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From the looks of it, Berlin can lure films

The city, with its modern and historic designs, is a big hit with moviemakers.

April 04, 2004|Kelly Carter | Special to The Times

Berlin — This city is steeped in remembrances of the war, but the capital's changing face and contemporary vibe have caught Hollywood's attention, making it Europe's latest filmmaking hot spot.

"It's the new place," says "The Bourne Supremacy" producer Frank Marshall, who just wrapped a three-month shoot here. "It's replaced Prague."

In the Universal Pictures' international espionage thriller, the sequel to its 2002 hit "The Bourne Identity," Matt Damon plays Jason Bourne, an assassin who gets pulled back into working for the U.S. government to catch a killer who impersonated him.

It is the latest American feature film to shoot here and the third consecutive not to have a war theme. It was "Enemy at the Gates" with Jude Law that opened Berlin's door to Hollywood in 2000, and filmmakers really tuned into the city after Roman Polanski's "The Pianist."

Now filmmakers are discovering an eclectic cityscape that can plunge you back into old-world Europe or send you spinning into futuristic, sleek architectural chic. Jackie Chan's adventure "Around the World in 80 Days," opening this summer, spent 63 days filming here in 2003 and Kevin Spacey's Bobby Darin biopic, "Beyond the Sea," wrapped this year. Paramount's "Mission: Impossible 3" and "Aeon Flux" both scouted here. At the same time, German filmmaking is in a prosperous time, so Berlin finds itself with a flurry of activity after virtually none.

"I'm a little bit sorry because Berlin for so many years would have been a great movie-making town," says Henning Molfenter, head of production for Studio Babelsberg Motion Pictures in Potsdam, outside Berlin. "Right after the [Berlin] Wall came down there were so many opportunities. Nobody grabbed them."

Trendy bars, fashionable restaurants, swank hotels and a multicultural music and nightclub scene are reshaping Berlin's more sober image. "When the art department like on '80 Days' comes straight from clubbing to the set, you know you're in a good city," Molfenter says.

"We had heard, as any other person who travels, 'Oh, Berlin is pretty cool,' " "Bourne" producer Patrick Crowley said. "But very few people relatively had been there. [Screenwriter] Tony Gilroy, Frank and I came here. We were knocked out. We were really convinced when we saw the studio facilities that were available."

They were impressed enough with the infrastructure that their whole camera crew -- with the exception of director of photography Oliver Wood -- is German, and Germans make up the shoot's entire electrical, grip and prop crews as well as most of wardrobe and set dressing.

"It creates an enormous sense of pride in people," Crowley said. "They want to do a good job because they know that they're sort of leading the way for increased feature productions in Berlin."

"Bourne," which brought $15 million to $20 million to the city, did huge night exteriors, lighting up entire blocks. Damon, who came to the "Bourne" set after "The Brothers Grimm" in Prague, says, "The infrastructure is great in both places. They have everything that Warner or Disney has or any lot that you end up on in America."

Studio Babelsberg believes it is cheaper than Pinewood outside of London and more organized and less expensive than Rome's Cinecitta. Prague, where Barrandov Studios was expanded to rival film studios in Berlin and Munich during World War II, is the other main competition. For now, the Czechs still have the edge because of lower costs and their ability to accommodate productions that require construction.

Molfenter says Berlin offers "a cheap cost of living, hotel rooms and cars. All that combines to make it worthwhile shooting here." But Crowley laments that, across the board, filming in Berlin isn't cheap.

Nonetheless, "We were really impressed both when we arrived and we're very pleased now. It's obviously going to be a film center."

A variety of looks

Berlin's central location in Europe attracts filmmakers, who also salivate at the thought of a place that features modern and old architecture, a historic feel, a sleek downtown, wide streets, castles, a countryside, lakes and forests. Berlin can substitute for countless locations. Consider that "80 Days" used Berlin and surrounding areas to capture the world except for beaches and palm trees, which was shot in Thailand. The abundance of empty, new buildings, a result of overbuilding, is another plus.

"When you go into a solid city like London or Paris, all of the real estate is bought up and it's a closed city," Molfenter says. "Berlin is wide open, and that is such a big opportunity for filmmakers."

When the "Bourne" filmmakers were told of a huge tunnel that is not due to open for a couple of years, they asked not only if they could shoot inside it but asked if it would be all right to crash real cars into the walls at 60 mph. No problem.

"That's one of those little jewels that made that whole sequence possible and only in Berlin," Crowley said.

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