Isabelle Huppert, actor Lucas Bravo and government commissioner Csaba Káel in Budapest – Photo: MTI

You name it, Budapest, Hungary can double up

World on a cheap plate for film-makers

Now we find out, too late as usual – Isabelle Huppert and Lesley Manville, two of our favourite lady actors, were in Budapest filming this October and November. If we’d known we probably could have tracked them down in the sure knowledge that they would have been only too pleased to enjoy a coffee, a cake and a chat about cinema with a stranger who happens to be a knowledgeable film buff.

Huppert, the French actress, would have been delighted, we know, to be buttonholed by an obsessive fellow who’s seen quite a few of her films and who tells her he’s long been entranced by her alluring look and rather disdainful demeanour on screen. Manville, too, the British actress who’s entertained us in eight wonderful Mike Leigh films, including the exceptional “Secrets and Lies”. Still, perhaps they haven’t left town yet, and we’ll keep an eye open, over the mask.

The two of them have been filming “Mrs Harris Goes to Paris” in several locations across Budapest, which has been doing sterling duty doubling for Paris and London, not for the first time. The USD 13 million project is being financed and distributed by eOne, which received USD 900,000 in support from the National Film Institute of Hungary and accessed the local 30% cash rebate.

The British-Hungarian co-production is an adaptation of American novelist Paul Gallico’s book about the adventure of a widowed cleaning lady (Manville) in 1950s London travelling to Paris to buy an haute couture Dior dress. The production has brought together the two renowned actresses for the first time, with Huppert in the role of Madame Colbert, the head of Dior Fashion House.

Of course, since the film age began it’s nothing new for productions to be shot in studios rather than on location, and for one location to pretend to be another. Still, it must be said that if we are seeing a film about Paris, or about Budapest or anywhere else for that matter, it is nice to be able to watch it and know that the streets and so on are actually where they claim to be.

“The film was originally due to shoot in Bucharest, Romania, but we positioned Budapest as advantageous with its secure 30 percent incentive and slightly better locations, particularly for doubling Paris,” says co-producer Jonathan Halperyn of Hungary-based Hero Squared. Co-producer Dániel Kresmery said that after visiting Hungary at the beginning of the year the British producers had switched from Romania, attracted by Budapest’s locations, staff and incentives.

In fact, Hungary has been jammed with major international productions in recent months, including Legendary Entertainment/ Warner Bros’ “Dune”, Lionsgate’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” starring Nicolas Cage, Amazon Studios’ “Birds of Paradise”, Amblin’s comedy film “Distant”, Showtimes’ new series “Halo” and Netflix’s “The Last Kingdom”.

Another international production hoping to return to Budapest to double for Paris 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 preparation 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”. “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 to get permissions.”

To help get shooting back up and running, “we are working 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, 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 drawn in by the enticing 30 percent 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 Hungary 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” 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”.

Film-makers are spoilt for choice in Hungary, with a variety of landscapes and in Budapest they 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 from classical to modern, industrial to upscale, hipster to retro, with castles and rural landscapes. This makes it easy to double for many different places, including Paris, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Moscow.

“Budapest is a city offering practical locations that may double 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 place 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.”

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