Why did production designer Tom Burton replicate the England of 43 A.D. in the Czech Republic instead of in England, for Sky Channel’s historical drama “Britannia”?
First of all, the Czech Republic was cheaper.
“My construction costs in the Czech Republic are two-thirds of what they’d be in the U.K.,” Burton says. “Shooting here means I can build a lot more for the budget that we have. And the crew wasn’t fazed about having to build Stonehenge in 12 weeks.”
The Czech Republic was also much better for “Britannia” logistically, with all the open countryside and forests it needed located within 45 minutes of downtown Prague, although it did go to Wales for some coastal shots.
“Prague has only 1.5 million people,” Burton says. “In London, you have 10 million people to get through. And, with so much of the U.K. densely developed, we would have to be so spread out.”
Not only is much of the Czech Republic undeveloped, it also has a wealth of historic buildings that, unlike their counterparts in other European countries, were spared from damage and destruction during Word World II.
That attribute was put to good use by production designers Will Hughes-Jones and Dave Arrowsmith on BBC series “The Musketeers,” set in France in the 1820s.
In the Czech Republic, “there are lots of subterranean basements with vaulted ceilings, monasteries, churches, and an endless supply of castles open to the public,” says “Musketeers” producer Colin Wratten. “They haven’t had much done to them since they were built, so they’re freaking cold and they haven’t had all the modern fixtures and fittings put in. So, for us, it was just a case of going in and dressing them to what we needed.”
Not everything about the production was vintage, however. “The Musketeers” needed digitally replaced skies, added rivers, and replicated crowds. Fortunately, the production was able to call on Prague-based UPP for that work.
Czech production designer Martin Kurel, who recently won a Cesar award for his work on the French-Czech co-production “Marguerite,” likes to quote an old Czech director who used to tell him, “Dear boy, you can find anything within one hour from Prague.”
“I thought he must be kidding, but now I understand what he meant,” Kurel says . “Quite frankly, a couple of things would be a problem [like] Niagara Falls [and] the Sahara Desert. But even the Sahara Desert could be [created with] 200 trucks of sand brought into Barrandov [Studios].”
Many productions avail themselves of the resources of Barrandov Studios, the largest facility in the country. “We do a lot of business with productions outside of the Czech Republic, like ‘Game of Thrones,’ ” says William Stuart, Barrandov’s U.S. rep.
Nonetheless, productions often find it necessary to bring in materials from outside the country. For instance, on “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” set in WWII Poland, costume designer Bina Daigeler turned to rental houses in Germany, Spain and England for most of the cast’s costumes. For the custom-designed outfits for leads, Jessica Chastain and Daniel Bruhl, made with the help of a German cutter and a dressmaker from Prague, Daigeler imported the materials from the U.K., Italy and France.
If items are not available in the Czech Republic, they can be easily manufactured. When the 19th century props needed for “The Musketeers” were not available in sufficient numbers, the production commissioned a local metalworker to make swords, daggers, wrought-iron gates, spears, fake bombs and muskets. When there was a scene involving a boat going down a river, a boat builder was brought in to build a wooden boat using period-correct production methods. When the musketeers’ garrison was constructed in the courtyard of a disused monastery, the construction crew used solid wood.
“If you were doing that in the U.K., you would build it with scaffolding then clad all the scaffolding with wood and plaster to make it look like it had been built with wooden beams,” Wratten says. “They built as they would’ve done it at the time, with actual wooden beams, so it had a much more authentic look to it.”
(Pictured above: “The Musketeers”)