In the third season premiere of The Borgias, Jeremy Irons’ poisoned Pope Alexander fights for his life in an opulently decorated papal bedroom — but not in Italy, or even on a Hollywood set. Instead, the English actor lies under a red bedspread imagined by the Irish series creator Neil Jordan, in a soundstage near a small village in Hungary.
The Borgias, whose third season premieres Sunday, April 14 on Showtime, was initially an Irish/Canadian co-production. But the crew shifted its sights to Hungary and Korda Studios, a large studio complex near a small town called Etyek 40 minutes outside Budapest. St. Peter’s Square, 15th-century Roman streets, and the Vatican library were all built for The Borgias by Hungarian construction crews.
Irish executive producer James Flynn explained why his home country was ruled out: “Unfortunately, you get the four seasons in Ireland.” Hungary had the “hot look” the show needed for the mostly Italy-based story.
Flynn, who’s been working on the show from the beginning, says 25 to 30 percent of the crew is Hungarian, or around 60 people on a crew of around 230. Language barriers are rare, he said, because “with a few exceptions, the whole crew speaks English.” Flynn himself spends months in Hungary each year, based in Budapest, like most of the people who work on the show. The show shoots two episodes in four-week blocks, with three weeks at Korda Studios and one week on location for scenes of armies on the march, horseback rides in the forest, and the like.
Korda itself was built between 2004 and 2007, right after a slightly revised version of its Film Related Tax Relief System went into effect. The program generously subsidizes foreign productions — up to 20 percent of production expenses incurred in Hungary are refunded, as long as the project passes the cultural test (e.g. the project must have something to do with Europe, and certain projects, like pornography and reality shows, are not eligible for refunds). And it seems to be working: According to reports, since the law went into effect, Hungary has been sapping film business from neighboring Czech Republic. Flynn said the tax incentive combined with the strong construction crews and the “beautiful, air-conditioned studio with five huge stages” all tipped the scales in Hungary’s favor.
Other foreign productions shot in Hungary in recent years include Hellboy II,The Golden Compass, East German scenes of The Debt with Helen Mirren, and parts of the forthcoming Brad Pitt zombie apocalypse flick World War Z.