Principal photography is underway near Budapest on “Rise of the Raven,” an epic drama series produced by veteran Canadian producer Robert Lantos’ Serendipity Point Films (“Crimes of the Future”) and Beta Film (“Gomorrah”) that marks the most lavish TV production in Hungary’s history.
Adapted from author Bán Mór’s bestselling novels, the 10-episode series tells the story of the Hungarian warrior Janos Hunyadi, who defeated the Ottoman army in 1456 at the Battle of Belgrade, halting its march across Europe.
Lantos, whose producing credits include “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Eastern Promises,” spoke exclusively with Variety about a passion project more than a decade in the making. He was joined by Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning director Robert Dornhelm (“The Children of Theater Street,” “Maria Theresa,” “War and Peace”) and Hungarian directors Attila Szász (“Tall Tales,” “Eternal Winter”) and Orsi Nagypal (“The Deal,” “The Outpost”), who joined the conversation fresh off shooting an epic battle sequence outside Budapest.
The Hungarian-born Lantos, who was in Cannes this year with David Cronenberg’s body-horror film “Crimes of the Future,” described “Rise of the Raven” as “a quintessential Hungarian story” about an event that “changed the history of Europe and impacted the entire European civilization and what came thereafter.”
It took more than a decade to secure the show’s financing, with the final puzzle piece falling into place when Hungary’s National Film Institute (NFI) issued its first ever funding call for television and online content in early 2020, awarding $29 million to “Rise of the Raven.”
The show is financed by the NFI and Beta and produced by Serendipity Point Films, Twin Media, HG Media, MR Film and Beta. Co-producers are Hungary’s TV2 Network, which will broadcast the show in Hungary and Slovenia. Austrian broadcaster ORF was announced this week as a co-producer and will broadcast the series in Austria.
Also producing are Tibor Krsko (“Fateless,” “Children of Glory,” “The Song of Names”), Cecilia Hazai, Kinga Hazai and Ari Lantos (“Remember,” “Barney’s Version”), alongside Oliver Auspitz and Andreas Kamm of MR Film (“Vienna Blood”) and Beta CCO Koby Gal Raday.
Adapting Mór’s epic series of novels required the grueling work of a writing team that was “trying to turn what was some five or six thousand pages of fiction into a 10-hour screenplay,” said Lantos. “It was an onerous responsibility to take this on, and I wanted to make sure that we had a team that could rise to this challenge.” Showrunner Balázs Lengyel (HBO’s “Golden Life”) shares writing credits along with George Mihalka, Balázs Lovas, Zsófia Ruttkay, Attila Veres and author Mór.
As “Rise of the Raven” begins, the Ottoman Empire is mobilizing an army of unprecedented size and strength, marching west with the aim of conquering the Vatican and sweeping across the continent. It is the fierce warrior Hunyadi and his overmatched troops who stand in the empire’s way.
Set among the scandals, political power plays and court intrigues of medieval Europe, the series is nevertheless a human story at heart, according to Nagypal.
“For me, the whole historical story is just the backdrop,” she said. “I think we have a very complex and very human story of our heroes. It’s a family drama. There is a man marrying a woman whom he then never sees, because he keeps on going to battles to save his country. Then he has kids who he needs to sacrifice for his country. For me the biggest question, and for me the essence of the story, is how much must you sacrifice for the thing that you believe in?”
On Tuesday the production announced a cast that includes the rising Hungarian star Gellért L. Kádár as Hunyadi, along with Hungarian TV, film and stage star Vivien Rujder as his life partner, Elizabeth Szilagyi.
They’re joined by an international cast that includes Austria’s Laurence Rupp (“Barbarians”), Cornelius Obonya (“Maria Theresa”), Murathan Muslu (“Breaking Point”), Italy’s Francesco Acquaroli (“Fargo,” “Suburra”), Czech actor Karel Roden (“Bourne Supremacy,” “Mr. Bean”) and Serbian star Rade Serbedzija (“Batman Begins,” “Mission: Impossible II”), as well as Italian actors Thomas Trabacchi (“Studio Battaglia”) and Elena Rusconi (“6 Underground”).
Production, which began July 25, is set to continue until June of next year. The series is being filmed on location around Hungary and at the state-owned Mafilm Studio complex outside Budapest, which has hosted productions such as Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” Paramount’s “Terminator: Dark Fate,” and Netflix’s “The Witcher” and “The Last Kingdom.” “We are using everything the country has to offer,” said Dornhelm.
The director, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the 1977 documentary “The Children of Theater Street” and has directed numerous indie features, likened working on the lavish production to an artist painting on a vast canvas for the first time. “What I’ve seen today is mind blowing,” he told Variety, after a visit to the set. “It’s 275 crew, 80 horses at 105-degree temperature in metal uniforms. It’s madness. It’s incredibly big, dusty, hot, exciting. It’s really a huge production.”
For a country accustomed to hosting blockbuster studio productions – including Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part Two,” which began shooting in Budapest last month – “Rise of the Raven” represents a watershed moment in the growth of the Hungarian industry. “It’s different than when I used to come back to Hungary to make films like ‘Being Julia’ almost 20 years ago. We were the only film shooting in the country,” said Lantos.
The bar has been raised, and with Beta primed to deliver “Rise of the Raven” to the world at the tail end of 2024, Hungarian filmmakers will have a chance to showcase their talents like never before. “I think it would be nice to achieve a level that people around the world can marvel at what Hungarian filmmakers are capable of,” said Szász. “We have this amazing historical story…and it would be very nice to let them know about this story in a way that’s unique and equally high quality. That’s what we are aiming for.”
Pictured: Vivien Rujder (l.) and Gellért L. Kádár