Petr Jákl: Jan Žižka movie is “Braveheart about a Czech hero”
This week sees the long anticipated premiere of the most expensive Czech film in history. Medieval, or Jan Žižka as the film is being marketed in Czechia, cost around 450 million crowns and stars actors such as Michael Caine, Ben Foster and Til Schweiger. It focuses on the early life of the famous Czech Hussite general, who was known for his innovative tactics. The movie was written, directed and produced by Petr Jákl, a former Czech judo international and stuntman. I caught up with him and began by asking why he felt that the character of Jan Žižka deserved a film.
“When I was young I of course knew about Jan Žižka from school, but he was not such an interesting figure to me at that time. I was more into Vikings, or Braveheart.
“When I grew up, some people like Marek Dobeš or Michal Petruš came to me and told me that they have a script about a young Jan Žižka and so we started talking about doing a movie. We hired other screenwriters like Petr Bok, who also wrote a really good script, and then I started to re-write it on my own together with my father who was helping me.
“The idea of Jan Žižka basically started about 11 years ago for me. I thought that it would be great to do a movie like Braveheart about a Czech hero, because he deserves that. I am a big Czech patriot and I wanted to show everybody what a great history we have, how beautiful our castles and landscapes are. For example, we show the 15th century Charles Bridge in the movie.”
Going into the script, what sort of research did you do about Žižka and his period? The movie is set in 1402, so he would be about 42 years old, no?
“It depends when he was born. It looks like it could have been the 1360s, but nobody knows that. In any case, he probably would have been in his late 30s or early 40s at the time when this movie takes place.
“I wanted to do something different, because we know the 60-year-old Žižka and there was a movie made by [famous Czech director] Otakar Vávra about Žižka more than 60 years ago. That is why I chose a younger Žižka at a time when Jan Hus started preaching in the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague.
“The story I chose was about a mercenary and about someone who is trying to find his purpose in life. I wanted to show how the peasants felt at the time and what politics was like, because it was very similar to these days when politicians are fighting each other one day, working together the next and nobody really knows what the truth is. I liked that a lot.
“The movie is about fighting for freedom, or, you could also say, justice. And there is a lot of hope at the end.
“It was not possible to distribute the movie due to the pandemic, so it is coming out two years later than was originally planned. But now I feel that the release date is actually right, because of the war in Ukraine and all that happened. It is a much better time right now to show the movie.
“Basically, I think people should remember that these things are happening all the time. It happened 60 years ago, it’s happening now, close to us, and, unfortunately, it’s probably going to be happening in the future too, because people are like that.”
You first mentioned that you wanted to make a movie about Jan Žižka in 2013 and, as far as I understand, this movie was actually filmed in 2018. So tell us a bit about how you got this film to happen and why it took so long?
“In the beginning we were thinking about a Czech production in the Czech language. However, the budget was around 90 million crowns, which was really high for the Czech market and we wouldn’t be able to get the money back even if the movie were successful.
“I always want to make movies that are also successful from a business perspective, because I want to be able to work with the investors again. This is why I am working on other American movies as a producer, because people trust me. They invest money into those movies with me, because they know that it is going to be good business.”
I believe you said in one interview that they found out in Hollywood that you actually do what you promised.
“Yes. That’s a big difference, because, you know, comparing to those people there, many of them just talk. It is a habit. When I was there and would come home after every party, I would be excited about all of the projects that people promised and nothing happened.
“So, basically the budget was around 90 million Czech crowns. Then I decided that I wanted to show it to everybody, so we would have to do it in English and the budget went up to 300 million crowns.
“Once we secured names such as Michael Caine, Ben Foster or Til Schweiger, we decided to make it even bigger. It went up again by another 150 million. So it’s 450 million crowns now, which is around 20 million dollars. The exchange rate is going up and down all the time, so it’s around the 20 million mark.”
You have a star cast, so how much of that money were you able to put into the actual filming?
“I think it was most of the money actually, around two thirds I think. You can see that in the production value of the film on screen.
“Also, because we were shooting this movie here in places such as Prague, or South and Central Bohemia, where there are beautiful castles and nature, we were able to shoot it for this kind of money. Otherwise, if we were shooting somewhere else, it would be more like 80 million dollars. It was a huge advantage to shoot it here.
