Americans in Prague

A second wave of expatriates is now playing a vital role in the renaissance of the Czech capital

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On her first day in town, Graves visited a jazz club and congratulated the musicians on their virtuosity. They asked her to sing. "I was from New York, black and too short to play basketball, so they assumed I was a singer," Graves recalls. She complied, got hearty applause and was asked to come back a second night, then a third. Still, she was not ready to declare herself a singer.

In the United States, Graves had worked at shelters for runaway teenagers. "It was draining, but very enjoyable, and I thought I could find something similar in Prague," she says. But she didn't speak Czech. "Singing was the one thing I could do in Prague without a certificate or diploma," she says. Since 2000, she has been one of Monkey Business's two vocalists. The band is a seven-member group with a strong preference for funk music. Her seven CDs have sold widely. Graves (who today has a Czech husband, Marek Gregor, and a 2-year-old son, Sebastian) also sings jazz—Ella Fitzgerald classics, especially—with a big band. "I'm only five feet, but with 15 musicians behind me I feel ten feet tall," she says. At a private party in a cavernous space in Barrandov Studios, the legendary moviemaking center on the city's southern outskirts, the band appears wearing costumes that evoke a playful nod to the group's name—car mechanics' uniforms, worn by "grease monkeys." But within minutes, Graves, sweating profusely, strips off her uniform to reveal a red, strapless dress.

The next day, I return to Barrandov to meet David Minkowski, a Hollywood transplant who, in partnership with Matthew Stillman, has become one of the city's leading film producers. Prague, which has been largely unscathed since the Thirty Years' War almost four centuries ago, has become a prime location for historical period films. "If you want to film Paris or London before the 1800s, the locations [are] in Prague," says Minkowski, 42. "Palaces and townhouses and many streets here haven't changed that much." More modest wages and prices make filming in Prague a lot cheaper than Western Europe or the United States. Prague also has a rich moviemaking tradition.

By the 1920s, quality silent films were being produced here. The Barrandov Studios were built in 1931 for talkies. (Even today, the restored villas of '30s stars and directors cling to the sides of Barrandov Hill.) Prague's film industry was considered so technically advanced that the Nazis, trying to escape the Allied bombing of Germany, relocated their propaganda moviemaking here during World War II. After the Communists took over in 1948, Barrandov started producing insipid features about class struggle and heroic revolutionaries.

Occasionally, quality Barrandov films—even some critical of the authorities—were screened abroad. These included director Jiri Menzel's Closely Watched Trains (1966), about a young train station attendant who becomes an unlikely war hero, and Milos Forman's The Firemen's Ball (1967), about widespread corruption in government. Forman went into exile after the Soviet Army invaded in 1968 to put an end to the Prague Spring. In Hollywood, Forman went on to even greater success with films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984), both winners of multiple Oscars.

Minkowski was aware of all this when he arrived here in 1995. At that point, Prague's film industry was at a low ebb, and the 30-year-old Californian had no desire to stay beyond a single project. It was a low-budget, made-for-cable-television film, Hidden in Silence, about a real teenager in Nazi-occupied Poland who conceals a group of Jews in her tiny attic.

But once production ended, another Hollywood team flew in for a television miniseries and asked Minkowski to help out. That led to a third project. And in 1997, a London producer of commercials asked Minkowski to head up production of feature films for his Barrandov-based company, Stillking Films. "I could have gone back to L.A. and become one of thousands fighting to work on films, or I could stay here and strike out on my own," says Minkowski, who now has a Czech wife, Lenka, and a son, Oliver, 4.

At first, his biggest problem was a thin labor pool. Old-timers, who had been state employees at Barrandov during the Communist era, were reluctant to work the long hours required by Hollywood filmmakers. Minkowski supplemented them with teenagers and twentysomethings—bright, eager, motivated—that he found working in restaurants and hotels. He would strike up conversations to test their English, and if they seemed smart enough to quickly learn a new, demanding job, he would ask if they wanted to work at Stillking. "They always said yes," recalls Minkowski. "I mean who would choose to be a waiter or receptionist instead of doing movies?" Today, most Stillking employees are under 40, and the older film crews are gone.

During my visit, Stillking was producing The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Minkowski guided me through three giant sets: a 30,000-square-foot courtyard enclosed by stone-like ramparts and surrounded by a moat; the great hall of a castle with gargoyles jutting out of its walls; and most impressive of all, an indoor forest of live pine trees, moss and wildflowers. Minkowski wouldn't say how much the film will cost except that it exceeds the $175 million budget for Casino Royale, the James Bond extravaganza also co-produced by Stillking in 2006.

At its peak, over 1,500 locals worked on Narnia, remarkable for a mid-sized city with nine other active Barrandov companies. To service this massive revival of Prague's film industry, scores of small and medium-sized businesses have opened to cater food, supply material for sets and provide trailers for actors between shoots. "The film industry has helped turn Prague into such an entrepreneurial city," Minkowski told me.

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