Written by Shona Smith on Nov 29, 2019. Posted in On Location

Location Scouting in Montenegro: a small country with large location potential

As we approached Tivat Airport from the air, the birds-eye view of fjord-like Kotor Bay, fringed with rugged mountains, was a fitting introduction to Montenegro's extreme landscapes. On solid ground we were greeted by our guide Igor Mitric who explained "it's amazing how quickly the landscape changes in Montenegro, you can go from Mordor to the Mediterranean in one day. This trip is designed to give just a flavour of what is on offer here".

Despite measuring only 13,812 square kilometres, Montenegro is crammed with diverse topography including lakes and forests rugged mountains and deep valleys, as well as coastal resorts, historic towns and impressive infrastructure.

In early October, The Film Centre of Montenegro invited five British location managers on a familiarisation trip. I joined Andrew Ryland (The Crown, Spider-Man: Far from Home), Asha Sharma (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Thor: Ragnorok), David Seaton (Inception, Guardians of the Galaxy), Cat Ho (Bohemian Rhapsody, Goodbye Christopher Robin)  and Matt Risebrow (Outlaw King, Avengers: Endgame) to document the trip for The Location Guide.

Shortly after stepping off the plane we had reached our first stop, the high-end coastal resort of Porto Montenegro. Once a functioning naval base and shipyard, the marina has undergone major renovation and today functions as an upmarket leisure destination. Deluxe private yachts are moored next to the wide esplanade lined with designer shops, restaurants and private apartments.

Despite the dramatic transformation, the ports origins as a naval base are evident with a large dockyard warehouse and decommissioned submarine.

Once rejuvenated we headed via ferry across the bay, continuing until we reached the historic town of Perast. In contrast to Porto Montenegro, Perast has a narrower esplanade fronted with old buildings and churches draped with ivy. Used in 2014 Pierce Brosnan thriller The November Man, the road is wide enough to accommodate cars. Immaculately kept, the town is a popular tourist destination in the summer months. As a result, filming here is far cheaper during the off-season - between October and April.

There are some islands situated in the middle of Kotor Bay, which are reachable in just a couple of minutes from Perast. We visited the mad-made island of Gospa od Škrpjela. Built in the fifteenth century, the island affords a magnificent view of the whole bay, and the long pier allows additional room to productions.

From Perast, we continued on to the most southern, inland point of Bay where the walled city of Kotor lies. The city’s walls climb above the town to the castle above and are illuminated during the evening. The town itself is a maze of cobbled streets where hidden gems, such as the Kotor Bazaar which sells souvenirs in the arched cloister of an abandoned Dominican Monastry. The location managers commented that Kotor has a similar appeal as medieval towns such as Brugge to Dubrovnik because of its cobbled streets, gateway and surrounding moat. There are two sizeable and controllable squares available to productions, the main square is more expensive while the second is nearly as large and benefits from being slightly less popular with tourists. Matt Risebrow also noted, “it looks like a set because everything is so clean”. Two factors have contributed to its medieval set-like feel. Much of the town was affected by an earthquake in the 1970s meaning that areas of the city, including Romanesque churches and town walls had to be rebuilt. Secondly, Kotor is a protected UNESCO world heritage site which has prevents too much obvious modernisation in the old town.

The next morning we set off on the steep serpentine road that twists above Kotor to our next destination of Centinje – the Old Royal Capital. On the journey, we made a pitstop at a glass-fronted café that provides a vista of the bay. Asha Sharma pointed to the fact that it could facilitate a great establishing shot, or an action scene as the café’s terraced patio opens onto the cliffs below.

Our destination, the city of Cetinje is the Old Royal Capital of Monegro, was strategically chosen in the middle ages for its spot on a plateau surrounded by naturally defensive limestone mountains. A quiet monastery and church are found on the outskirts of the city, but the centre of the university town provides wide boulevards of with a more modern style.

Setting off on the road again, we passed more medieval coastal towns including Budva and Sveti Stefan which are both are located on peninsula’s that jet into the sea. Sveti Stefan is an entirely private medieval town catered to the rich and famous. During low season, the walled town is film friendly and management are cooperative with filming requests, as Jackie Chan produced 2018 action flick Golden Job experienced when it shot explosive action sequences here. Cut off from the mainland via a narrow causeway the town can be locked off for filming.

Our last stop of the day was the town of Stari Bar, where an old fortress is nestled in foot of the mountainside. The sprawling fortress has a mix of around buildings and archways - some in good condition, such as the amphitheater but there are many more in various states of ruin. The fortress also provides views of the city below.