“Also, we know everybody here and everyone was trying to help and support this movie. That had a positive influence on the budget. Nevertheless, some days I did feel like we need a much bigger budget, because I couldn’t afford some of the things that I wanted in the movie and I would have to do them differently.
“However, I cannot say that this was worse for the movie, because we took the advantages that presented themselves to create new things. Sometimes, when there was something that I didn’t want, such as a fight rehearsed in a way that I didn’t really love, I would tell myself that I must think of something else.
“I am a big Czech patriot and I wanted to show everybody what a great history we have, how beautiful our castles and landscapes are.”
“For example, Jan Žižka was one of the biggest tactical innovators and for that reason I said that we should use some of his tactics. So we used smoke. They put hay on fire and the troops were fighting in the smoke, hidden behind it. It was beautiful for the movie. I was only able to create things like that because we had enough money for the rehearsals.”
Do you feature Žižka’s famous Wagenburg tactic? The one where the wagons form a sort of fort?
“Yes, we do. They were using them in the Hussite wars, around 18 years after the events in the movie, so I decided to create the ‘beginning’ of this tactic. How he came up with it. I was thinking about it and looking at all of the sources we have on it from the time, at least most of them. We don’t know much about Jan Žižka around this time, so I was looking for anything that was interesting.
“Also, these wagons and all of this was cool to use, because he is basically the creator of the first tank. They were also using guns in the wagons too later on, so it was like a real tank.”
On YouTube, I saw your film trailer was dissected for historical accuracy in terms of the armour and weapons that the characters have. And the reviewer didn’t seem happy. Did you try to also focus on armour and clothing realism? And, on that note, why do you think filmmakers don’t employ more historical reenactors, who often have full historically accurate armour sets and deep knowledge about the period, in their films?
“Yes, I definitely thought about it. I talked to many of them. I worked with historians. I was using Jaroslav Čechura, who is probably one of the best historians here. After watching the movie he told me: ‘Yes, things could have happened as they are shown in the movie.’ That was what was most important to me.
“When it comes to the fights, I wanted them to be very real. What you see in other movies is usually not very real. They’ve got full armour on, helmets and they are ready to fight. However, it wasn’t always like that. Especially mercenaries didn’t have complex helmets and armour, because everything was very expensive. Also, mercenaries used various unrelated pieces of armour, because once they killed somebody they choose what they want to steal and then they either sold it or used it.
“In the movie we have mercenaries from all parts of Europe, whether it be Denmark, the British Isles, Germany, or Italy. I hired actors from those countries and we are using their respective period weapons from the whole continent. I really enjoyed that, because it looks cooler. It’s a mix. People would say: ‘Oh, these are not Hussites.’ They are not. The Hussite Wars started later.
“I wanted to place it into a world of mercenaries. It’s the same as if you were shooting a movie nowadays about bikers. They would be bald, have a lot of tattoos, big beards and they would be dirty. But 60 years into the future people would probably say that this is not actually what bikers looked like.”
Collecting pieces of armour off one’s dead foes, that sounds a lot like an RPG video game and you are actually making one about this movie. I heard that Michael Caine is in it too?
“Yes. That was a long journey. I am a big fan of video games. I played them already when they came out. I am almost 50 after all, which feels crazy to say. I remember I used to play Unreal, Doom and all of these games and I wanted to make one. Now I had a chance.
“That said, I wanted to make something different, so I took the film footage and I am going to recut the movie for the game. It’s going to be a combination of the movie and the game. You will be able to find out some of the motivations of the characters and why they did certain things in the movie as you play the game.
“We had been negotiating with Michael Caine for two years and it was two years ago, when I was producing another movie with Michael and Aubrey Plaza in Canada, I offered him that he could be part of this video game and be a 3D character there. He said that he loved the idea and that he thought it sounded great, but that he will have to think about it. Then, he called me and said: ‘Hey Petr, I called my grandchildren and they said I have to be in the video game.’
“That’s how he ended up choosing to do it and I am so glad. It is so hard to get actors to do video games, especially Michael Caine who is a true legend of film. The game should be released in the first half of next year.”
Speaking of Michael Caine, what was he like on the set of the film? I heard that he kept cracking jokes.
“Yes, he’s very funny. He makes fun of everything, but at the same time he is very professional.
