Producer Eric Abraham and director Jan Sverak, who previously collaborated (along with Jan’s writer-actor father Zdenek) on “Kolya,” the 1996 Oscar-winner as Best Foreign-Language Film, visited Dallas last November to discuss their second joint project, “Dark Blue World.” The picture, which centers on a group of Czech pilots who serve in the RAF during World War II, was already an enormous success in the Czech Republic (seen by 10% of the total population), but it had just the previous week opened the American Film Institute Festival at the newly refurbished Graumann’s Chinese Theater, and the duo was still reveling from the experience. “It was the first time [the film] was exposed to an American audience, and…it was wonderful to see how there was an emotional connection,” Abraham recalled. “It was really exciting.”
Abraham, born in South Africa, was a BBC journalist before moving into production, first for television and finally in features. “It was something I’d always wanted to do,” he explained, remembering his days as president of the student film society while in college. In 1994, he produced the last feature made by the award-winning Czech filmmaker Jiri Menzel, and it was while serving on a festival jury at Menzel’s invitation that he met Sverak. “At that time the jury had the scrapings from the table,” he recalled. “Some of the films were really quite diabolical. And yet the jury were being so kind. I thought, ‘Isn’t there somebody here who shares my point of view?’ And this pair of eyes connected [with mine] immediately. It was great. Jan and I had commitments at the time, but we agreed that when we were free of them, his father would write a story that Jan would direct and I would produce. And about a year later, when I thought they’d forgotten about it, through the fax machine came the first few pages of ‘Kolya.’ The rest is history.”
While that film, written by and starring Zdenek as a curmudgeonly Czech musician who reluctantly takes in a young Russian boy, was being finished, its makers were already mulling over a follow-up. “When we were editing ‘Kolya,’ we began to think about this project,” Sverak explained. Zdenek had, during a stint as a radio reporter during the Dubcek regime’s political thaw of 1968, interviewed some surviving Czech pilots who had fled the Nazi occupation and served with the British air force, only to return after the war and be imprisoned as probable spies by the communist government. The Russian clampdown ended his investigations, but the material he had collected survived. “Reopening this subject in 1996 or 1997 was easy,” Sverak continued. “He spoke to the same soldiers, who remembered him.”
Raising the $7 million to make the film was not so simple. “Without the Oscar [for ‘Kolya’], it would have been impossible,” Abraham stated flatly; but even with it, it was difficult to secure financing for a foreign-language project which, as Abraham remarked, promised to result in “a very deeply-rooted Czech film.” Ultimately it proved to be German and Italian sources–“the enemy” during the war, as Abraham noted, that saved the production. “It’s a little bit of an irony,” he added.
The success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” both men agreed, had somewhat smoothed the road for support of foreign-language films. Sverak joked about the potential investors when reminded that his film, like Ang Lee’s, involved flying: “They said, ‘Can you do something like that?’ And I said, ‘Yes, but I need machines.'” He was enthusiastic about the prospect of making a period film about airmen, but admitted that the difficulties led to shooting delays and required great ingenuity to manage the flying sequences. “It was like a mosaic,” Sverak said, explaining that the production could afford only two Spitfires and one B-25 bomber (“used also as a camera ship,” he added), and that–being forty years old–they often broke down (as did the antique cars that were also required). Scenes in which they were involved were intercut with outtakes from the 1969 epic “The Battle of Britain,” as well as model and CGI work. Matters were further complicated by the necessity of shooting the British sequences in the Czech Republic for financial–and other–reasons. “In England they wouldn’t let us blow up the airport,” Sverak laughed, and so an abandoned field was rebuilt to resemble a World War II British camp. More daunting was the need for a building that looked like an English country house; the search involved advertising for candidates, a process that eventually led to the discovery of the structure used in the picture. “It’s on the north of the Czech Republic, in the coal-mining area,” Sverak said. “At the beginning of the century Baron Rothschild was there, and it was built for him,” in English style. Abraham joked that the baron must have foreseen that their little group would need it much later.
The title of the Sverak’s film is borrowed from a song by Czech composer Jaroslav Jezek, whom Zdenek described to his son, during an airport stop in Atlanta during their American tour for “Kolya” in 1997, as the Czech Gershwin. “He wrote this song”–played in the picture–“when he was losing his eyesight and he saw just the blue clouds–the song is his mood,” Sverak explained, and it would instantly remind Czech viewers of the pre-war thirties. “Dark Blue World” is a Sony Pictures Classics release.