“I primarily like to deal with historical themes in which we have to reconstruct places and times that no longer exist and are far behind us”
Miljen Kreka Kljaković (68) is Serbia’s highest-rated and best-known film production designer. He graduated from the Belgrade University Academy of Fine Arts and alongside his name it is stated, among other things, that he is a member of the Serbian Film Academy, the American Art Directors Guild and Maison des Artistes France, while his acknowledgements include the Golden Seal Award 2015/Yugoslav Film Library, Annual Award for the Best TV art design (1980), the French film academy awards-Caesar 1992 (for the film Delicatessen), the European Film Academy award-Felix 1991 (also for Delicatessen), Yugoslavian Academy Awards 1996 (for the film Underground), a nomination for an Emmy Award -USA 1995-1996 (for the TV film Rasputin), a nomination for the Excellence in Production Design Award – U.S. Art Directors Guild 2004 (for the TV film Helen Of Troy) production design, (for the film St. George Shoots The Dragon) 2010 – from FIPRESCI, The International Federation of Film Critics, and many others.
While working with all of our significant directors of the Prague School, the door to European and world fame opened to Kljaković. With his production design for the 1991 cult film Delicatessen (Jean-Pierre Jeunet) (1991), which brought him the European Oscar – “Felix” and the Caesar Award, France’s national recognition in the field of film, only rarely awarded to foreigners. Then followed a series impressive production designs for movies and TV serials: Underground, Rasputin (nomination for an Emmy), The Brave, Dune, Helen of Troy, The Order, The Pillar of the Earth, An Ordinary Man, Muhammad etc., almost fifty production designs of top European and world productions.
Kljaković is currently entering into another major project with Oscar-winner Barry Levinson, director of the hit film Rain Man.
“In life, it’s not possible to predict and plan everything,” says Kljaković. “Fine art was my great love and has remained so, and I will return to it someday. The film may have only temporarily seduced me and taken me to some other side, and that’s why I have for years felt a huge emptiness and a great need to return to painting, my first love.”
When great careers unfold, there is most often a turning point – a case of being in the right place at the right time. For Kljaković that breakthrough was Goran Marković’s film Special Education.
Moving images are magical, and great enchantment, capable of drawing, enticing and dragging one into their world, the world of fantasy and imagination, and few people are capable of resisting it.
I entered the film world quite by accident, like when you experience your first love. Goran Marković’s film Special Education was my firstborn. My great professional and life adventure began with this film because I chose the profession that I would pursue. As you say, I was probably lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
Production design is about imagining on a given topic, devising and creating a space in which a film story will unfold, explains Kljaković.
“That characteristic is the privilege of a small number of people, with which one achieves and provides a substantial contribution to the visual quality of a film. It is created and implemented through the materialisation of the imaginative ideas of its author, and this process isn’t at all easy or straightforward. The path to reaching this goal requires a good and intelligent idea, but its solution also involves a lot of work, persistence and sacrifice.
The classic job of set designing won’t lose significance due to the advancement of new technologies, as there will still be a need to design the film space, even if it is only virtual.
“I’m one of those old-school authors who creates their aesthetics with their head and their own hands. That type of energy is something that can never and is unable to happen between man and machine. I think that’s exactly how true art emerges. Don’t forget that the best and most expensive shoes and Louis Vuitton bags are still being made by hand.”
Films with historical themes, Muhammad, set in the sixth and seventh centuries, Pillars of the Earth, based in the 12th century, The Secret Passage, showing the Venice of the 15th century, and the film Nomad, set in 18th century Kazakhstan, were all the kind of serious and delicate projects that every set designer desires
Asked whether he divides projects into large and small, Kljaković says that he primarily likes demanding, large and serious film décor.
“If you are bona fide in your approach to the work you do, then only great challenges can satisfy you and make you happy. A great challenge is usually also a great inspiration in dealing with our artistic work. Believe it or not, small films are more exhausting than some other more serious and demanding film projects.
“The most important thing is to be competent and to know how to select a good film script that can interest you and inspire you creatively. There are mitigating circumstances if you know the director of a film project from a previous engagement and have collaborated with them before; if it is a director whose working style and the method you know well. In such a situation there is no wasting time adapting and testing mutual creative moments.”
While collaborating with greats of the film world, Kljaković also witnessed the revealing of some hidden secrets, like the fact that Marlon Brando doesn’t learn a role by heart, but instead performs with the help of an earpiece.
“Yes, it happened in the film The Brave, which was directed by Johnny Depp. I was quite surprised when I discovered that a legend like Marlon Brando acts with the help of an earpiece, through which his assistant reads the script, and he receives the sound through a miniature speaker located at the bottom of his ear canal. As a result, he was focused and concentrated only on acting, and not on the script that he had to learn. That’s an interesting, rather strange and unusual system of acting.”
There were film production companies that were part of large corporations and that dealt mainly with productions without the desire to generate some profit. One of them was major French company Bouygues Construction, which financed Emir Kusturica’s film Underground, which I worked on
With which kinds of emotions do you enter into projects today; what are the challenges that you’ll never be able to resist?
“As has been the case to date, I’m also interested in serious film projects that carry within them great challenges, which gives the set designer enough space and breadth for artistic action and upgrades. I primarily like to deal with historical themes in which we have to reconstruct places and times that no longer exist and are far behind us. Such projects renew one’s knowledge of history and general culture, and I must say that they teach a lot that’s new. When I work on such films, I never think of the rewards that they usually carry with me. My greatest reward, as always, is well-designed and implemented film décor, which carries powerful and strong emotions within it, and which will be transferred to viewers from the cinema screen.”
Working on a film is like living in a movie. The measure of things, when it comes to any commitment, just doesn’t exist or is very difficult to measure…
“Film is difficult, like mining work, filled with stress, arduous work and a lot of sacrifices. That’s there’s only a small number of people who deal exclusively with this profession and only this profession throughout their lives. But the film is strange magic, which gives you a lot of things on one side and takes just as much away on the other. If you agree to this type of balance, you will remain in this business until the very end. I deal with big-budget films that have all the conditions required for good implementation. That’s the most important thing when it comes to my job.
“Naturally, for such films, a team is carefully selected that comprises professionals with a lot of experience and lots of good and significant movies behind them.
“I was fortunate to receive the top awards in Europe for one film that is today a cult work, Delicatessen: a European Oscar and the Caesar Award of the French Film Academy. In some way, that film opened the door to the world for me. However, in the same way, there were some films that I’d previously worked on in Serbia that opened the door for the film Delicatessen.”
The films Muhammad and The Secret Passage both took years to make. What does it feel like to create and build large film sets?
“I hope for and love big projects. And these were fantastic challenges, films with large sets where I could show what I’m capable of and what I know as an author.
The film about the Prophet Muhammad, set in the sixth and seventh centuries, Pillars of the Earth, based in the 12th century, The Secret Passage, showing the Venice of the 15th century, and the film Nomad, set in the 18th century Kazakhstan, were all genuine scenographic challenges. All of these major films with historical themes are very risky and slippery for every author. Apart from the fact that everything must look good, precise and accurate in scenographic terms, you also have to comply with the deadlines and budget provided. Those are battles that you are fighting throughout the entire film project. And in that struggle are hidden many traps that can cause you to shift and head in the wrong direction, making unforgivable mistakes and bringing your entire career into question.”
Is there a difference between Europe and America when it comes to the film business?
“American film is primarily a business — the fundamentals of everything link to returns on the funds invested and, according to possibilities, generating good income. American producers mostly associate themselves with projects that are safe and capable of achieving high ratings and great success. In Europe, this is somewhat different. There were film production companies that were part of large corporations and that dealt mainly with productions without the desire to generate some profit. One of them was major French company Bouygues Construction, which financed Emir Kusturica’s film Underground, which I worked on. They invested in the film with a desire to help in the creation of good art and to achieve prestige in this business in some way. There is increasingly less of that today, so the film industry in Europe has also become a commodity that’s bought and sold.”
I was quite surprised when I discovered that a legend like Marlon Brando acts with the help of an earpiece, through which his assistant reads the script and he receives the sound through a miniature speaker located at the bottom of his ear canal. As a result, he was focused and concentrated only on acting, and not on the script that he had to learn
You’ve worked on a lot of feature-length films, but also TV films. Pillars of the Earth is a TV film, and series made for Ridley Scott, while the film Rasputin, for TV channel HBO, brought you an Emmy nomination. What is the difference between working on film and television?
“A television screen can swallow everything, which is why the scenography is always less demanding than it is for the big screen. A large screen is like an exhibition of paintings where everything is seen and measured. However, the fact is that TV films and TV series are being increasingly made, because the viewer has become too comfortable and is increasingly more connected to their home environment, their TV set and their computer. Ever fewer people are going to cinemas. Television will undoubtedly prevail and destroy the real film industry.
And ever fewer viewers will seek that real experience in the darkness of the cinema hall. The tempo of life has become very fast, and habits also change with that tempo.”
Do big stars behave in the same when the cameras are turned off?
“A film crew is a group of people who are engaged in the work they do and who give their all and contribute to the quality of the film image, no matter what position they hold. This is only possible if there is mutual respect, close and friendly relations. If such a relationship is achieved, it continues even when the lights go off, and the cameras stop filming. Then stars are no longer stars but good acquaintances and good friends. In other words, members of the ordinary and normal world.”
You have a very unusual hobby – you collect the shoes of the actors from the films you’ve worked on! Why shoes specifically?
“I have an extensive collection of men’s and women’s shoes that were worn as part of the costumes for the films I’ve worked on. Some shoes were worn by William Hurt, Faye Dunaway, Johnny Depp, Jerry Lewis, Greta Scacchi, Ben Kingsley, Alan Rickman, John Cusack, Maximilian Schell, Donald Sutherland et al.
“And it all began quite by accident in Paris, when Johnny Depp, Isabelle Adjani and I went to a discotheque one night. We stayed there until morning as the last guests, and it was then that I asked Isabelle to give me her shoe and to sign it. She agreed to that. That was a little black lacquered ballet pump, and that morning she went home barefoot-like Cinderella. And thus I came up with the idea to start collecting something that could remind me of beautiful moments. These memories are not a fetish; these are “thousand-mile” shoes that have passed through the various films I’ve worked on.”
Is there anything that you would do differently today, in work or life? Would you be able to live differently and perhaps wish to do so?
“Art is enthusiasm and freedom, and that’s why I’d never give it up. Thanks to that and the career I’ve had, I’ve managed to realise the dreams that I had. Perhaps I will only slow down my activity in film at this juncture, to be able to dedicate myself more to painting and graphics, because art is about triumphing over chaos, and that’s something that we all need. I’ve made a lot of film sets, and my career is still at its peak, but I’m increasingly thinking about painting. I miss it. I’ve never even dealt with proper painting. Everything I do just sketches, tailored things, things according to a task. I would like to devote myself to myself a little and to start painting and creating graphics, which I studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. And in that, I feel a huge sense of emptiness.”