Zátopek, David Ondricek’s biopic about multi-Olympic champion runner Emil Zátopek, become a box office champ in the Czech Republic when it released late last August and is also repping the country in the race for the International Feature Oscar.
The story sees Australian runner Ron Clarke (James Frecheville), after suffering a serious collapse during a major race, pay a visit to legendary Czech runner Zátopek (Vaclav Neuzil), who he believes might help him become a champion again. Over the course of Clarke’s visit, the film takes viewers back through the key moments in Zátopek’s life, including his tumultuous and passionate marriage to Olympic champion Dana Zátopková (Martha Issova).
Ondricek and his lead actors joined for Deadline’s Contenders Film: International awards-season event to discuss the genesis of the project and its resonance at home.
The director explained that he had heard stories of Zátopek when he was a child and appreciated his saying, “If you can’t keep going, go faster.” But, “I ultimately forgot about him” until a composer friend said suggested they make a biopic. “I was shocked nobody had done a film about him, he was completely forgotten and he was one of the best sportsmen at that time,” Ondricek said.
Zátopek won three gold medals at the 1952 Summer Olympics and is considered among the best runners in history. However, after rising in the ranks of the Community Party and the army, he was expelled and put to work in Prague’s sanitation department while also being sent away to work for several years. In 1989, he was awarded the Order of the White Lion by then-President Vaclav Havel and officially rehabilitated.
Said Ondricek, “It’s true that for a story you need a man and some obstacles and Zátopek for the first moment you can see he doesn’t have any obstacles because he won almost everything in his life on the field. But in his personal life, he’s a man of many contradictions and we found a lot of obstacles inside his personal life and especially inside his political experience. We saw a lot of errors of judgment in his life and from that moment when I found it… I thought that Zátopek could be a very interesting film.”
Issova told Deadline, “I knew about (Zatopek and Zátopková) because they were part of Czechoslovakian and European history. But they weren’t anything special to me.” Even when Ondricek, who is her husband, first mentioned making a biopic, Issova said, “I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea… But when I read more about them and met Dana then I completely changed my mind and I have to say I’m very happy that they somehow came into my life.”
Neuzil, an avowed non-fan of sports that require stamina, nevertheless trained for four years to play Zátopek. He told Deadline he was in the same situation as Issova, not really knowing much about the champion or his life. Upon researching the role, Neuzil said he “realized that I had to change the attitude. I’m not supposed to portray a legend or an idol, it’s impossible. I just realized I’m supposed to, and I want to, portray a human being.”
For Ondricek, the film’s reception at local turnstiles is “something unbelievable.” The Lucky Man Films pic is currently the No. 2 movie of the year in Czech Republic and awaiting U.S. distribution.
Check back Monday for the panel video.