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Like its predecessor, Kolya, Dark Blue World is the product of a troika: director Jan Sverak, producer Eric Abraham, and scripter Zdenek Sverak, who is also the director’s father and the star of the previous film. As the first two settle in for an interview at Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel, Sverak remarks, “My papa hates to travel. When he heard we were going to America, he was asking, ‘Do you need me there?’ I said, ‘When you are not appearing in the movie, no.’ ‘Ah, I am so glad. Such a relief.’”
“He was cunning,” notes Abraham. “He wrote himself out of any possible casting in this movie.”
Dark Blue World tells the story of two Czech pilots (Ondrej Vetch«y and Krystof Hadek) who flee their German-occupied country to join Britain’s Royal Air Force and both fall in love with the same English woman (Tara Fitzgerald). It’s a tale that loosely parallels the collaboration between the Czech Sveraks and the Britain-based Abraham. The film, however, has a sobering historical epilogue: The Czech pilots return to their country only to be imprisoned by Communist authorities for collaborating with the new enemy, the Western bloc. “There are only a few heroes in our nation in the last couple centuries,” says Sverak. “And these guys are some of them.”
Both Kolya and Dark Blue World consider the effects of Czech communism, but not as their primary subject. “It’s a historical background that helps the characters develop,” Sverak notes. “The war is a catalyst. And the Communist regime as well, because there was some clear enemy. Maybe I’m trying also to answer some questions for myself. For me, it’s much more interesting than setting the stories in the contemporary scene.”
In a sense, the idea for the film came from Sverak’s father, but both men have long been interested in the topic. “He infected me with those pilots and their history when I was 10. There were books published, and he met those pilots in 1968,” during Czechoslovakian communism’s brief thaw. “When I was old enough, he gave them to me to read. So I got introduced to those heroes. So when he came up with the idea for the movie, after the success of Kolya, we could raise the money for it.”
The Sveraks begin their collaborations, the director explains, by conferring on the story. “We go for a long walk in the woods, and we discuss how the story should develop. Because he is cooking the food for me, so it has to be according to my taste. Then when it’s agreed, he sits and writes. And I read it, but just to reassure him that it’s good. Even if I have some doubts, I am trying to support him while he’s writing. And then he starts to change things. Eric is having his comments. It takes a couple versions of the script to finish.”
Nonetheless, it’s easier to collaborate with his father than with another writer, Sverak says, “because there is no way that we part. That we would say, ‘OK, finished. I don’t want to work with you any more because you are an idiot.’ We have to stay in the family. So we must behave, and find some solution, some compromise.”
Although set mostly in England, Dark Blue World was shot primarily in the Czech Republic. “It’s much cheaper there, and we can do whatever we want there after Kolya,” the director says. “So we built the English airfield on an ex-Russian air base.”
Filming at home allowed Sverak to hire many technicians he’s used before. “Somehow it fits into my vision of a family business,” he says. “I like to keep the same people around me. You can minimize the misunderstandings. You know each other so well that you know what this face means. It doesn’t mean he’s angry; he’s just tired. Or you know that the soundtrack artist is sometimes hysterical because the production person is making phone calls 20 meters from the set. So he wants to kill them. You can calm him down just by giving him something sweet. So you keep something sweet in your pocket. It’s smooth. You can almost communicate by telepathy.”
To conjure Britain, the production imported furniture and costumes. More problematic were the Spitfires, the RAF’s principal World War II fighter plane, and the war-refugee children who live with Fitzgerald’s character. “The children were English,” says Abraham. “They had to be.”
Another thing that couldn’t be contrived in the Czech Republic was the English Channel, so the crew headed to South Africa, Abraham’s childhood home, where it filmed during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter. “For me, it was a good excuse to go home for a while,” the producer says. “We needed the Atlantic Ocean in winter light. We were filming in the feeding ground of the great white shark, but we didn’t tell the actors at the time.
“If we’d known what it is to film on the sea,” he adds, “it just wouldn’t have crossed our radar. It’s fiendishly difficult.”
“If we shoot science fiction one day,” Sverak cracks, “we are not shooting in space.”
Making the film took more than four years—”You could qualify to be a lawyer or a doctor in that time,” Sverak playfully gripes, “or win a war”—but much of that time was spent fundraising. The required $7 million ultimately came from five different countries. “It’s the biggest budget in the history of Czech moviemaking. It’s about seven times the average Czech budget,” boasts Abraham. “The scale of it is epic. So we had to involve other countries.”
Hollywood, of course, could not make a World War II battle flick with aerial combat scenes for $70 million, let alone $7 million. “That’s all I could find to afford the toys that he played with,” Abraham shrugs.
“Here, the filmmaking is industry,” Sverak notes. “Here, it makes money back. There, even a film that costs $1 million can’t make the money back. Because the population is very small, and the cinema ticket costs $2.”
“For us, it was an act of faith, not an act of business.” Abraham adds.
“We were so naive,” Sverak admits. “The movie was bigger and more complicated than we thought: old planes, old cars, many extras, special effects, kids, animals, sea shoot. If we had known that it was going to be so difficult, we would never even think about it.”
Some of the dogfights came from outtakes Abraham managed to get from The Battle of Britain, a 1969 British film. Discovering the footage, the producer says, was “pure chance. Somebody up there wanted us to make this movie. Some of the aerial scenes are live Spitfires, but we needed aircraft that didn’t exist, certain footage that we just couldn’t get. I knew that The Battle of Britain only used a small proportion of what they shot. I gave Jan a cassette, and his eyes lit up.”
For live-action shots, the filmmakers recruited a man Sverak describes as a “an ex-fighter pilot from the Zimbabwe guerrilla war. It was not acrobatic—it was fighter-pilot flying. When I was asking him to go lower and do dangerous things, I was worried because he never complained. ‘No problem.’ Those were his words. ‘Can you go even lower?’ ‘No problem.’ I thought maybe I am crazy. So I asked him, ‘Please, if you feel I am pushing you to do something you are not comfortable with, just say no. It’s your life, and I don’t want you to die because of this movie.’ And he said, ‘Nothing you’re asking me to do is dangerous, because no one is shooting at me.’”
That’s the sort of bravado Sverak doesn’t associate with most of his own countrymen. “What I wanted to show Czech citizens is that we are not only a nation of cowards, that there are also some heroes,” he says. “I wanted to show that even though there were heroes who were prepared to fight for the freedom of the country, and they were punished for it by the same people they fought for, that there will be new heroes if necessary. Because those people did not do it for the country, or from a citizen’s duty, but for their…conscience. In each nation, even our nation, there is the sort of person who would become a hero when the time asks them.
“I think it’s healthy,” he adds, “that we are not just making a patriotic movie. We are making the audience proud, and at the same time you give the bitter truth.”
And yet, Abraham concludes, “these veterans today are completely devoid of bitterness. Maybe the reward for following your conscience is peace of mind.” —Mark Jenkins