“When Michael agreed to star in the film I thought to myself: ‘Oh gosh, how am I going to direct somebody who has two Oscars, many more nominations and other awards!’ But then, we met and I started telling Michael about my plans for the film and how he feels about them and he said: ‘No, you tell me exactly what you want.’ I said ok and told him. Then he did it and afterwards asked me: ‘Do you want something else?’ I said: ‘Yes, could you do this?’ And he did it.
“It was an unbelievable pleasure to work with him and he is so humble. It was also fun. Of course, he was 84 at the time. Now he is 88. He was full of energy, but I had to plan the day according to him. I would do the most important scenes with him in the morning and, unless it was necessary, I didn’t shoot with him in the evening. It was a beautiful experience.”
Ben Foster, meanwhile, the actor who plays the main character Jan Žižka, was apparently very dedicated to his role. I heard you giving an example that he talked to you for two hours about how exactly the scene would work?
“Yes, it was difficult. In the beginning we were talking about everything and we were on the same page. It was great. We were discussing stuff, deleting unnecessary things, like parts of dialogue.
“Because he is such a great actor, he doesn’t really have to say everything. You just look at him and you understand, which is perfect. But for me it was a new experience. I had to work differently with him than with anybody else.
“I would always give him the first two shots for him to do it as he wants, because he already knew what I wanted, and only then would I give him notes. He wanted to discuss everything. Sometimes that took too long.
“On the hand though, he had great ideas and he was perfect for the part. So I was looking for a way to make this cooperation as much of a pleasure for both as possible. And it was perfect. In the end we did find a way and it was a very interesting experience.”
You also had leading Czech and international sportsmen play parts in your film. For example, you have Olympic champion Roman Šebrle acting in the movie. You, of course, were a judo fighter in your time and even represented Czechia in the Olympics.
“Of course. I do come from a sports background. I have three Olympic gold medallists playing roles in the film. There is judo fighter Lukáš Krpálek, pentathlete David Svoboda and decathlete Roman Šebrle. I also got boxer Rudolf Kraj, who won silver at the Olympics in Sydney where I competed. Then there is also Marek Švec, a bronze medal winning wrestler. I love to be surrounded by sportsmen, because they are fair.”
As you said before, the movie focuses on a young Jan Žižka. Does that suggest that there might be a sequel?
“[Laughs] If there is going to be a sequel it is going to be without me. I feel like everything that I wanted to say about Jan Žižka is in the movie. I also feel that some movies shouldn’t have sequels.”
You have said that you wanted to make a movie that the whole world could see and something that is a bit like Braveheart. Hence the big budget and the star cast. What would you like foreign audiences to take away from your film?
“I always wanted to make a movie like this. Just to promote Czechia in the world, so that people could say: ‘Hey! This is a Czech hero! Prague is beautiful, let’s go there!’ [laughs] I’ve always been a patriot. I think that this movie is about people fighting for freedom, but also about love.
“For me, when I watch movies, I have to feel something afterwards. I want movies to be emotional and that is why I paid attention to the story between Jan Žižka and [the female character] Catherine. It’s not a typical love story.
“But what is most important to me in the movie is the message of hope. And there is a lot of hope in the end. I believe that there is always hope in our lives, even when bad things are happening. We need to be hopeful and positive. So let’s stay positive and everything is going to be much better.”
Do you think that there is any other Czech historical character who deserves their own blockbuster movie?
“There certainly are some characters from the past. That said, when I was thinking about them I was thinking how one could do it. What is the most interesting thing about them? There are many figures that I admire, but I still wasn’t able to find a way of how to make a movie about them.
“You have to find a reason why you want to tell their story to the people. That is always the most difficult thing for me, because I love some of those people and their story, but then I think: Why should people see this?’ What is the reason? And what is the message?
“I always need some kind of message and there are many beautiful stories, but I didn’t find a key to them. So I will have to keep searching for them.”
And Jan Žižka’s main message, for you, is that he is a freedom fighter?
“Yes. I believe that it is worth fighting for something that you believe in, to help people and come together at times when it is necessary. Don’t just look at something wrong that is going on.
“You should do something. And I don’t mean fighting in the sense of shooting or killing somebody. It could just be saying it out loud, or writing something about it. In any case, that is the message for me.”
Jan Žižka is set to air in Czech cinemas from September 8.