An American actor in Prague, Part 2: Home invasions, Global superstars and Captain Nemo survives
One afternoon in Prague, walking through Old Town Square I turned down Dlouha Street, heading to my favorite lunch spot. Suddenly a tall man with a full white beard emerged from a store just in front of me. I immediately recognized him and said hello. We shook hands and Donald Sutherland and I proceeded to have a friendly little chat.
I knew he was back in Prague shooting a second season of Crossing Lines a television series he's starring in about an international team of criminal detectives.
We briefly talked about the show and he mentioned how lucky he felt to be working here for a second year in a row, "I feel very blessed to be working in Europe so often, it's always a wonderful experience for me."
After the fortuitous meeting I felt inspired and called my agent about the possibility of being submitted for an audition on the series. Fast forward a few weeks (and callbacks) later and I had landed a small role on the show and was being driven to a lakeside town called Jevany dating back to 1344 with a population of a mere 449. As we drove into town I noticed several impressive homes overlooking the lake; extremely modern, large-scale mansions dotting the hillside.
I had a brief flashback as if driving through the exclusive enclaves of Bel Air or the Hollywood Hills and soon discovered that Jevany was where many Czech celebrities live. The most famous being the legendary singer Karel Gott, the "Sinatra of Europe," a Czech household name, who once ran a museum here called Gottland.
I would be playing a character named Hienrich Kaufman, a businessman whose family is the target of a violent home invasion by a gang of savage thieves. We were filming in a large, elegant home that was tastefully furnished and upon entering I immediately noticed the real-life couple that owned the location. They were nervously peeking out of a side room every few minutes, watching the mounting number of actors, crew and equipment being hauled into their humble abode. Clearly they were uncertain about what they'd signed up for. It ended up being an intense few days of filming involving gunfire, screaming, several stuntmen falling over a banister and a team of gargantuan marauding actors clad in boots and leather jackets trampling up and down a carpeted stairwell. I'm going to wager it's the last "home invasion" Jevany will be seeing for a while.
Sutherland wasn't working that day, but I had the good fortune of meeting another "actor's actor." The venerable William Fichtner, who plays the lead on the series. A very friendly guy who told us some fun stories about juggling his family life in Los Angeles with a TV series in Prague.
They've been shooting films here for almost 100 years. However, it was legendary Czech director Miloš Forman who heralded the modern-era with his 1984 film Amadeus. Shot in Prague and using some locations Mozart himself had conducted in, the film was a sensation sweeping all major awards and landing eight Oscars including Best Actor, Director and Picture. It firmly placed Prague on the world's cinematic map.
A decade later production had reached a feverish pitch rivaling that of countries around the globe. Most people living in Prague are familiar with the abundance of celebrity driven productions that made the regular pilgrimage.
For a full decade the country witnessed a surge in high profile pictures from the West. Ben Kingsley, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp and Matt Damon are just a few of the many that starred in lavish productions and action fueled dramas.
The trend to film in Prague started to shift as the industry became more heavily incentivized and competitive. In 2010 then-Prime Minister Jan Fischer responded by approving a subsidy program and the Czech State Film Fund was born. Despite growing competition the fund has been increasing its flexibility and funding annually.
I spoke with Ludmila Claussová, from the Czech Film Commission. "Of course we'd like to see more big-budget films, but since the introduction of the incentives, I'm very happy to see so many different types and sizes of productions coming from all over Europe", she said.
"Before the incentives we almost ONLY had those big budget blockbusters. Now Scandinavia, Italy and France have discovered us. I'm really happy the incentives have allowed smaller productions to come to the Czech Republic. If we could get a few more Hollywood films it would be perfect."
While the volume of Hollywood imports has dipped from 10 years ago, the star power has remained in force. In the last four years alone, Prague has seen some of the industries top names travel to Bohemia.
