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BIG-BUDGET FILMMAKERS SOLD ON LOW-BUDGET SLOVAK SETS

Hollywood keen on Slovaks

Spanish movie set designer Benjamin Fernandez has worked on scores of Hollywood films. He designed the kilometre-long tunnel in the Sylvester Stallone film Daylight, and one of the coliseums in the drama Gladiator. But the set he says he is most proud of is the 7,000 square metre Warsaw ghetto he and his mostly Slovak team built this winter on the bank of the Danube River south of Starý most (Old Bridge) in Bratislava.
The set - including four-storey facades, a large square, lamp posts, cobblestone streets, mock store fronts, brick walls and barbed wire - is believed by Slovak film crews to be the largest ever built in Slovakia, and one of the largest in the history of filmmaking in central Europe. Started in January, it was constructed in just two and a half months for the film Uprising, currently being shot in the capital.
Uprising is part of a growing trend - since 1994, six big-budget Hollywood films have been shot in Slovakia.


The makers of Uprising built a 7,000 square metre set in Bratislava, complete with cobblestones.
photo: Ján Svrček

Spanish movie set designer Benjamin Fernandez has worked on scores of Hollywood films. He designed the kilometre-long tunnel in the Sylvester Stallone film Daylight, and one of the coliseums in the drama Gladiator. But the set he says he is most proud of is the 7,000 square metre Warsaw ghetto he and his mostly Slovak team built this winter on the bank of the Danube River south of Starý most (Old Bridge) in Bratislava.

The set - including four-storey facades, a large square, lamp posts, cobblestone streets, mock store fronts, brick walls and barbed wire - is believed by Slovak film crews to be the largest ever built in Slovakia, and one of the largest in the history of filmmaking in central Europe. Started in January, it was constructed in just two and a half months for the film Uprising, currently being shot in the capital.

Uprising is part of a growing trend - since 1994, six big-budget Hollywood films have been shot in Slovakia. For the local economy, these foreign films represent valuable foreign exchange income, pouring dollars into local hotel and food industries, and give work to some of Slovakia's over-20% unemployed. Uprising has a budget of $22 million, over half of which, said producer Raffaella De Laurentiis, would be sunk into Slovakia.

"These films help to improve the Bratislava economy as a whole," said Milan Vajda, spokesman for Bratislava's Old Town district. "The city is becoming better known to foreign filmmakers, who are now a significant source of revenue for service providers and local businesses."

Uprising also employed a team of 200 carpenters, painters, masons, plasterers and upholsterers, while contracting firms pitched in as many as 800 additional workers. Crews worked 12-hour days, six days a week. Uprising film crews comprise an additional 300 employees, mostly Slovaks.

"Projects such as these benefit mainly individuals, such as those who were employed as extras, although I'm afraid that many of these were registered as unemployed and may not have reported the extra income," said Marek Jakoby, an analyst at economic think tank MESA 10. "We also see some individual construction firms doing well, particularly those from [the northern Slovak region of] Orava, who regularly get work on these projects because they have experience in set construction and the trust of the film industry."


Some Slovak citizens have been offended by Uprising, which uses Bratislava as a model for a wartime ghetto.
photo: Ján Svrček

Why they come

The economic benefits to Slovakia of attracting foreign movie makers is matched by the costs the latter stand to save - Uprising's Fernandez said his Warsaw set had cost only $900,000, as little as one-quarter the price of such a project in America.

Nevertheless, film makers agree that cost savings are only part of the equation.

Fernandez, for one, says he was impressed by the speed and quality of the construction of the film's main set, something he attributes to his staff of mostly Slovak designers and labourers. "Slovakia has excellent carpenters, excellent craftsmen all around," said Fernandez. "I can't believe how easily and smoothly the building went."

Fernandez is only the most recent in a line of foreigners who have praised Slovak set builders. Last fall, a retired US Navy colonel working on 20th Century Fox's Behind Enemy Lines told The Slovak Spectator that "the ship set they built is so good, I hope they don't tear it down."

"Slovaks are very good craftsmen," chimed in De Laurentiis, who apart from Uprising has produced three films shot in Slovakia in the 1990s - Kell the Conqueror, Dragonheart and Dragonheart II. "They know how to create, they're great with their hands."

Shooting on Uprising began in Bratislava on March 25. The movie tells the story of Jews forced during World War II into Warsaw slums who revolted against the Germans. The film requires 160 sets in and around Bratislava, the largest and most intricate being the mock Warsaw ghetto on the Danube.

Fernandez said that he used old pictures of Warsaw to create drawings for the set. He came to Bratislava in November and explained his ideas to designers at Bratislava's Koliba Studios, the country's only film studio and a partner on foreign film productions.

Uprising and Behind Enemy Lines have given a financial boost to Koliba Studios, which had slid into disrepair after privatisation in 1995, limiting the growth of the country's film industry as a whole. Iveta Hrdlovičová, director of production services at Koliba, said that when she came to Koliba Studios in the beginning of 2000, the roofs were leaking and the water and heat had been turned off because of unpaid bills.

Koliba Studios has since been stabilised, she says, although they remain embroiled in a battle with the Culture Ministry over 120 million crowns in debt inherited from former management. And despite the successes of Uprising and Behind Enemy Lines, and the good reputation they are making for Slovak work, a looming American actors strike has put other projects on hold.

Still, based on the recent increase in interest, Hrdlovičová is hoping to attract more films to Bratislava, and is banking on local talent as a major selling point.

"Construction talent is one of the main things that draws Hollywood filmmakers to Slovakia," said. "The others are Slovakia's natural beauty and the quality of our studios."

It's a formula that foreign film makers agree is bound to produce results. "When they [other film makers] see what has been done here, in the amount of time we've done it," said Fernandez, "I think more producers will be interested in Slovakia."

"You couldn't do this in Hollywood," agreed De Laurentiis, walking through the Warsaw slum set. "The cost would be prohibitive. How would you assemble all the workers necessary? Where would you find the space? Where would you find cobblestones?"

Shooting on Uprising should be wrapped up by the end of June. The film is being made for the American National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television station, and stars Donald Sutherland, Jon Voight and David Schwimmer. It may be distributed to European cinemas by Warner Brothers. Behind Enemy Lines has no release date as yet.

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