Malta report: A Mediterranean filming hub

KFTV visits Malta to meet the country’s new film commissioner and find out more about how the Mediterranean country is building its profile as a global production hub. 

KFTV visits Malta to meet the country’s new film commissioner and find out more about how the Mediterranean nation is building its profile as a global production hub.

Malta’s internationally-renowned water tank facilities form the country’s principal production infrastructure, but exterior locations are still the island nation’s main selling point.

Producers from around the world see Malta as an easy double for Middle Eastern story settings and a base 25% cash rebate helps the country stand out in a crowded European market.

A continuing global interest in screen stories inspired by recent – and indeed biblical – Middle Eastern history means Malta is firmly established on global production shortlists.

Malta’s production industry, headed by new film commissioner Johann Grech at the Malta Film Commission, is keen for producers around the world to think more laterally in terms of what Malta can offer films and TV shows. Grech has a background in marketing and politics, serving as head of government marketing within the office of the prime minister from 2013 to 2017.

KFTV takes a three-hour dawn flight from London and arrives to a wet Maltese March morning. Our tour begins with a short drive from the airport to the water tanks, by which time the skies have cleared and the sun shines brightly. 

Malta's water tanks

At Malta Film Studios, producers have access to a pair of expansive tanks strategically positioned with an open ocean backdrop, making it easier for film or TV crews to create seamless transitions between the tanks and the sea beyond.

Sky’s Second World War submarine drama Das Boot – a $30m TV series follow-up to Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 classic movie of the same name – wrapped scenes in the tanks a few weeks earlier. Notices bearing the show’s name are still visible on the production office doors.

Malta report: A Mediterranean filming hub
Mdina Cathedral
Malta water tank

A shallow tank spans 300 by 400 feet and has a depth of six feet when full. A deeper centre section is designed to accommodate a boat or ship set and the extra depth also makes allowances for any required stunt dives from a height.

A much deeper nearby tank plunges nearly 40 feet and is a striking sight with a smooth concave shape that makes it resemble a symmetrical meteor crater. Recent action movie Renegades – co-written by Luc Besson and co-produced by his company EuropaCorp – built a small town set here for a story that follows a team of Special Forces operatives searching a flooded Balkan village for sunken treasure.

Malta water tank

“The water tanks are strategic to Malta,” says Grech, as he sits down with KFTV at the commission’s nearby offices. “They are unique in Europe and the second largest in the world. We have an excellent track record.”

Malta’s water tanks are the perfect place to film ocean-set scenes in a completely controlled and sheltered environment. In recent years they have hosted sequences for Paul Greengrass’ modern-day piracy feature Captain Phillips and the period adventure film Kon-Tiki (pictured below) that charts the true story of a 1940s attempt to prove a prehistoric migration theory by crossing the Pacific on a balsawood raft.

Kon Tiki in Malta

We discuss Grech’s hands-on approach to the commissioner role that he has been quick to establish in the few months that he has been in the job. In January, Grech specifically pledged to reach out to producers in China and India as a way of maximising Malta’s global appeal.

“I have had meetings with over 200 producers, filmmakers and studios,” he says. “There is interest from across Europe, there is interest from Bollywood and there is interest from Hollywood.

"Our objective in 2018 is to attract more films and more TV series to Malta so that we keep enhancing our profile globally.”

While the tanks are certainly eye-catching, the focus on water filming inevitably draws attention to the absence of accompanying stage space. However, there are long-term plans in development to address the issue.

“We are working on sound stages,” Grech reveals. “The plans are still new. I still need to discuss it with the government. What I can say is that we’re working on a plan.

Malta - Fort Ricasoli


The historic Fort Ricasoli

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.

The fort is now closed to the public and is maintained partly as a filming location, with a layout that conveniently shields a central courtyard from outside eyes.

Among Ricasoli’s most famous visitors have been Ridley Scott’s Roman epic Gladiator. Producers built expansive sets inside the fort’s historic walls for the shoot back in the late 1990s and used the existing architecture for scenes set in the bowels of Rome’s Colosseum.

