If watching TV’s most prestigious dramas gives you wanderlust, there’s a good reason. More U.S. series than ever before are filming outside of North America, and it’s not simply a case of runaway production. Networks, especially the big guns in basic and premium cable, are embracing the unique value of shooting a show overseas.
Take HBO’s mega-hit “Game of Thrones,” Emmy nominated for best drama for a fourth consecutive year. The fantasy saga is headquartered in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with a second unit based in Croatia and a cast made up primarily of actors from the U.K.
“We have been shooting here for four years going on five and we are still finding new locations for our kingdoms,” says executive producer Bernie Caulfield, who noted that the varied terrains and Medieval architecture necessary for the show would have been inconceivable in the U.S.
“Today we were tech scouting [in Ireland] for season 5’s first-episode block,” Caulfield continues. “We scouted the rolling hills, looking at a beautiful stretch of land, then onto the northern coast with its glorious mountains and jutting rocks, and finished the morning in a castle. I can’t think of anywhere else you could scout that in such close proximity to the city.”
It’s not all that unusual for a domestic series to travel abroad to film a special episode or two. Just this past season the cast of “Modern Family” filmed in Australia, while “Parks and Recreation” and “Elementary” visited London. But until recently it was almost unheard of to film an entire season outside North America.
“The furthest I ever shot was Toronto and Vancouver,” veteran showrunner Howard Gordon says of his early days in the business. This year alone Gordon serves as an executive producer on three tentpole dramas: Fox’s limited series revival “24: Live Another Day” set and filmed in London, the fourth season of Showtime’s “Homeland,” which relocated to South Africa (standing in for Kabul, Afghanistan, and Islamabad, Pakistan), and FX’s Middle East drama “Tyrant,” set in the fictional country of Abbudin and shooting entirely in Israel.
While Los Angeles was discussed as a possible home for “Tyrant,” Gordon pushed for the Fox 21-produced series to shoot overseas. “They thought we were insane,” he recalls.
Although they were eventually forced to move to Turkey due to the political unrest in the Middle East, filming the bulk of the series in Israel meant avoiding the need to re-create exotic locations from scratch. Gordon estimates they have saved at least $700,000 per episode on “Tyrant” by not having to build the lavish sets essential to the story: “It would’ve been more expensive and I think we would’ve not gotten as good of a result.”
It’s no secret “Game of Thrones” has a hefty budget, but Caulfield says that doesn’t mean the sky’s the limit. “We are fortunate to now have rebates from the U.K., Croatia and Iceland,” she notes. “Productions of our scale need these incentives to survive.”
There are no incentives in Spain — where “Thrones” will film portions of its upcoming season for the first time — but Caulfield says, “They have been great at working with us to find alternate avenues of cost cutting.”
Even when the financials work out, there are other challenges. The “Tyrant” writers are based in Los Angeles, and although they make frequent trips to Israel to help prep individual episodes, there’s still a communication gap. “It complicates (production) immensely,” Gordon says of the time difference. “They need an answer sometimes when they’re shooting something, and it’s 2 o’clock in the morning here. There’s a bit of a delay and some choices have to be made on the ground and hopefully they’re the right choices.”
Filming in a new location for the fourth season of “Homeland” meant cast and crew members had to agree to pack up their lives and relocate after three seasons in the U.S. “It was a very, very big issue,” Gordon says. “No one was jumping for joy at the prospect of relocating to South Africa. People have families. It’s very far away. But everybody loves the show so much. Eventually people get enough round-trip tickets worked into their deal to bring friends and family over. If they couldn’t shoot close to home, they brought as much of home as they could to them.”
Despite the challenges, the number of series filming overseas continues to boom: Starz’s historical fantasy adaptation “Outlander” shoots in Scotland to capture the setting of the popular book series on which it’s based; Showtime’s horror romp “Penny Dreadful” haunts Ireland; and History’s “Vikings” is embarking on its third season also on the Emerald Isle.
Still, you won’t find a more ambitious slate of international productions than what’s on tap at Netflix. Over the next 18 months the streaming giant has plans to unleash historical epic “Marco Polo,” filmed in Malaysia, Kazakhstan and Italy; the Pablo Escobar crime saga “Narcos,” produced in the drug kingpin’s native Colombia; and “Sense8,” a global conspiracy thriller from Andy and Lana Wachowski shooting in no fewer than nine locations on four continents.
According to Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, the strategy hinges on finding the best way to tell a story and credibility is paramount. “Marco Polo” “is not in front of a greenscreen or a city that’s made up to look like (somewhere else). It’s the real deal,” Sarandos says. “Everything about the show from the costume design to the locations is grand on a scale that would have been very difficult to fake.”
Similarly, in the case of “Narcos,” Sarandos notes: “We’re not going to make the life of Pablo Escobar anywhere but Colombia. (Authenticity) needs to be on the screen. If you put up things that are not true to the viewer’s eye, they start picking apart everything about it. In this case the location enhances the storytelling rather than detracts from it.”