18. February 2011

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Big-budget cable series hires local craftsmen. Prague's storied Barrandov studios, perhaps because of its scale and long history of film credits, aren't usually thought of in connection with the smallscreen. But Borgia, which has moved into the popular Stage 5 at Barrandov for the spring, is causing much buzz and claiming new territory as the first U.S.-style big-budget cable series to use the studios. The learning curve is instructive for all parties - and may signify the shape of things to come. "The motivation is high," says the show's line producer, Michael Schwarz of Atlantique, in describing the scads of Czech crew working on Borgia's elaborate early Renaissance-era sets. That's important, he says, because the series is using more locals in positions of authority than is usual with a foreign production. Producers of the series, which has already sold to Germany, Austria and France, want to invest in an infrastructure that includes trusted Czech talent in command positions, Schwarz says. And with Western heavyweights on board such as writer and showrunner Tom Fontana (Homicide, Oz), helmers Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) and Philippe Haim (Secret of State) and cinematographer Ousama Rawi (The Tudors), the series, also backed by Germany's EOS, makes for an outstanding credit for crew. Still, there are some more accustomed to waiting for instructions than making their own decisions, and they need a bit of encouragement, says Schwarz. "You have to say, 'You can do this - you have a brain. You can decide." But the results have already been impressive. Some 25 artists worked 6,000 hours last autumn to turn a real Prague palace - albeit one with dull interiors - into a suitably dark, richly ornate labyrinth for Borgia intrigues. The solution was one of the creative approaches arrived at with local partner Etic Films, the Barrandov-based production services company that hosted Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist in 2004. Although Borgia, budgeted at $30 million overall, has significant coin for a TV series, it must be spread creatively to get the most out of tight shooting schedules and to create an effect of opulence you'd find in epics with far bigger purses, say its producers. As a result, the show occupies just a part of Studio 5, allowing the rest to be used for other smaller-scale Barrandov clients. The production has also built an elaborate public square that will serve for street scenes in Rome and elsewhere, and is negotiating to reserve most of the back lot for the coming year, says Schwarz. But location shoots in Czech towns such as Telc, where a number of Italian masters of the Renaissance era did some of their best work, and at the Martinitz Palace in Prague, have turned out to provide an affordable and authentic alternative to the soundstages. "And you get a scale you could never get at the studio," says Schwarz. The Martinitz Palace deal was particularly novel, says Etic's Petr Moravec. Borgia agreed to redo the vast interiors in authentic period style and allow the owners to keep the art work for good in exchange for a deep discount, says Moravec. "The walls were white and city hall allowed us to paint all walls, so this is fantastic," says Moravec. "We save money and it's good for the palace." Another strategy key to making the deal work was Etic coming on board a full partner with a serious financial stake in the production, as required to qualify for the Czech Republic's new production incentives scheme. Previously, local shingles were legally partners but not generally so vested in foreign productions. Other appeals of working at Barrandov have been known to veterans of Prague shoots for years, such as the acoustic and insulation qualities of the old Stage 5, which was built during and after World War II. When you factor in the incredible ceiling heights and the vast rigging network, which makes major set changes work easily, it tends to beat out even Barrandov's new Max soundstage in popularity. It's also a 15-minute drive from downtown and a 15-minute drive to the airport, setting it apart from most studios in the region, which are miles outside the city. Borgia actors and crew here for the long haul live comfortably in Prague apartments, while its visiting execs can jet in and out easily. Not that everything about the vast studios are ideal, of course. Barrandov's owner, Moravia Steel, has long been known for being less savvy about the movie business than some competitors, and has to be asked repeatedly to offer things like discounts for long-term clients such as Borgia, says one insider. Still, all parties to the production are looking increasingly satisfied with the alliance as the series heads into its final season-one shooting days while eagerly awaiting word on sales so that it can firm up the next season's shooting sched. If things continue to gel as they have so far, it may well be major TV series people think of next time they mention the grand old Barrandov.