Exclusive interview: Director Petr Jákl talks ‘Medieval’
Filmmaker Petr Jákl has lived a remarkable life already, but shooting blockbuster historical epic Medieval might have been his biggest challenge yet.
A former professional judoka, Jákl scored three Top 10 placings at the European Judo Championships at three different weight classes in 1995, 1998, and 2000 and even went to the Olympics, before seguing into acting and landing roles in Hollywood productions like Bad Company, xXx, Eurotrip, and Alien vs. Predator.
Moving behind the camera into writing, directing, and producing, Medieval marks Jákl’s third feature after prison thriller Kajínek and found footage horror Ghoul. Tackling a national icon, the 14th Century tale focuses on the early life of legendary Czech figure Jan Žižka, played by Ben Foster in the most expensive film in the history of Czech cinema.
Michael Caine, Matthew Goode, Til Schweiger, William Mosely, Karel Roden, Sophie Lowe, and many others co-star in the hard-hitting tale tracing Žižka’s beginnings as a mercenary and sword-for-hire, which finds him caught in a deadly political game that threatens political instability and widespread unrest.
In the aftermath of Medieval‘s release on September 8, We Got This Covered had the chance to speak to Jákl about his latest effort, the frustrations of waiting for the film to release post-pandemic, the pressures and expectations that come from telling the story of a national hero on such a large canvas, and much more, which you can check out below.
Does it feel like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders now Medieval is out there for the world to see? Having overcome the pandemic, and there’s been a lot of talk about it being the most expensive Czech film ever, it must be a relief to have people able to check it out for themselves.
Yeah, absolutely. I was really looking forward for this day, and just, it’s been pretty long time. You know, it’s been like, yeah, two extra years. It’s a really long time. But on the other hand, I thought, like, I was very angry when the pandemic hit. So, but then when the war in Ukraine started, and now I can show the movie, I think it’s much more relevant to these days, and just like, what is happening there?
What is, what was happening 600 years ago here, and what will be, unfortunately, probably happening in the future. I feel like this is the right moment, so I’m very happy that people can watch it, can go and see it in theaters. And yeah, that’s a really good, good feeling.
Were there any frustrations on your part while you were waiting for Medieval to release? Shooting was four years ago, and it’s a movie that needs to be seen on the big screen, so the pandemic made it a sort of catch-22 situation where you just had to ride it out.
Yeah, of course. It was frustrating, you know, but on the other side, I had some time to think about it a bit more, change this detail or that [detail], and I had more time in post, and I think it helped. And then I also wanted to do a really good dubbing for the Czech audience, because it’s still Czech movie, even if it was shooting in English.
So I spent a lot of time on dubbing it. And yeah, and then we also had a lot of VFX. So they could make it as we want it, you know? I mean, we would definitely finish it in two years. And it was, but then, once you have a little bit more time, you go back and you go, “Hey, maybe this could be even better”. So yeah, I was playing with it.
Someone once said to me that a director is never finished with a film, there just comes a point where it gets taken off them. Is that something you agree with?
Absolutely, absolutely. It’s just like, I will be playing with it forever. And, you know, the movie could be cut differently, and it could be the absolutely different movie, and yeah, I was playing with it. And suddenly I was satisfied. And then I was like, “Oh”, saying to myself, “Okay, this is the movie, it has to go out, you know, you cannot touch it anymore”. You just make the grading better. Sound, music, and all these things, but do not touch the cut!. And I really didn’t!
It’s been almost 10 years since you first announced your intentions to make Medieval. Presumably, your desire to tell this particular story has existed for a lot longer?
Yeah, I mean, it was like in 2011, two Czech guys Marek Dobes and Michal Petrus, offered me their script, which was about the young Žižka character. And I just liked the idea. We didn’t use the script at all but we started to write another one which was also in Czech language, then I decided that it would be too expensive for the Czech Republic only, you know?
That’s a small market. And that’s why we started to write it with some American writers. And then at the end, I just decided not to use any any of that and write it on my own! Because I had already some ideas, how I want it, what I want, to get out of it. And yeah, and then I was finishing this script, basically the last three years, like from 2015 to start until 2018. That was basically the time when I was rewriting it from scratch.
Medieval takes place at an early stage in the Zizka’s life, were you always determined not to cover the same ground that had been covered before in previous films, even though this is the first major production on the character in decades?
Yeah, I mean, it was like 60 years ago, when they made the movie, it was part of the trilogy about Jan Žižka [the Hussite Revolutionary Trilogy]. And I didn’t want to do the same thing, same period, so that’s why; because he was famous when he was 60 years old! And, at that time, he was never defeated as a general, he is one of seven never-defeated generals like Genghis Khan, or Alexander the Great.
And that’s how he became to be famous. The movie is from the time when he was a mercenary, and he was a gun for hire. he was killing people for money, helping with kidnappings, anything. And also, I wanted to show how medieval times were, what it was like, how it looked like, and it was perfect for me too, basically, because we live in the Czech Republic, and it’s beautiful there, and you’ve got all the castles, you’ve got everything. So it was easier to shoot, but still very difficult.
But yeah, I wanted to show just like a very short period of time from his life, and not to do the same thing like they did 60 years ago. And do it differently. Even many people didn’t even see it, you know, just like the young generation, because it’s too old for them. But the older generations, they liked the previous movie, so I want to do something different.
