From Spillville, Iowa to the stairwells of Prague

The key to the apartment door - at Mala Strana, Praha 1 - sometimes sticks. The light in the tiled stairwell goes out and I worry that I'll never finesse the giant iron key into the ancient lock of the Prague...
June 1, 1999

The key to the apartment door – at Mala Strana, Praha 1 – sometimes sticks. The light in the tiled stairwell goes out and I worry that I’ll never finesse the giant iron key into the ancient lock of the Prague atelier. The door eventually opens and I don’t have to spend the night camped out with yesterday’s Tribune and a bottle of Dobra Voda.

In the six months coproducer/editor Brian Cotnoir and I spent posting our documentary on Antonin Dvorak at Czech Television, panic attacks hit both sides of the production team over language or technical differences. ‘Good Morning’ became ‘Dobry Den.’ WordPerfect became Czech MSWord. avid became Lightworks. Twenty-four frames and NTSC drastically became 25 frames and PAL.

It started when Brian and I decided our next project would be an historical documentary about Dvorak’s time in America (he wrote The New World Symphony in Manhattan and The American Quartet in Spillville, Iowa). Working with experts, we traced Dvorak’s relationships with his African-American composition students. Coproducer Maurice Peress unearthed glorious music by Dvorak’s students, including the overture to the Will Marion Cook/Paul Laurence Dunbar Broadway smash, In Dahomey, which had not been heard since 1904. Dvorak encouraged his American students to reach into their own culture, to create their own identity and not to imitate Europe.

Funding came quickly through state humanities grants (Dvorak visited a lot of regions, thank God), and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A film about cultural identity and diversity was a natural for PBS. A visit to Prague yielded an exchange of information that had been halted for 40 years during the Communist regime.

But suddenly, Newt Gringrich put out the contract on America and ordered a hit on the neh. When the funding stopped, the fun really began. At once, we learned to adapt to the European coproduction business. Suddenly, the quintessentially American project was poked about for potential international appeal. Brian and I were among the first Americans to pitch at the Amsterdam Forum (we made a successful agreement with Marijke Rawie of avro in the Netherlands), I fell in love with Marseilles through Sunnyside, and we lost all self-consciousness about being perceived as Americans, even in London.

We hit pay dirt when Czech Television’s music producer Radim Smetana thought the idea of a film about Dvorak from the American POV was exciting. The coproduction agreement was not an anonymously-drafted contract electronically zapped along with a wire transfer. Czech TV gave us a facilities agreement, and this meant hands-on coproduction; living abroad for months; bringing along a finite amount of archival material; and working with a new crew who had a backlog of projects above and beyond this one. We were no longer an independent production team, but part of a national broadcasting system.

We jumped back into work. Our brilliant cinematographers, Hiro Narita and Allen Moore, suddenly got replaced by a new guy, Antonin Chundela, equally brilliant, shooting the Prague pick-ups, including a vintage locomotive on a misty Saturday morning. (Note: if you want to make dops happy, ask them to follow a moving train. Don’t ask them to shoot archivals.)

Finally, with two days to go in the over-booked editing suite and no further New York archival to be had in Prague, Brian wove a story out of thin air, a whisper, a prayer, and maybe even some lint.

We premiered the film at the Golden Prague Festival (May 3-6), and it’s actually a movie. It’s in English and Czech, shot by cinematographers from Japan, Maryland and Prague, featuring oral histories about Spillville piglets, Gerald Early’s ruminations on the Fiske Jubilee Singers, Dvorak’s granddaughter walking around the Bohemian forest and New York water towers at dusk, but a movie it is, and it comes together because Antonin Dvorak had the spirit to bring different experiences alive in his music.

Lucille Carra’s Travelfilm Company is producing several programs, including Dvorak in England. Last year, Brian Cotnoir also edited documentaries for the BBC and HBO. Dvorak and America is targeted for PBS in 2000.

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