Czech director Matěj Chlupáček may not be 30 yet. But when his period drama We Have Never Been Modern (Úsvit) debuted in the main competition of the 57th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival a few days ago, buzz was ringing through the fest halls that it was a frontrunner for becoming the Czech submission for the 2024 Academy Awards.
The film, with a screenplay by Miro Šifra, is set in 1937’s Czechoslovakia and follows Helena (Eliška Křenková, Bird Atlas, Winter Flies) who is about to give birth and face a rosy future in a modern city as the wife of a successful young factory manager. “However, all her illusions soon perish, as the dead body of a newborn intersex baby is found in the middle of their factory,” a plot description highlights. “Helena needs to find out what happened here for the safety of her own child, but she runs into her own prejudices. The film is inspired by the true story of intersex people in the 1930s, shortly before the (Second World) War destroyed everything.”
Intersex describes various conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.
Chlupáček, born in 1994, also serves as producer on the movie and has taken on challenging topics before. His debut Touchless (2013) told the story of Jolana, 18, who is an object of her stepfather’s desire, with her mother turning a blind eye, and finds herself working in a brothel. He also made a name for himself with work on HBO Europe’s series In Treatment and the miniseries Rats, about the world of a young drug dealer and police informant, for which he received a Czech Film & Television Academy Award. He also works as a commercial director and producer, plus manages production firm Barletta, which develops film and commercial projects and has worked with such partners as HBO Max, AMC, Wild Bunch, France’s Canal+, and Germany’s ZDF.
Despite a busy schedule, Chlupáček took time in Karlovy Vary to talk to THR about how We Have Never Been Modern came about, how the period drama touches on topics and issues facing society today and why he cast a social worker in a key role.
Tell me a bit about the significance of the Czech title of your film, Úsvit. I hear it means “dawn”?
Yes, it means “dawn,” but it is also the name of the factory.
Did that factory really exist?
Yeah, it still exists, but it doesn’t look like that, it has changed tremendously. But it was also called Úsvit back then. It means “dawn” and also something new that is arising. So that’s the theme of the film also. So we included it in the title.
How did you decide on the English title then, We Have Never Been Modern?
I think the English title fits the film more somehow. It’s based on a book by Bruno Latour, who is a famous French anthropologist and wrote a book called We Have Never Been Modern back in the ’90s. And it’s about the clash of modernity and the old nature stuff. It’s very interesting. And we approached Bruno Latour and Harvard University which published the book to ask if we could name the film after it. So he read the treatment of the film and said yes. Unfortunately, he died two weeks later. So it was all fine, we could use it, but he passed away before the film was finished.
How would you describe the topics and the themes you touch on and how relevant they are today? And any message you are trying to send?
There’s a lot in the film, or in the script. The general topic for me is a clash, or the coming of something new into the world, which has got these strict rules you have to follow. So that’s why we chose this utopian world in the ’30s. And that’s why this intersex subject clashes with society. That was something I was very attracted to, to have something that destroys the world of the (characters), and they have to reflect on that, and they have to find their way through it.
Also, the setting in the ’30s, especially in 1937, just before the war comes, feels very similar to the day and time we live in right now. Because I always feel we are five minutes to midnight before something very bad happens.
Are you worried about wars, social clashes or other things?
It’s a combination. I think we have reached the point where we have everything. We are very, very fine, everything’s great. The war (in Ukraine) is happening, but we are not influenced by it heavily in terms of social life. I think we are fine. So I think it’s very similar to then. (The film characters) are living their rosy life, everything is great. The architecture is modern, they are very wealthy, and they can afford anything, basically. But they don’t know that in two years’ time, they will be either dead or they will have to restructure the whole life they live.
Issues like gender, sex, body issues and other themes in the film are things humanity still seems to struggle with…
I always intended to set the film in the historical era, but it’s completely modern, in terms of themes, subjects, and also the characters and the way they act. It probably cannot be seen in English, but they act very modern, they use words we use today. They are very similar to what we are like here right now. That’s not the style of classical historical Czech film. So that was something I wanted to explore. Also, we were shooting the whole film as a kind of indie film, it’s a lot of handheld camera, we are close to the main character.
A lot of the characters in the movie struggle and have to come to terms with competing ideas or reevaluate how they feel about things. How did you focus on giving characters these layers and complexities?
It was already in the script, but it was rewritten heavily many times based on the actors’ rehearsals and after we got a lot of feedback from the trans community. We didn’t want to make a film about something we are not very familiar with. You can study it, but you have not experienced it. So we discussed the script a lot with the trans community, and we rewrote the ending, for example.
In terms of the characters, what was very important for us was not to create a superhero woman, but a hero with her own mistakes. So when you see Helena going through the story, you can see her make mistakes, one after another. And the moment she realizes it is the moment in the dining room where she sits with Saša, and he says that he feels this way and he is not in line with her opinion. And that’s the moment when she realizes, “Fuck, I was wrong this whole time.” She is not a character without mistakes. You can relate and you can learn from it and you can learn through her journey.