In 2012 white-hot stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence shot the depression-era drama Serena in Prague. Directed by Susanne Bier, the film is due out any day now. The same year Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen starred in the action film The Last Knights directed by Japanese filmmaker Kazuaki Kiriya and shot in the village of Křivoklát named after its picturesque medieval castle. A year prior, and the same year the subsidy program was introduced, Tom Cruise returned to Prague with another installment of his Mission Impossible franchise generating millions of Czech crowns toward the public budget.
Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace and Tom Hardy recently wrapped on producer Ridley Scott's highly anticipated, $50 million dollar Child 44. Shot at locations across Prague including the metro that doubled for the Stalin-era Soviet Union. Child 44 qualified for over a quarter million U.S. dollars in subsidies after a four-month shoot.
Claussová believes that while the high profile shoots are always welcome, the international productions are the true drivers of more business, spreading the word and showing off the cities professional and geographical charms.
"We've had Swedish and Norwegian productions and we're expecting our first big Chinese production with a name director and actor that's sure to show off Prague and serve as great promotion for shooting here," she said.
Today international productions abound, many enjoying the financial incentives provided through the Czech Film Commission. HBO's Transformer series produced in France and based on the popular film franchise is currently shooting in Prague while other big budget television series have been returning regularly such as the period drama Borgia which recently finished a third season and the aforementioned Crossing Lines.
A Czech language version of the famed comedy series The Office also recently started production as well as a lavish period drama titled První republika (The First Republic) about aristocrats during Czechoslovakia's golden era.
Captain Nemo survives
Silent films have suffered a cruel fate. The numbers are daunting, upwards of 90 percent, including many masterpieces, have been lost forever. Not only silent films but also many more recent films have suffered. Even Steven Spielberg's original print of Jaws had badly deteriorated needing expensive restoration.
Preservation efforts continue to turn up intact films to this day, and just last year a film thought to be lost was discovered right here in the Czech National Film Archive. A complete Technicolor print of Lionel Barrymore's epic The Mysterious Island based on the Jules Verne novel and produced by MGM in 1929 was located to the surprise of Los Angeles film historians.
A prequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it tells the story of how Captain Nemo came to build his submarine and was eventually betrayed becoming an outcast seeking revenge. Barrymore performs the role in a strange land populated by dragons, giant squids and an eerie undiscovered humanoid race.
The George Eastman House Film Archive was conducting research for a book on the history of Technicolor and started contacting other film archives across the globe about lost titles originally shot in the Technicolor format.
"This is a rare find. My colleague James Layton was doing research and contacted the Czech Film Archive, asking if they had any true Technicolor movies. And they said, 'Oh yes, we have this title,' and it was a real surprise," Deborah Stoiber, who is in charge of the nitrate film collection at Eastman House, said.
"The George Eastman House has only a small fragment of that film, maybe just a few seconds long, and it was the only known material. We believe another archive in Europe might have a small piece as well but nothing nearly as complete as what's here in Prague." A black-and-white copy made for television was known, but no color originals.
Thousands upon thousands of American films were distributed throughout Europe after World War I and the distributors never asked for them back. Traveling projectionists, theater owners and film enthusiasts started accumulating private collections keeping the films repaired and in good condition.
In the Czech Republic authorities during both occupations deemed it illegal to privately own films and many were forfeited, confiscated or destroyed. However, many of these early cinephiles never gave them up and started societies, holding meetings and clandestine screenings. Several of these collections would eventually be donated to the Czech National Archives, each with their own unique story.
One large collection had been stashed under a chicken coop while others had been buried in caves. Today the archive holds hundreds of titles from Hollywood's formative years and with the recent discovery of The Mysterious Island Czech and American film experts are currently collaborating toward a full restoration for a new generation of fans.
Join me next time, as I fire up the klieg lights, ramp up the drama and take an adventure to a surreal world steeped in filmic history, right here inside the cinematic kingdom of Bohemia.
Born and raised in southern California, Ted lived and worked in downtown Hollywood for two decades before moving to Prague in 2011. He produced, shot, edited and composed music for his own television documentaries and has developed several luxury real-estate properties across Los Angeles. Ted is a longtime member of the performance guilds SAG-AFTRA and ASCAP.