Tereza Polachová: Film is a long-distance run

“That’s why, as a producer, you must be determined and stubborn,” notes Tereza Polachová, creative producer of original TV drama and documentary programmes at HBO Europe who has produced projects such as Burning Bush, Bez vědomí, Wasteland and Head Over Heels, or the documentary Over the Hills. They scored points with viewers as well as among critics.

What was your journey to studying at FAMU’s Department of Production?

I got a job in film production at age 15 or 16, and I really loved it. That said, not all the experiences were positive, so – before deciding to apply for production at FAMU – I first graduated from Charles University’s Faculty of Social Sciences in International and Territorial Studies. I tried to make it to FAMU during my master’s studies, and when I completed my master’s programme at the FSS, I made it there. I also took a master’s course at FAMU.

Did you obtain the requisite “craftsmanship” to work as a film and TV producer?

I know I cannot speak for other Departments, but I believe that you do obtain the basics of the craft when it comes to the Department of Cinematography, Photography, and Documentary Film. As far as producing is concerned, I think I actually didn’t learn it until in practice. But I guess that applies to any job – only years of experience will really teach you. What I find problematic is the producer job perception, in that the producer is meant to serve only. That’s the way many directors still see it, and it lingers in the professional life – the producer is here to raise money, and other than that they should keep quiet. That’s not right. I think it’s important to differentiate between production work – which is where you can take a bachelor’s course at FAMU – but those who want to be real producers should go for the master’s course. The producer is the alpha and omega of everything; they go with the project start to finish. For example, in my job, I cannot imagine not having a say in the final cut, poster design or cast. An audiovisual work is a collective effort and the producer is definitely not the third wheel. I think it’s important for future producers to get to know what they should expect already when in school. I was always interested more in creating and developing a work, rather than in ‘standard’ producing. To me, development is the most important thing. A producer – and this is where my opinion on the job description differs from some others’ – is not merely an investor. You can hire executive producers or production managers for certain stages during the production, but as the producer you must always keep the big picture in mind and guide the film all the way to the finish, because otherwise you could go bust.

What do you think are the important traits for a producer to take a film to the finish winning?

Unlike independent producers, I have the advantage in the backing of a relatively wealthy American company and I don’t have to raise funds, which is a tough struggle. But I also have to answer for my actions and observe budgets. But, as I said, a producer’s job is not just money. A producer fosters the entire project’s idea; their job is comprehensive and includes both the creative and the bureaucratic sides, but should not let the latter tire them out. They have to go through all the stages to make the film. A producer must be determined and stubborn because a film is a long-distance run. Completing a project may take several years. You must be able to follow your vision while, as I put it, being able to navigate a ‘landscape of fragile egos’. I am forthright in discussions. When push comes to shove, I need my say in editing to ensure the film has exactly the footage it is supposed to have. In any case, however, I strive for a consensus. Maybe I’m repeating myself, but a film is a team effort.

Can FAMU teach one such a sense of team and collaboration?

I think that, at FAMU, there were opportunities for creative tandems to form and then work together for a certain part of life, so various collaborations did form. Yes, you get a chance to meet your fellow travellers, but I don’t think that this spawns as cohesive teams as the popular belief once was. It may be that positive memories stick stronger. I think FAMU used to be a quite encapsulated school earlier, but now the people there are much more open than the case was in the past.

Some say there is no need to study production – all you need is the right talents, and the rest goes sort of naturally. What do you think of this?

I think that, to work as a production manager, you don’t necessarily need to complete production studies at FAMU. You need some talent, practice, and someone to teach you the craft. And older mentor to show you how things are done. You can only learn how to make budgets correctly in practice. Students can now experience such practice while still in school in master’s programmes where the school is involved in various projects. If projects so require, funds are raised outside the school as well. The school has really opened it up this way.

What do you think differentiates FAMU from other film schools?

FAMU is still unique in giving students many opportunities, at least that’s the way it was during my studies: you could shoot using real film – that was not possible anywhere else abroad; editing suites and a studio were available, and that was phenomenal in comparison with other schools at the time. Then again, I think at the time the school was not open to the world; it showed in that Czech films did not travel much at the time. Students were not encouraged to collaborate with other schools, and then they learned this through labs and platforms during independent festivals. Collaboration with Czech TV works now. I think we owe this, to a great extent, to the former Head of the Department of Production Karla Stojáková and other people who are really active in film and TV production. Examples include Kateřina Ondřejková in Czech TV, producer and the founder and director of the Serial Killer festival Kamila Zlatušková, producer Pavel Strnad of Negativ, one of the greatest copyright experts Petr Ostrouchov, and others. They are all people who teach at the Department of Production, and students can meet real-world people who are really successful at work. They can meet the people and ask them about anything during lectures. The question is whether the students really use the opportunities. Generally, I believe the Czech problem is that people don’t ask enough questions. I see this as the aftermath of our educational system. But, maybe, this is just generational and younger people don’t have this problem.

If you could give FAMU students any recommendation or advice, what would that be?

Most importantly, watch TV, go to cinemas and theatres, and read a lot. Of course, there is a lot happening and you cannot manage everything, but if you want to study a film and TV school, you need to be in the know. It’s important to know what Netflix airs just as much as what Czech TV broadcasts and, generally, what is going on in Czechia. When students listen to lectures delivered by teachers who are currently making a film, that’s good to know. Even if the students don’t like it, they can offer a different view or constructive criticism. Criticism is always good but it must be constructive. And I think this is where FAMU seminars can help and refine matters: If you don’t like it, define why. Debate and competition are always good. I think people should not be afraid to apply for FAMU, but they should be open to communication and agreement, because even if you need to follow your vision in the producer job, you still need to know that you cannot make it alone. This does not mean that ‘unity is strength’ – I’m not that herd-type kind of person at all and I have always opposed the ‘herd principle’, but in this case, it’s crucial to understand that it won’t work without cooperation. Living is about compromise, however conformist this may sound. It’s good to apply for FAMU when you already have some experience in life. I think this applies to both producing and directing. FAMU and art schools in general give you more space to seek your own expression than, for example, medicine can give you. On the other hand, this is more difficult in terms of being successful exactly because the boundaries here are really loose. Those who graduate in medicine after six years of hardships are more or less predestined to be doctors, whereas when you graduate from FAMU you can be everything or you can be nothing. It’s all up to you, and it’s a big personal responsibility. This is why I think it’s a good idea to go study at this school at an older age. You need to be able to stand up and not give in under pressure. No fragile blossom can succeed in the producer job.

The interview can also be found at www.universitas.cz/en

Monika Otmarová

photo: Tereza Polachová´s archive

5. October 2022