Helmer says pic couldn't have been made with new rule

PRAGUE — Twenty-first-century Prague isn’t the London of Dickens’ time. That’s the message Roman Polanski had for the Czech parliament on wrapping his four-month “Oliver Twist” shoot in the Czech Republic Nov. 15.

Railing against a recently passed Czech law that limits the time children can be on-set to a maximum of four hours, Polanski said his film “could not have been made if this law came out before we started shooting. It would be sensible if it was a question of children working in a coal mine or a salt mine.” But kids acting out the roles of street criminals on a fantasy set that’s an exact reproduction of 19th-century London? “You can’t get them off the set!”

Ironically, the legendary helmer was speaking from the middle of a perfect re-creation of Dickens’ London, complete with cobbled streets, Georgian townhouses, a water-filled wharf — and workhouses for petulant nippers.

The outspoken Polanski was otherwise satisfied with the Czech shoot of the first theatrical remake of the Charles Dickens tale since Carol Reed’s 1968 musical “Oliver!” Despite cold snaps followed by rain that turned the quarter-mile of exterior sets into muddy quagmires, the production was one of the most enjoyable of his long career, said Polanski, who turned 71 during the $60 million shoot for Sony Pictures Classics.

Petr Moravec, of production services company Etic, also criticized the child labor rules: “Far worse would be a day in school.”

The law, passed in spring as part of the Czech Republic’s need to conform to EU legal standards, brought the country’s child-welfare laws in line with those of Western Europe and took effect in October, by which time most of the child actor sequences of “Oliver Twist” were in the can.

In the U.S., children over 9 years old can work a slightly more liberal six hours a day, although only on non-school days.

The new rules are not likely to hurt business, says David Minkowski of rival production services firm Stillking: “You can’t really argue with the fact that they’re in compliance with the EU.”

And if Polanski had problems with the regs in the Czech Republic, “He certainly couldn’t shoot it in France or London, either.”

Pic was adapted by Ronald Harwood, who also adapted Polanski’s “The Pianist,” and stars Ben Kingsley as Fagin and Barney Clark as Oliver Twist. TriStar Pictures will distribute in North and South America with worldwide release skedded for October.

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