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The Czech Connection

With its spectacular locations and low production costs, Prague is becoming a haven for filmmakers from the U.S.

August 20, 2000|DAVID HOLLEY | David Holley is a Times staff writer in Warsaw

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — As the huge back-lot set at Barrandov Studios was being readied for a jousting tournament in medieval London, Antonin Sach painted the finishing touches on bleachers for a crowd of spectators to be played by Czech extras.

"I'm interested in the Middle Ages. When I'm working on this, I can feel the history of our ancestors breathing on me," said Sach, 38, a Czech who usually paints house interiors but much prefers this job helping to make Columbia Pictures' "A Knight's Tale," starring Heath Ledger and Mark Addy.

Sach earns less than $3 an hour--less than one-tenth the wage of a union painter in Hollywood, but more than he makes painting houses. Working on films "is an adventure," he added, so he's satisfied with his pay even though he knows a professional painter in Los Angeles would earn much more.

People like Sach--along with wardrobe experts, set construction specialists, camera operators, other freelancers of all types and a handful of entrepreneurs pulling it all together--are making the Czech Republic an increasingly potent player in the quickly globalizing film industry.

"Prague has turned into Hollywood East because there's an opportunity to make your money stretch a long way," said Amy Robinson, an executive producer of "From Hell," a Jack the Ripper tale starring Johnny Depp and directed by brothers Albert and Allen Hughes for 20th Century Fox.

In addition to "A Knight's Tale" and "From Hell," other U.S. films being shot in the Czech Republic during July included "The Affair of the Necklace," an Alcon Entertainment film for Warner Bros. starring Academy Award winner Hilary Swank, and the TNT/Warner Bros. television miniseries "The Mists of Avalon," starring Julianna Margulies and Anjelica Huston.

Four productions at once marked a peak in the intensity of U.S. filmmaking here, and it put a strain on the availability of such talent as English-speaking camera crews, U.S. producers said. Other U.S. films were shot here earlier in the year, as were various European productions.

"Right now, millions and millions of dollars are being spent in this country on these films," Robinson said.

Matthew Stillman, the British head of Stillking Films, a production company he founded in Prague in 1993, estimated that foreign film and television productions will spend about $70 million in the Czech Republic this year. Stillking competes with Czech-owned production firms such as ETIC Film Production and EIS Production, both run by former Barrandov employees.

Shooting U.S. and other foreign films here is a cooperative effort. Foreign producers bring in scripts, directors, stars and key crew members, while contracting through local production firms for sets, local employees and the use of spectacular sites such as castles and chateaux.

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Some things are possible in the Czech Republic that wouldn't even be imagined in Los Angeles or London. For example, the immense outdoor set for "From Hell," which represents several 19th century London blocks, including skid-row and upper-class districts, was paved with real cobblestones rented by the truckload from the Prague city government.

The set cost about one-fourth what it would have in Los Angeles, director Albert Hughes said.

Producer Todd Black said the cost of "A Knight's Tale" will be "in the $40-million range," with local spending in the Czech Republic of about $10 million. With a dollar generally estimated to go three times as far as in Los Angeles, after accounting for hotels, plane tickets and other costs of working abroad, that indicates a savings of about $20 million on the film.

"A huge number of films seem to have descended on Prague all at the same time," said Richard Morris, a producer for "Affair of the Necklace," a story he said concerns "a necklace that Marie Antoinette was inveigled into desiring."

Barrandov's facilities, low-wage professionals and fabulous, centuries-old locations are the three key factors that attract film producers here. But Prague's reputation as a wonderful place to visit also helps.

"There are a lot of countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, that we could go to that are even less expensive than the Czech Republic, but they don't have the training," said Mark Wolper, executive producer for "The Mists of Avalon," about the women in the King Arthur legend.

"The other very interesting reason why we come here is because when you tell an actor or an actress or a big director or a big producer that you're going to shoot in Prague, that sounds OK," Wolper added. "If you tell them they're going to shoot in Bucharest [or] Warsaw, it doesn't sound as romantic as Prague. And that's important. Prague sounds sexy and in and hip, and that really is important when you're going to go somewhere for four months."

Margulies, best known for her role as a nurse (and George Clooney's on-screen girlfriend) in "ER," said she feels "a little more taken care of here than I do in L.A."

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