It’s a Czech film about a legendary Czech figure, but the international cast and visual style give it that big, broad, ‘Hollywood’ feel that channels the famous epics of the past. Was striking that balance always a key part of the development, writing, and casting process when you were putting Medieval together?
Yeah, I mean, we wanted to do a movie, which would be like, not only for the Czech audience, but also for the international audience. And that’s why I was also writing it in a way that, we’re gonna tell a piece of history and explain to people how it was, but not to bother them too much with it.
And then, there has to be enough history for the Czech people. So the balance is there. And I think, of course, it’s a little bit complicated in the beginning, but once you go through it, you don’t care! Because, hopefully, the story takes you in, and leads you through. For me, it was more always more about the personal story of Jan and Katherine, and that was the core for me. And, yeah, and all the fights and everything. It was fun. But, yeah, I think just, at the end of the day, their story is pretty simple.
And I tried to simplify it as much as possible for everybody to understand it. But I think, usually simplification is good. Sometimes, if movies are too complicated, it’s hard to connect with them emotionally. And I wanted really to achieve that emotional connection with the movie. And yeah, so that was our plan. And of course, we wanted to show some epic things.
Having been to Prague a couple of times, how did you manage to shoot on the Charles Bridge without causing chaos, both in terms of how busy it always is and coming onto such an iconic historical location with a film crew?
Yeah, I mean, the shooting was really tough. It was really tough. You know, we had 56 shooting days. And,it was all over the Czech Republic. It was in Prague, but we were shooting in South Bohemia and other regions. And we had pretty big crew. And we have quite a lot of stars. So some scenes in some cases were pretty extreme because you had Michael Caine on set, Ben Foster, Til Schweiger. Matthew Goode, Sophie Lowe, Karel Roden, who is a Czech star.
You always have to care about each one of them. And at the end of the day, they were great, they were supporting me. And they saw how tough it is. Especially, we had a budget around $20 million, which is for this kind of movie. it’s tough. But on the other side, you know, we shot it in the Czech Republic, where we had many resources for free, we knew how to do it, and make it look big. But, yeah, I mean, it’s just like, all the traveling with something this big.
And by the way, another thing is, we never used the same location twice. Never. That’s unbelievable. Not even one set was not used twice. We were just like, basically, every scene because they were traveling, escaping, and so on. Oh my god, it very difficult for this, and then I was like, “Oh, my God, what did I write?”, you know? As a producer, I would slap my face, because it’s like, it’s impossible! As a director, I liked it, because it was something would make the movie look bigger. But it was very difficult.
You’ve spoken a lot about Braveheart as a template and inspiration for Medieval, in blending fact and reality with certain elements that aren’t necessarily 100 percent accurate, and bringing the story of a national hero to a worldwide audience. I know exactly how Scottish people feel about Braveheart almost 30 years later, is that the sort of long-lasting love and adulation you’re hoping the movie will find?
I hope so. I hope so. I mean, I love Braveheart. You know, from the beginning. It was amazing movie. And also there was a reason why I asked Steve Rosenblum, an editor of Braveheart, who was working with me for almost a year. And he was so helpful. We were discussing everything, and he told me how they did Braveheart, and what was changed even later on in the editing room, how Mel was recording his voiceover and months, it was Mel Gibson once, and it was somebody else in the movie, and they were trying everything. And he also told me, we were discussing what was different in the movie than in reality, so we were also talking about Medieval.
What is possible? What we can do? I tried to use everything, what is possible to use from the history and describe the political situation as good as possible. And also everything how people felt, what was happening, and his personal story. We don’t know much about him. You know, we don’t know much from those days, but we know where he lived, his family, and so on. But, of course, the personal story I had to create to make the movie work. I wanted people to have the feeling of what was happening later on, how people came together, and they are using the most famous Czech song, which is in the movie, several times, like, “We are the warriors of God”.
And so that’s a lot of things which are famous now, and we remember them, I used there. And I wanted people to know how he became to be, the use of some cards, you know, with an explanation, as usual in every movie like this. Because it never can fit into two hours, you know?
If you could direct any project you wanted without any restrictions whatsoever, what would it by and why?
There will be definitely, I think there will be definitely different genre, again, because I love to explore, I love all genres. And Ilove sports, sports movies are great. And I used to be professional judoka, I was doing judo for 20 years. And I was at Olympic Games, and I broke my vertebrae, and I had to stop.
So I’m still sportsmen in my heart, and I know how difficult is to make a good sports movie, but on the other side, I’ve got some other, projects, which I really love. Sustainability, what is right now happening with the world, I really care about it, so that would be probably another thing which I would really want to do. Some movie which shows it in an entertaining way, and not pushing too much. Because if you push on anything, it’s just like, it doesn’t work.
And I know that because I was the biggest meat eater ever. I had it for morning, just like anytime, no meal without meat. And now I’m four years vegan, which is absolutely insane! And nobody forced me to do it. And nobody told me to do that. But yeah, I think that’d be another thing which I really would like to do something about it. You know, so these two things, sports and sustainability.
Now I look forward to your sports or sustainability movie, whichever one ends up happening first!
Fingers crossed! Yeah, thanks. Did you have time to watch it [Medieval] or not?
Yeah, I did. It’s my kind of film; battles, war…
Was it too brutal for you?
Like I said, I’m Scottish. We grew up on Braveheart, so that was nothing. That’s our thing.
Medieval is playing in theaters now, and you can check out our review of the movie here.
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