VILNIUS, Lithuania — Scene: a frigid late winter morning, a couple of hours after sunrise, on the set of “True Horror,” a British-produced historical docu-drama that is on its last day of shooting.
The air feels much colder than the few degrees below freezing shown on the thermometer. Fat, wet snowflakes are falling. Film technicians mill about, sipping weak instant coffee and munching cholesterol-laden breakfasts from a local catering truck. Inside a rundown 19th-century mansion, in the bowels of the basement, klieg lights, cameras and sound equipment clog all available space. A tall, gaunt British actor in period costume, with frilly sleeves and a velvet jacket, fiddles with a contraption that looks like an oversized hand accordion set on its side.
Welcome to the Lithuanian film industry, northern Europe’s unlikely film center.
It’s not a glitzy global movie capital like Hollywood, London or Mumbai. Heck, it’s not even Hungary, Romania or the Czech Republic — ex-communist countries that have emerged as bargain-basement locations for western film producers. But those who work here say that Lithuania has found its niche as an up-and-coming locale for foreign film productions, thanks to its high standards, low costs and quality northern European landscapes.
“True Horror” is a case in point. The series — depicting the real-life stories on which horror tales such as "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" are based and shown on the Discovery Channel — is being shot here for 207,000 British pounds per show, a fraction of what it would cost in the United Kingdom.
“We’ve done 19th century London, medieval Germany and medieval Transylvania,” says Catharine Alen-Buckley, the series’ line producer. She said that the scene on this cold day is for a dramatization of the life of Giovanni Aldini, who inspired the Frankenstein myth.
“What you get for your money is great value,” she continues, adding that last year, she re-created a 1960s moon landing. “So you can do just about anything here.”
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, were left with major production facilities, but no more state money to finance them. Riga was the largest, with around 1,000 workers; Vilnius was slightly smaller with some 800 employees.
Salvation came in the form of Fred Weintraub, an American budget film producer, whose credits included a number of Bruce Lee martial arts movies. Weintraub — always looking for the best deal — set up shop in Lithuania, where he filmed entire television series, including “The New Adventures of Robin Hood” for Warner Brothers. He trained the next generation of film workers, who became the foundation for further growth of the industry.
Since then, the small Baltic nation of 2.3 million has provided locations for close to 60 film and television productions, says Gary Tuck, a former BBC cameraman who came to Lithuania with the first British production in 2001 and has now set up his own production company in Vilnius, Baltic Film Studios.
The list of works produced by Tuck and others is long and varied: “Archangel," a BBC drama with Daniel Craig; “Elizabeth I,” with Jeremy Irons and Helen Mirren; a mini-series shot for Britain’s Channel Four and Home Box Office in the U.S.; “War and Peace,” a multi-nation European production.
“We’ve shot from the sublime to the ridiculous,” says Tuck, who is originally from Detroit, Michigan. “For a movie about 9/11, we had to rebuild two floors of the Twin Towers.”
Movies with a World War II or Holocaust theme figure large. Vilnius boasts a well-preserved historical center with centuries-old buildings and what was once an expansive Jewish ghetto. Tuck’s company was the local partner for “Defiance,” the recent release about Jewish World War II resistance fighters — again with Daniel Craig — that was shot in its entirety in and around the capital.
According to Tuck, Ed Zwick, the film’s director, chose Lithuania over other eastern European locations for the quality and proximity of the forests directly outside Vilnius. At the same time, Belarus, directly to the south and where the film’s story actually takes place, was a no-go, since it is ruled by what many consider a repressive dictatorship.
Because of the world economic crisis, however, Lithuania’s continuing attractiveness to foreign film companies could be limited. Ramunas Skikas, managing director of Lithuanian Film Studios, the successor to the country’s Soviet-era studios, says that government officials, in order to cover budget shortfalls, have hiked employee taxes from 15 to 41 percent.
Skikas, Tuck and others are lobbying the government to reduce employee taxes, and to perhaps introduce incentives to foreign film producers, as Hungary does. There companies receive 20 percent back for each dollar spent in country.
“Rising prices, the dropping Euro, increasing taxes — the future is very uncertain,” says Tuck. “Projects like today are our very bread and butter,” he adds, gazing out on the snow-shrouded Lithuanian forests.
More GlobalPost dispatches on the film industry: