If Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony were a validation for Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros., whose $165 million gamble on Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi tentpole “Dune” paid off in the form of six Academy Awards, it was no less a triumph for the Hungarian film industry, which hosted the blockbuster throughout much of production in 2019 and 2020.
The trophy haul, which included an Oscar for production design duo Patrice Vermette and Hungary’s Zsuzsanna Sipos, further cemented the status of an industry that last year broke records with $650 million in total production spend.
Herb Gaines, Legendary’s head of physical production, says the country ticked all the boxes to host a production on such a massive scale. “We were looking for a production base that could support a film of this magnitude as well as be logistically feasible for access to our desert location needs,” says Gaines, citing the convenience of a hub in the heart of Central Europe once Jordan became the front-runner for “Dune’s” sprawling desert sequences.
Budapest boasts a number of world-class studio facilities – including Korda Studios and the state-owned Mafilm Studio complex – but Origo Studios soon emerged as “by far the best fit for ‘Dune,’” says Gaines. The studio, which also played host to Villeneuve’s dystopian sci-fi epic “Blade Runner 2049,” was able to meet “all our needs in one facility,” accommodating the production during both principal and additional photography in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
“We were able to secure six large sound stages plus a huge area for a backlot as well as enough workshops to accommodate large manufacturing departments such as set dressing, costumes and special effects,” Gaines says. “Additionally, we were able to have our entire production office and art department on site.”
The highly skilled local crew base was instrumental in building the distinctive world of “Dune” from the ground up. “The quality of craftsmanship in the construction of our sets was quite impressive,” says Gaines. “Creating a futuristic world is no small task and every interior set and piece of set dressing was built entirely by local Hungarian carpenters, sculptors, painters and fabricators.”
That craftsmanship was essential to director Villeneuve’s visual demands. “With Denis, we see that he…wants to have a brick-and-mortar feeling: to touch it, to feel it, to feel the sizes,” says Origo’s Mihály Tóth. “That’s why the final result is that huge and spectacular. When you see Timothée [Chalamet] walking through a corridor, that corridor existed. It was not a green screen or blue screen. You felt the atmosphere, and I think that helped the stars to get into the characters.”
Adam Goodman of Mid Atlantic Films, which serviced principal photography on “Dune” in 2019, sees that as evidence of the continued growth and evolution of Hungary’s below-the-line talent. “Back in the day, we had many more foreign construction elements brought in to support a show. Now there are relatively few,” he says. “I think that speaks to the abilities of the local companies…doing more and more complicated, high-concept, technically challenging movies.”
None of that would have been possible without the continued support of the Hungarian government, which has consistently put its muscle behind the industry through measures such as a 30% cash rebate (that can reach 37.5% through the addition of qualifying non-Hungarian costs).
The government was also instrumental in helping Hungary to become one of the first countries to restart after the coronavirus pandemic shut down global production last spring. The stringent COVID-19 protocols used on the set of “Dune” – including obligatory mask use; a rigorous daily testing regime; and a fully dedicated health and safety team monitoring cast and crew – would later set the stage for other productions in Budapest.
Given the challenges, pulling off a production on the scale of Villeneuve’s epic was a monumental achievement – one that would not have been possible without buy-in from all parties involved, Vermette said after he and Sipos received their award on Sunday.
“It was such a collaborative effort between all departments,” he said. “There was very little drama. Being collaborative, everybody had their doors open. It was quite an extraordinary experience on that level of collaboration between VFX, cinematography, costumes, hair and make-up.”
Sipos, who confirmed that she will be part of the production when “Dune 2” films in Hungary, cited the contributions to Hollywood made by Hungarians such as Adolph Zukor, a Hungarian-American film producer and co-founder of Paramount Pictures. She said she hoped her Oscar triumph would be an inspiration for other Hungarians like her, adding: “I hope that it will open doors for many people who don’t believe that they could achieve what I have achieved.”