Czech travails

CANNES — If Hollywood filmmakers dread Development Hell, here’s a story from the Czech version of that Dante-esque process that will make Stateside torments seem cheery and refreshing.

In Cannes, with the Mediterranean behind him, a nice plate of roast duck before him and his producers from AQS and Bioscop around him, Czech helmer Jiri Menzel looks positively unfazed by past events as he tells the tale of his new film, which is set to roll in Prague and the Czech countryside this fall. But the pic’s 30-year road to production is a tale worthy of Kafka.

“I Served the King of England,” based on the novel by his fellow countryman and old friend, the late Bohumil Hrabal, chronicles the picaresque exploits of a young Czech under Nazi occupation and his subsequent imprisonment and life under Soviet rule. Menzel, whose Oscar-winning 1966 pic “Closely Watched Trains” is based on Hrabel’s novel of the same name, has been trying to mount a bigscreen version of “I Served” since the mid-1970s, when the book circulated through the underground during communist rule.

Even getting “I Served” into print was fraught with peril. Several members of a Czech jazz club, which tried to publish the tome, were imprisoned and Hrabal drew the ire of the communist government.

But by the mid-’80s, communist rule had softened and it was safe to prepare a film on the book.

Hrabal asked Menzel to direct the film version even before the book was officially published. But confusion arose over who controlled the rights, and the project wound up in the hands of director Karel Kachnya.

“So we both wound up announcing plans to do the movie with different producers,” Menzel recalls ruefully. “Hrabal was by that time not well and the producer persuaded him to give him rights and the contract was somewhat questionable.”

After Hrabal’s death in 1997, Nova TV moved forward on plans to film the book as a TV series.

Menzel wasn’t interested. He was still hoping to fulfill his dream to make a film of “one of the greatest works of Czech literature.”

In 1999, in the Grand Auditorium of Karlovy Vary’s Thermal Hotel, Menzel spotted a producer who had tried to restart the project without him, and, to the delight of eager photographers, produced a hickory switch and gave the man a thrashing.

The TV series fell apart when Nova and parent company CME became embroiled in a high-profile court fight over control that ultimately cost the Czech government $355 million.

The tale takes still more twists and turns over the past five years, during which other top Czech directors such as Oscar winner Jan Sverak and Oscar nominee Jan Hrejbk came aboard.

Was Menzel bitter to be replaced by younger, perhaps hotter, directors after a decades-long association with the project?

Well, he does ask one of his producers, “Why were you so stupid?” to think someone else could direct the film.

But everyone laughs and continues carving up duck and the past.

Both Sverak and Hrejbk ended up bowing out of the pic, perhaps in deference to Menzel, perhaps intimidated by a project with such an imposing history.

Now, with a fresh script and the e3 million German-Czech co-production finally set to go before the cameras, Menzel is still a long way from a happy ending. But when he yells “action” on the set of “I Served the King of England,” it will at least be a very happy beginning.

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