About the Production
The filmmakers compare the five-year time-span of WWII to their own, four-year struggle to complete the making of DARK BLUE WORLD (2001). Director Jan Sverák says: "We had to polish the screenplay, find the money, gather the army and get ready to shoot. That gobbled up exactly three years. When we at last marched off into battle, some problems began to surface. We had to adjust and improve the strategy on the march. So one could say we were turning into an army, pushing the story ahead and conquering it bit by bit, like patches of enemy territory. "
The hardest part, Jan explains, "was when the shooting dragged on for almost two months past the shooting schedule. This movie was just a lot more complicated than our initial estimate. Almost all the unit members had jobs lined up and had to leave for other movies. Those of us who stayed behind felt like we were losing comrades in a battle. Towards the end of the last shooting day, when there were some final special effects shots to complete, it was my turn to leave, I got into my car and drove home. I was happy it was all over. At the same time, a strange feeling of emptiness gripped me. "
In contrast to the difficulties of the shooting period, Jan found life in the editing room less stressful: "By then the whole thing is done and one can't mess it up any more. Shooting is a time of compromise when you are constantly fighting the elements and devils of all kinds. It's the time of battles and losses, which I don't like very much. I always feel that you only manage to get on film only eighty or seventy, sometimes even less, percent of the original intention. If you capture something you didn't expect - like a whiff of a breeze blowing beautifully through an actress's hair - then it's a gift. Only in the cutting room do you appreciate all the unexpectedly beautiful things that were born during the shoot. "
The birth of DARK BLUE WORLD (2001) started in early 1997 when Zdenek Sverák commenced research, whilst Kolya (1996) was being released globally and just prior to its Golden Globe and Academy Awards. KOLYA (1996) and DARK BLUE WORLD (2001) producer Eric Abraham recalls "Zdenek wanted to write a story about the last Czech heroes - the WWII pilots. Men who did not have to fight against the Nazi evil, they could have remained in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, but actively chose to escape in order to fight. These men chose a moral course and got kicked in the guts for it when they returned home. They paid the price of moral courage. " He continues: "Although it's an historical fact that there were a number of Czech pilots stationed with the RAF during the war, some of whom might have gone through similar experiences with the English language, culture and opposite sex as our protagonists, our story is fiction.
Raising the finance for DARK BLUE WORLD (2001) was another battle in itself. Eric Abraham clarifies: "Foreign language films occupy about one percent of the North American market and marginally more in Europe. In spite of the global success of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Life Is Beautiful (1998) and even KOLYA (1996) itself it's tough to raise money for foreign language movies with budgets far in excess of their domestic territory norm. DARK BLUE WORLD (2001) has ten times the average Czech film budget. We had to secure 80% of the finance from outside its home territory. We also wanted money that did not carry with it control of any kind. KOLYA (1996) was successful precisely because we made it as we wanted. Jan had absolute creative control. It's a testimony to the high standing he has in the international film arena that we were able to secure the majority of the budget for a Czech film from outside the Czech Republic and moreover retain total control. What's heartening about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) is that it proved to distributors in America that sub-titles are not necessarily the kiss of death for a film and that there is a global audience which is hungry for something different from the standard Hollywood fare. KOLYA (1996) made things a little easier but international distributors are used to picking up foreign language films for peanuts and are very hesitant about risking significant money upfront. "
DARK BLUE WORLD (2001) might have ten times more funding than the average Czech budget, but Eric believes the scale of the movie is also ten times more ambitious than any in the history of Czech cinema of the last fifty years: "A number of seasoned distributors read the screenplay and rejected investing precisely because they couldn't imagine how we would realize the film for the relatively modest budget. Invention was the catchword. But then I've never believed that money is the midwife to creativity. Too often, too much money damages the focus of the filmmaker. We are catering for an audience used to Steven Spielberg-like special effects realized on Hollywood scale budgets so our film couldn't look "amateur" in any department. It's an immensely complicated film technically. DARK BLUE WORLD (2001) is about pilots and you have to show what they do convincingly. "
To be convincing, it was crucial for the filmmakers to reassemble the KOLYA production team for DARK BLUE WORLD (2001). "We needed the help and commitment of the believers in our faith - our film" says Eric Abraham Director of photography Vladimír Smutný, production designer Jan Sverák and special effects designer Milos Kohout. "This is the third Czech film I have produced based on a Zdenek Sverák screenplay" Eric Abraham says: "The Jirí Menzel film - KOLYA (1996) and DARK BLUE WORLD (2001). Since meeting Zdenek and Jan at the 1992 Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where I was a Jury member with Jan, a tremendous level of team trust has developed - we all serve the film first. "
For Eric Abraham the team's limited resources made DARK BLUE WORLD (2001) tough and challenging on every level: "The 100 days of photography were an exercise in Rubik cubing and I became expert in rustling up all kinds of toys for Jan to play with - from a B-25 bomber, Spitfires, helicopters to ships in Cape Town. I became expert too in begging, cajoling and pleading for favours. I don't think I have a pair of trousers without holes in the knees!"
