Harvie and the Magic Museum has been an undeniable marketing success for Martin Kotík. How did he manage to keep such a big project together? What limitations did he find in the story? And how is he using his experience in preparing his second animated film?

Your film Harvie is quite exceptional in the Czech context.

Not only in the Czech context. It is the only mainstream internationally co-produced Eastern-European animated movie. Russia and Ukraine never co-produce. They might be raising money on the international level, but their films are made exclusively in-house. That’s why we made our film in Russia. We wanted to use the rich experience they have. It’s not too common to find an environment that can cater to an animated film from A to Z.  They’re really way ahead of us there and they always will be, because with the amount of money circulating through their market, they are head and shoulders above our animation production – and this will hardly ever change. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of euros.

What do you offer foreign investors beyond the story and concept?    

Nothing. Let’s not forget, however, that the subject and the concept are everything in the world of animated films. It is in this respect that you must be competitive and better than others. Once you have both and you really make the necessary effort, the rest will somehow find you. Or, you’ll be able to find everything you need. Of course I’m not talking here about a vague idea of ​​a film, but the ability to keep the whole project together and lead its realisation. You just have to guarantee a functional phase of the development, which is not commonplace. Development of an animated film ultimately costs almost the same as a smaller live-action film, and it is absolutely crucial for the quality of the result. At the end of development, the ideas in the film must be complete, as not much can be altered during realisation.

How did you keep control of the much more experienced Russians?

I had to gain their trust. When you come to such a place and you don’t look confident enough, the animators will start to “help you”. That is, they will push you softly towards solutions that they think are better than yours. But once you prove to them that you know what you’re doing, there are no problems. I came to understand this very quickly. I sat down to talk with all the animators and established human contact with them – this helped us find a common language and the final experience was good.

How can one fight against prejudice?

Apart from doing a good job? I thought it necessary to show my affiliation with the international market. Our agent, who sells Harvie to the world, is French. He is a representative of a small but distinctive company with contacts across all continents. I chose him after a very long and complicated search, because when a Frenchman speaks to the world on our behalf, it automatically raises our credit. People then think that if this agent chose a film from Eastern Europe and connected his name to it, the film must have potential. Similarly, it was helpful that postproduction took place in a Belgian studio, where, for example, Asterix was made. The Czech element in Harvie is obvious at first sight – the tradition of puppetry and Prague’s scenery. The French agent and Belgian collaboration then simply work as a counterbalance and declare contact with the West.

This was successful. Harvie has been sold to hundreds of countries.

There wasn’t a big opening night for it in all places though; some regions don’t even have a network of multiplexes. Still, it’s been a success that, in many respects, was quite unexpected. Of all the countries, the biggest turnout was in the Czech Republic, with over 200,000 people. The total across the rest of the world, though, was much higher, not to mention the potential of Russia, where we have only just launched it. I believe many more people will come to see Harvie there. We’re also planning to expand to Spain, Sweden and the whole of South America. It doesn´t always work out, of course. Some countries, for example Brazil, didn´t believe their child audience would accept such a “strange-looking” character and they rejected us. We haven´t registered any problem from children around the world, though.

Harvie has succeeded internationally. Why is it such an exception? Why wasn´t this the case with, for instance, the Oddsockeaters?

Harvie was made for international distribution from the very start, while the Oddsockeaters obviously settled for the Czech market. They succeeded very well in their goal and now we can only speculate whether or not they should have tried to aim higher. In terms of international distribution, however, I feel that the very make-up of the film is problematic – for a foreigner it isn´t obvious whether Oddsockeaters classifies as mainstream or art. Then, automatically, such a film is attributed to a minority genre. Often such a reaction cannot be anticipated – as I have already mentioned, in Britain, Harvie is being screened in independent art-house cinemas.

Your new film The Pearl, which is underway, now gives you the advantage of creating everything from scratch. In Harvie, you were constrained by specific aspects of the model.

Believe me – I’m aware of a lot of problems in Harvie from the story point of view. The stylization of the characters is understood primarily by the audience, who know the characters´ puppet history. That, however, turned out to be a smaller problem than I had expected. There were no issues with Harvie either – it is the timeless concept of a naughty boy. Setting the story in Prague and the Magic Museum is quite attractive. Almost all problems have to do with the character of Spejbl and his dynamics with Harvie.  Spejbl’s age doesn´t really correspond with his role as Harvie’s father and he acts more like his grandfather or uncle. Also, he lacks an inner world that someone could identify with. The youngest children see him as a kind of obstacle for Harvie in his effort to have fun, and Spejbl doesn´t seem to be able to step out of this role. For older children, greater nuances of the parental relationship are missing. And parents cannot find a way to relate to him whatsoever, because they can clearly see how distant he is to them. This works in the theatre – you can rely on intentional archaism and the audience doesn´t try to identify with the heroes, because they accept them as caricatures. But what can you do with this in a film?

That is quite a serious matter.

Exactly. Moreover, we realized there was nothing we could do about it. We tried to make him more human, but it turned out that if we “improve” the character, he just ceases to be Spejbl. It was the first thing our consultant Jesper Møller wanted – and I realized that we would have to leave this aspect out.

Your new project must be a relief then.

First we came up with the setting, the “water sprite” mythology, and then we inhabited it with suitable characters.

Did you take some voluntary burden on your shoulders – like you did with Spejbl?

The very concept of the water sprite’s world is not very well-known – it is only specific to some Eastern European countries. Generally, we designed the movie to contain as few of these pitfalls as possible. We are drafting the third version of the script now and we have finished the visuals of the undersea world, but there’s still a long way to go.

Author: Martin Svoboda