Hungary expects to be welcoming back international productions from July, as long as the borders are fully open without quarantining by then. Local productions are already up and running as restrictions have been eased.
One of the international productions hoping to return to the country is the Netflix/BBC true crime series The Serpent, which tells the story of French con-man and mass murderer, Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim), who is discovered and trailed by a young embassy official (Billy Howle) in Bangkok in the 1970s. All the prep had been done, including choosing shooting locations across Budapest, when the coronavirus struck.
“The plan is still to return there, doubling the city centre for Paris,” explains Cait Collins, line producer on The Serpent, to KFTV. “Budapest is half the price of a Paris location and half as stringent in terms of the hoops you have to jump through to get the permission. We were told in Paris it would be four weeks minimum and we would have to submit everything in Paris to the finest detail we could provide. Whereas in Budapest, they could be more flexible and it only takes about three weeks for permissions.”
To help get shooting back up and running, “we are working, in conjunction with the National Film Institute, on various new initiatives, including a new training program for health and safety supervisors with Covid-19 international guidelines,” adds Ildikó Kemény at Pioneer Pictures to KFTV, who are the local production service providers for The Serpent and The Witcher. “Studios and rental houses are also investing into all necessary safety precautions so that we can get back to work as soon as possible.”
Hungary has proven hugely popular as a shooting location in recent times with Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi tome Dune one of the biggest productions to shoot there, taking over the Origo Studios in Budapest last year. Villeneuve is clearly a fan having already shot Blade Runner 2049 there.
But he is not the only one to be drawn in by the enticing 30% filming incentive, cheap and efficient crew, and state-of-the-art studios. Other recent productions have included Netflix drama The Witcher, starring Henry Cavill, which also filmed at Origo, as well as the backlot at Mafilm Studio; historical movie The King, featuring Timothée Chalamet as English monarch Henry V; and Carnival Films’ major BBC Two historical drama The Last Kingdom, which doubled the country for ninth-century Britain.
“We filmed on the backlot owned by Korda Studios about an hour outside Budapest, where they had a medieval town ready constructed out of wood, so a lot of the infrastructure was already there,” says Collins, who line produced series three of The Last Kingdom.
“There’s also a great freedom and flexibility to their approach at the studios. If you go to more western studios, they have a system, how they want to do it and certain structures in place. But I found in Budapest they say, ‘what can we do to make it work for you?’.”
The Last Kingdom filming in Hungary
The Last Kingdom shot several action sequences, involving Vikings, some of which were filmed in the forests and lakes surrounding the studios. But, despite temperatures dropping to minus 15 degrees at times, this didn’t prove too much of an obstacle.
“The local crew are brilliant, and because the basic labour and transport are so cheap and efficient (and used to doing this), it is all very easy. When we had to climb the hills to get the best shots, they never questioned it. No drama, no madness.”
The only area that still needs improving is getting the local crew to grow into the heads of dept (HoD) level, says Collins, “but that will come with more experience and incoming productions giving opportunities for people to step up to those roles.”
You are spoilt for choice in Hungary. The variety of landscapes is incredible. In popular Budapest alone you will find everything from dramatic history and flamboyant architecture to healing thermal waters, opera houses and sports stadiums.
All location palettes are on offer in the capital city, from classical to modern, industrial to upscale, hipster to retro, with castles and rural landscapes. This makes it easy to double for many different countries, including Paris, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Moscow.
"Budapest is a city offering practical locations that may doubling almost any European city while we have a reliable system to secure location permits," says Bruno P György, a producer at leading local production service outfit Admiral Film, which has worked on commercials, features and music videos.
“There are also abandoned old buildings, factories and army barracks that can be used as locations,” says Gergely Varga at Shooteasy Production Services. “And the seaside of Croatia, mountains of Transylvania and the Alps are just a few hours drive away from Budapest.”
“You can find several variations of Europe within Budapest city centre,” agrees Collins. “Location wise on the street, you pay per square footage, which they have down to a fine art. This is great because you can adjust it according to your budget.”
Hungary’s countryside attractions include Lake Balaton, the largest in Central Europe, where The Last Kingdom was partly shot; Lake Héviz, the second largest thermal lake in the world; and Hortobágy, the largest natural grassland in Europe.
All locations are within a few hours of each other, and thanks to a mild four-season climate, the country can host productions all year round.
"Permits to shoot are generally easy to obtain. You contact the person or institution owning/operating the actual location to gain permission. If it is a street or public space, you contact the local government,” says Juan Amin, a producer at Filmreaktor, which assisted with the Emmy nominated Documentary Now! series, starring Cate Blanchett, that shot across Budapest, from the Opera House to classical apartments. “Process times vary from three to five days, or up to three weeks for full closure permits.
Korda offers six soundstages, the largest of which is 6,000 sq meters with a net buildable height of 20 metres. There is also 100,000 sq m of pre-existing backlot sets – New York, Renaissance and medieval – and a water-tank facility with two underwater side windows.
Origo (formerly Raleigh Studios) is one of Hungary’s main filming facilities — and among the largest in Europe — and is only a short drive from central Budapest. There are nine sound stages and a greenbox stage for filming, VFX or still photo shooting. Plus, equipment rentals and post-production services.
Mafilm Studios, just outside Budapest, already offers the largest outdoor water tank in continental Europe and is planning to expand its complex to 12,200 square meters. It will have four new 2,400 sq m soundstages built [which could be used in pairs as two 4,800 sq m stages], making it Hungary’s largest state-funded film studio development project. The Studio complex already has three sound stages, the largest of which is 19,375 square feet, as well as a medieval town and WWII barracks backlots, and 100,000 pieces of wardrobe, accessories, and a large inventory of weapons.
Other smaller complexes include Stern Studios in Pomáz and Astra Studios in Mogyoród.
Crews speak English and are highly rated. There has been a long history of major productions shooting in the country that have educated a new generation of professionals to fill the need of productions. They can even take heads of department positions.
"Particularly on the set construction and dressing I found a great value proposition for productions to rely on the local subcontractors to deliver in an orderly fashion," says György at Admiral Film. "It is a unique add-on to the ever growing pool of professionals.
Conveniently, leading camera rental company Arri also has a base in Budapest.
International producers are advised to use the services of a local company to make the whole shooting process smoother. There are plenty of good ones to choose from, including Family Film and Admiral Film. Ildiko Kemeny’s Pioneer Productions is also one of the most active and respected local outfits working with major international projects. It has serviced recent high-profile projects, including Netflix’s The Witcher and The Serpent, Colette and Red Sparrow. The other big local outfit is Mid Atlantic, which serviced The Last Kingdom, Ang Lee’s Gemini Man for Paramount Pictures, and Terminator: Dark Fate, also for Paramount.
The team behind Villeneuve’s major film, Dune, found local service providers Sparks invaluable. “Big sets and multiple locations made for a long and complicated filming schedule,” James Grant, unit production manager for Dune, tells KFTV. “Having not shot in Hungary before, I was not aware of [local outfit] Sparks, but I am happy to say that I now am. Whilst having lighting, grip and camera equipment, they looked after our ever-growing camera demands and did not skip a beat.” Getting the support of a local company is key to a smooth shooting experience.
There are direct flights from New York to Budapest and those flying from Los Angeles can also connect via Amsterdam or London.
Public transport is well developed in Hungary, there are plenty of ports, and ferry systems available in Budapest and at Lake Balaton. Plus taxis are plentiful on the streets of most Hungarian cities.
If international productions are planning on bringing equipment in from outside the EU, the ATA carnet system would be the best approach.