‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Homeland’ Head Overseas for Lavish Looks

Seeking higher production values and, possibly, Creative Arts Emmy Awards, many television series and TV movies film in exotic locations

TV Shows Shoot Overseas to Create
Courtesy of HBO

“It used to be accepted wisdom that you couldn’t set an American show anywhere outside America, because people wouldn’t care,” says Evan Katz, who, with fellow producer Manny Coto took Fox’s quintessentially modern American series — “24” – to London for its ninth season. “This show, and others, has proved that wrong.”

Of all of the benefits that the so-called new Golden Age of television have brought viewers, perhaps the most apparent is that many of today’s shows are sumptuous feasts for the eyeballs. Ireland, Spain, Malta, Iceland, Croatia, South Africa — the world is a scenic oyster for productions that take advantage of tax incentives, well-trained overseas crews, fresh-faced cast members and, of course, epic landscapes.

But does being “epic” actually confer any benefits for a series, particularly in Emmy season?

Perhaps, but not in the most obvious way. “Shows like (HBO’s) ‘Game of Thrones’ (pictured above) have raised the bar in terms of what they bring to television,” says “Dig” co-creator Tim Kring, whose USA Network show shot its pilot in Jerusalem and, due to political tensions, relocated to Croatia. “You used to be able to get away with a lot less authentic detail than you do nowadays.”

“Thrones,” which has two Emmys for art direction, is the show most frequently mentioned by producers and showrunners when they discuss smallscreen use of exotic scenery. (The show has doubled Ireland, Croatia and Spain, among other countries, for its expansive fantasy world.) But even “Thrones” has challenges pinning down locales, says Bruce Richmond, exec VP of production: “Finding a location that can service all the worlds with unfettered geography can prove quite challenging.”

Selecting the right location is crucial because once a show has parked itself in a particular place it can be hard to move around for budgetary reasons. Showtime’s “Homeland” is shooting its fourth season in Berlin, for Berlin, but opted to transform South Africa into both Pakistan and the United States.

“We used smoke a lot to create the texture in the air and get that quality of light (for Pakistan),” says exec producer/director Lesli Linka Glatter. “We used a lot of longer lenses that compressed the space. But shooting America was incredibly challenging — electrical outlets are very big and high up on the wall in South Africa. Things you’d never think of are incredibly different.”

But those challenges must be met, say producers, now that that bar is higher: “These days, audiences fully expect movie production values,” says Gareth Neame, exec producer of Masterpiece’s “Downton Abbey,” which films a third of its show at Highclere Castle in the U.K. “In this age where many people have their own movie theater in their house, you want your show to be the same quality as a movie.”

For some time, glorious landscapes in far-flung lands have been the province of cable networks looking to make a splash for shows with shortened seasons. But broadcast networks are now trading their green screens for greener (and sandier) pastures.

“Network TV has realized that it has to be in the epic storytelling business to garner attention and eyeballs,” says Adam Armus, a co-creator of NBC’s “American Odyssey,” which shot in Morocco and Spain. “That’s part of its evolution.”

Storytelling enhancement is a key element show creators cite as a reason to shoot overseas — though, as “Marco Polo” co-showrunner/director Daniel Minahan notes, “The landscape has to serve the story; people who want to see exotic locations can watch a travel show.”

But they are keenly aware that it can have an unquantifiable effect around awards season. “Emmy voters respond to storytelling and the ‘wow, this looks amazing’ factor, even if they’re not conscious of it,” says History’s Dirk Hoogstra.

Still, there may be a downside to shooting overseas. Starz has gone to Scotland for “Outlander” and South Africa for “Black Sails,” but managing director Carmi Zlotnik isn’t sure it helps come Emmy season. “Quality should win out,” he says. “But if you’re doing a show that’s not based in the U.S. a lot of people working on those shows are not TV Academy members. A lot of TV Academy members vote for their friends.”

But for a production designer like Giles Masters, who worked on CBS’ “The Dovekeepers,” the Emmy potential can be secondary to the joys of getting his hands into a locale like Jordan and the real-life Masada in Israel. “If we can’t go into the desert, I can give you the next thing,” he says. “Whatever challenge is presented to us, my job as the set designer is to convince everyone we’re in the place we’re in. It’s all smoke and mirrors.”

The rest, he adds, is for the publicity department: When he worked on 2009 feature “Angels & Demons,” only a few scenes were actually shot in Rome and the rest was re-created in Los Angeles. “We built all these colossal sets, and when it came time to publicize the movie they didn’t mention that,” he says. “People thought we went and shot in the real places. That’s the real compliment.”