Written by Tom Deehan on Apr 7, 2016. Posted in Interviews

On location with pan-USA Producer René Bastian of Belladonna Productions

Belladonna Productions has been in operation for over twenty years and is now under the helm of René Bastian and Linda Moran with no signs of slowing down any time soon. With clients all over the world, the company has extensive experience with a multitude of locations but has a particular fondness of unique locations within the US. We spoke to René Bastian to discuss Belladonna's success and what to expect when filming in America.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I moved to New York from Hamburg by way of Barcelona in 1991. I came to study journalism and political science at NYU, where I fell in with the film crowd. After graduation, I worked for a little while as an Assistant Director and an Assistant Camera Man. When my visa ran out I formed Belladonna Productions in 1994 with two friends from Australia and Israel. There was no business plan or very many industry connections for that matter, but as we were from three different continents and spoke a half a dozen languages between us, we thought that we could build a production services business.

Last year we managed to break into scripted TV with a six episode mini-series for the Sundance Channel. We are now pushing scripted TV as a third area of our business and we are very focused on international collaboration in all three areas.

What regions do you cover?

We cover the entire USA and the Caribbean, which of course is a vast and diverse territory. Obviously a lot of production goes to New York, LA and Miami, which are great places to produce for various reasons but the US is becoming more and more decentralised in terms of production centres. This is driven by the various tax credit programmes, which exist in some 38 states. These incentives apply mostly to movies and TV shows and only rarely to commercials, but they drive the creation of first class production infrastructures in states which don’t have any and commercials can benefit from that.

If you have to shoot in many countries and can’t afford to go everywhere then New York is your best bet to travel around the world while staying in one place.

Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands both are US territories so English is widely spoken and the currency is USD which makes it easier to set up a production. Both have strong tax credit incentives and the Puerto Rico programme is one of the few worldwide that applies to commercials.

For those unfamiliar with what the USA has to offer location wise, what key information can you extend to our audience about locations in general and the benefits of filming in the country?

The US as a whole is underutilised as a location. We have some of the most spectacular and diverse locations on the planet ranging from deserts and salt lakes, to mountains and canyons, to oceans and lakes. I travel the country a lot and I constantly see places which blow me away with their beauty and originality, but are rarely seen on film. The same counts for urban environments. Charleston, Savannah, Chicago, Palm Springs, San Francisco and many other US cities offer incredibly unique and cinematic urban landscapes, but unfortunately are rarely filmed.

What are the very rare and unusual locations that the USA has to offer and what other countries or regions can the USA double for?

There are so many I can only give a random sample set, but let me start with New York City. We shoot here a lot and most projects ask for the well-known, iconic view of New York. Meanwhile it is one of the most architecturally and culturally diverse places on the planet and I am itching to show more of the New York most tourists don’t see. Years ago we did a film for Skoda which was supposed to show multiple countries around the world and we filmed the whole thing in New York, which successfully played for London, Paris, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong and Mumbai. If you have to shoot in many countries and can’t afford to go everywhere then New York is your best bet to travel around the world while staying in one place.

Beyond that there is an abundance of spectacular nature to be found in places like Lake Powell, the Everglades, Monument Valley, Canyon Lands, and the Grand Canyon. Palm Springs is incredible for its modernist architecture. New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah and Beaufort are spectacular examples of well-preserved southern antebellum cities. Then there are the oddities like Aircraft Cemetery in Tucson (pictured left), Route 66, Death Valley, and the Lightning Field by Walter de Maria.

What services does Belladonna offer and to whom?

We have been producing, co-producing and service producing commercials, movies and TV shows for over 20 years. Our partners and clients range from TV networks like the BBC, ITV, NDR, Showtime and AMC to movie companies like Wild Bunch in Paris, The DeAngelis Group in Rome and Universal Pictures in London. Our commercials clients include American Express, BMW, Budweiser and Chanel to name a few.

What has been your most difficult location/production assignment to date and why?

One of our most challenging and exciting productions for us was an anomaly, as it was shot outside of the US in Brazil. It was an expedition production shooting surfers for Red Bull on a springtide pororoca on the Araguari River near the border to French Guyana. We partnered with our friends at Ocean Films in Sao Paulo. Together we shipped crew and equipment to one of the most remote areas in the world and built a helicopter-landing pad in the jungle for aerial photography.

