Producer Rick McCallum is nothing less than a legend in the film business, known for his many years with Lucasfilm and his work on enormous projects like The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and the Star Wars prequels. After retiring from Lucasfilm several years ago, McCallum relocated to Prague where he founded Film United. In our interview he discusses Czech talent and the benefits of shooting in the Czech Republic, and tells the story of a chance meeting he had in the 1990s with President Václav Havel.
“A number of things that progress changed dramatically since 2009. Prague changed after about 2012 when the rebates began to have an effect. But until then, we were losing a tremendous amount of work because there was no financial incentive to come to Prague. A lot of Czech crew were quitting the business or moving to Budapest where there were rebates. But since 2012, it has skyrocketed back.
“Last year, I shot with a Czech crew in Botswana and in London: that was the 50th country I have shot in. Although I have liked most of the places I go, Prague has always been a very special place for us.
“We came here in 1989, a couple of weeks after the Velvet Revolution. In 1990, in January, we started the Indiana Jones Chronicles here. We were here for five years. Not full out, we would come for three or four months, but over a period of five years.
“I think that was the turning point, it was the first time a real western production came. It was television. But it was at that time the largest US TV show ever done abroad and ever done on location.”
“There are a number of factors which make Prague a great place to film. One, you have the talent. There is an incredibly rich, inexperienced talent base here, that does many jobs incredibly well. The construction site is fantastic, the crew itself has grown immensely. It’s one of the easiest places to film. From the centre of town, you can be at the studio within 10-12 minutes. It is also one of the gentlest of places for foreign crews, it is easy to move around, the food has gotten much better, the hotels are great and the apartments you can rent are terrific. I have never had a bad experience since we started filming here, making four films and three big series.”
“There are a number of factors which make Prague a great place to film. One is, you have the talent.”
It does sound like it was a huge own goal at one point, regarding the rebates, which was quite difficult. It must have been nice to finally come out of that kind of nosedive if I can describe it in those terms.
“Well, I did a film here with George Lucas called Red Tails in 2009 and there wasn’t a rebate then. But we still made the decision to come to Prague over Budapest, or Romania and Bulgaria, simply because the quality of the crews was in our estimation so much higher than anywhere else in Central and Eastern Europe. “The film was supposed to be taking place in Italy, but we shot Croatia for Italy. This is what happens now, especially for European productions, where we have a very strong co-production base.
“Now in Prague, it’s very hard to find a place like this in Europe with the same sense of professionalism that you’d get here. You can go to other cities, all of which I like. I like Budapest, I love going to Romania and Bulgaria and Serbia as well. At the end of the day, what happens is that you’ve got a group of people. If we were doing an American production or and English production; I would not have to bring that many foreign crew to the Czech Republic, whereas to all these other places you have to bring at least 20 or 40 other people.
“That is no longer necessary [in Prague], on the final year on the Indiana Jones Chronicles, I think it was 2004, 2005, we had maybe 4 or 5 people from England and that was it, the rest was a total Czech crew.”
And does that also extend, at least in part, to the acting talent? There are quite a few actors who work in the English language, it’s quite high, I’ve seen a lot of productions over the years, everyone from Karel Roden to Anna Geislerová.
“Well we choose to use as many Czech actors as we possibly can, because in the case of Karel and a lot of other actors, their English is perfect. Even on the series we just completed, Britannia, which is the story about the Romans in Britain, which was all shot in the Czech Republic, we used probably 80-90 Czech actors. Our only difficulty is, most of them are in the theatre, so sometimes it’s very hard to book them up completely.
“We’ve had a great experience with a lot of, and especially young and upcoming actors. You can see now, that there is a chance for them to have a career and a quality of life; especially if they can balance between theatre, television, commercials and film.”
You talked a little bit about your personal ties in the beginning, when you first started shooting here… there was a rather unfortunate incident in the 1990s though when Prague got a lot of flak over one shoot, the first Mission Impossible, that the city purposely hiked or inflated the location rental…
“It’s a very contentious story Paramount put out, I think it was in the New York Times, about Prague, which me and George Lucas came out against.