More recently, Game of Thrones filmed Series One moments there and director Kevin Reynolds chose the fort to shoot scenes for his 2016 biblical movie Risen. Justin Kurzel’s videogame adaptation Assassin’s Creed shot stunt sequences on parts of Ricasoli’s terraces.

The fort itself 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. You’re never quite sure whether a surface will be stone or foam.

Filmmakers are clearly inspired by those who have come before them and Grech clarifies that filmmakers are often familiar with the island when they inquire about locations.

“Producers have often filmed in Malta before,” Grech tells KFTV. “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.”


Historic and modern cosmopolitan visuals

Grech and his colleagues focus on making connections that can potentially deliver projects over a number of years. Kenneth Branagh’s movie adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express filmed its opening scenes in Malta – doubling for Jerusalem – and Grech is hopeful that Fox and other US studios will be among the international entities to bring future projects to Malta.

“Murder on the Orient Express was a Fox production. Queen of the South (a drug-trafficking TV drama) was a Fox production,” Grech explains. “We’re looking for both the small screen and the big screen."

Murder on the Orient Express

“The thing is this – producers are happy about our service, they’re happy about filming in Malta and they want to come back," says Grech. "As a film commission it’s about building up a relationship. We have major competition. We have established liaison contacts within most of the relevant government departments. If there is an issue, it’s fixed within hours."

We drive the few minutes to the other side of the Grand Harbour from Fort Ricasoli to Valletta’s historic heart that is now a modern and cosmopolitan European capital.

Deviate from the city’s bustling high street for just a minute or two and you find yourself in beautiful narrow side streets. Some have connecting buildings and balconies that hosted specific stunt shots for Assassin’s Creed. Parts of the city also stood in for Libya in Michael Bay’s 2016 action movie 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, which is among Malta’s highest-profile projects of the last five years.

“Malta has lots of versatile locations and has the ability to double up for other countries,” says Grech. “We have the crews and we have the people.”

Malta - Valletta

In the coming months the country may get a further profile boost from National Geographic’s scripted series Genius that features Antonio Banderas as Pablo Picasso and used Malta as a stand-in for southern France.

Plane hijack thriller Entebbe (formerly known as 7 Days in Entebbe) doubled parts of the airport for Entebbe in Uganda and launched at this year’s Berlinale.

“Our workforce is skilful,” Grech says. “The locals participate. There is pride that a film has been shot in Malta. The film industry has its ripple effects on the economy, so the government incentivises the film industry as we are competing with the world.”

Malta’s historic former capital Mdina is less than a half-hour drive inland from Valletta and offers spectacular architecture within an imposing defensive wall.

Over a decade before Kevin Reynolds came to Malta to film Risen, he used Mdina’s main square for a festival sequence in his 2002 adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo with Jim Caviezel. Several parts of Mdina appeared in key scenes in the first series of Game of Thrones.

Film-friendly locations are also to be found in Naxxar, midway between Mdina and Valletta. The 19th century Palazzo Parisio offers state rooms that appeared as embassy settings in Kon-Tiki. The palace’s expansive gardens were used in Lee Tamahori’s 2011 movie The Devil’s Double, a thriller based on the true story of a man who was forced to become a decoy for Saddam Hussein’s son Uday in the 1990s.

The Palazzo offers a further surprise as the gardens lead to a vacant street not accessible to the public that was used as a back lot for scenes in The Devil’s Double. It is a sight that reinforces the Maltese sense that the unexpected can be delivered.

Malta already has a well-earned global reputation as a Mediterranean production hub. Sound stages can only help boost the country's international profile as the film commission continues to form relationships with producers around the world.

KFTV stayed at Le Meridien in St Julian’s north of Valletta, overlooking the picturesque Balluta Bay. The location offers easy access to the renowned Barracuda, a fine-dining restaurant that has a great selection of local fish delicacies. The country also offers many of the world’s top hotel brands, including Radisson Blu, InterContinental and Hilton.

KFTV was kindly hosted by the Malta Film Commission.

