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Director Improvises in Brave 'Blue World'

January 03, 2002|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Making his epic World War II adventure "Dark Blue World" was an exhausting enterprise for Czech director Jan Sverak. So exhausting, he felt like quitting his job.

"I was thinking during production what will be my next profession, because I don't want to do this anymore," says Sverak, with a sigh. "I was dying."

"It was a forced march," adds the film's producer Eric Abraham. "It was an exhausting 100 days."

Sverak, 36, scored a hit with his last film, 1996's "Kolya," which won the best foreign-language film Oscar. Written by and starring his father, Zdenek Sverak, "Kolya" dealt with the friendship between an aging womanizer and a young Russian orphan boy.

"Dark Blue World," which was also written by his father, is a much more ambitious production. Starring Ondrej Vetchy, Krystof Hadek, Charles Dance, Tara Fitzgerald and Anna Massey, it tells the story of the friendship between two Czech pilots, Frantisek (Vetchy) and Karel (Hadek), who escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to join Britain's Royal Air Force. In England, they fall in love with the same woman, Susan (Fitzgerald), whose husband is missing in action. When Frantisek returns to Communist-occupied Czechoslovakia after the war, he and pilots who flew for the RAF are imprisoned. The film, which opened Friday, is in both Czech and English.

Made for $7 million, "Dark Blue World" has been a huge hit in the Czech Republic. "It opened in the middle of May," says Sverak, during a recent visit with Abraham to Los Angeles. In late October, "we hit 1 million admissions, which is 10% of the population."

It was an uphill battle to get financing, Abraham says.

"What we realized is, to make this kind of a movie not in the English language would be tough," says Abraham. "You have to see what [the pilots] do convincingly in the airplanes. Maestro Spielberg has shown us wonderful scenes, but he has the money. We didn't have the money, so we had to find the key to enable us to make this film for the budget. Many distributors in Europe said you will never be able to pull this off--you have a period film, you have aerial sequences and you have CinemaScope."

So Abraham remembered a massive World War II film with many aerial combat scenes: 1969's "Battle of Britain."

"They had spent a fortune on aerial photography," says Abraham. "They also had the virtue that a lot of these planes still existed. I thought having spent so much money there must have been outtakes. And sure enough, there were pristine, unused outtakes, and we were able to create aerial sequences out of this material. But it is a double-edged sword. We wondered if we should be telling everybody how it happened. But money is the midwife of creativity, and when you have less, you have to use sort of real creative ingenuity."

Though the story about the two pilots is fiction, their fate upon returning home isn't. Of the 2,500 pilots who flew for the RAF during World War II, 90% were imprisoned by the communist government. "Some of them spent just a year there," he says. "Some of them, six or 10 years, and some of them died there." And, Abraham adds, life wasn't much better when they were released--they were only allowed to hold menial jobs.

"Some of them are still alive and are retired," says Sverak. "They have a small pension. We started a foundation to support them."

The foundation sent letters to the survivors and their widows asking them what type of support they needed. "Most of them said they were living such a modest life during communism that they don't feel the need for anything but the feeling that someone cares; it is very pleasing for them. What I realized is how good for the audience it is to have the opportunity to send $5 to this [foundation]. After watching the movie, they are so emotionally moved, they are ashamed of what the Czechs did to their own heroes that they have the need to do something."

Because of the success of "Kolya," Sverak had planned to make his next picture in English. "We had all the [American] studios open to us, so I thought you can do whatever you want. So we [he and his father] started to think about this subject."

Sverak soon realized "Dark Blue World" couldn't be an American production.

"My father is very rooted in Czech culture. You can't let Czechs be played by Americans. You have to have some differences in language. The film is a conflict between two cultures, so somehow it would be fake to make it all in English."

Besides being a producer, Abraham also was Sverak's driver and dialogue coach for the Czech actors. "The actors are phenomenal," says Abraham. "It is incredibly difficult for any actor to act through the barrier of any language that is not their own. You very rarely see foreign actors being able to act in English if they are not completely fluent. They had an incredible task, but when you see them on the screen, they are not mouthing the lines [in English], there is emotion in their eyes and face."

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