An American actor in Prague, part 1
It’s a chilly September morning, and I find myself standing in a muddy courtyard dressed in a forest green, leather trench coat and gloves. In front of me stand 60 disheveled and shivering men, the scene is grim. With my hands behind my back I wander into their ranks and slowly single out 10 of them. “You!” I shout repeatedly as armed soldiers whisk the men to a bloodstained platform. Another captain enters the courtyard leading a firing squad. The men start to weep as their fate becomes palpable. “Ready!!” I shout as the soldiers cock their rifles, “Aim!!” as a deadly silence falls over the scene.
Excellent. The director is satisfied, and we’re on schedule. It is time for the special effects team to rig the actors with squibs, small devices that mimic bullet holes squirting blood, and plenty of time to grab a hot soup from the catering tent and warm up a bit.
Today we’re shooting an Italian television movie in a city called Terezín, a fortress town built in 1780, surrounded by moats designed to be flooded in the event of attacks. I had never visited, much less filmed in, an ancient moat-city before and seeing its bizarre layout through the fog as we drove in had me extremely curious.
I soon learned that during World War II Terezín had been the site of a concentration camp ghetto with 150,000 prisoners passing through, many of them children forced to live in deadly conditions. More than 30,000 of them perished awaiting transit to Auschwitz and other death camps. The oldest known holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, a Czech pianist held captive at Terezín had managed to keep herself and son alive by performing Beethoven for the guards. To call this place haunted was an understatement.
A friend of mine had mused that it was an unofficial rite of passage for white, Anglo actors around these parts to land their first Nazi role. Done. However, today it had admittedly gotten a bit under my skin.
I was hired for this gig after filming had already begun and it was my first day on the job. We had little rehearsal and the sheer scale and authenticity of the location, the number of extras, and yours truly, playing the grim reaper had all become slightly overwhelming. Sipping my hot soup I cleared my head and quietly returned to feeling what many actors feel on a set; grateful to be working.
Tomáš Krejčí, a partner with local production house Milk & Honey Pictures, explained, “The opportunity to shoot with hundreds of extras in authentic locations was a key reason the director and our partners wanted to shoot in Czechia.”
The mini-series L’Olimpiade nascosta (The Hidden Olympics), starring Irish actor Gary Lewis (Billy Elliot) and fellow veteran Czech actor Marek Vašut (Blade II), was produced using an Italian and Czech crew and would air on RAI-1, Italy's national broadcasting system and most-watched station.
I had only been in the country for a few months, and I didn’t realize many of Prague’s top American actors were hired to work on the project. I would soon discover that many of Prague’s top American actors were hired to work on every project.
Max and Woody
In the late 1920s, Václav Havel’s father and uncle teamed with jazz-age architect Max Urban to develop an opulent garden city in the hills south of the city center.
They started with building the now storied Barrandov Terraces, aka Teresa, a Gatsby-esque entertainment complex where visitors danced and dined on serpentine patios and verandas carved high into a rock plateau. Celebrities and dignitaries sipped cocktails at the popular Trilobite bar overlooking the Vltava River while others swam and sunbathed in an Olympic size swimming pool at the foot of the cliffs.
The development’s main attraction would be the Barrandov Studios. Construction began at the end of 1931, and filming of the first feature, Vražda v Ostrovní ulici (Murder on Ostrovni Street) directed by Svatopluk Innemann, started Jan. 25, 1933.
Named after Joachim Barrande, a French geologist who discovered and spent his life exploring the fossil-rich site in the 19th century, the studio came to be modeled after Hollywood’s golden-age system, employing their own screenwriters, actors, extras and craftsmen. Eventually, up to 2,000 people from various professions were employed as the Czechoslovak state fully subsidized filmmaking at the time.
In 1939, while film studios in Germany were under threat of bombing by Allied air raids, the Nazis confiscated Barrandov and dissolved the Havels’ company. In its place, Joseph Goebbels established PragFilm, a propaganda unit that took advantage of the ideally equipped facility and expanded the studio by constructing an additional three cavernous soundstages, still heavily in use to this day.
Recently I was cast in a commercial for the world’s leading manufacturer of slot machines. I played Mr. Vegas, a flashy lounge singer that makes a surprise appearance inside a sleepy couple’s bedroom.
It gave me the opportunity and pleasure of meeting a world-famous Barrandov insider named Max. I had only seen Max from a distance but we would be working together for a full week and I was excited to finally meet. “Max” is the given name to Europe’s largest soundstage. Opened in December 2006, the high-tech structure is longer than a football field. Elevators, trap doors, advanced lighting and air circulation systems allow for the most demanding of productions. If you need to film an explosion inside Max, no problem, the smoke choked air recirculates within minutes, ready for your next shot. (I wish I could say the same of Prague’s restaurants).
One of the key reasons international productions continue to flock to Prague is the oversized stages that surround the city. Indeed Max is unlike any stage I’ve seen back in California, and I’ve seem most of them. Prague Studios in the northeast of Prague is another studio complex with impressive stages having converted old airplane hangers into a modern facility.
One month later I was delighted to meet yet another local icon named Dřevák, aka Woody. While Max is the latest and most advanced ateliér at Barrandov, Woody, or its literal translation ‘clog' holds the distinction of being Prague’s earliest existing soundstage, #4, today a cult stage favored by old-school Czech producers.
That day inside ‘the clog,’ my Danish colleagues (no, they were not wearing clogs) had me costumed as a businessman on a special set, a conference room that kept splitting in half during a fever-dream sequence. The interior of this stage is distinctive, with imposing wooden catwalks on its ceiling and walls, clearly the reason it was nicknamed Woody. Its considerable high-tech breakthrough at the time was a silent heating system that allowed sound to be recorded while filming. “Talkies” were barely five years old when Woody was constructed.
With the largest costume and property departments in Europe, Barrandov opens their doors to the public twice a year and also offers private tours. The vintage collections are shown complete with costumed volunteers providing impromptu performances and plenty of photo opportunities for visitors. We wandered through floors of elaborate wigs, medieval weaponry and armor, iconic costumes from hit films and collections of antique paintings and baroque furniture. The only area they disallowed photos was a large underground room housing Nazi themed costumes and paraphernalia, for good reason, a matter of promotional sensitivity.
The 82-year-old studio remains ground zero for film, television and commercial production and one of Europe’s most important. Film history has been made here time and again with classics like Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains, which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. More recently the father/son team of Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák also claimed a Best Foreign Film Oscar for their drama Kolja.
Join me next week as I continue to dig into the star-studded urban archeology of Bohemia. I’ll speak with some of Prague’s crucial industry insiders and also reveal a recent, fascinating film discovery unearthed right here, deep inside the European Hollywood.
- 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.