Karlovy Vary 2012: High Noon for Financing Polish-Czech Western 'Yuma'

Piotr Mularuk set out to make a Wild West movie set in the post-Communist 1990s, and ended up in a showdown with German and Polish film funds and private equity players.

KARLOVY VARY, CZECH REPUBLIC - In the world of Polish film, the closest thing to a Hollywood western movie is today's private equity gold rush that increasingly bankrolls local directors.

And from that world has come Yuma, a Polish-Czech Wild West version of outlaws in a post-Communist 1990s that had its world premiere in competition at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this weekend.

“There’s private equity in Poland. It’s new, they (private investors) haven’t been burned yet by the film business. They still think romantically about it,” Yuma director Piotr Mularuk, who is also head of Warsaw-based Yeti Films, told The Hollywood Reporter after his film bowed Saturday night during a gala screening at the Grand Hotel Pupp.

The trick, Mularuk insists, is convincing nouveau riche businessmen that like to gamble to indulge their habit with a bet on a Polish movie.

The odds of winning on their film investment are about as good as the baccarat table as most Polish movies tank at the box office, he warns the millionaire gamblers.

“But they will have a hell of a ride,” Mularuk adds in near-flawless English after he grew up as a child in the U.S.

That’s useful because the veteran Polish producer/director always wanted to make a classic Western as a life-long fan of Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour novels and John Wayne movies.

Luckily, Mularuk didn’t need to return to Wyoming, where as a young man he worked summers on a ranch, to make that movie.

Instead, he came upon an article in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza about the spread of yuma, or thievery in Germany from Polish border towns in the early 1990s by young gangsters fed on new-found freedoms and lawlessness after the fall of Communism in 1989.

“I had my film back home: a little border town, there’s outlaws and crime and punishment and all the western themes,” Mularuk explained.

Even more bizarrely, the Poles called the socially-acceptable robbery in German border towns yuma.

Why? It turns out the American town of Yuma, Arizona was paired before the Second World War with a suburb of Frankfurt.

And Mularuk had more than a few High Noon moments to get his $2.5 million film made as a Polish-Czech co-production.

For starters, Germans considered it politically incorrect for the Polish director to portray his fellow Poles as natural-born thieves, so, ever politely, they refused to finance Yuma.

“I wish they’d have told me that from the start, because I’d have saved two years of my life trying to finance the film in Germany, and spending 100,000 EURO to travel back and forth to pitch the project,” the director said.

And Polish investors early on saw yuma as a taboo subject, and similarly refused to finance the project.

“Officials in Poland said I’d never make this film. You’re speaking bad about the Poles. They didn’t want me telling the story,” Mularuk recalled.

That put huge hurdles in the way as virtually all Polish films are first seeded with grants or loans from the public sector funding system, before producers fill out a budget with additional investment.

In the end, the Czech Film Fund was the first to help finance Yuma, which stars Jakub Gierszal as Zyga, a young Pole who crosses the border into Germany to rob luxury goods from rich westerners to become a hero back home.

As Mularuk puts it, the Czechs had their own experience with yuma after the fall of Communism, and preferred to recall the infamous period by proxy, by in effect putting Poles, and not themselves, in the spotlight.

“They’re happy someone else is telling the story,” the director explained.

And Mularuk repaid the Czech's generosity when he most needed it by debuting his feature at Karlovy Vary, before Yuma bows in Warsaw in August.

After all, with the Czech film fund on board, the rival Polish Film Institute felt shamed into helping finance Yuma, albiet warily.

But that only got Mularuk to securing half of his budget.

For the rest, he turned to a well-known, and yet unnamed Polish film financier who liked the Yuma script and agreed to finance the remaining half of the budget.

Except, two weeks before signing his contract with the Polish Film Institute, the Polish film financier got cold feet and backed out of the project.

Mularuk was floored: “I had to tell everyone that he’d pulled out, and everyone else left, except the Czechs and the Polish Film Institute."

Then the see-saw battle to finance Yuma got easier when Mularuk cold-called a Polish beverage maker, Las Vegas Power Energy Drink SP, which was looking to launch a new drink product, and may have needed a marketing hook.

In a stroke of luck, the head of the energy drink maker had engaged in yuma during the early 1990s and, while today a legitimate businessman, agreed to back a film that recalled his early glory years.

“It was like that, boom. You can call it luck, but it’s also determination to get it done,” Mularuk insisted.

Yuma is produced by Yeti Films, with Evolution Films as a Czech minority co-producer.

The film was shot in Poland, Frankfurt, Germany and the Czech Republic, and was made in the Polish and German languages.

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