Film school needs to wake up to TV phenomenon, says Burning Bush co-producer Tomáš Hrubý

Tomáš Hrubý, photo: Šárka Ševčíková

Burning Bush, which explores the aftermath of the 1969 self-immolation of Jan Palach, recently swept the boards at the Czech Lion film awards. The Best Director prize went to Agnieszka Holland, while among those collecting a Lion for Best Film was producer Tomáš Hrubý. Though still students at Prague’s FAMU film school, Hrubý and his business partner have already notched up a string of successes with their company Nutprodukce.

Tomáš Hrubý,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
When we met the conversation encompassed HBO’s impact on the local TV market, why Czech documentaries are relatively strong and his firm’s latest projects. But I first asked Hrubý, 27, about the genesis of Burning Bush.

“Initially it started as a bachelor’s screenplay by the writer Štěpán Hulík. We thought it was a fabulous screenplay. When we read it, it had already been offered to Czech Television, who passed on it – or never actually replied.

“That was at the time we met with Tereza Polachová, who’s another producer at HBO. We had a discussion about different projects and we offered them this screenplay.

“I had no idea that they would actually accept it – it was a totally blind shot, I would call it. But they did. They became immediately interested.

“It didn’t take long for us to offer the screenplay to Agnieszka Holland, who seemed like the best possible option because of her experience of working for American HBO and also because of her personal involvement in the story. So it just all came together.”

Tell us about your initial meeting with Agnieszka Holland and about how you met her and how you in a sense sold the project to her.

“First we sent her the original script. It was actually shorter, because the TV mini-series was written later. That was one of the requests from HBO, that they needed a mini-series. The original script was shorter – it was more like a feature film.

“So we sent her the original feature film script and she said that it was an interesting story and that she was interested and wanted to meet us.

“We took the train to Poland. She was curious about how we got there and how was our flight, and we told her we took a train. She asked us why we didn’t fly and we told her frankly that we didn’t have the money for the flight, you know [laughs].

Agnieszka Holland,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
“I think she kind of remembered her old schooldays when she was attending FAMU and going from Warsaw to Prague every week by train. It’s a hell of a journey; it takes like 12 hours – it’s really, really long.

“So I think that was kind of reminded her of her young days. I think she thought, OK, these guys are young, but they’re honest.”

She went to FAMU in the late ‘60s. Do you think that helped you win her over to the project?

“I think it definitely did. But what was more important than her attending the school was her experience of 1968 and the Soviet invasion at that time.

“She likes to say that it was a defining moment in her life and that it pretty much changed the course of her life. When she came to Prague she immediately fell in love with Czechoslovakia. She actually also fell in love with a guy here.”

She has a Slovak husband, no?

“Exactly, yes. And she had a baby while she was attending the school. And she said that she had decided to stay here, because Czechoslovakia at that time seemed like heaven in the Eastern Bloc.

“But the ’68 situation changed everything. Because she is a very, I would say, active person, she became a part of the protests. She got jailed for a couple of months and she got expelled to Poland.

“So this whole experience changed her life and changed her attitude toward even the Polish regime. I think that’s the reason she wanted to come back and kind of close this chapter of her life.”

After you won the 11 Czech Lions for Burning Bush [recut as a feature film from the original mini-series], did you perceive a change in attitude towards you from your professors of fellow students at FAMU?

“I haven’t noticed a big change in attitude. I think the teachers and also the dean were quite supportive.

“I really appreciate the experience of going to FAMU. We wouldn’t have done Burning Bush if we didn’t go to FAMU. All of us met there, basically, and we got a lot of experience and training there.

“I would probably be supportive of more changes to the school. I think it needs to be a bit more modern. It definitely needs to be more focused on TV, because TV is becoming such a huge phenomenon in the world.

Photo: HBO
“FAMU has been ignoring the TV business for a very long time. Basically, television at FAMU has been considered something of a lesser medium, of lesser worth, and I think this needs to change.”

Burning Bush was of course produced by HBO. Previously the only game in town, so to speak, was Czech TV. What do you think it means for people working in TV to have the emergence of HBO as a company producing domestic drama and TV?

“I think it’s a blessing for the market that HBO came and started their own original production.

“The TV world has been changing for the last 11, 12, 13 years, ever since The Sopranos or Oz came out in the USA.

“There has not been a change in the Czech market. Czech Television has been producing for the last 12 years very, very similar programmes. There was no invention. And because HBO came and introduced new, original series that set the bar higher.

“Other stations, especially Czech Television, needs to react to this and this reaction is very healthy for the TV market. Although the new director general and new management at Czech TV have been much more flexible and supportive.”

Can you foresee a day or foresee a time when a company in the Czech Republic could produce a series like Breaking Bad, over several seasons, with a lot of episodes?

“I’m not sure that it’s possible to produce shows like Breaking Bad in the Czech Republic or even in Europe. There are so many different things, and things are more extreme in America.

“But it is possible to produce shows like The Killing, for instance, which is a Danish show, or The Returned, which is a French show. These shows have been taken up and bought by American TV networks and have been remade in America.

“I think this is possible, and I’m hoping that Czech filmmakers will achieve such success.”

Nutprodukce is also involved in the area of documentaries. You produced, for instance, The Fortress by Lukáš Kokeš [and Klára Tasovská], and Show! by Bohdan Bláhovec. Many people say to me that Czech documentaries are in a healthier state than feature films. Would you agree with that statement?

'Burning Bush',  photo: HBO
“It’s hard to compare those. I would say Czech documentaries have more international success. So you can measure that, for instance.

“I would also say that Czech documentary filmmakers tend to be more modern thinking and more up to date.

“I think this has a lot to do with the differences between the teachers at the documentary department at FAMU and at the directing department.

“The directing department has been very, very old-fashioned, I would say. And the documentary department is much more modern, innovative, etcetera.”

Tell us about the new projects you have on the way. I know you’re making a film about Eva Olmerová, the jazz singer, and you’re making Gottland, which is based on a collection of journalism by a Polish journalist. I’m particularly interested in Gottland. What form will it take? Will it be a documentary or some kind of drama?

“The Gottland project is basically six small films by six documentary filmmakers, including Lukáš Kokeš and Klára Tasovská, who you mentioned earlier.

“These are small documentaries put together under the name of this locally famous book.

“We’re also making a new TV series for HBO [The Wasteland]. As we were mentioning the examples of The Killing or Breaking Bad, that’s kind of the level we’re aspiring to.

“We’re writing it with Štěpán Hulík as well. It’s basically an eight-episode story, so it’s the same length as, for instance, True Detective.

“It’s about a village on the border of the Czech Republic and Poland. It actually focuses on the problem of coal mining in the Czech Republic and breaking the limits [on mining], which is a great political issue and is going on and on in the media.”

Would it be the dream for you for this to be a success in Europe and then remade in the States perhaps?

“I’m not sure about the remade in the States part. But we would love, and that’s our goal, to have international appeal for the show. We’re trying to do this with every project we have, so the project really travels.”

'Burning Bush',  photo: HBO
You have very good English. It’s a small market in the Czech Republic. Have you ever considered seeking work abroad?

“That’s more difficult… Having good English is one part of it. Having your family, your wife, your friends here – that’s quite another thing. It’s a possibility and I’m open to it, but you pay a lot for travelling abroad.”