Speaking with Variety before its world premiere at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, director Ivan Zacharias (Wasteland, Pustina) and actor David Nykl (Stargate: Atlantis, Arrow) broke down the real life history and creative process behind HBO Europe’s new series The Sleepers. Taking place thirty years after the Velvet Revolution that famously brought down the communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia, Sleepers will cover the turbulent period with a spy drama set behind the notorious Iron Curtain.
Film critic Peter Debruge notes that the riotous events of the year or so that swept away the decades-long command of one-party reign in Czechoslovakia is an era that is rarely covered on screen. The hope is that Sleepers will provide a depiction of Czech society at a time when political intrigue was not uncommon in the realm and nothing was as it seemed.
The commitment to the story’s Czech element extended to the script, which Zacharias insisted be written in his native language, saying, “[It] has to be in Czech, because it’s a Czech story.”
But while the show focuses on the rougher times in Czech history, the Czechoslovakia one visits today has undergone some public beautification, which posed a problem for the production team. When searching for the appropriate look for a grittier spy drama, they were hard-pressed to find the right type of grime in modern, cosmopolitan Czechoslovakia. Main star Nykl says, “It’s beautiful now. Back in 1989, it was an older, decrepit-looking Prague.”
Sleepers is the most recent Czech series from HBO Europe following the political drama Burning Bush and director Zacharias’ earlier release Wasteland. As HBO tries to bring more of its international programs to the U.S., it has to balance expectations of how well the series’ will translate overseas. Zacharias has said he is always cognizant of how his shows will be received by both Czech and foreign viewers. Zacharias says, “It’s tricky because you have to deal with [the] knowledge that local audiences know the situation much more than the foreign audience. You have to be clever about it, not to be too descriptive for the Czechs, but descriptive enough for the foreign audience.”
Nykl believes that despite Sleepers taking place in late twentieth-century Czech society in the last days of the Cold War, the political backdrop might be accessible to foreign audiences. Nykl says, “I really do think that there is a universal spy thriller genre that people will recognize, and this is a really original Czech take on it.”