Jan is an extraordinary visual story-teller. He seems to have retained a child's perception of the world. He has an eye for detail and unusual ways of seeing things. His style is both simple and sophisticated, Czech-rooted but universally accessible. " says Eric Abraham. "
Jan Sverák perceives: "Love is uncontrollable, and that's what DARK BLUE WORLD (2001) is about. " He says: "While friendship is a secure emotion, love is an unpredictable missile. Against such a missile you're powerless. This movie tries to find out if love can kill friendship. When we were thinking about the story with my Dad, Zdenek, what we found most interesting was that when a woman steps between two men, friendship goes out of the window. Sex is a stronger force than friendship. This situation is quite hard to accept for a young man, but when you get older you understand. This, for us, was the crux of DARK BLUE WORLD (2001). Now that the shooting is over I have come to realize that the roots of a real friendship can survive anything.
Although the story is about love, Jan and Zdenek also wanted to find out what makes people into heroes. "Nowadays, there do not seem to be many heroes about. Look at us, the Czechs" Jan says, "We took a number of hidings in the past. I think we feel there's no point fighting for anything any more. Then, as the nation gets demoralised by all the thumps it gets throughout history, an interesting question presents itself: Would we ever again find such 'fools', who'd volunteer to leave behind their dog, girl, family, house and friends and go to fight for some truth and some freedom? In our movie we do have such examples: the bombers, fighter pilots and soldiers of WWII. Those were the people who did the right thing, behaved like good men and citizens, and in our case were punished for it. Perhaps the film helps us to realize that a man doesn't do the right thing because he's a good citizen, he doesn't even do it for his country, he does it to satisfy his conscience, his inner feeling of right and wrong. That is why I am an optimist about the future heroes of the human race. "
The role of Franta Slama (Ondrej Vetchý) characterises such a man. He does not set out to become a hero, but through instinctively doing the right thing for his country, he becomes one. The producers felt Ondrej Vetchy was the only man for the part. It was not the first time they had worked with him, as Ondrej had portrayed the Gravedigger in KOLYA (1996) and he also appeared in Jan Sverák's Oscar nominated (1991) Elementary School]. They decided: "Slama was to be sporty and masculine, not some fake beau, but a guy women would like. " Jan thought, "That's Ondrej. I was sure his energy and will to fight for King and country would filter into the movie. He was the first actor I approached. Ondrej was delighted, and promptly began to study documents about the pilots. He couldn't wait to start. "
In contrast, it took them a long time to find an actor to play the 18-year old trainee pilot Karel Vojtisek (Krystof Hádek). The search took a year, with several big casting sessions. They spotted Krystof, a first year drama student, right at the start, but, Jan thought "he was too young: a mop of hair, not one hair on his chin and, what was worse, he had the eyes of a child. Clearly, he had no experience of adulthood, and this didn't quite fit his part. Even the youngest pilot, who's landed a plane at least once, knows what it means to confront death. You can see it in his eyes. Krystof was photogenic and hugely natural, he coped well in screen tests with Ondrej Vetchý, but neither my father nor I could see him as Vojtisek. We went searching further and further afield, in Slovakia and Poland, until we realised we wouldn't find a better guy. We came back to Krystof and knew we'd have to do something about him. An ideal recipe would have been to find him a "she-devil" of a girlfriend, who'd manage to charm him and leave him two months before photography! He'd have to suffer for love, and mature this way. Instead, we sent Krystof on a special army-training course, where he learnt to march, salute and stand straight. He no longer looked like a lazy adolescent, but a real soldier. At the same time, he took lessons in acting from a Ukrainian child director, Mykolo Hejko, who once looked after little Kolya (Andrei Chalimon). At first, I thought Krystof was my biggest risk, but when the shooting was over, it dawned on me he was my best bet. "
