Production facility Malta Film Studios is one of the Mediterranean island’s primary filming assets, offering one interior tank and two large exterior water tanks situated along the coast and enjoying a natural horizon. Combined with a generous filming incentive support, which comes in the guise of a 30% base rebate (rising to 40% if the production meets specific conditions), Malta is often on the shortlist of major international shoots looking to film water-based scenes in a controlled environment.
“I was scouting Malta recently and they’ve got great tanks and they’re building up a huge, impressive studio. Plus, they’ve got the high filming incentive, so there’s a lot to admire,” says leading Los Angeles-based location manager Lori Balton, vice president of LMGI, whose credits include Marvel’s Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, Paramount Pictures’ Tom Cruise sequel Top Gun: Maverick and Netflix/Sony’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.
Malta was due to get a huge boost with the arrival of Universal Pictures’ Jurassic World: Dominion to its shores in April. While production was put on hold due to the coronavirus, the plan is to be up and running again soon. Recent international projects to have shot on the island include Netflix-backed Italian feature The Incredible Story Of Rose Island, directed by Sydney Sibilia, which is based on the true story of engineer Giorgio Rosa and the independent micro¬nation he founded in 1968 off the Rimini coast. Filming took place at the end of 2019 at the studios.
“One of the most appealing things is the studios’ infinity pool,” says the film’s line producer Piergiuseppe Serra. “We built an island in the middle of the pool and this is the only location in all of Europe you can do this.”
A further recent project is the UK crime drama TV series Bulletproof, created by Nick Love, Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke for Sky. It filmed on the island in 2019 and used some 150 extras and 40 Maltese actors.
One of the huge drawcards was the 40% incentive. “The rebate is very attractive,” says Dan Gilson, head of brand, marketing and PR at Vertigo Films, which co-produced Bulletproof. “The location is also fantastic because it can match up for pretty much any European location.”
Looking further back, Sky Germany’s Das Boot also filmed largely on a custom-built set in Malta’s water tanks and made use of the facility’s shallow tank for effects-heavy scenes in 2018. The production team also spent a couple of days shooting on the open ocean.
In 2017, the island hosted productions including 20th Century Fox’s Murder On The Orient Express, directed by Kenneth Branagh who starred alongside Judi Dench, Johnny Depp and Daisy Ridley, and Lionsgate and CBS Films’ American Assassin directed by Michael Cuesta.
In 2016, Working Title Films’ real-life hijack movie Entebbe headed to Malta to recreate the Ugandan city’s airport. The production team built the terminal as a physical set in Malta, given director Jose Padilha’s desire to avoid the overuse of visual effects as he sought a documentary feel to the on-screen drama.
Minutes from the water tanks is the historic Fort Ricasoli, one of Malta’s most popular filming locations. The bastioned fort dates back to the late 17th century but has been decommissioned as a military asset since the 1960s. It is now closed to the public and maintained partly as a filming location, with a layout that conveniently shields a central courtyard from outside eyes.
The fort is a curious mix of history and Hollywood. Foam statues, props and faux-stone flooring from past shoots are kept there and are almost indistinguishable from the centuries-old architecture.
Middle East stand-in
Malta is known widely as a suitable double for Middle Eastern locations, with the region’s classic architecture in the historic city of Valletta and former capital Mdina, as well as in the surrounding countryside. To the north, St Julian’s is more modern and a centre for tourism. Plans are now being considered for studio development on the island to provide soundstage facilities and boost Malta’s all-round, versatile appeal.
Malta Film Commission is the first point of contact for filming on location in the country. Johann Grech has led the organisation since late 2017 — as a former head of government marketing for the office of Malta’s prime minister, the commission has even closer ties with the government.
“Producers have often filmed in Malta before,” says Grech. “Sometimes they come with a specific location in mind, but they will also use our suggestions. It depends on the script and they often use our library pictures.”
Malta may have a population of just 400,000, but the country has a skilled English-speaking crew base that can comfortably handle two large-scale productions at any one time. The country’s internationally renowned water tanks are situated on the coastline to offer filmmakers a natural horizon. Producers have access to associated resources to create the necessary ocean weather conditions, such as wave and wind machines, tip tanks and rain towers.
Malta is especially strong when it comes to set construction. It is also easy to find crew and local heads of department across the board, with labour and facilities typically costing around 30% less than in mainland western Europe. Post-production is also a growing sector on the island, with several local companies becoming established over the last couple of years, including post facility Stargate Studios. Decisions are made quickly when it comes to road closures and locations clearance, thanks to Malta Film Commission’s strong relationship with the country’s government authorities.
Malta is only 27 kilometres long and 14 kilometres wide. It takes 45 minutes to drive from one end of the island to the other, allowing crews to shoot at multiple locations in a day. The capital, Valletta, is a 20-minute taxi ride from the airport and all the major hotels are within a short drive of the airport, each other and the island’s restaurants and nightspots.