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Hungarian Location Doubles for Colonial Virginia in PBS Series ‘Jamestown’

Carnival Films, the production company behind “Downton Abbey,” tackles 1620s America with the series “Jamestown” — a production that took place nowhere near Virginia, site of the original Jamestown colony. Instead the show was shot at locations just outside Budapest, where a Southern drawl has seldom been heard.

Yet tax incentives often speak louder than words, as do low labor costs. That’s why it was decided to re-create the historic Jamestown settlement in Central Europe, where the team worked with period experts and studied historical records to build an accurate reproduction of the town and nearby village of the Native American Pamunkey tribe.

Unlike many location builds, which remain in place for a relatively short period of time, the “Jamestown” buildings are outdoor, stable structures intended to stand for years.

With Season 2 about to premiere in the U.S. on PBS Masterpiece Prime Video Channel and in PBS Passport on Nov. 21, production just wrapped in Hungary on Season 3. Hair and makeup designer Katie Pickles, new for Season 3, led her team in helping to create secondary storylines that weren’t necessarily in the script. For instance, she explains, she made the townspeople look “a bit dirty, because [theoretically] they could have been working in the field.” When new character Willmus (Ben Batt) was added in Season 3, he was described as having pockmarked skin. Pickles tested a series of prosthetics that are typically used for such scars. Dissatisfied with the results, she instead created a custom look with pieces normally applied as gunshot wounds. The resulting craters appear seamless and realistic.

The story of the Pamunkey characters is also partly told through hair and makeup. Series regular and indigenous American actor Kalani Queypo, who plays Chacrow, a character who speaks both English and the Pamunkey language, has red body paint on his shoulders and neck, but the area around his Adam’s apple remains unpainted. “He was the bridge between his people and the colonists, so we wanted the separation of unpainted skin down the middle to represent that,” Queypo says.

Like Pickles, costume designer Sharon Gilham was new in Season 3, and tasked with creating looks for three cultures concurrently: Pamunkey, European and that of newly arrived African slaves from Angola. She says working within historical limitations is “much more interesting than having lots of freedom, because it really makes you think.  … ‘Jamestown’ is based on a true story, and you want to honor that.”

Gilham worked with a special team of craftspeople to age and break down her designs through methods that include dyeing, spraying, burning and painting so the clothes don’t look new.  At times, they even used cheese graters on them. The characters, she says, are “are far away from England,” and the fabrics need to reflect that.

For the Pamunkey characters, Gilham used items like necklaces to vary their costumed looks.  “It’s kind of subliminal,” she says. “Some people will see it, and some won’t. But it’s all part of making the show believable.”

Believability is key for Bill Gallagher, the series’ creator, writer, executive producer and sometime director. Each episode is based on recorded history, like a blacksmith punching the governor. “We went to Virginia,” says Gallagher. “We spoke to the experts; we looked at the records.” Gallagher also works closely with First Nations expert Buck Woodard, who gets final say on Pamunkey details.

The casting, too, is as authentic as possible, with First Nations actors portraying the Pamunkey people. Though Queypo is based in Hungary for the duration of filming, the other actors who play the Pamunkey are flown in from the U.S. and Canada to shoot their scenes in one- to two-week blocks.

As Pickles says, “There’s almost no point in having a historical tale if it’s not going to be true to life.”

(Pictured above: Series writer, producer, creator and director Bill Gallagher discusses a scene with cast member Naomi Battrick.)

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