When it comes to the great generals of all time, most people have heard of Alexander the Great and his successful conquest of most of the known world, but does anyone recall Jan Žižka? The 14th-century figure is a hero to the people of the Czech Republic, and Petr Jákl’s new film Medieval, starring Ben Foster as the title hero, aims to educate the masses using equal parts history and bloodshed.
In a conversation with Digital Trends, Jákl talks about the challenges of directing the most expensive Czech film of all time, working with Foster and The Dark Knight trilogy‘s Michael Caine, and his wish to show the glory of Žižka’s historical exploits and the beauty of Prague and the Czech Republic.
Note: this interview has been condensed for length and clarity purposes.
Digital Trends: Medieval is based on the true story of Jan Žižka, who is something of a folk hero in the Czech Republic. What made you want to make a film about him?
Petr Jákl: Jan is my country’s big hero, one of the most famous people of all time, because he was never defeated in battle. And I had already learned a lot about him in my youth. I was very interested about who he was and what happened around him. I had always dreamed about doing a movie like Braveheart, so once I got a chance, I decided to make an epic about Jan.
Did you look to similarly scaled epic movies like Braveheart or Gladiator for inspiration when you thought about making a movie about Jan?
Jan was already the subject of a number of films, the most famous being the Hussite Revolutionary trilogy by Otakar Vavra that was released about 60 years ago. When I was young, I watched those movies and they were already old. They were spectacular for those times because they were really big productions. But those films were more about the Hussite Revolution than about Jan.
I didn’t want to do the same movie. I wanted to do something else. So I chose a different part of his life. I chose a time when he was young and becoming the hero that he is now remembered as. The movie concentrates on a very short time of his life, over a period of just several weeks. I wanted to capture the mood of medieval times and how rough and beautiful it was.
I read that Medieval is the most expensive film ever for the Czech Republic. What were some of the challenges involved in directing such a huge film?
This is my third movie as a director, producer, and writer, and it’s always difficult to do all these roles at the same time. So that was the biggest challenge because when I was preparing as a director, I also had to rewrite some parts of the movie because Michael Caine wants to change a line or Ben Foster wants to change something else. In the evening, I was talking to actors like Matthew Goode, who was not on board at that time, and trying to convince him as a producer to join our film. Also, the shoot was physically exhausting. I couldn’t sleep much because it was a very intense three months of shooting.
Did you find that there was sort of a delicate balance between portraying the reality of Medieval and its real-life historical figures versus making an entertaining and comprehensible two-hour film?
Speaker 3 Yeah. A perfect example is Braveheart. With films like that and Medieval, you always have to feel that it’s real. but at the same time, you have to put all of that into a two-hour film. In Braveheart, the warriors had those famous blue war paint on their faces, which wasn’t historically accurate, but they used them because they looked great. And everybody remembers that Mel Gibson as Wallace had an affair with a French princess who wasn’t even born yet in real life.
But at the end of Braveheart, everything comes together. We did something similar in Medieval. We are much closer to reality. All the costumes, all the things around that are right. But the personal story of them is partially fiction because we don’t know much about those times. We don’t know what exactly happened.
Medieval has an impressive cast with Ben Foster, Michael Caine, and Matthew Goode, among many others. What made you cast an American (Foster) to play a Czech hero?
What I liked about Ben was that he looked and felt exactly like how a young Jan would look and feel. Also, Medieval is a Czech/American production and I really wanted to do it in English, so I needed actors like Ben.
And then when I got Ben, I thought I try to get Michael Caine because I love him. I wrote the part for him. He called me and said, “Hey, you’ve got a lovely screenplay. I want to do it.” After he joined, it was easy to get the others since everyone wants to be in a film with Michael Caine.
What do you want viewers to take away from Medieval even after they’ve watched it?
I made the movie in part because I wanted to promote the Czech Republic. I love it and I think it’s a beautiful country with an interesting history. Jan was one of seven generals who had never been defeated in battle. He’s up there with Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. People should know that, but also be entertained by what Jan did as well.
Medieval is currently in theatres.
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