Count Dracula flits away from Romania’s filmmaking industry

BUCHAREST – Dracula is slowly withdrawing his fangs from Romania’s fledgling film industry, with blood and gore making way for history and romance. Titles such as «Lurking Fear,» «Vampire Journals» or the «Scariest Places on Earth» formed the bulk of output from Romania’s two main studios until not long ago – influenced by the Balkan country’s legacy as the birthplace of the fictional Count Dracula. These days, it’s more likely to be major Hollywood productions featuring top stars, such as the American Civil War epic «Cold Mountain,» starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, filmed in Romania in 2002. «A lot of countries fought to host this project – the United States, Canada, Italy, the Czech Republic,» said Bogdan Moncea, marketing manager at Castel Film Studios, one of the country’s biggest. «It was probably the largest film budget last year» in the world, he said, without disclosing the figure. Moncea said low construction and labor costs – around 40 percent less than in the Czech Republic – and an unspoilt landscape, similar to how the United States looked in the 1870s, won Romania the project. The film industry contributes less than 1 percent to the ex-communist country’s gross domestic product, but industry insiders believe it doesn’t have to be that way. «This figure does not correspond to the country’s potential,» Moncea said. «Romania can compete favorably in this industry for another 10 years.» If the booming business of Romania’s two main studios is any indication, the economy would certainly benefit from further development. Romanian studios flourish «It’s my third film in Romania,» said Gub Neal, producer of «Gunpowder, Treason and Plot,» a British Broadcasting Corporation movie which was filmed this year at Mediapro Studios. The film is about Mary Queen of Scots, her son James I of England and the plot by Britain’s most notorious traitor, Guy Fawkes, to blow up the houses of Parliament in the 17th century. «I’d like to see some of my expenditure – having spent $15-20 million (on three films) – in the Romanian economy, some renewal and some investment going into the industry,» Neal said. Some foreign filmmakers turn to Romania as an alternative to the Czech Republic, whose beautiful architecture and well-preserved castles have long attracted films, or to more expensive Western European, US or Canadian locations. Costs for production and construction, significantly lower than in other European countries, are Romania’s main advantage, foreign filmmakers say. A Paris cobbled street, complete with 1920s shops and cafes, took only three weeks to build in the backyard of Mediapro studios at Buftea, some 40 km (25 miles) north of Bucharest, for a film about the Italian painter Amadeo Modigliani. And now it is neighbor to half of a faux Westminster, built in a few weeks out of wood and cardboard, and an English wooden fish market next to a lake ready to play the role of the Thames. «When I started putting this project together at the end of last year, I didn’t really think of doing it anywhere else,» Neal said. «The size of what we needed to build seemed to match perfectly all requirements.» The low labor costs allow artists to fully explore their passion. Surrounded by half-finished 17th century clothes, costume designer Nic Ende is having the time of his life. «Normally I cannot afford, on my budget, to make the quantity of principals’ costumes that I’m making on this,» Ende said, adding that almost 300 costumes, including boots and shoes, were made in the studio by a team of around 20 people. «We cut into thousands of meters of fabrics,» Ende said, pointing proudly to the walls covered with costume sketches. He said the pleasure of being able to dress up almost all the actors overcame the frustration of not being able to find expensive fabrics such as good quality silk and velvet. The average salary in Romania, which is due to join the European Union in 2007, is $130 a month. Western filmmakers face the same problems as any foreign investor in Romania – poor infrastructure and bureaucracy. «There’s a feeling that things have to be made up as you go along,» Neal said. Moncea said Romania, despite its beautiful delta and Black Sea coastline, is unable to host more than two big films at a time as many hotels outside Bucharest are not up to scratch and communications are poor.