I also caught myself wondering after seeing the film if I need to sometimes listen more…
The main message of the film is basically that simple: just listen before you make up your own opinion and just listen to the other side. But don’t create your own before starting to listen to the other side. Robert (Milan Ondrík) is sure about everything, he’s got this very funny line, which I read in some book from the ’30s that, “Hitler is fine. He’s just doing this and that, so the nation would be okay, but he is not doing anything.” And then a few years later…
What was the input from the trans community and how did you change the original ending? (SPOILER WARNING: parts of the ending are discussed below)
We always intended for Saša to leave for surgery to (the city of) Zlín and going by the rules of Helena and Dr. Kubák (Luboš Veselý). We didn’t reflect on him not feeling in line with their opinion. And we always wanted to say he feels he’s a man, and he’s a man, and then he decides that’s it and stands up for himself. But it wasn’t clearly there in the script. You couldn’t see the emotion of Saša.
So we decided to change that and have him go back to his village where he feels safe, and where maybe nobody likes him in a way that he is not able to get into any relationship, but at least he’s got a family that stands up for him that reflects he’s a man. And he feels like a man.
What material did you look at in preparation for the film?
The main idea of the film came from a book by Professor (František) Hájek, which is referenced in the film. It’s actually a book from ’37, and it was the first book that explored intersex, for the first time in the Czech Republic, maybe in the whole of Europe. So that was our initial reference. The story of Saša is also a true story, it just happened somewhere else. But there is a lot of stuff that is based on the true story, or at least inspired by the true story. And we studied a lot of these cases, similar cases, from the intersex, trans community. Also, the architectural and the visual style had to be explored. So we did a lot of research.
It’s a local story, but also a universal story…
That was the intention. I also did not want not make it too much of an art film. I wanted to create a film that looks more mainstream, so even my grandma would be able to watch the film and understand the topics. I didn’t want it to be above people and tell them what to think. I wanted to go with them on the journey with Helena and to just explain what’s happening. There was something you mentioned to me, and I feel the same way. The film, the whole journey really changed me, and I learned a lot about and around the whole topic.
I said hi to Richard Langdon who plays Saša and feels so natural in that role, so I was surprised when I heard Richard is a social worker?! How did you cast that role?
It was quite funny, because we knew we wanted a transgender actor or non-actor to play Saša. But you have no real actor in the Czech Republic, or Slovakia, who is trans. So we knew we had to find a non- actor. We just googled, and (screenwriter) Miro and (producer and casting director) Maja (Hamplová), discovered Richard on some Slovakian platform, which helps people with their transition. He’s a social worker who helps people who are in the same kind of situation he was in, with the whole psychology. So we found a photo of him on Facebook and his story underneath it. And I just looked at the photo and knew it was him. He was like I imagined Saša to be and to look. So we just did a Zoom call with him, and he was amazing. So we just invited him for a screen test with Eliška/Helena in Prague. I knew from the very first moment it’s Saša.
Richard seems very natural. How did having a non-actor on set work for you and Richard?
He’s not acting, he’s remembering the moments he experienced in his own personal life, with doctors, family, everybody. It’s very interesting. I shot a scene in the dining room, the most crucial scene for Saša, as the first scene with Richard on the second or third shooting day, and he came on set and I was very afraid because he had zero experience with cameras and everything. And he just sat there on the chair and did four takes, and he was amazing. I was like, “what the fuck!?” He said: “You know, it’s just remembering for me, it’s fine. If you tell me to look afraid, then I can’t do it because it’s acting and I have to get my way into that. But just remembering a scene I experienced and having my own personal input in the text or in the lines I have, that’s fine.
How was the acting team’s collaboration and chemistry on set, with a non-actor and some very experienced people…
We had a great team. I know it sounds like a cliche but we were like a family, with great atmosphere, and everybody felt very safe. Eliška/Helena helped Richard/Saša a lot because she was in a film called Winter Flies by Olmo Omerzu a few years ago. It was also in the competition here in Vary, and she was the only actress in the film. She played the main or supporting character with two main non-actor young boys, and she helped and coached them on the film. So we had the same kind of approach on We Have Never Been Modern. She was very supportive and helped Saša/Richard a lot to build the character. We rehearsed a lot.
What project is next for you?
I’m shooting a series called We Are on It, Comrades! It’s based on a true story of a bureau for paranormal activities in the ’80s in Czechoslovakia. (laughs) It’s again written by Miro Šifra. It’s super funny. It’s kind of a sci-fi detective comedy, a very strange genre I have never directed. So that’s something I’m shooting right now for (public broadcaster) Czech Television and for Germany’s ZDF.
Also, we are preparing Daughter of the Nation, which is the first series of Canal+ here in the Czech Republic. It’s set in the 19th century and a daring romantic comedy. It’s also something very new for the Czech Republic, this kind of approach to history.
And then I’m preparing a new film with Miro, and I am producing an animated film Living Large which is based on a French book (by Mikaël Ollivier). And it’s distributed by Wild Bunch internationally and is going to be released next year.
Any dream projects or Hollywood ambitions or plans to branch out further beyond your homeland?
I don’t think about a dream project because it just comes in time and things happen one after another. But I would love to go out from the Czech Republic to direct in the U.K. or in the U.S. because I love English cinema. I think it would be very fun for me to just depart the Czech Republic. So let’s see.