The next morning, we realised just how close we were to the sea as we took a short drive to the Ada Bojana, a delta where the Bojana river that flows into the Adriatic Sea. Asha Sharma commented on the similarity to the Mekong Delta, because of the colourful houses that line the river and with some set dressing the location could double for a riverside community in South East Asia.

Heading inland again we stopped at Skadar Lake which marks the Southern border with Albania, on our way towards the capital city Podgorica. At the highest points on the road green valleys rolled out in front of our eyes, but in under an hour more we had reached the flat Plantaže vineyards, where grapes for one of Montenegro’s largest exports is grown.

There are a number of large vineyards around the region of Skadar Lake, but the one we visited was the closest to the wine cellar in Lješkopolje. The location managers were particularly interested in the cavernous converted army barrack as a location after we were told that the smaller connecting spaces could be opened for specific filming requests.

Late that afternoon, we headed deeper into the mountains via canyon roads which have hosted productions including Top Gear. Igor informed us that permits for road closures such as these take just a week to process, with big projects able to secure fifteen minute passes on the main mountain roads. Police handle all road closures and cost just EUR6 an hour, with additional costs for permitting and hiring of police cars.

On our final morning we awoke in the mountain town of Zabljak, a good base for those wanting to explore Durmitor National Park. The four locations we visited on our final day all accessible in just a couple of hours but ranged from large infastructure to wild valleys, mountains and lakes.

Black Lake, our first stop was a mere two minutes from our accommodation in Zabljak. Dormitor National Park is a region with lakes and mountains, such as Medjed mountain which looms above Black Lake. The picturesque setting is well set up for productions too, with a tarmac path leading through the pine forest and flat parts of the lakeside can be set up as a production base. The spot is completely transformed during the winter when the lake freezes, and surrounding peaks and pines are covered with snow. To film in the national park, a permit costs EUR400 a day, plus the costs of entrance tickets for the crew. Longer shoots should expect a reduction of costs.

The following location, Tara Bridge, also provided spectacular views of Durmitor National Park. The large concrete arched bridge which crosses the Tara River Canyon was once the largest bridge of its kind in Europe and could provide options for thrilling stunt sequences. Coachloads of tourists arrive for zip lining, bungee jumping and even rafting in the river below. As a popular base for activities, there is sizeable car parking and a restaurant next to the canyon.

From the lush, vibrant green of the valley, we drove to the town of Pluzine on a scenic route over the Sedlo Pass. The landscape quickly changed into something more resembling Scotland, saw Andrew Ryland to comment “if you had a script set in Scotland and Italy you could do the whole thing in Montenegro!”. Winding up the well-kept roads, we stopped at some of the most scenic points that, like many of Montenegro’s roads are perfect settings for car commercials. Matt Risebrow added that, despite travelling through rugged terrain, “all the roads we take are in great condition”, “there are no crazy roads, where you think you’ll never get crew or trucks up here”.

From here we began our decent back down towards the coast stopping for one final location, Mratinje Dam. Mratinje is not only is it one of the largest dams in Europe and stretches across the Piva Canyon acting as a bridge too.

From here it took us just three hours to reach Tivat, where the air was noticeably warmer. By the end of October, some mountainous areas of Montenegro we had visited could expect snowfall, whereas coastal areas would still have pleasant t-shirt weather. The cost-friendly implication for productions after a multitude of looks is certainly one of Montenegro's best assets.

On the other hand, productions that are looking for good nearby studio facilities can still consider shooting in Montenegro. Serbia, bordering Montenegro to the East boasts large studio facilities, and makes up for the lack of dedicated studio facilities in the country itself. A flight from Tivat to Belgrade takes under an hour – and even less from the capital and there are at least eight per day. In terms of crew, while there are qualified professionals in Montenegro, surrounding countries with large and highly-qualified crew and equipment bases, such as Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary are able to contribute for large shoots. Montenegro is not in the UU, but the ATA Carnet system streamlines importing equipment, and the currency is Euros. Large feature productions that have filmed in Montenegro in recent years include Papillon, starring Remi Mallick November Man, with Pierce Brosnan and Ralph Fiennes' Corolianus.

In addition to the already competitive price of goods and services in Montenegro, the Film Centre of Montenegro operates a 25% cash rebate that applies to the qualifying local expenditure. A minimum spend of EUR100,000 applies, and applies to live-action, animated and documentary films, television films and series fully, or partially shot in Montenegro and pass a qualifying test. 

The Location Guide would like to thank Film Centre of Montenegro and the hard work of all those involved who made the tour such a great success.

Photographs featured in this article were graciously provided by Andrew Ryland, Location Manager, and Igor Mitric.

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