PRAGUE — The Czech Republic’s two resident Oscar-winning helmers are springing back into action, and have both begun shooting long-awaited feature films.
Jiri Menzel, whose “Closely Watched Trains” won the foreign film Oscar in 1967, is in production on “I Served the King of England,” an adaptation of the novel by Czech literary lion Bohumil Hrabal.
His acolyte and sometime-rival Jan Sverak, who won for “Kolya” in 1996, has begun shooting “Bottle Return,” a project written by his comic thesp father, Zdenek. Sverak, who hasn’t made a feature since 2001’s “Dark Blue World,” slipped into a hiatus after finding himself unable to agree with his father on the script, something evident in the one film the team did manage during the interim, a 2004 docu on their relationship, the Czech-language “Daddy.”
The elder Sverak, as usual, plays a key role in the new feature, portraying a cash-poor retired teacher who takes a job at a supermarket recycling center.
“The new edition of the script is more about the life of the main character and his family,” says son Jan, who is self-producing. “My father can use his own experience with aging, and I like it very much. I think the story is working better now than in the previous editions.” The shooting schedule is tight, expected to wrap by the end of May, and the budget spare, but distrib Falcon and the Czech Republic’s top terrestrial, TV Nova are both on board.
Menzel, who has been occupying himself mainly with legit directing in Prague since his last feature, 1994’s “The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin,” is back behind the camera with a considerably bigger budget, estimated at $3 million, or triple the average cost of a Czech feature.
Shooting throughout the year with the aim of a late 2006 opening, Menzel has said the novel’s challenge is the plethora of episodes and characters, which mean smaller parts and a tough sell in attracting top actors. Menzel, who also has a TV Nova deal, along with Barrandov studios and foreign co-production funding, was at one point up against Sverak for helmer of “King.”
The film deal was hung up for seven years after Hrabal’s 1997 death, in a rights dispute fueled by the author having signed the material over to more than one director. Hrabal, one of the Czech Republic’s most beloved domestic authors who held many menial jobs as a dissident under the pre-1989 regime, is surely smiling somewhere.