Jan had to rely upon his instincts to find the British actress who could portray Susan (Tara Fitzgerald): "I wanted a really fantastic woman so that everybody would fall in love with her. I found this in Tara Fitzgerald - this Irish girl. When she cries on the screen you can see how it hurts her - the tears come from within. " Eric Abraham believes "Tara is perfect for the role. She's beautiful, exotic and has a period face. Just the right combination to attract both Franta and Karel. " The other two key English actors, Anna Massey and Charles Dance, who portray the feisty English teacher and Wing Commander Bentley respectively were, Jan feels, perfect casting. "They became the characters. "
The other 'stars' of DARK BLUE WORLD (2001) are the Spitfires. One Spitfire costs about US$7,500 per hour, so every minute of flying time means a lot of money out of the budget. Jan says "each time a plane was to land, an inner struggle would take hold of me - the little boy in me wanted to watch the amazing machine fly a little bit longer and the adult producer worried about the extra US$650 for another round. In the end I always said to myself - let him do another turn. The Spitfire produces a very special sound and when it flies over your head, when you hear the engine for the first time, you appreciate its awesome power. It feels like attending a mass. One understands the boys were not afraid whilst flying these planes, because each machine was like a beautiful stallion, which would pull you out of any danger. Besides, the Spitfire looks cheerful, unlike the Messerschmitt, which reminds you of a shark. "
The English pilots on the film inspired Jan: "Nigel Lamb, was a real fighter pilot, who had fought in the guerrilla war in Zimbabwe. He knew his plane so well he was almost a part of the machine. Nigel managed to do amazing things like the raid on a train in Nazi-occupied France, where the plane swerves from right to left in front of the moving train. He could work out precisely when the train would reach the spot visible to the camera, and he'd manage to get there at that exact moment. That's a real achievement. The plane flies at a speed of over three hundred kilometres per hour, and it's hard to make it fly in sync with another moving object, and then to make sure the two are at a certain spot at the same time. Nigel timed it all perfectly. He went so low he almost cut the grass with his propeller!" I asked him "Nigel, can you do it even lower but please only if it's not too dangerous for you". He replied " Everything I'm doing is safe, after all no one's shooting at me!"
The aerial sequences are a combination of elements. Blue-screen, actual live action aerial filming, models, computer graphics and out-takes from the 1969 epic film BATTLE OF BRITAIN, the (1969) aerial footage. Eric Abraham says "Jan ingeniously and seamlessly integrated all these ingredients to produce dramatically organic and exciting aerial scenes. While we did a fair amount of aerial photography it is true to say that the BATTLE OF BRITAIN, the (1969) out-take footage was invaluable because these days some of the period planes we needed aren't airworthy any more and even if they were we couldn't have afforded them on our budget. "
Coincidentally, one of the Czech veteran pilots, who came to watch the plane sequences at Hradcany air field, discovered he once took one of the planes being used for filming into action. Eric Abraham comments: "The veterans found it exciting to see a world - the planes, the RAF airbase - which they last encountered in their youth. It was moving both for them and for us. "
The story dictated the proportion of 65% Czech and 35% English language used in the film. It was a complicated aspect of filming and, in particular, for Ondrej Vetchy who had a high proportion of lines in English. Jan says "Ondrej's English is very basic and the poor bloke even had some lines in German. He had several rather emotional scenes in English too, which I think would wear out many lesser actors. He couldn't sleep, worrying he'd mess up the lines. The scene in the garden, where he talks to a little girl had to be tender, but not gooey. He had to cope with the trickery of English pronunciation, where you have 'a sting' and 'a stink'. He could hear very little difference between the two. I was really sorry for him but he pulled it off. After each day of linguistic torture he was euphoric with relief . " Eric Abraham was the dialogue coach for the Czechs. "We wanted their English to be clear and credible, not a fake Queen's English or one that would spoil their characters, since Czechs have a tendency to strangle many English words which are vowel rich. I wouldn't be surprised if Vetchy and Hadek weren't inundated with Hollywood offers on the basis of their 'excellent' and fluent English in our film. "