The US is an incredibly film friendly territory to shoot. Production in New York alone is an $8 billion industry.

What is the strangest production request you have ever had?

We once constructed a sizeable set on one of the smallest Bahamian Islands. The set was built in Miami and then had to be flow into the Bahamas together with 9 tons worth of gear. I believe we chartered five cargo planes. Once we landed in North Eleuthera (pictured below), set and gear had to be loaded onto trucks, barged to Harbor Island and finally transported on forklifts for the last few miles to a particularly beautiful piece of beach. Beyond that we have a good amount of experience shooting on and under water, as well as mountain climbing and parachuting.

What types of production do you work on most and what have you serviced recently and where did you shoot?

We produce between one and four movies a year alongside our own projects, co-productions and service productions. Our two last features were We Are What We Are and Cold in July starring Sam Shepard, Michael C. Hall and Don Johnson, both were directed by Jim Mickle and both premiered in Sundance before going on to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. We just finished post production on the six episode mini-series Hap & Leonard starring Christina Hendricks and Michael K. Williams for the Sundance Channel, which was shot in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We also just wrapped photography on a movie named Bushwick, an action satire about the second American civil war breaking out in Brooklyn.

Our service business is growing, while becoming less focused on traditional commercials with longer format branded content becoming an increasing part of our business. Just under a year ago we were honored to be invited to join the GPN Network, which has given that part of our business another boost.

Are there any tips that you would like to share with our audience when considering the USA for their next production?

The US is an incredibly film friendly territory to shoot. Production in New York alone is an $8 billion industry. Last year 120 movies and some 20 TV shows were shot in New York in addition to countless commercials. The volume of production here and in many other places throughout the country result in a huge and highly qualified crew pool, as well as the abundant availability of top of the line and specialised gear including drones and stabilising systems.

In terms of weather and climate, states such as Florida, Texas (pictured left), New Mexico, Arizona and California have sunny and warm weather pretty much year round. The northern states from New York to Washington State and Oregon have generally quite pronounced seasons with fairly hot summers and cold snowy winters. That is a broad stroke statement of course as the US is huge and has many climate zones.

Most of our production service clients and their crews enter the country as tourists and we have never had a problem at all. For longer term projects like movies and TV shows, we recommend applying for O1/O2 work visas and we facilitate the application process.

The US has a reputation for being expensive due to the high cost of living and unionised crews. With that said, for the last 20 years we have been used to working on almost any budget level coming in from abroad and more often than not we can compete price-wise with almost any place on earth.

Can you tell us a bit about using crew and talent in the US

American crews and talent tend to be unionised and working with the unions is something that I know may seem daunting from the outside. There are a good handful of different unions for cast and different crew positions and depending on the project it is not necessarily a must to work with all or any of them.

We help our clients make the right decisions in this aspect and help to make it user friendly. We like to start each project with a detailed conversation with our clients about their demands and how to provide the best crew and cast for them to get the job done within their budget. The unionisation has great advantages for the producer, because rates and routines are standardised across the country, so we can go anywhere within the country and plug and play, as we all work more or less the same way everywhere.

One thing to point out are the ‘right to work’ states like Texas for example. The term is often misunderstood to mean that there are no unions in these states or that union personnel can freely work non-union. That is formally not the case. ‘Right to work’ means that a worker who is not in the union cannot be denied work because of it. This tends to result in a more casual climate in these states when it comes to unionisation.

What are your favourite film crew and cast friendly hotels in the USA and why?

We have good working relationships with the Standard Group, as well as the Four Seasons and a few others. My favourite hotel is the Chateaux Marmont in LA, which is quite production friendly.

And what is your favourite wrap party venue and why?

I would have to mention The Box in New York (pictured right) as a standout locale. We also often end up at the Backroom Bar in New York, which is located in a back alley of the East Village. It’s a former speakeasy with hidden doors and in the spirit of tradition; drinks are still served in teacups. In LA, a dinner at the Chateaux Marmont followed by a drink in the bar is a civilised way to end a production.


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