“We said, look the most ambitious and expensive series ever made was Indiana Jones and we had this extraordinary experience in Prague, with everyone and in terms of rental site location. It was stuff that we couldn’t do anywhere else in the world. We were very offended by what had happened on Mission Impossible, so we took up the banner to try and make sure that everybody we knew, knew we had a great, great experience.
“I think the problem with Mission Impossible was, that it was a huge film, coming in for a very short period of time, and very classically American production, where they bring everybody in, they have more equipment than God. The resources they put in were enormous and it was a Tom Cruise picture, at that time the most famous actor in films.
“But their demands were so extreme, that the city got fed up. It pivoted around a sequence shot at the Charles Bridge. The cameraman had used probably a million dollars’ worth of lighting to light up this one sequence that was taking a place on the Charles Bridge. I know the city charged them a fortune for it, but they had barges with lights on it, they had basically taken over the city.
“Ironically, we shot on the Charles Bridge, maybe three weeks after they did. The city was fantastic with us and they charged us a normal rate.
“The problem [with Mission Impossible] was, I think, that like a lot of American productions, they expect that when they bring in a lot of money they deserve to be given everything. But they never think of it in terms of, what would happen if you tried to do something in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, when you stop a city. Or Sydney because I know they had the same problem in Sydney.
“The problem was a) communication, because a lot of people didn’t speak English then, b) the demands that were made on the film, the fact that it was so big.
“But as I said, we ended up shooting a scene on the Charles Bridge that was much more complicated, where we had nowhere near the lighting, the equipment, the gear, the crew. I think we had a crew off maybe 25, 30 people, they had a crew of 400. I think that that’s where the story got out of control. I do want to stress that George and I did everything, for all the professional filmmakers that were in Europe, we said that we’ve been there for many years, tried to debunk that story.
“It did do harm for a while, in terms of American productions. But in terms of European productions, it didn’t really stop anybody from coming to Prague.
“There was this guy who overheard us talking at a café and he said he really liked Indiana Jones. It was Václav Havel!”
“When you have a group of people that has been working in a city for a long time, everybody calls you for experience, they ask, what was your experience, what’s it like. And obviously if they see you coming back year after year after year, they see that there isn’t a problem. “Our own production never had, for example, any real government support. One funny thing when we were shooting Indy, happened in 1990 when I was at a little smoky café where you could get beer and sausages near the Castle. I was there with the art director and there was this guy who overheard us and he spoke English fairly well and asked us what we were working on. So we told him it is about Young Indy he said that he really like Indiana Jones. And it was Václav Havel!
“You know those cards those beer coasters you put your beer on? He took out a pen and wrote his name and number and said ‘If you ever have any problems, call my office and I will help if I can. Then he got up and thanked us for choosing the Czech Republic. That was the kind of support we got. And I never had to make that call. Over the five years we shot at hundreds of locations. And we never had a problem.”
Just one last note on the whole Mission Impossible thing: Tom Cruise has since been back to Prague, shooting scenes for later Mission Impossibles… I think Prague Castle has been shot as the Kremlin in one of the more recent ones. Is it often the case that Prague stars “as Prague” or is it usually as another location?
“No. Unfortunately, and I’m trying to do something about that, we’ve never had, and I mean we, the Czech crew, the Czech industry, have never had a film like Woody Allen’s Manhattan. A film that is just totally dedicated to the beauty of the incredible complexity and the sheer audaciousness of what Prague is. Usually Prague is used as a separate location. On the series of Britannia, we shot for 28 weeks, it was all supposed to take place in Britain, when the Romans invaded Britain.
“We shot for a week and a half in Wales because we needed the coastline but the rest of the 27 weeks we shot all around the Czech Republic. And there’s no way when you see the series that you would think that the series were shot in Central Europe.”
“We shot a series called Brittania in the Czech Republic; you could never tell it was not Great Britain.”
You have a lot going on, you have been scouting locations in London, I heard, what is next for Film United?
“We probably have about 12, 13 projects that we’re currently working on, trying to raise finances for it. We have a particular one about the Munich Olympics that I need to shoot all in Prague with maybe a week or two weeks in Tel Aviv. This one is coming very close to getting all the finances available. All is good, we couldn’t be happier.”