Tag Archives: Stepan Hulik

Czech this out

Štěpán Hulík is hoping to repeat the international success of Burning Bush with his next project, Czech drama Pustina. He tells DQ what drew him to the story of a mining village on the verge of extinction.

In 2013, HBO Europe’s compelling miniseries Burning Bush received critical acclaim for the way it dramatised the true story of Prague history student Jan Palace, who set himself on fire in 1969 in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

Štěpán Hulík
Štěpán Hulík

Helmed by Polish director Agnieszka Holland and scripted by Czech writer Štěpán Hulík, the three-part miniseries was the centrepiece of the pay TV network’s push into original series.

Three years on, HBO Europe has reteamed with Hulík for Pustina (aka Wasteland), an eight-part drama set in the Czech Republic that focuses on a mining village on the verge of extinction.

With the village sitting on huge reserves of coal, foreign mining interests plan to acquire it, remove its population and their homes and establish a soulless mining complex. The villagers are divided: some see it as an opportunity for a new life elsewhere, while others want to preserve their homes – and traditional life and the community start to fall apart.

Directed by Ivan Zacharias and Alice Nellis, the series, which launched last month, is produced by Nutprodukce and Etamp, which also made Burning Bush for HBO Europe. Beta Film is distributing the series, which was screened in its entirety at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.

The story, which opens with the search for a missing girl, first emerged with the help of producer Tomas Hruby, who conceived the plot of a community under threat.

“This idea was very appealing to me,” Hulík admits, “so I started to think about it and develop it further. That was the beginning of the process. We were just figuring out what the story was, making up ideas. I was trying to write a script. This process lasted for two years – it was very complicated.

Pustina centres on a village disrupted by mining industry interests
Pustina centres on a village disrupted by mining industry interests

“With Burning Bush, we had set the bar for ourselves quite high and we didn’t want to make anything smaller than that show. We wanted to achieve something as appealing to the audience and as powerful and strong as Burning Bush. So it was difficult but it was also great motivation.”

The writer admits his latest series has a complex opening, with viewers quickly introduced to different elements of the story and a large ensemble cast. “The most difficult thing when writing TV series is to keep in mind all the sub-plots, all the characters. We have 100 speaking parts in the series so it’s very difficult to keep a map of the story in mind. To know where the key points are and to follow them is quite difficult.

“It’s much easier when writing a feature, where you have just a couple of main characters and your basic storyline is much more simple than with a TV series. But, on the other hand, with TV you have great space and time. In some ways, TV series are like a novel.”

Hulík hopes viewers will be surprised as the story reaches its thrilling conclusion. “I hope it will make perfect sense – this is the only possible ending,” he says. “It will be a shot in the dark but a very natural conclusion. I’ve known the ending since the beginning but it was difficult to get to.”

Hulík’s previous HBO Europe series Burning Bush met critical acclaim
Hulík’s previous HBO Europe series Burning Bush met critical acclaim

From the opening scenes of Pustina, it’s clear the northern Bohemia location that serves as the visual backdrop to the series will play as important a role as any character in the show, with the English translation of the title – Wasteland – conjuring images of a desolate and foreboding landscape.

Hulík describes the environment as a “living organism” and one of the main protagonists: “You should get the feeling that the mine is ‘breathing.’ It should feel like it expands literally day by day and that, in the end, it will swallow up all the people and the whole nearby village.

“We were using the woods that surround the village in a similar way. We did our best to create the feeling that nature is a silent witness to everything. At least one of our characters – Karel – can feel this. At the end of episode two, he is looking at the trees in the woods and seems to be mesmerised by them. He knows that those trees are saying something to him but he can´t understand what they are trying to tell him – and the viewer can understand this as well.”

Hulík says that while he writes his scripts with visuals in mind, his notes are merely suggestions for how the drama should play out on the screen, rather than instructions to the director. “Each small gesture or small pause in the dialogue I try to write down in the script. But it’s just my suggestion. It’s a way of how to do it but maybe the director will find another option.”

Pustina was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year
Pustina was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year

But would he ever consider sitting behind the camera himself? “Absolutely not! I have no ambition to direct,” he insists. “I’m happy as a scriptwriter. My collaboration with Agnieszka Holland on Burning Bush was such a wonderful experience, we became such good friends. Scriptwriters quite often want to be directors when they see some directors spoiling their script, but nothing like that has happened to me. I don’t want to be a director. I’m quite happy!”

Antony Root, exec VP of original programming and production at HBO Europe, recalls that Hulík proposed Pustina just a month after the premiere of Burning Bush. “It’s what the British would call a ‘State of the Nation’ piece,” he explains. “We were very intrigued at the mystery of the missing daughter juxtaposed with the piece about what a community does when someone wants to knock down their village. It seemed to be a very potent dilemma.”

The drama, says Root, works on three levels: the mystery, the socio-political backdrop of the community’s peril and the family drama. “It’s a signature HBO piece with authorship and point of view,” he adds. “It’s not like anything else around in its country of origin and it will have some international reach. It’s a very original piece, certainly something with a voice. HBO looks for atmosphere and point of view and it gives us both.”

It was also a natural decision for the writer to return to HBO after the success of his first project with the network. “They are very open-minded,” Hulík notes, “and they are very smart. I hope to work with them again because it’s been a pleasure.”

He is currently adapting Simon Mawer’s novel Mendel’s Dwarf for the big screen but says he is already turning his attention to his next TV project.

