, and then only on stage. We’ll include several excerpts in the film, and some among our audience will thus for the first time see Žíla played by Zdeněk Svěrák (who adopted the role after the death of Jaroslav Weigel).

How did you approach Mr. Čepelka?

Miloň was initially reticent. We first met in Opočno at the premiere of a film about composer Luboš Sluka, who has been friends with Miloň for many years. Weeks before that meeting, editor František Svěrák and I confessed our interest in Mr. Čepelka as an outstanding personality to each other. 

Are you building your film on testimony, or are you developing your own narrative style?

Before we started filming, we read Nedělňátko (Sunday’s Child), which helped us a lot: we did not have to engage in lengthy cross-examinations of Miloň. In some way, our film is an adaptation of that autobiography. We also knew Mr. Čepelka from TV and theatre, and thus had an image of the person in our mind. We quickly confirmed its broad outlines, and were able to go on and discover other facets of his, talking e.g. about literature or certain bands whose music he likes.

Does one have to be a Cimrman scholar to be able to offer an adequate view of Mr. Čepelka?

I don’t think so. Our view of Mr. Čepelka is owed to the people around him. We listened to his closest friends, let them tell stories that gave us complete context. We get to see him from the point of view of Mr. Svěrák, Mr. Hraběta, Mr. Brukner, Mr. Táborský, or his son, Josef. We interpret Miloň primarily through his surroundings, including his spouse. 

May viewers look forward to unique scenes?

I don’t know whether you could call it unique, but I am really pleased e.g. with the scene we shot during Miloň’s train ride to Opočno. We wanted to get this kind of civilian angle also for the rest of the documentary. You don’t see us navigating corridors at radio and TV broadcasting stations; we shot a lot outdoors in nature, stopped by at an open-air cinema or a tavern. To the extent that this documentary is unique, I believe it is because we see a different Miloň from the one we are used to in TV shows, light operas, radio features. Ultimately, the film also benefits a lot from being set in his birth region, which makes it feel a lot more like a meditation on life. 

What’s the hardest part of making this film?

The stage after the last day of shooting. When you need to pick and choose one definite hour from nine hours of raw footage. Miloň does not speak in sparse sentences of the kind you sometimes get in oral testimony. As a seasoned radioman, he is used to fill every second of silence with words. The answers weren’t scripted, so we’re stuck with a two-minute run-on sentence from which we need to pick fifteen seconds. Miloň talks the way he writes; all sentences make sense and convey both emotions and information. He gives you context. It is an immense pleasure to work with such material. But we’ll need to find a way to put it all to good use – maybe in the bonus features, or a podcast?