It took me a few days to get the hang of Karlovy Vary. The first morning, as I headed off in the wrong direction from my quaint hillside Cajkovskij Palace Spa and Wellness Hotel, a helpful couple pointed me toward a deep staircase heading straight down toward the Festival Central at the mammoth Hotel Thermal, renowned for its mineral pool. The local waters are famous –the idea is to buy a little cup and slowly sip from a series of fountains along the river. Mike Cahill, the director of the fest’s opening night movie "I, Origins," said the water tastes like warm blood. "Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter" director David Zellner showed me his cup. I’ll get around to it.
The Hotel Thermal boasts several screening rooms and other theaters are scattered through the tourist town, bulging with the influx of buyers of some 120,000 festival tickets plus 850 industry players largely from Europe but also Scandinavia and America. The festival starts at the Thermal hub and winds down the river about a 20-minute walk to the elegant Grandhotel Pupp, reportedly the inspiration for Wes Anderson’s "Grand Budapest Hotel." While Anderson has never attended the film festival in Karlovy Vary, the film did scout locations here, from the Pupp’s funicular to the Deer Leap Lookout.
The KVIFF talent stay at the Pupp, so I’ve schlepped down there many times now, trying to snag a festival car when I’m in a rush. I interviewed achievement-award-winner Mel Gibson on video (we’ll post soon) before the official festival dinner at the Grand restaurant. I nibbled at a pate of duck liver and fois gras with cherries and beetroot as I chatted with the city Mayor (who runs a film club) and the Czech Minister of Culture, who is a rare Roman Catholic in a country of post-Communist atheists. They were pleased to tell me that the government has invested substantial tax subsidies to lure film productions to the Czech Republic. Their film industry has fallen from supplying some 40% to 10% of the total film grosses per year, unable to compete with imports including the usual Hollywood pictures and international indies.
From what I can gather, the film schools push out film students who apply for grants from government funders who back worthy low-budget indie films that may not connect with large audiences. Like everywhere else, TV is thriving; there are no movie studios. The festival competition in Karlovy Vary is designed to showcase the best of new Czech cinema. I’ll report anon on what I do see–of the 200-some films on display are a tempting smorgasbord of the best of the international festivals, plus tributes to actress Laura Dern and Steve Golin and Michael Sugar of Anonymous Content, the production and management company that has backed any number of films, directors and TV series (among them "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Wild at Heart," "Winter’s Bone," and HBO’s "True Detective" and the upcoming "The Knick," from Steven Soderbergh). Ex-Paramount chair Sherry Lansing and her husband director William Friedkin will be here later in the week to accompany a showing of his restored "Sorcerer."
The Czech-born COO of film sales company and producer FilmNation, Milan Popelka, who moved to the US as a child, has been supporting the KVIFF for 11 years, encouraging his friend Krystof Mucha, now executive director, to import more insiders from Hollywood. That he did, and the industry contingent has grown, also thanks to U.S. liaison Tatiana Detlofson. This year Prague-based screenwriter Tomáš Baldýnský, the former editor of Czech Premiere (who I once met at an international Premiere confab in Cannes), moderated a useful Hollywood panel about how international filmmakers can cross over to the U.S. Sharing their wisdom were New York-based Popelka (who brought "The Rover" to KVIFF), "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty" producer Greg Shapiro, who has Russian-set "Child 44" coming up from Lionsgate, and sales rep and producer Kevin Iwashina of Preferred Content, who helped to get "Jiro Dreamed of Sushi" made when he was at CAA. (Details later.)
I finally caught up with John Michael McDonagh’s "Calvary" (August 1), which Fox Searchlight picked up at Sundance, an intense Irish drama about a good priest ("The Guard" star Brendan Gleeson, in top form) who is threatened with death by a man in crisis in the confessional. The priest, who made his vows after his wife died, knows who wants to kill him, and goes through the next week dealing with his troubled daughter (excellent Kelly Reilly) and a colorful group of locals. We don’t know the identity of his would-be assassin, but there are quite a few candidates for the gates of hell, from a cynical atheist doctor (Aiden Gillen from "Game of Thrones") and a cuckhold butcher (Chris O’Dowd) to a heavy-drinking guilty survivor of the financial crash (Dylan Moran). At the Q & A McDonagh admitted that he supplied nihilism and Gleeson delivered emotion. That’s for sure. I welled up several times. This will make many critics’ ten best lists.