Written by on Nov 17, 2014. Posted in On Location

Middle East dramas in vogue but Israel loses location filming to Malta and Croatia

Biblical screen stories are enjoying a surge in popularity, with Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings planning to emulate the global success of Darren Arronofsky’s Noah. However, a summer of violence in the Middle East means Israel is now losing out to Malta, Croatia and Morocco.

Israel enjoyed a positive profile boost earlier this year with the announcement that crime drama Dig was to become the first US TV show to film entirely in the country.

Another US TV drama, Tyrant, also chose to film in Israel, but planned to use the country as a stand-in for a fictional Middle Eastern dictatorship, building Arabian palace sets on a pair of specially built sound stages. Tyrant in fact filmed its pilot in Morocco but relocated to Israel for its full-season shoot. Morocco is another favourite as a Middle Eastern double that is set to host scenes for upcoming TV drama Tut, set in the court of the famous Ancient Egyptian pharaoh.

Dig and Tyrant both faced a dilemma when renewed violence flared between Israel and Gaza this summer. They both eventually decided to relocate their shoots. Tyrant moved to Istanbul and Dig chose to recreate its Jerusalem exteriors in Croatia and film interiors in New Mexico.

Dig used locations in our hometown of Dubrovnik and we also spent a week shooting in Trogir and Split,” says Erika Milutin of Croatian service company Embassy Films.

“Trogir and Split had the port facilities needed for one of the scenes in the script," Milutin adds: "Otherwise, between those three cities the director had everything he needed and more, so it was the normal collaboration between the creative process and logistical needs that drove the selection of our locations.”

Relatively minimalist set dressing helped turn the Croatian streets into Jerusalem by covering street signs and putting Torah verses – known as mezuzahs – on household doors. The script was also partially rewritten to accommodate new Croatian settings.

With set dressing magic, the old limestone streets of Trogir, Split and Dubrovnik are a dead ringer for Jerusalem.

Erika Milutin, Embassy Films

“The locations featuring as Croatia show a lovely, rural side of Croatia not often seen with lots of lush farms and vibrant family life,” Milutin adds: “For the Jerusalem locations, with a bit of set-dressing magic, the old, limestone streets of Trogir, Split, and Dubrovnik are a dead-ringer for Jerusalem's streets.”

Croatia has enjoyed a profile boost in recent years as a preferred filming location for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Dig could help further broaden the country’s appeal as a Middle Eastern double, especially if the drama is a success.

Malta is otherwise a more established double for Middle East locations, offering the right climate and architecture. It also has a skilled crew base and a boosted filming incentive now approved by the European Commission. The country doubled for Israel in Steven Spielberg’s true-life 2005 drama Munich.

More recently, Malta stood in for Israel in Brad Pitt’s zombie drama World War Z and the country is set to host two more Israel-set biblical dramas. The Dovekeepers will tell the story of the Roman siege of Masada in 70 AD and Clavius is largely set in Jerusalem and will tell a story that unfolds in the aftermath of the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

“We have had an increased number of enquiries for Malta to be used as a setting for Israel particularly when it comes to biblical films,” comments Engelbert Grech, the Maltese film commissioner.

“It has been noted how Malta is becoming a ‘go-to’ location to stand in for Israel, with many location managers citing previous productions such as Munich and World War Z as examples of Malta’s capability of offering both rural Middle-Eastern backdrops and developed Middle-Eastern cityscapes.”

Israel faces the prospect of further competition from Spain and Jordan in the near future, with both countries planning formal filming incentive programmes for international producers. Even so, the Israeli production industry has a renewed sense of optimism since ceasefire agreements with Gaza and plans are underway to launch boosted filming incentives.

“Everyone understands that Israel has so much to offer with great locations, great crews and cast, so it's now basically a matter of time,” comment Meirav Vizer and Avi Karpick of Israeli service company Ooops Films.

(Images: FX Network, Željko Tutnjević / Croatian Audiovisual Centre, Malta Film Commission. Main page featured image courtesy of Mark Sansone)

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  • Philippa Day


    The trailer for Tyrant was filmed in the dunes of southern Tunisia with Sindbad Productions.