Water tank filming image: Jose Haro. Kin-Tiki image: Nordisk Film/HanWay Films. Murder on the Orient Express image: 20th Century Fox.

Malta report: A Mediterranean filming hub
Mdina Cathedral

KFTV visits Malta to meet the country’s new film commissioner and find out more about how the Mediterranean nation is building its profile as a global production hub.

Malta’s internationally-renowned water tank facilities form the country’s principal production infrastructure, but exterior locations are still the island nation’s main selling point.

Producers from around the world see Malta as an easy double for Middle Eastern story settings and a base 25% cash rebate helps the country stand out in a crowded European market.

A continuing global interest in screen stories inspired by recent – and indeed biblical – Middle Eastern history means Malta is firmly established on global production shortlists.

Malta’s production industry, headed by new film commissioner Johann Grech at the Malta Film Commission, is keen for producers around the world to think more laterally in terms of what Malta can offer films and TV shows. Grech has a background in marketing and politics, serving as head of government marketing within the office of the prime minister from 2013 to 2017.

KFTV takes a three-hour dawn flight from London and arrives to a wet Maltese March morning. Our tour begins with a short drive from the airport to the water tanks, by which time the skies have cleared and the sun shines brightly. 

Malta's water tanks

At Malta Film Studios, producers have access to a pair of expansive tanks strategically positioned with an open ocean backdrop, making it easier for film or TV crews to create seamless transitions between the tanks and the sea beyond.

Sky’s Second World War submarine drama Das Boot – a $30m TV series follow-up to Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 classic movie of the same name – wrapped scenes in the tanks a few weeks earlier. Notices bearing the show’s name are still visible on the production office doors.

Malta water tank

A shallow tank spans 300 by 400 feet and has a depth of six feet when full. A deeper centre section is designed to accommodate a boat or ship set and the extra depth also makes allowances for any required stunt dives from a height.

A much deeper nearby tank plunges nearly 40 feet and is a striking sight with a smooth concave shape that makes it resemble a symmetrical meteor crater. Recent action movie Renegades – co-written by Luc Besson and co-produced by his company EuropaCorp – built a small town set here for a story that follows a team of Special Forces operatives searching a flooded Balkan village for sunken treasure.

Malta water tank

“The water tanks are strategic to Malta,” says Grech, as he sits down with KFTV at the commission’s nearby offices. “They are unique in Europe and the second largest in the world. We have an excellent track record.”

Malta’s water tanks are the perfect place to film ocean-set scenes in a completely controlled and sheltered environment. In recent years they have hosted sequences for Paul Greengrass’ modern-day piracy feature Captain Phillips and the period adventure film Kon-Tiki (pictured below) that charts the true story of a 1940s attempt to prove a prehistoric migration theory by crossing the Pacific on a balsawood raft.

Kon Tiki in Malta

We discuss Grech’s hands-on approach to the commissioner role that he has been quick to establish in the few months that he has been in the job. In January, Grech specifically pledged to reach out to producers in China and India as a way of maximising Malta’s global appeal.

“I have had meetings with over 200 producers, filmmakers and studios,” he says. “There is interest from across Europe, there is interest from Bollywood and there is interest from Hollywood.

"Our objective in 2018 is to attract more films and more TV series to Malta so that we keep enhancing our profile globally.”

While the tanks are certainly eye-catching, the focus on water filming inevitably draws attention to the absence of accompanying stage space. However, there are long-term plans in development to address the issue.

“We are working on sound stages,” Grech reveals. “The plans are still new. I still need to discuss it with the government. What I can say is that we’re working on a plan.

Malta - Fort Ricasoli


The historic Fort Ricasoli

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.

The fort is now closed to the public and is maintained partly as a filming location, with a layout that conveniently shields a central courtyard from outside eyes.

Among Ricasoli’s most famous visitors have been Ridley Scott’s Roman epic Gladiator. Producers built expansive sets inside the fort’s historic walls for the shoot back in the late 1990s and used the existing architecture for scenes set in the bowels of Rome’s Colosseum.