“I hope Pustina will connect with audiences,” Hulík concludes. “I wanted to make something that would be appealing both for our audience in the Czech Republic and also abroard – like True Detective, Top of the Lake or The Missing. This was my hope and our dream. I don’t know whether we will fulfil it, but we did our best.”

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Eyes on the Red Planet Prize

deathinparadise
Death In Paradise resulted from Robert Thorogood winning the Red Planet Prize

Red Planet Pictures, the UK indie behind productions such as Dickensian, Stop! In the Name of Love and Hooten and the Lady, has launched the latest edition of its scriptwriting competition.

First held in 2007, the Red Planet Prize aims to kickstart the career of new writing talent by optioning their television pilot script in the hope of turning it into the next hit series. The winner will receive £5,000 to have their screenplay exclusively developed by Red Planet Pictures and will also have six months of intensive development with an experienced script editor.

Announcing this year’s competition, Belinda Campbell, head of drama at Red Planet Pictures, explained: “The Red Planet Prize is about finding hidden writing talent and giving them the opportunity to develop their skills through an unrivalled mentoring scheme. Red Planet Pictures is all about the writer and we are committed to finding new voices, original stories and ambitious scripts from upcoming talent.”

Red Planet head of development Judith King added: “We’re looking for ideas that burst with character, people and worlds we’ve never seen before, new spins on genre or totally new genres. But, most importantly, ideas that are deeply truthful and personal to the writer – stories that only they can tell.”

Red Planet Pictures' Dickensian
Red Planet Pictures’ Dickensian

Last year, the competition (held in partnership with Kudos) was won by documentary editor Paul McIntyre and former film art executive Tracy Ann Baines, the first time there had ever been joint winners. McIntyre’s project The Family Next Door was about a woman who discovers family secrets after finding a hole leading to her neighbour’s house. Baines, meanwhile, was singled out for her period drama Iron Roads, which looked at the men on the frontline of the industrial revolution.

There’s no news yet on whether either of these projects is going forward into production. But if you delve a bit further back into the history of the prize, it’s clear that it can deliver on its promise to kickstart writing careers. The most celebrated example of this is Robert Thorogood, who won the 2008 prize with his ‘copper in the Caribbean’ idea. Three years later, it hit the screens as BBC drama Death in Paradise. Thorogood wrote five episodes of the first season, which immediately proved popular with UK audiences. He went on to write episodes across the next three seasons and also wrote a series of Richard Poole murder mystery novels (Poole was the central character in the first couple of series of Death In Paradise).

So what does it take to win the prize? There is an interesting interview here with 2013 winner Jonathan Neil, where he outlines how he approached the competition. And there is also a useful blog here, from someone who got to the second phase in 2009.

Burning Bush, from Stepan Hulik
Burning Bush, from Stepan Hulik

One interesting point to take away from both these articles is the issue of the first 10 pages. The way the competition works is that you enter 10 pages of your script in the first round. If the judges like those, you’ll be asked to send the rest of your script. Neil’s assessment of this was that it was important to be dramatic and bold and to “set the tone quickly.”

However, what’s also clear is that you need to have made some progress with the rest of the script as well. The message from the second blog is that there is no point having a great 10 pages if you haven’t got the rest of the script in shape. This is because the turnaround time between finding out you have made the second round and submitting the rest of the script is too tight.

With that warning, for anyone interested, submissions are being welcomed here from 12.00 on Monday January 4, 2016 until 12.00 on Friday January 22, 2016. You’ll also find full details about what the competition requires from you.

Elsewhere in the world of writing, HBO Europe has announced is now in production on an original idea from writer Stepan Hulik. Called Pustina (Wasteland), the eight-hour drama tells the story of a village on the verge of extinction. The village sits on huge reserves of coal, and foreign companies plan to acquire it, remove its population and their homes and establish a mining complex.

Commenting on the show, Antony Root, exec VP of programming and production for HBO Europe, said: “We are proud and excited to be producing this major original piece from one of the most talented young screenwriters in our region. Pustina tells a story that goes to the heart of the economic and social changes facing communities in the new Europe. It is also a page-turning mystery. We believe both the story and its themes will resonate strongly with our audiences.”

Hulik’s major credit to date is Burning Bush, a three-part miniseries centring on the true story of a Prague history student who set himself on fire in 1969 in protest against the 1968 Soviet occupation of former Czechoslovakia.

El Chiringuito de Pepe is being remade for the US
El Chiringuito de Pepe is being remade for the US

That show saw success at the Monte Carlo International TV Festival, where Ivan Trojan won a Golden Nymph award for best actor in a miniseries. Hulik himself won screenwriting awards in his native Czech Republic. Hulik, who is also reported to be working on a biopic of the troubled 1960s jazz singer Eve Olmerova, is also known as a film historian. As part of his work, he has looked at the famous Barrandov Film Studio and how it was affected by the Soviet occupation in the period after the 1968 invasion.

Finally, DQ reported a few weeks ago that ABC in the US is leaving no stone unturned in its pursuit of international ideas that can be adapted for its home market. More evidence that this is a concerted drive comes this week with the news that ABC is developing a local version of Spanish drama El Chiringuito de Pepe. The US version will be written by Don Todd, whose writing credits include Sleepy Hollow, Hart Of Dixie, Samantha Who? and Ugly Betty.

The original show is about a famous chef who comes to a small beach town to breathe life back into his father’s failing cafe. However, he quickly finds himself falling in love with the place.

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