Prague, in films anyway, has always been a center of international intrigue. The new HBO miniseries The Sleepers (Bez Vedomi) brings viewers back to the days just before the Velvet Revolution, when East and West were jockeying for an advantage in Czechoslovakia as the Cold War entered its final stages.
The six-episode miniseries premieres on November 17, and on the same day all six episodes will be available for streaming on HBO Go. This is the first project from HBO Europe being put out on its entirety on the first day for binge watching.
“I think we all felt that there would be a lot of value in releasing all the episodes [on HBO GO] on November 17. and that actually this was the kind of story as well that would benefit from people being able to move from the end of one episode to the next episode without having to wait a week for it,” Anthony Root, one of the executive producers, said at a press conference.
The main thrust of the story is that a dissident couple, who fled to London in 1977 after the husband, Viktor (Martin Myšička) signed Charter 77, returns to Prague in October 1989, as change is in the air.
Viktor, however, is up to something so secretive that not even his wife, Marie (Tatiana Pauhofová), knows about it. Early in the series, a car accident lands Marie in the hospital. And Viktor vanishes, as if he never even existed.
The Czech secret police (StB), British Embassy, and several rogue players all seem to have an interest in it, and all want to keep Marie in the dark. At the same time, not everyone in Marie’s family, who suffered because of her defection, is happy that she is back.
The timing of the series is no coincidence. “I think about three of even four years ago when we were thinking about the shows we were going to do in the Central and Eastern European region, where we have been producing drama series for about eight years, what came into our mind was that we really should do a project that marked the anniversary of the changes of 1989,” Root said.
“I thought it was very important that we mark the occasion by something in the region, and this was the obvious place to do it to mark the 30th anniversary of the changes. That was the decisive moment,” he added.
Executive producer Tereza Polachová, who worked on Burning Bush, Therapy, Head Over Heels, Mammon, and Wasteland, was already in talks with first-time screenwriter Ondrej Gabriel, who had several ideas. But she thought a spy story told from the Czech angle was most intriguing, as that sort of story is never done locally.
Another executive producer, Steve Matthews, agreed. He met with Gabriel and discovered they both like the classic spy novel writers such as John le Carré and Eric Ambler.
“All those great stories that everyone knows so swell … treat Central Europe in the Cold War as a kind of chessboard on which a game is being played by somebody in Moscow and somebody in London, and that’s great,” he said.
“But one of our earliest principles was why has nobody told the story from the point of view of the chessboard, or of a pawn on that chessboard. And that was a big step for me, was how could you tell a classical spy story and not treat the area as just a landscape or a battleground, but really tell the story of what happened there,” he added.
Much of the series is from Marie’s point of view, and she knows the least of anybody. But even figures from the British Embassy and StB hold only a few puzzle pieces and have no idea where they fit. The local figures though, give a picture of how the StB operated, and what life was like among the closely monitored dissidents and their associates.
The story took a lot of development before it was ready. “You get the impression that the first thing I saw was a script. It was probably the back of a cigarette packet in the first stages. We’re not in the business of just taking the easy route into just anything,” Matthews said, adding that while Gabriel didn’t study screenwriting, he knew the subject matter, was highly intelligent and very collaborative.
“We worked very hard for a long time. This is not an easy story. He picked one of the most difficult stories possible to do, a brain-bendingly complicated story,” he said. “The freshness that you get with a new writer can sometimes be the magic thing,” he said.
Much of the story is still relevant, even though it takes place 30 years ago. “There is an extent to which this show shows a version of the events of that time, which is perhaps different from the way they are generally known in this country,” he said
“During the development of this, looking at the world stage, [recent] assassinations in the UK, nerve agents. There are Cold Wars going on all around the world. And to fool ourselves that that was then and this is now — that was something I grabbed hold of very quickly and encouraged as a theme which I think Ondrej picked up on,” Mathews added.
Ondrej Gabriel said that the final version of the script was better, as the first was far too complicated to follow. The number of characters was reduced, and non-essential plot twists and incidents were eliminated. A lot of details relating to red tape and documents were glossed over in the final draft.
Executive producer Root agreed that the current relevance of the story was key. “Across Europe our audience has been perceptibly skewing younger, and there is no question that in some cases there is resistance to watching a story from the past,” he said.
“However I think what is so clever about what Ondrej has done and was [director] Ivan [Zachariáš] has realized for the screen is that one is always aware that what is going on the story not only relates to the past, Charter 77 and all that, it takes place in 89, but the consequences as you will see when you get to the last episodes of the story are incredibly important and resonant now in 2019,” he added.
Zachariáš, who previously directed the miniseries Wasteland for HBO, was 18 during the Velvet Revolution. Some of the props such as the old TV remote control brought back memories, he said. Accurately re-creating the period was quite difficulty and expensive he added. Connecting the past to present was something that attracted him to the story as well.
Unlike many spy-themed films shot in Prague, the miniseries doesn’t serve as a travelogue of all the most touristy places.
Finding the locations took over a month, and Prague residents may recognize much of it. Many of the street scenes were shot in Prague in the area bordered by Karlovo náměstí, Národní třída, Vyšehrad and the Vltava River.
A key action scene takes place at Strossmayerovo náměstí. The back of the Czech Ministry of Industry and Trade stands in for the British Embassy. The dissident pub is the Sokol building in Riegrovy sady.
The interior of the New Stage of the National Theater stands in for a concert hall in London. The interior of a pub in Kralupy nad Vltavou was also used, and there is some action in rural areas. A few brief shots were made in London as well.