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PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY
Principal photography started on 13 March 2006 in Smíchov, Prague. On that chilly, sunny morning the streets were covered in a one-foot-thick layer of fresh snow. The director faced a fundamental decision whether to cancel the shoot or to start the whole thing, taking the risk that it might thaw leaving the scenes that followed snow-less. In the end, he came to the conclusion that nature dealt them what other productions have to pay for through the nose. The film starts white and fortunately the snow endured and the scenes tie-in together the way they should.
At the beginning of the shoot, Zdenek Sverák had to cope with very challenging bike-riding scenes. Although in the most dangerous situations he was replaced by a stunt double, the moments he had to manoeuvre his bike on frozen cobblestones while watching the camera and acting were far from easy. Yet, as Zdenek Sverák admits, there was one more thing which worried him. "The toughest thing of all was the idea of having to be in permanently good shape for forty-five days," he says. "Hale and hearty and available from morning till evening, from dawn til dusk - this seemed an impossible thing for me to do. Many times, especially in the first days of biking in the snow and frost, I would come home completely numb with cold. I told myself, "I am going to fall ill, the shoot will have to stop..." so I took a hot bath, which is not a usual thing for me to do, but it was just what my body called for. Previously, I had struggled with insomnia and so I was afraid that with sleep problems in addition to everything else, I would be completely knackered. Yet quite the contrary was the case. I always slept like a log." Nevertheless, the one who eventually fell ill was Sverák Jr., postponing the shooting of the final Slapy dam scenes until the antibiotics overcame his pneumonia.
Still, if the director had to choose which scenes were the most challenging to shoot, all the various crane shots would face stiff competition from a seemingly simple situation. In the film Joseph has a little grandson Tomík. It is very likely that the inspiration for this character is drawn from Jan Sverák's youngest son, Ondrej. The director admits that his Dad might have liked little Ondra to play himself, but the boy is three in the film whereas Ondra had turned five by the time the shooting started. In addition, Jan Sverák prefers working with children outside his family. "In contrast to KOLYA, the child character appears only marginally here, but he is only three and has to have a conversation with Dad a couple of times. The three-year-old Robin Soudek, who plays Tomík, has an incredible gift of remembering lines and is willing to repeat them; however, like every little kid he likes to play, and when he is not in the mood, not even his parents can do a thing about it. As a rule of thumb, this happens at the very moment when everything is ready for the take. Luckily, Robin took a liking to his new "Grandpa" and could be persuaded by him that they should say the lines for a while and then they could go on playing," says the director and recalls other situations.
"The whole shoot was very intimate and easy, yet at the end there is a balloon scene which takes nearly twenty minutes of the film. This was the only scene story-boarded take by take and prepared for over several months, like the plane fight scenes in DARK BLUE WORLD. The thing was that not even the largest nine-person basket would have taken the camera and the actors and even if it had, the noisy burners would have had to be permanently on to keep us in the air, which would make the sound unusable. Therefore, we had to make up a trick for every single take to create a perfect illusion of a free flight while still being in control of things. As experienced filmmakers say, "The best ocean storm takes are shot in the pool behind the studio". Although shooting the scene took a fortnight and we used two balloons for tens of hours, our actors did not take a single flight.
Zdenek Sverák then adds his personal neoprene wetsuit experience. "The worst of all was standing in the balloon basket with the crane dipping us into the Slapy dam. It was cold and we had to repeat the takes over and over, and even though we were wearing neoprene, it was far from pleasant. We, Dana and I, were hugging primarily against the cold," Well, this is the man who used to say in interviews that being an actor-writer lets you tailor scenes to suit yourself.
To his film daughter he prescribed a slight physical imperfection. Put bluntly, Helenka has a rather large bottom. However, the director chose Tatiana Vilhelmová to play that part and so the "bottom" had to be taken care of by costume designer Simona Rybáková. Tatiana protests though, "I took care of it myself. I sat on my butt for days, ate fatty food and refused to move. I am a true professional!" And what does Simona Rybáková have to say about this? In Volver Pedro Almodóvar reportedly stuffed Penelope Cruz's clothing so how did it work in EMPTIES? "In the end we tried some full skirts, which make the bottom look bigger, so that went down well. Without disfiguring Tatiana, she had a really big butt in the film when she turned around, but in different costumes, the backside did not have to be so accented. So we served the screenplay without deforming the actress," says Simona Rybáková.
It was Daniela Kolárová's third time working with Jan Sverák. In the first film that they co-operated on - ELEMENTARY SCHOOL - she, playing a teacher, was given a tough time by her pupils, who eventually drove her mad. "I love the teacher from ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, she is one of my favourite roles," admits Daniela Kolárová. "The only thing you cannot help yourself complaining about is the endless waiting around."
The whole shoot took place in a very friendly atmosphere and although talking about a great film family might seem a cliché, the actor-writer Zdenek Sverák is sincere: "The ambience of the shooting could be compared to that of NA SAMOTE U LESA (SECLUSION NEAR A FOREST). Then it was because it was a location shoot and we lived like a family in Sedlcany, where we became very close. In the case of EMPTIES, I found the willingness and commitment of all the professionals, such as the make-up, wardrobe, and construction departments, so incredibly good that it made me think that only I can spoil it. The teamwork was perfect, everybody did what they were supposed to and gave something extra. I have such great memories of all the people that it almost moves me to tears."