Üdvözlet, Blade Runner

With Blade Runner 2049 shot entirely in Budapest, times have never been so good for the Hungarian film industry. We take a trip to the city’s two biggest studios

(First published in Wizz magazine, October 2017. Photography by Ben Quinton)

If you watch Blade Runner 2049 this autumn, one fact may escape you about the movie’s depiction of a dystopian future California: that it was shot almost entirely in Budapest, mostly in enormous sound-proof rooms at its two largest studios.

Over the last decade, Hungary has quietly become Hollywood on the Danube. It is now the second biggest filming location in Europe, second only to the UK. When Steven Spielberg wanted to shoot multiple cities for Munich (2005), he chose Budapest to stand in for Rome, Paris, London and Munich.

When Ridley Scott wanted a studio to stand in for Mars in The Martian (2015), he brought 2,000 tonnes of red sand into the giant 6,000sqm Soundstage 6 at Korda, Hungary’s first major modern studio, which was built a decade ago. The list of foreign movies and shows filmed here is long, and growing, from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to Die Hard 5 and Angelina Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey.

“It really is a golden age for the film industry here.”

“It really is a golden age for the film industry here,” says Ildikó Kemény, a producer and the managing director of Pioneer Productions, a prolific company who were recently the local partners on Atomic Blonde with Charlize Theron, which filmed primarily in Budapest.

“Budapest has become such a film-friendly city,” she says. “In terms of shooting on location, it’s incredibly chameleon-like – because of its wide architectural influences over the years, it can stand in convincingly for Paris or Moscow within just a few streets. But it has also developed a very healthy infrastructure. Foreign companies are realising that they can come here and get it all.”

Hungary has a long history of film-making, and a relatively long history of welcoming foreign productions, with a steady stream since the mid-1990s, when Evita came to Budapest after Argentines protested against Madonna playing their national icon (Budapest, naturally, was a convincing Buenos Aires).

But the big moment that turned it into a film-making centre was in 2004, when the government introduced a 25 per cent tax rebate for movies being made here. “That changed everything,” says Adam Goodman, an Englishman who established Mid Atlantic Films in 2005 with American partner Howard Ellis. A freelance film producer, he’d spotted an opportunity in Budapest, having been asked to co-produce action-fantasy movie Eragon for 20th Century Fox. Goodman and his team have since worked on most of the big Hollywood productions to come here, from Hellboy II to Hercules and The Martian.  

“It used to be that Prague was the go-to, but the tax incentive changed things overnight,” says Goodman. “Today, Budapest is no longer a poor relation to other film capitals in terms of quality, and it has a lot of advantages. One factor is that stars love coming here – they can stay in hotels like the Four Seasons or the Ritz-Carlton, eat world-class food, and go round the city relatively un-molested. When Ridley Scott and Matt Damon were here for The Martian, they had an amazing time.”

Now, the only real problem is too many films wanting to come, and the possibility of the hitherto-tolerant locals getting impatient with so much filming on their doorstep. On our visit, in a taxi not far from the Szechenyi baths, we spot a group of trucks and camera equipment that the driver informs us is for The Spy Who Dumped Me, a comedy that will star Mila Kunis when it opens next year. With a shrug, the driver says he sees film crews in the city most days.

The second big moment in Budapest’s recent development was the opening of the Korda Studios in 2007, outside the wine-making village of Etyek. Funded in part by Hungarian entrepreneur Sándor Demján, who comes from Etyek, and named after the great Hungarian-born director Alexander Korda, it boasts Medieval, Renaissance and New York City backlots on top of its six soundstages (those enormous, soundproof rooms), including one of the biggest in Europe.

“Budapest used to be just a location city,” says Daniel Kresmery, Korda’s Head of Production and Development. “But having studios like this has changed that, and now it’s a one-stop shop for everything you need to make a movie. It used to be a lot of period films here, especially spy films that needed Soviet-style locations. Now we’re as much about sci-fi and fantasy.”

Kresmery points to Korda’s Renaissance backlot as an example, which has recently stood in for the entrance to The Vatican in TV series The Borgias, and the mythical Oz in the more recent show, Emerald City.

Blade Runner 2049 – which filmed at Korda and the Origo Studios, another impressive facility that opened in 2010 – will likely be the highest-profile example of Budapest sci-fi to date, and there’s a notable aura around the movie. “We’ve never seen so much secrecy around a movie,” says Kresmery. “There were nearly 1,000 people in the city for nine months, but they were militant about no pictures, and nothing being leaked, except for a few shots of Harrison Ford having fun in town.”

Budapest welcoming Hollywood with open arms has clearly been a success, but what has it meant for local workers and the local film industry? According to Pioneer Productions’ Kemény, a Hungarian who studied and worked as a producer in the UK before coming home, it’s mostly been good news. “The influx of Hollywood films has created more competition locally, and has helped Hungarian film-makers raise their game. It’s also meant that local crews are world-class, because they’re used to working with the biggest and best in the industry.”

Recent Hungarian success stories include Son of Saul, directed by László Nemes, which was set at Auschwitz (though shot in Budapest) and which won Best Foreign Language film at the 2016 Oscars. Kemény also says that Hungarian cinema is thriving, pointing to Kincsem, the story of the iconic Hungarian racing horse, which drew 374,500 Hungarians to the cinema, breaking the box office record for a Hungarian film.

Kincsem and Son Of Saul are both examples of another thing the local movie industry is getting right. Both were funded by the Hungarian Film Fund, which was the brainchild in 2011 of respected Hungarian-American producer Andrew Vajna, who has brought the likes of Escape to Victory and Evita to Budapest. According to Kemény, it means that Hungarian films “have a chance to make it, though there’s a strict process for films to get through. It’s a fair system, though, and it means that good quality local films or shows can get made.”

Kemény is also a producer on Budapest Noir, an adaptation of the 1930s-set Hungarian crime novel, which is due for release this November, directed by Éva Gárdos. “It’s a great script and a substantial production,” says Kemény. “Hopefully it will be another example of the system working for Hungarian films as well as international blockbusters.”

Certainly, it’s good news if you work in or study film in Budapest. Kemény fought for a rule that means that all productions shot in Hungary should have at least five Hungarian trainees, most of them from local film schools. And there’s more work than ever for local crews, whether you’re a grip, a gaffer, an assistant producer or whatever.

At Origo Studios, we meet Ádám Fillenz, who has just finished a long day as a camera operator on The Alienist, an upcoming American period drama starring Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning. Fillenz has worked on many big productions, from Hercules to Inferno and Marco Polo, but he has also been a  cinematographer on smaller movies, including Pál Adrienn, which has won a handful of awards and was screened at Cannes in 2010. He’s now finishing an arthouse movie called Hier, shot in the Moroccan desert.

“I get the best of both worlds,” he says. “It’s great experience working with the best people in the industry on productions like The Alienist, and it means crews here really know their stuff. Then again, it’s nice to work on smaller productions and have more control. If there’s a negative, it can be that local crews get so busy with international productions that there’s no time for smaller ones – but, overall, it’s great.”

After we speak to Fillenz, we get a sneak peek into the now-empty Soundstage 6 at Origo Studios, where many of the scenes from Blade Runner 2049 were filmed. It’s staggering, in this huge room with its strangely muffled sound, to think that a thousand people were here, and that US$200 million was spent creating a futuristic dystopia for Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford and co to roam around in.

But all you have to do is go and see the movie – and to suspend disbelief. Because it’s not dystopian California in 2049. It’s really just Budapest.   

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