When Hans-Jörg Assmann who plays the SS Dr. Blaschke arrived in Prague, he had spent two months learning the complicated Czech text, and knew the difficult lines perfectly. He told Jan "You can cut out any lines you wish, but you mustn't change a word, because I've learnt it all by heart . "
Jan Sverák creates an atmosphere on the set relevant to the scene being prepared. "We worked like this on KOLYA (1996). When we were shooting the sad scenes there was no fun and games throughout that day and for happy scenes everybody had to work themselves up into the highest spirits, even the gaffer had to be in a good mood, otherwise it's all false. If the emotion is real it makes its way onto the screen fresh and undamaged. "
Another aspect of filming, which demands a different kind of concentration, is the direction of children and animals. Despite being notoriously difficult to work with, Jan believes: "When you manage to shoot a scene well with children, it adds authenticity to the film.
More serious problems were of a technical nature. The difficulty facing producers was how to recreate the aerial battle scenes of WWII without a multi-million Hollywood blockbuster budget. Jan considers "when you move into the sphere of special effects, they can be good and expensive or cheap, and it shows. We wanted to give the story what it deserved. For instance, we had to blow up a train. We discovered it would cost the same to blow up a real train as it would to build and blow up a model. You may end up spending more on the models than on the real thing. So, we bought a train, sawed off parts of the water tanks, stuffed explosives and petrol inside and camouflaged the cut out bits. Unfortunately, we had to do the whole thing twice, because the first take negative was damaged. But I am pleased with the train scene; our train blew up really nicely - twice!"
The whole production had to fly to Cape Town, South Africa for a week's shooting. "We needed the English Channel i. e. the Atlantic Ocean, in winter and we needed it cheap" Eric Abraham explains, "and since only seaward shots were required Cape Town was feasible and worked a treat. It turned out to be cheaper than filming in the Czech Republic. Despite the difficulties of gale force weather and seasickness, we were even able to wrap on time and get Jan back to Prague for the birth of his son the next day. "
"We were shooting one of the scenes, where Franta (Ondrej Vetchý) is supposed to be drowning in a rough sea," Jan adds "the water was not that cold - only fifteen degrees - but, would you believe it, our hero Ondrej wanted to get out! I think he was scared. There was a huge swell, slowly rising and falling, and on top of this were waves of over two metres. We were all seasick. It was only after a while, when Ondrej's costume got soaked through and he began to drown, we realised that we had forgotten to inflate his life jacket. But, you see, I was always convinced he was a real hero and that any stunt would be a treat for him. Later, I saw a TV documentary about the infamous Great White sharks who regularly came to snack on seals at the same spot where we'd been shooting with Ondrej! "
Recreating war-time England in the Czech Republic proved less demanding than the scenes in the air and sea, but still needed a lot of planning and attention to detail. The old Russian airbase at Hradcany doubled for the English RAF base. However, finding a replica English country house was more complicated. "England differed not only in architecture" Jan found "but in all sorts of ways. We discovered a house near Ostrava, built by Baron Rothschild, which looked as if it had been parachuted in from England - complete with screetching pheasants'.
Music proved a key element to the makers of DARK BLUE WORLD (2001), which takes its name from the old Jaroslav Jezek song of the same title. Jan thinks "when music is cleverly used, it brings emotion into a scene and communicates things words cannot express. The song, Dark Blue World is a work of genius; it expresses pride and sorrow, disenchantment and solace. Oldrich Kaiser, who portrays Machaty, managed to master this complicated tune and played it perfectly. Everyone in the room fell quiet after the first few bars. The way he plays this tune - it's as if he opens his soul to us. "