Peter Jackson, Jiri Madl, Vojtech Vodochodský 5

The period around 1968 in what was then known as Czechoslovakia has gotten the film and TV treatment numerous times. But the 58th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) saw the world premiere Waves, of a new take on the time before and after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet Union-led Warsaw Pact troops.

“The film revolves around the international news office at Czechoslovak Radio, a place full of talented individuals possessing broad insight, linguistic skills and above all a commitment to honest journalistic work with a focus on the truth,” whose broadcasts played a key role during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, the KVIFF website highlights. “An epic, dynamically shot, rewarding film, which embraces uncommon heroism in the face of an oppressive regime, the strength of fraternal ties and the eternal themes of love, betrayal, morality and hope.”

Director and actor Jirí Mádl directed the ensemble cast, led by Vojtech Vodochodský, in the movie that drew rave reactions at the festival. In one of his festival appearances, Mádl said that while the film was primarily intended for Czech audiences, he wanted it to be open and accessible to audiences beyond as well. And he shared that he approached the project like Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo

The two talked to The Hollywood Reporter about making a movie about a time that is still very important to Czechs, why the film uses historical footage weaved together with directed shots, and why they want to act together in a future project.

At the beginning of the film, it is mentioned that some of its characters are based on real people whose real names are used. How much is Vojtech’s character Tomás Havlík based on somebody real?

Mádl: That was part of the most important issue that I had with the screenplay: that there are a lot of interesting stories. And I needed to condense it all into just a few characters. So the character of Tomás is a mixture of three people that I read about or met who were technicians. The other reason why this character is 50 percent fictional is that I needed to be free to move through the story. Also, I was trying to find someone who would be very easy to identify with and who would be vulnerable. Because if you look at the journalists, they’re coming back to Prague from great international [reporting] experiences and they’re already stars and know what’s going on in the world and in Czechoslovakia. If you really want to feel for somebody and to fear for his home, and in his case for his younger brother, then he needs to be an average Czechoslovakian. So I wrote this character.

How did you as the actor prepare for that role?

Vodochodský: Since my character is fictional, I didn’t have the manual like the other characters and actors. With no real comparison, we just created something. I don’t know; we had rehearsals with Jirí in his cottage with [the actor who plays] my younger brother. And we just tried to find some kind of authenticity based on what’s written in the screenplay and what then feels natural for him.

I am a sibling too. But I’m the younger brother with an older sister. So maybe I should ask her and study her emotions. But it wasn’t difficult to imagine how it would be if my younger brother or some member of my family was in great danger.

Mádl: I can relate to it. Because I have an 11-year younger brother and I spent a lot of time with him when he was a kid and I tried to bring him up a bit. This is a topic in my last two works — there’s a brother and the younger brother. I also named the character after him. I was planning to rename the character later and then maybe I forgot, or I simply got used to hearing the name all the time. And maybe it kept me in the feeling and really dug deep for me.

How did you decide when to weave in historical footage? And in some scenes, it looks like your actors are interacting with it or nearly becoming part of that footage.

Vodochodský: I knew some of the footage. Jirí told us about it before we started filming. He showed us some sequences and [explained] where in the film they will have a place.

Mádl: We made a camera test in which we tried to combine it. It was one short scene when they are dragging all the workers out of the radio building. It was maybe 20 seconds or 30 seconds. But it was sufficient for people to understand — not only those who were involved in the process of mixing the archive with the shot footage. But then, it took a long time, two months on a daily basis, when I myself had to go through the archives.

Vodochodský: Wow, I didn’t know this.

Mádl: Yeah, we had so much material. I basically spent the whole summer by my computer searching through this and trying to sort it out. You have material that you like, but, first, there is the script. So you take the screenplay, and it works like a Christmas tree, and you try to garnish it. OK, this fits here; this doesn’t fit. Then there are scenes that you haven’t found in the archive. But I said, “This could be similar: explosion, fire, a tank burning — it’s pretty much the same.” (Laughs.)

But we had to find those archive scenes where you can shoot and insert yourself [and your shot scenes]. For example, the tank is burning, and there are soldiers trying to stop the fire. So for that, we made a shot from above and you see our actors trying to stop the fire, so that you actually confuse the viewer, the audience, and they get lost in it. And they simply stop to care and don’t get disconnected from the story emotionally.

Waves

Courtesy of Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

Vodochodský: How did you come up with this idea?

Mádl: I think I first saw this kind of approach in Peter Jackson‘s film, the documentary from the first World War [They Shall Not Grow Old, 2018]. It was also color-graded, pure archive with great sound. But I never saw it implemented directly into a scene, back and forth.

You are both too young to have been alive in 1968. How big a topic are the events of back then in the Czech Republic to this day?

Vodochodský: In elementary school and high school, they still teach it as a big moment in our history. So I think that 80 percent of kids know that this happened.

Mádl: We kind of know, but we are very emotionally detached from it because we see it as something that is so distant, so far away. But then all of a sudden, my father, after many years, started telling me the story of where they were in those days. They were returning from Italy to [their home country]. My grandfather spoke seven languages fluently. Being away and hearing what was going on in Czechoslovakia, they could have stayed away. And he was immediately offered three jobs — in Switzerland, Austria and Italy. But they returned.

I then started getting curious because I wanted to know more. And then I simply bumped into this story because I read a book about the history of Czechoslovakia. And there was this little chapter about the international newsroom: 17 pages, no more. I didn’t know about this and asked my friends. People know two sentences from the radio broadcast, “In these early hours, there were tanks trespassing on our soil,” or whatever. But then came the Russians, and there was not a single bulb on in the radio building. Everything was off or destroyed. And then you ask: “How come they managed to broadcast for another five days?” There’s a huge gap in knowledge. So I was like: “I’ve got this treasure in my hands!”

The whole theme of freedom, including press freedom, is such a big topic in our day. Did that play into your decision to pursue this project?

Vodochodský: I think when we started filming, we didn’t even imagine how [current] it would be, how present this danger would be, censorship and government and so on. It’s getting worse, I think.

Mádl: I started working on it in 2012. At that time, the world was different. But the truth is that the more parallels you see in it now, the more creepy it gets.

Vodochodský: Unfortunately, this is great timing for this film. Unfortunately, because we didn’t want this to happen.

The film is such an epic that people see it having the potential to travel and go global. Any plans yet where to take Waves beyond the Czech Republic?

Mádl: Yeah, we want to win an Oscar. (Laughs.) It’s always very hard to make a film that can be a good export. But we live in days when this audience stereotype that they only watch either their national films or American blockbusters is slowly starting to disappear.

Vodochodský: We are all watching Squid Game or some Korean or Vietnamese films, and they get nominated for Oscars. So this barrier, this language barrier and national barrier, is disappearing.

What are your upcoming projects?

Vodochodský: Well, I’m just an actor. So I will wait for a call.

Mádl: I will call!

Vodochodský: I’m in some casting process on some big films right now. And I have some small projects, like series.

Mádl: I would now like to return in front of the camera. I have three films where I have the lead, and the next year I would like to devote to acting. I have two leads in the Czech Republic and one in Switzerland. I don’t have any screenplay now to shoot as a director. But I’m hoping to get something. I wrote the screenplays for all of my three films, but I’m ready to accept screenplays from somebody else. We could be in something together. (Looks at Vodochodský.)

Vodochodský: We have this small dream to play together in a film but as actors. I’m really curious how it would be. I cannot imagine it because he is just a director for me now because I didn’t meet him as an actor on set.

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