Karlovy Vary Pays Tribute to Top Cinematographer, Whose Hollywood Career Was Launched by "Toss of a Coin"

Miroslav Ondricek - H Getty 2016
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Czech native Miroslav Ondricek got his first break in the West when British director Lindsay Anderson chose him to lens cult classic "If."

Czech cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, who worked on some of Hollywood's most celebrated films, got his big break through the "toss of a coin," his son, Prague-based producer David Ondricek, told an audience Sunday at the 51st edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, which opened July 1 and runs through Saturday.

The late cinematographer, who died last year at 80, was chosen by British director Lindsay Anderson in 1968 to shoot If, starring Malcolm McDowell, kickstarting Ondricek's career in the West.

Ondricek — who went on to be nominated twice for an Oscar, for his cinematography on Ragtime (1982) and Amadeus (1985), both directed by fellow Czech Milos Forman — had met Anderson in Prague, where the British filmmaker had been impressed by Ondricek's work on such movies as Ivan Passer's Intimate Lighting and Forman's The Fireman's Ball.

But before Anderson decided to call Ondricek to invite him to be director of photography on If — the first of a loose trilogy of anti-establishment films the helmer made starring McDowell — he "tossed a coin" to be sure the decision was the right one.

"Anderson was a very superstitious man," David Ondricek said ahead of a Karlovy Vary screening of O Lucky Man! — the second in the trilogy on which his father also worked in 1973 — in a special festival section of classic films chosen by Czech directors."Before inviting my father to work with him he tossed a coin — my father liked the story and used to exaggerate and say he had been chosen on the best of three tosses. It was an offer he could not refuse."

Anderson's invitation came at a propitious time for the young Czech cinematographer; it was a period of relative freedom in the then Communist-ruled country, and he was free to travel to the West. The following year Soviet tanks moved to crush was became known as the "Prague Spring."

"But my father was so worried he would perform badly that during the flight to London he prayed the plane would crash to avoid bringing shame on the country," said the lenser's son.

David Ondricek, who co-produced the fest's opening film Anthropoid — a wartime drama, directed by Sean Ellis and starring Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, about the assassination of a top Nazi in occupied Prague — said shooting If, in which pupils at a minor English boarding school launch an armed uprising against their teachers, was a seminal point in his father's career.

"The film was very influential; it was one of the inspirations for Pink Floyd's The Wall album," he added.

After working on If and O Lucky Man!, Miroslav Ondricek went on to lens dozens of Hollywood movies, including Hair, Silkwood and A League of Their Own.

In 2004, Karlovy Vary honored the cinematographer with a Crystal Globe for outstanding contribution to world cinema.