Just another child who has started to put on weight;Interview;Jan Sverak

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Hollywood loves the cute kid. Like Andrei Khalimon, the boy at the centre of the Oscar-winning Kolya. Robin Buss meets the film's director, Jan Sverak, and wonders (remember Macaulay Culkin?) what will become of Andrei. . .

The American Academy of Motion Picture Arts has a weakness for small children, especially if they are foreign. In 1989, Cinema Paradiso had all the ingredients that the Academy looks for in a Best Foreign Language Film - small European, very cute; middle-aged European, very cuddly (Philippe Noiret); strong dose of nostalgia and sentiment.

A couple of years ago, in Burnt by the Sun (1994) the director Nikita Mikhalkov cast himself as a veteran Soviet general during the Stalinist terror, and his real-life daughter, Nadia, in the minor role of his film child. But when it came to the Oscar ceremony, there was no doubt who had clinched the award. Nadia charmed everyone, after dominating the film to the point of nearly obscuring its message. This year, the other nominees may have guessed that the game was up as soon as they learned they were in competition with a movie about a cute Russian boy and his gruff Czech stepfather, packed with affection and humour. Kolya duly took the award for Best Foreign Film.

Nikita Mikhalkov presumably needed no help in finding his own daughter for Burnt by the Sun, but it was Mikhalkov's casting assistant who discovered the star of Kolya, five-year old Andrei Khalimon (the Czech transliteration is "Chalimon"), for Czech director Jan Sverak. Otherwise, like Mikhalkov's film, this was a family affair: the screenplay was written by Sverak's father, Zdenek, who also plays the central role of Frantisek Louba, a cellist out of favour with the regime, who makes a living playing at funerals. This is the period leading up to the end of Communist rule. In order to escape from his debts, Frantisek agrees to an arranged marriage with a Russian woman, not realising that she intends to travel on from Prague to join her boyfriend in West Germany, or that the accidental death of her aunt will leave him in charge of her child, Kolya. Frantisek is an easy-going bachelor, with a complicated love life, who detests Russians and can't even speak their language. Suddenly his private attic lair is invaded by this abandoned child. He immediately applies to the state orphanage...

After the Oscars, Kolya was a strong favourite for the same award from BAFTA, but it lost out to Patrice Leconte's Ridicule. "They had to give something to Ridicule," Sverak said, when I met him in London the next day with his co-producer, Eric Abraham. Neither man seemed too downcast by the British Academy's decision.

Even with the help of Mikhalkov's assistant, it had taken almost a year to find Andrei Khalimon for the part. "I needed a boy who looks like five years old, but is much more sophisticated, one who can repeat a scene, to earn more applause - which is abnormal." The first tests in Moscow involved making the boy play the most difficult scene, one where he sits in a bath, using the shower attachment as a telephone and trying to talk to the dead aunt. "We asked him to be sad, but his eyes were happy all the time, because he is a very merry boy. The camera can very easily discover anything false. So we went out and his mother talked to him, telling him these uncles had come a11 the way from Prague, '...and you're not able to do a sad face for them'. Then he started to cry, and when we came back, he did the scene. We were in shock, because normally small kids are not able to do those two things together: to cry and to co-operate. So I was sure it would work."

The problems, were not over, however. For the first two weeks after he arrived in Prague to start filming, Andrei was (in Sverak's word) "horrible". He kept looking into the lens, acting up for the camera. They were convinced that they would either have to start all over again and find another boy, or else reduce Andrei's part, using him only in wide shots. "Then Papa explained to him that he, too, is not an actor, and that when he wants to be sad, he thinks about something sad from his own experience..."

As Sverak is speaking, I suddenly remember a scene in Henri Troyat's novel, Grandeur Nature, published in the 1930s, which is also about the making of a child star. The boy is doing a screen test: he is sitting by his bedroom window, longing for his mother to come and read him a story, but hearing the sounds of her preparing to go out for the evening. "Think of a time when you were unhappy: a disappointment, something you wanted but couldn't have," the director tells him, and the boy's eyes fill with tears. In Andrei's case, he thought about the death of his pet dog.