More recently, Game of Thrones filmed Series One moments there and director Kevin Reynolds chose the fort to shoot scenes for his 2016 biblical movie Risen. Justin Kurzel’s videogame adaptation Assassin’s Creed shot stunt sequences on parts of Ricasoli’s terraces.

The fort itself 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. You’re never quite sure whether a surface will be stone or foam.

Filmmakers are clearly inspired by those who have come before them and Grech clarifies that filmmakers are often familiar with the island when they inquire about locations.

“Producers have often filmed in Malta before,” Grech tells KFTV. “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.”


Historic and modern cosmopolitan visuals

Grech and his colleagues focus on making connections that can potentially deliver projects over a number of years. Kenneth Branagh’s movie adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express filmed its opening scenes in Malta – doubling for Jerusalem – and Grech is hopeful that Fox and other US studios will be among the international entities to bring future projects to Malta.

“Murder on the Orient Express was a Fox production. Queen of the South (a drug-trafficking TV drama) was a Fox production,” Grech explains. “We’re looking for both the small screen and the big screen."

Murder on the Orient Express

“The thing is this – producers are happy about our service, they’re happy about filming in Malta and they want to come back," says Grech. "As a film commission it’s about building up a relationship. We have major competition. We have established liaison contacts within most of the relevant government departments. If there is an issue, it’s fixed within hours."

We drive the few minutes to the other side of the Grand Harbour from Fort Ricasoli to Valletta’s historic heart that is now a modern and cosmopolitan European capital.

Deviate from the city’s bustling high street for just a minute or two and you find yourself in beautiful narrow side streets. Some have connecting buildings and balconies that hosted specific stunt shots for Assassin’s Creed. Parts of the city also stood in for Libya in Michael Bay’s 2016 action movie 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, which is among Malta’s highest-profile projects of the last five years.

“Malta has lots of versatile locations and has the ability to double up for other countries,” says Grech. “We have the crews and we have the people.”

Malta - Valletta

In the coming months the country may get a further profile boost from National Geographic’s scripted series Genius that features Antonio Banderas as Pablo Picasso and used Malta as a stand-in for southern France.

Plane hijack thriller Entebbe (formerly known as 7 Days in Entebbe) doubled parts of the airport for Entebbe in Uganda and launched at this year’s Berlinale.

“Our workforce is skilful,” Grech says. “The locals participate. There is pride that a film has been shot in Malta. The film industry has its ripple effects on the economy, so the government incentivises the film industry as we are competing with the world.”

Malta’s historic former capital Mdina is less than a half-hour drive inland from Valletta and offers spectacular architecture within an imposing defensive wall.

Over a decade before Kevin Reynolds came to Malta to film Risen, he used Mdina’s main square for a festival sequence in his 2002 adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo with Jim Caviezel. Several parts of Mdina appeared in key scenes in the first series of Game of Thrones.

Film-friendly locations are also to be found in Naxxar, midway between Mdina and Valletta. The 19th century Palazzo Parisio offers state rooms that appeared as embassy settings in Kon-Tiki. The palace’s expansive gardens were used in Lee Tamahori’s 2011 movie The Devil’s Double, a thriller based on the true story of a man who was forced to become a decoy for Saddam Hussein’s son Uday in the 1990s.

The Palazzo offers a further surprise as the gardens lead to a vacant street not accessible to the public that was used as a back lot for scenes in The Devil’s Double. It is a sight that reinforces the Maltese sense that the unexpected can be delivered.

Malta already has a well-earned global reputation as a Mediterranean production hub. Sound stages can only help boost the country's international profile as the film commission continues to form relationships with producers around the world.

KFTV stayed at Le Meridien in St Julian’s north of Valletta, overlooking the picturesque Balluta Bay. The location offers easy access to the renowned Barracuda, a fine-dining restaurant that has a great selection of local fish delicacies. The country also offers many of the world’s top hotel brands, including Radisson Blu, InterContinental and Hilton.

KFTV was kindly hosted by the Malta Film Commission.

Water tank filming image: Jose Haro. Kin-Tiki image: Nordisk Film/HanWay Films. Murder on the Orient Express image: 20th Century Fox.

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