Case Study: Colette on location in Hungary

(Image: Robert Viglasky)

The reputation of Hungary’s technical crew and craftspeople helped to draw Wash Westmoreland’s period drama Colette to the country.

Wash Westmoreland’s mid-budget costume drama Colette stars Keira Knightley as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the real-life Parisian author whose struggles to have her creativity recognised amid swingeing gender inequality still resonate today. Dominic West plays a debonair impresario who marries Colette and passes off her writing as his own in order to achieve his dream of literary success.

A passion project for Westmoreland and his late partner Richard Glatzer — they co-directed Still Alice and Quinceanera (aka Echo Park, L.A.) together — Colette is set in Paris and rural Burgundy, and written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Glatzer and Westmoreland.

Producer Elizabeth Karlsen of the UK’s Number 9 Films says the production team looked at myriad places to shoot, including Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic and France.

“We ran the numbers against the creative imperatives of the project,” says Karlsen. “It’s always a case of trying to hit the sweet spot between creative demands and finance.”

They opted for the Hungarian capital of Budapest, where the production spent five-and-a-half weeks of an eight-week shoot. The rest of the time was spent in England, which doubled for rural Burgundy, and a few days in France. “We shot some exteriors in Paris but we were limited [by budget]. There are some big exterior scenes outside the Moulin Rouge theatre in Paris and it was important to shoot those,” Karlsen says.

The production accessed Hungary’s tax rebate system and the producers signed a production services agreement with the experienced Ildiko Kemeny, producer and managing director of Budapest-based Pioneer Pictures Productions.

“We started shooting the film in the UK and then we took the core crew of 20, including the first and second ADs, the production designer, script supervisor and his team’s key members and the cinematographer and make-up and hair to Hungary,” explains Karlsen. “The rest we hired locally in Hungary.”

The production, which completed its post work in the UK, also accessed the UK’s tax relief for film. “We just needed to comply with accounting and filing obligations and for the UK we were well within the required minimum core spend of 10%,” Karlsen says. “There was no conflict or juggling [with the Hungarian spend]. It was straightforward once we ran the numbers and made the decision to set the Hungarian shoot up as a production service agreement with Pioneer.”

One step ahead

Accountancy firms in both the UK and Hungary monitored and advised the producers, as did production lawyers to ensure the shoot went smoothly.

Part of Hungary’s attraction was the technical crew talent pool. “The set building offered [in Hungary] would be prohibitively expensive in the UK or the US,” says Karlsen. “What they can do with rendering, fatiguing, painting, effects is so fantastic.”

When a spark from a steam train arriving at a station hit dry brush creating a wall of fire, it was the Hungarian crew who took it all in their stride. They leapt into action and snuffed out the potential wildfire.

The one thing Karlsen points out is that Hungary exercises state control over filmmaking location options. This meant the production was required to work with a government-approved list of buildings.

“What Hungary and Budapest don’t offer is an opportunity for a locations manager to drive around with the director and be able to operate creatively with locations and think outside the box and outside the government-approved locations,” Karlsen notes. “You can’t just point to a building or structure or location and say, ‘Can we organise part of the shoot there?’”

A big set was built at Origo Studios in Budapest, large enough to let the actors and crew move around freely and to match aesthetically the exterior grandeur.

The filmmakers also opted to shoot several overnights at theatres outside Budapest. “Being a [comparatively] small period film,” says Karlsen, “it is important to avoid becoming obsessed with the costumes and hats and the number of extras in a scene, and to remember everything you’re doing is to enhance the story you’re telling.”

Related Articles