Once little Andrei had grasped what was wanted, Sverak began to find additional opportunities to use his character - "it started to be a joy to work with him." The first time we meet Kolya, for example, is at the wedding ceremony, where the camera discovers him almost hidden behind his mother's skirt and staring at the rampant lion on the Czech emblem. He is trying to imitate the position of the animal's paws. Instantly, we are captivated by this five-year-old and asked to sympathise with him, as he seeks to make sense of the world around him. The scene is one of several that the Sveraks only wrote when they started to realise Andrei's potential.

Like Nadia in Burnt by the Sun, Andrei almost hijacks a picture which was intended to be primarily about the man, Frantisek, and an allegory (Sverak prefers to call it "a metaphor") of the relations between Czechoslovakia and the USSR. "The older one, who is in charge, is the representative of the weak nation and the weaker one, the innocent boy, represents the occupying power."

As it happens, Sverak and Abraham had to fight hard to preserve their vision of the story when they were trying to find the money to make Kolya. "It would have been easier to raise $10-15 million for an English-language film, than it was to raise $1.3 million for a Czech-language one," Abraham says, while Sverak adds that some of their potential backers "were saying, 'do it in English and not let the boy be Russian'..." The political message clearly meant nothing to such people anyway, but the more insidious threat comes from Kolya: the weaker character comes close to stealing the film.

For the time being, however, it's all congratulations. Kolya is enormously successful, single-handedly in its homeland bringing a disaffected audience back to the cinemas, and set for the widest global release of any Czech film in cinema history.

Andrei went to the Oscars, sat through the tedious ceremony drawing cars with Zdenek Sverak and achieved an ambition to visit Disneyland. What about the long run? The boy in Grandeur Nature faces a miserable future, rejected after his second film and unable to adjust to normal life. Troyat's novel is a morality about exploitation, reflecting the mood of the depressed Thirties, when parents were often eager to put their children into films; it may be based on the brief career of Julien Duvivier's protege, Robert Lynan. In real life, while some child stars have gone on to achieve success as adults (Mickey Rooney, Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor), the prospect is more often obscurity (at best), or disappointment and regret. Who remembers even the name of the cute kid from Cinema Paradiso? (It was Salvatore Cascio). And obscurity may not be the worst of it: Sverak and Abraham mutter the words "Macaulay Culkin"...

We talk about other things: Andrei's background (his mother was a dancer, who now works as a secretary, and his father sells cars); how Jan Sverak and Eric Abraham met (at the Karlovy Vary festival): how Jan got into directing (by mistake: he wanted to specialise in cinematography, but the department was over-subscribed); whether he speaks Russian ("I studied it for 17 years at school, and this was the first time I ever used it in some reasonable way"). Sverak and Abraham are delightful company: relaxed, amusing, engagingly enthusiastic about their film.

But we revert inevitably to the subject of Andrei. Suppose he wants to become an actor later on? "I am not sure that his face is going to be interesting when he is an adult," Sverak says, "because he is now getting fat. He was nice when his face was rounded and innocent. But as soon as he has muscles, like an ordinary boyIwhen he came back to Prague for the awards, he was so fat that I was not able to lift him up." The boy, whose innate ability Sverak was earlier describing as "abnormal", has become just another, not especially prepossessing child - who started to put on weight, apparently, because the film crew spoiled him with sweets.

His parents turned down an offer for Andrei to appear in a Russian film because they thought the role was unsuitable; for the time being, now seven-years-old, he is still at kindergarten, preparing to start school and protected from over-exposure, Sverak believes, by the fact that the film has yet to open in Russia.

"I am asking his mother not to talk to him about what he did in the film. Maybe there were just two years in his life when he was so cute and natural, and he was able to deliver such a performance. Let him do some sport and other activities, don't let him feel that this was his career..."

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