The Prague Post Newspaper Article by Editor-in Chief Alan Levy

Robert Ellmann's Festering Friction

A surrealist lawyer films a dismaying documation

By Alan Levy

Challenged to a tennis match in 1998 by an overbearing member of his Prague firm "who never takes no for answer," Robert Ellmann, an American lawyer, pleaded a knee injury -- to no avail. "But I'll give you any handicap you want," the Czech lawyer assured him.

"Well, you'll have to play blindfolded," Ellmann told him, "and stuff a paprika into each ear so you won't hear the ball." His colleague agreed to his conditions, but somehow the game never came off. His bizarre idea, however, left Ellmann thinking the whole concept sounded like a movie.

Ellmann had been reading about new computer-animation techniques that some call the post-Forrest Gump phenomenon. Shooting not on film, but on digital camera, with no studio, backgrounds, artists, painters or carpenters -- just a room painted blue and a computer "to which you can add unlimited different layers of background, faces, movement, color, objects. It's being used by the Czech TV news show, 21, all the weather reports, and some sports."

Having no movie experience, Ellmann contacted the Prague Film Faculty (FAMU) with his idea and enlisted their technical support and resources. Then he wrote a script for an eight-minute "surrealistic commercial," Tennis Match, whose premise is that "an evil company controls tennis and only a dead zombie and a dog can stop it." The opposing forces meet in mortal combat at Wimbledon, where the Nike Man personifies the evil empire. As is too often the case in classic struggles between Good and Evil, a third force prevails: Reebok.

Global success

Borrowing from such influences as the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer and German Expressionism -- particularly F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent, Nosferatu -- Ellmann spent half a million crowns (then around $17,000). His splashy, colorful, almost hallucinogenic live-action cartoon employed some 30 actors (including law-firm partner Petr Jindrichovsky as Ivan Lendl) in fantastic moving collages that critics and film festival judges would acclaim as "Monty Python in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and "Beatlesque, but much darker. Picture Kafka navigating a yellow submarine."

After FAMU showed Tennis Match out-of-competition at its film festival, Czech Television (CT) bought it and so did MTV. Turkish Television aired it, too. Ellmann made his noisy short with narration and dialogue in intertitles, a la silent films, in Czech, English, Russian and Chinese. The last of these came about when a Chinese linguist working as a waitress at Restaurace Panda in Prague 3-Zizkov offered to title it in her tongue.

Entered in the Taipei Film Festival, Tennis Match took no honors, but it did win gold medals at Cinemateca Uruguay in Montevideo, the Houston Worldfest and the Saguaro Film Festival in Arizona. There was also a silver medal for animation at the 1999 North American Science Fiction Convention and special awards or trophies at seven other festivals around the world.

Having netted a small profit and a lot of recognition with Tennis Match, Ellmann was thrilled when CT offered to commission a main-event-length pseudo-documentary. Asked to submit proposals, he suggested five subjects. The one that might best have suited his gift for computer-animated unauthentic re-creation of ephemera involved an artist who was famous in Prague between the wars -- back when the Vltava used to freeze over -- for skating gigantic portraits onto the ice.

Ellmann felt both pleased and challenged, however, when CT opted for the most radical and far-out of his proposals: a portrait of Steve Preisler. An industrial chemist in Wisconsin, Preisler, 43, has managed to terrify knowing segments of the world with his libertarian how-to manuals written under the pseudonym of "Uncle Fester," the mad-scientist relative in The Addams Family TV series. As Ellmann described Preisler:

"Steve is a former high-school wrestler who takes everything personally. He never survives an insult without responding. Whether the offender is his girlfriend or the U.S. government, he believes in overkill."

Teflon vest busters

While Preisler was serving three and a half years in prison in the 1980s for producing and selling methamphetamines, the ultimate uppers, he avenged himself by writing a book called Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture. This classic of clandestine chemistry has been through five editions thus far and is read religiously by law-enforcement authorities (who try to keep only one step behind Fester by rewriting the rules) as well as drug users. Fester claims his mission is to "end the War on Drugs as we know it by cutting out the middleman -- the drug dealer -- enabling everybody to cook drugs in the safety and privacy of their own homes."

Subsequent Fester recipe books pushed the margins of chemistry by telling readers how to brew poison (Silent Death); how to make Home Workshop Explosives; how to manufacture LSD, and, most recently, Vest Busters: how to coat bullets with Teflon so they can penetrate police armor.

From the outset, his unsavory subject caused Ellmann twinges of what he calls "existential unease. But we had three simple objectives: to document Fester as he is and as we see him -- with his words, our aesthetic ... to do something which had never been done before: use 3-D digital animation for a documentary ... and not to bore the audience."

Artistically, at least, Friction, Ellmann's 40-minute documation of Fester, represents a giant lunge forward from Tennis Match. Not only did he visit Fester in Green Bay, but he also imported Fester to Prague for 10 days of filming. Though Friction boasts (in its promotional material) "true story, 3-D animation, Happenin' soundtrack, vomit, government agents, vicious dog, alchemical dances, breasts," its notable moments involve a giant rat chasing a motorized Fester and a chilling rendition of the mid-'90s nerve-gas massacre in the Tokyo subways. Even before a dog-eared copy of Silent Death was found in a hideout of the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist cult, Japanese investigators had visited Fester for his expertise.

CT's original budget grew from 6 million Kc ($162,000) to 8 million Kc and Ellmann exceeded it by another 3 million-4 million Kc, much of it out of his own pocket. After he finished filming Friction this summer, CT scheduled a mid-October date to air it.

On the afternoon of Sept. 11, Ellmann was showing Friction to his law-firm boss and co-producer, racecar driver Robert Pergl (who plays a Tokyo ticket machine in the film) when the screening was interrupted by a phone call telling them to put on CNN. Switching channels, he saw the terrorists' second hijacked plane plow into the World Trade Center. Even in his immediate horror and concern for his parents' safety in Detroit, he recognized that his film is now politically incorrect.

"Everything is too prescient," he says now. "But like it or not, it's the way the world is going."

CT postponed the premiere indefinitely -- though Three Roberts Productions (Ellmann, Pergl and translator Robert Sochorec) is holding a private, invitational sneak preview of Friction in four versions (English, Czech, German, Japanese) in four rooms of a villa in Holoubkov, west Bohemia, on Saturday night, Oct. 13. In the meantime, with no immediate possibility of recouping financially, Ellmann and his girlfriend, Zuzana Simkova, are moving out of his comfortable, expat-lawyer apartment in Prague 1 to smaller, less posh quarters in Prague 2.