Inside ‘Zátopek’ Director’s 15-Year Journey to Spotlight a Forgotten Czech Olympic Hero

TheWrap magazine: “People say to me, ‘He must have been a star when you were young,’ but nobody spoke of him,” director David Ondricek says of runner Emil Zátopek

Lucky Man Films

A version of this story about “Zátopek” first appeared in the International Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

The Czech Republic has entered a film about a national hero in this year’s international Oscar race, but he’s a hero who was often without honor in his own country: runner Emil Zátopek, who won three gold medals in the 1952 Summer Olympics but was blacklisted by the Communist Party when he advocated for reforms.

The drama by director David Ondricek, the son of famed cinematographer Misoslav Ondricek (“Amadeus,” “Ragtime”), opened this year’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival and went on to enjoy the ninth biggest opening in Czech history despite the pandemic. Ondricek shared the story of the film’s long journey to the screen.

You’ve been working on this film for a very long time, haven’t you?
Yes. When I was a child, my father told me a lot of stories about Zátopek, and he always told me one quote of his: “If you can’t keep going, go faster.” I liked that very much and use it all the time. And then about 15 years ago, a very good friend of mine, a composer, came to me with the idea of making a film. It was absolutely unbelievable that nobody had ever done a film about him, so I started to think about doing one.

But you need your main character to have targets and to face obstacles, so it was very difficult to write a script about somebody who won at everything on the field. But later I found that he had lots of obstacles in his private life and his political life.

In 2016, you made a TV documentary about Zátopek. Was that a way of getting deeper into the story while you prepared your feature?
Exactly. I had to postpone the film a couple of times because of money, but I thought it was still a good time to do new research. So I thought, I can make a documentary film about him and get more information for my movie. I met a lot of his friends, and did lots of interviews with his wife, Dana Zátopková. I was able to expand my familiarity, but it became an emotional experience also. Through those interviews I got closer to him than ever before.

For the lead role, you had to find somebody who not only could act but also could pass as a world-class runner, and could mimic Zátopek’s very distinctive and awkward style.
That was probably the most difficult thing in the film. We don’t have thousand of actors like you have in the United States. I was lucky that I wound up with Václav Neužil five years ago. He’s a talented actor, very healthy and sporty looking. We did some rehearsals and I thought that it looked really terrible, but I sent it to a professional coach, and he said, “After one year, he could look like a professional athlete.” I asked Václav, do you want to go through this torturous training for one year?” He said, “Absolutely.” And it was actually five years. And Zatopek’s wife said that her husband had abnormal calves, and after one year, Václav really had those calves too.

How did you recreate the look of the 1940s and ’50s?
We had to work for every shot. We wanted to recreate not just the atmosphere but do every detail very accurately. For example, the costumes are absolutely the same as old pictures from the ’50s and ’60s. Zátopek’s flat was absolutely realistic.

One really huge challenge was creating the stadium atmosphere in the crowd scenes. We had only 350 extras in the film. We combined a few techniques – not only the modern technique of 3D scanning, but also older style 2D scanning.  

You were born during the Prague Spring, when things were briefly getting more liberal in Czechoslovakia, but you grew up during the Communist era. Did you know anything about Zátopek other than what your father told you?
No. Lots of people have said to me, “He had to be a star when you were young.” No, he was on the blacklist. “But after the Velvet Revolution (in 1989), he must have been a really huge star.” No, because in the ’50s, he was a Communist. Nobody spoke about him after 1989 except Václav Havel, who gave him a medal.

But now with the movie, I’m very happy that people have started to think about him. He was a man of contradictions, and this is very hard for contemporary people to understand. But the film has helped open topics and themes that we don’t speak about very often in the Czech Republic right now.

Read more from the International Issue here.

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