U.K. wolfs down foreign productions

Filmmakers bite into Blighty's generous incentives

LONDON — Where do you go when you need to replicate late 19th-century England but also get hold of the latest 21st-century filmmaking technology?

That was the dilemma facing Universal execs when they began scouting locations for their modern-day reimagining of the classic 1941 horror pic “The Wolf Man,” which starred Lon Chaney, Jr.

While the original was fully shot at Universal Studios, the team behind the latest version (which includes producers Scott Stuber and Sean Daniel and helmer Joe Johnston) was after something altogether more authentic.

After scouting possible sites throughout Europe, the answer became abundantly clear. “The Wolf Man,” now with Benicio Del Toro in the title role, would shoot entirely in the U.K., beating out potential East European rivals such as Budapest and Bucharest.

In a perfect storm of creative and financial synergy, the combination of the U.K.’s historic locations, state-of-the-art facilities at Pinewood Studios, world-class crew and craftspeople, and generous incentives provided by the U.K. tax credit made the country perfect for a film combining old-school thrills and the most up-to-date visual effects.

“We really wanted to reinvent ‘The Wolf Man’ and create a new 21st-century version of a classic film story,” Daniel says. “It just had to be shot in England.”

The U.K. tax credit has helped reduce the expense of the area’s high-quality British crews and locations. Big-budget productions now get a 20% rebate on all direct production costs within the U.K. For high-profile projects like “Wolf,” those savings can run into the millions of dollars.

“We qualified for everything in terms of the cultural test, so the financial incentive was as much a part of our decision as the creative one,” Stuber says. “We really wanted to get as much of the budget onscreen as possible.”

In the end, “Wolf” shot for 89 days in the U.K., with 3,449 extras, around 35 stage sets and another 35 studio sets. Pic shot at Pinewood Studios and on location at the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth House, Bourne Woods in Surrey, Castle Combe in Wiltshire and the old Royal Navy College in Greenwich.

“I live in L.A. and think that’s the film capital of the world, but if I have to be not working at home, London is the place I’d like to be,” says production designer Rick Heinrichs, who previously worked in the U.K. on “Sleepy Hollow” for helmer Tim Burton. “The craftspeople are wonderful in their dedication. It’s not just a job for people here. It’s a passionate pursuit. There’s no other place to get that mix as well as locations here.”

Heinrichs ended up using more than $6 million worth of set dressing — rented, it must be added, not purchased — during the three-month-long shoot. In addition, he had access to a treasure chest of authentic historic props such as 19th-century watches, canes and weaponry that enabled Del Toro to fully inhabit the role of Lawrence Talbot.

The U.K. isn’t just contributing below-the-line talent. Brit thesps Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt round out a cast that includes Hugo Weaving and Geraldine Chaplin.

“I’ve done my time in Bucharest, and I’m not doing that again,” says Blunt, who prefers being able to return to her home nightly while in the U.K. “I always love to shoot here because the camaraderie of the crew is immense. There’s a tendency to get on with it more over here (in terms of efficiency), especially with a film of this scale, which is necessary because it’s such a long and tough shoot.”

“The Wolf Man” is far from the only big-budget studio film to shoot in the U.K. recently. Warner Bros., one of the most active of all U.S. majors when it comes to lensing in the country, has virtually set up shop at U.K. studio Leavesden for the entire production sked of the “Harry Potter” series. Warners is exploring alternative uses of the production facility — which boasts the same square footage as Pinewood and Shepperton as well as a bigger backlot — upon the end of the boy wizard’s adventures.

“England is the single most efficient one-stop shop outside of Los Angeles that you will find in the world,” say Roy Button, who oversees all Warner Bros. productions outside the U.S. “You have great studio facilities, wonderful equipment and lots of crew.”

The capacity of the U.K.’s film infrastructure and incentives isn’t coming at the expense of lower-budget films. For one, the U.K. tax credit offers a 25% rebate on qualifying spend on projects with a budget under $37 million.

“It’s intensely important that we continue to attract the bigger-budget films, because that gives us the budget to support the technological innovations to keep our facilities up to date,” says British film commissioner Colin Brown of the U.K. Film Council, the central conduit between the U.S. studios and the U.K. film production sector. “It’s a virtual circle of big productions which our crews can cut their teeth on, gain experience and then support the rest of the industry.”