Budapest with its rich history and vibrant presence, is both modern and historic at the same time. When Hollywood producers can’t quite find what they need locally, they often turn to Budapest — the Hollywood of Eastern Europe.
The film industry in Hungary doesn’t need much introduction for those of us who live in Budapest. Most readers already know that it is booming, despite the pandemic. Csaba Kael, the Hungarian film director, stated that although many international productions left Hungary during the first COVID-19 wave, by June 2020 man were back and shooting. 2020 saw 20 major productions being completed in Hungary.
Clearly, the movie industry is huge here. But how did it come to be this way? Of all places, Hungary may seem like an unexpected location. Prague, Berlin and other European cities might have more going for them. Well, not quite. Budapest is a proven performer, a household name for movie producers. Budapest is a unique and versatile location.
Where Hungary really shines
Any large movie is shot across multiple sets and multiple locations. In a global world, teams across multiple continents work together to produce entertainment for our consumption. Even some music videos are known to have upwards of 20 different sets. That comes at a huge cost, adding zeros to the total cost of a project.
This is where Hungary really shines. Hungary’s past has been influenced by many different cultures, which all left certain reminders that can act as film sets.
Medieval fortresses dating back to ancient Hungary, while the European city centre has the ability to emulate a wealth of European cities. The many Soviet housing blocks were constructed in accordance to the standard plan and can therefore also represent a wealth of other locations.
More recent buildings like the MÜPA are creations of Hungarian architects but can easily masquerade as other places. This rich assortment of locations means Budapest can not only play itself, but also all of Europe and even China.
Recently, I sat down with a cup of tea and decided to watch some movies that were shot in Budapest. Here are some that I liked a lot, and how Budapest played a crucial role in the making of them. Being an avid photographer and cyclist, adding these to my route and recreating the iconic shots was essential.
Budapest plays four cities, including itself
While making fun of James Bond isn’t an original idea, the movie Spy does it quite well. The film is divided into three parts, where Budapest plays Washington DC, Paris, and Rome. In the final part, Budapest stars as itself.
As such, the CIA communications room is the Origo studios, and a glitzy restaurant in DC is in fact Budapest’s Gundel.
The second half moves to Paris, except that it doesn’t. What looks like a French gallery is in fact just Paris Court on Ferenciek tere. Ukrainian drag queen Verka Serduchka made it into the movie, as a street performer who sings near The Whale, the famous glass-covered shopping mall. Briefly, the Spy also goes to Rome, where the State Opera House stars as Casino Di Roma.
In the third half, The Spy finally makes it to Budapest. The still below is right opposite the Gresham Palace, where the Spy spends a very glamorous night.
A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)
Budapest as Moscow
A classic in the Die Hard series, this movie takes John McClane (Bruce Willis) to Moscow. Or that’s what the movie would have you believe. Much of it was shot in Budapest and for a very good reason. Moscow’s architecture is often similar to Budapest’s, and with carefully placed shots it’s very hard to tell which is which. Of course, there are some obvious giveaways for the careful observer.
John Moore’s directing demanded a lot of action scenes shot in the streets. That includes a series of car chases, one more dangerous than the other. Much of them were shot in Budapest’s otherwise calm Józsefváros district, but a few short scenes were also shot right by the Danube river, with the Parliament in the background. This is perhaps the most recognisable and most photographed building in Hungary.
The Martian (2015)
Budapest as China (and USA)
I’m a huge space geek, so re-watching the Martian was a must. Here, Budapest really shows its versatility. It is diverse enough to play two ideological and strategic extremes: China and the USA.
The Chinese space agency building, better known as MÜPA to Budapest locals, was critical in the storytelling that the rescue mission of the “Martian” was an international effort. Budapest’s’ MÜPA has just the right futuristic yet somehow also socialist vibe to it to be the right place.
The NASA headquarters were a composition of two different places in Hungary.
The futuristic gate you see in the movie is a very real place, it is actually the gate at Korda Studios, where some segments of the Martian were shot. It’s easy to see why it was chosen to be in the movie: the shape of it works quite well with the futuristic idea of the movie, as well as the NASA HQ building in the background.
I’m sure some readers already recognise the familiar shape of the Whale shopping centre.
To put that into perspective, the Chinese space administration set is only a short walk away from the NASA HQ set. While some iconic elements were added in post-production for better realism, this still goes to show that Hungary has plenty of Hollywood-worthy locations.
The best part for me is being able to visit all of them for free. Sure, it won’t replace a tour of Universal Studios, but it is not supposed to. Taking a nice relaxing walk along the river will take you to sets of Spy, Martian, and bring you to the set of A Good Day to Die Hard.