The day after the young Czech paparazzo Dalibor Puchta was memorably arrested after trying to photograph Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie from a garage near the sleek villa the couple had rented in Prague, neighbors are out indulging their evening routines.
"We have never seen so many dogwalkers around here," quipped store manager Sabina Dankova, 35, sipping coffee and dragging on a cigarette outside her house. Proud of having Hollywood's most glamorous couple as temporary neighbors while Jolie was in town to film her next action flick, Dankova sounded a solemn note: "I hope [the paparazzi] do not bug them too much, so they do not move."
Contrary to her wishes, the Czech tabloids happily reported that Jolie flipped out after Czech shutterbugs found ways to photograph the family in the privacy of their temporary home. Such images would cause problems for any American gossip sheet silly enough to run them, but in the Czech Republic they are perfectly legal.
The Prague paparazzi frenzy is driven by cutthroat competition. Seventeen years after the fall of communism, Czechs no longer fear for the fate of their democracy and many have long since tired of reading about stale politics. So, the mainstream newspapers have gone soft, and the yellow press has flourished. "We have three tabloid dailies and they are fighting for survival," says Ondrej Hoeppner, a former editor of the fourth gossip sheet that had already succumbed.
The pressure is most acute on the photographers. The rule, says Puchta, is that you can't bring back to the office any less than what your paper's competition has. But the media market is so small in this country of 10 million that it often makes sense for the competing paparazzi to team up. Especially when the subject is working very hard to remain elusive. That's what's brought the paparazzi pack out here tonight in hooded sweatshirts and discreet earpieces as they maintain radio contact with one another in search of gaps in the protective shield provided by Brangelina bodyguards.
"It's impossible to stop it," Hoeppner gripes of the impromptu cartel deals. Even for an exclusive photo, a Czech tabloid would pay a fraction of what its U.S. equivalents might. Most Czech celebrity shutterbugs are simply well-paid salarymen. "Better the money, bigger the threat your editor will scold you, 'How come you don't have that?' " Hoeppner says.
He may not have earned loads of cash, but his arrest has certainly earned Puchta some respect. "I am popular now. The bodyguards at Bailando step back in awe," he quips in reference to a celebrity reality-television contest.
The brown-eyed, baby-faced 24-year-old stumbled into the life of "a society photographer" after dropping out of medical school "and some four other universities."
But he has little time for talking. "Our editor wants more [stalking]," he explains with the hint of a scoff. "Apparently we don't have enough for the front page."
Having returned with her kids from Cannes, Jolie may actually get a break from the unruly local paparazzi, whose attention has now turned to homegrown stories. First, there's the story of an eight-year-old boy allegedly locked up naked and tied by his own mother. "Two beauties from Hollywood can't match something this heavy," Hoeppner remarks matter-of-factly.
Puchta, meanwhile, is out hunting for a 45-year-old local television star returning home alone "visibly crushed," the tabloids tell us the next morning from a hospital after giving birth to her gravely ill seventh child.
Given the circumstances, it seems almost foolish to ask if there's a line he would never cross. "I find myself constantly pushing that line. I keep telling myself it's just a game," Puchta says with a sigh, his voice fading out. A few months earlier, he had the distinction of being the first in the paparazzi pack to snap a young widow after her aging husband, a famous pop composer, had blown his brains out. That "coup" did not make him feel especially proud. "A trained monkey can do it," says the tabloid lensman. "This is not photography. It's waiting around in a car. It starts getting on my nerves..." Then, he quickly corrects himself: "Don't jot that down. You have to write I am a motivated, successful, young paparazzo who doesn't mind getting busted."