Hollywood's Love Affair with Czechia
Czech locales have been fully booked throughout the past year, with international features and TV series such as Amazon’s “Carnival Row” continuing to roll in, while indie projects such as Daisy Ridley vehicle “Ophelia” have incorporated the country’s remarkable Bohemian settings.
The latter project, a Hamlet retelling from the point of view of the love interest whom Shakespeare relegated to the role of his most poignant victim, was filmed in Czech castles and sylvan river valleys in addition to recreating the court of Elsinore at Prague’s Barrandov Studio.
Co-starring with Naomi Watts as Queen Gertrude and Clive Owen as Claudius, Ridley’s Ophelia manages to parry court intrigues far better than the lovesick, doomed version of her character known to readers up to now. The production chose to set up shop in the Czech Republic in part because of its fairytale looks and relative affordability, but also because of the incredible craftsmanship of crews, who were able to create a medieval castle set in short order, incorporating remarkable authenticity and detail, says the film’s producer.
“We wanted to be sure it has that look and feel of authenticity and scope and scale and beauty because it is an interesting period of time, taking advantage of the amazing locations in the Czech Republic and having a great art department,” says Paul Hanson of Covert Media.
“Ophelia” director Claire McCarthy concurs. “Shooting in Prague strongly influenced the aesthetic of the film. We had the privilege to film in some incredible high Gothic locations that are both beautiful and perfect for our setting and story.”
Local crews also hit the ground running on a tight schedule, McCarthy says. “The Czech team worked beautifully with our international heads of department. I’m very, very excited about the level of detail, texture and love that our team contributed to the world of our movie.”
The film, which premiered at Sundance, has served as an evocative calling card for the Czech Republic’s growing appeal for medium-budget films, showing they can achieve production values normally reserved for outings with far bigger budgets.
“Carnival Row,” with deeper pockets, has also managed to wring solid value out of its Czech shoot, filming eight episodes in the Legendary Television project for Amazon, produced by Orlando Bloom.
The murder investigation story is set in a fantasy world resembling Victorian London in which mythical creatures form an underclass; Bloom’s character, police inspector Rycroft Philostrate, must investigate the murder of a faerie showgirl before strife breaks out. The series, which is Bloom’s first major small-screen role, is set for release on Amazon in 2019.
Fantasy worlds, along with period sets of the kind created recently for Sky Atlantic and Amazon’s ancient Rome drama series “Britannia” and Maltese crusader tale “Knightfall,” shot for History, remain a Czech strong suit, with veteran, non-union crews demonstrating a wide breadth of technical mastery, speed and flair for historic detail.
The steady stream of series shoots also continues, most recently with the eight-episode reboot of the 1981 hit film “Das Boot,” set for release in Europe next year. It is directed by Austria’s Andreas Prochaska, a veteran of German TV. The cast features James D’Arcy (“Dunkirk”), Lizzy Caplan (“Masters of Sex”) and Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”). Additional sets in Munich, Malta and La Rochelle, France, were used.
International shoots continue to be drawn in part thanks to the 20% cash-back incentives the Czech Republic has offered since 2010. Local producers, noting increasing competition from a similar scheme in Hungary and one planned to come online soon in Poland, have been pushing the Czech government to enact a 25% production incentive, but the plan has yet to be approved.
The election of Slovak business mogul Andrej Babis to the office of prime minister last year seems a likely indicator of more pro-business policies to come, however.
Meanwhile, local productions, often operating on a fraction of the budget of the international shoots rolling through town, have nevertheless continued to diversify — and to hold their own in the contest for onscreen space with Czech audiences. The Czech Film Fund, a key coin body, has supported the production of eight features, dividing some $2.7 million among them, with Cold War-era resistance story “Kristof,” directed by Zdenek Jirasky, awarded north of $500,000.
Based on a screenplay by Kristian Suda, the film unpacks the coming-of-age story of a young man who becomes a monk after the communist takeover of 1948 and attempts to escape Czechoslovakia via the forested border with Austria. The fund’s council has said the originality and “urgency” of the film’s historic subject merited backing.
Another Czech project “National Avenue,” penned by novelist Jaroslav Rudis based on his book of the same name and directed by Stepan Altrichter, is also a strong production, according to the film fund’s organizers. “Jan Palach,” meanwhile, is a look at the life of a young martyr who set himself ablaze to protest the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It is another narrative feature among many that are re-examining the legacy of politics and power struggles in the country’s recent history.
Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Palach’s death in 1969, the film is directed by leading Czech helmer Robert Sedlacek, based on a screenplay by Eva Kanturkova.
Czech producers have witnessed steady growth in business for six years, but that has finally plateaued, according to the Prague-based Audiovisual Producers’ Assn., which reported that “member turnover is showing signs of stabilization.” Profits last year slipped downward by 4% from the previous year, the association recently announced.
A drop in commercial production by $7.3 million and in foreign productions by $9.6 million didn’t help boosters of Czech services. But the country did see a continuing rise in locally-filmed TV productions, whose value climbed to its highest since 2002, when APA began collecting and analyzing its members’ turnover data.
Adding to the prestige productions: The release of a new film by globally renowned surrealist artist and animator Jan Svankmajer, whose 1920s-set “Insects,” adapted from a play by Karel and Josef Capek, screened at Rotterdam, a regular career venue for the 83-year-old Czech icon. The Cannes win last year for Iran’s “A Man of Integrity” by Mohammad Rasoulof in the section Un Certain Regard was also good news for three Czech companies participating in the drama: production shingle Europe Media Nest, sound studio Bystrouska and post-production house Magic Lab.