An explosion of movies lights up Great Britain's filmmaking industry

September 29, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON — London--In the Victorian conservatory of The Old House at Shepperton Studios, Paul Olliver does a little pirouette and says: "Mr. Stallone? He's wonderful."

The cherubic, well-coiffed Mr. Olliver, studio manager at Shepperton, has good reason to dance for joy. Mr. Sylvester Stallone is filming his $60 million seriocomic super-hero epic "Judge Dredd" at Shepperton.

About half the budget is being spent in Britain and lots of it is coming to Shepperton Studios. Half a dozen of Shepperton's 17 enormous sound stages and even a parking lot are taken up with sets for "Judge Dredd's" post-post-post-modern Mega-City One opus. That costs about $72,000 a week, not counting parking lot fees. They'll shoot at Shepperton about 16 weeks.

"Judge Dredd" is part of a filmmaking revival that has seen 32 films started so far this year in the United Kingdom. The British Film Commission estimates that tallies up to about $350 million.

The British are not yet ready to call their good fortune a boom, but they say it's a whole lot better than even three years ago when few feature films were being made here. This mini-boom doesn't quite mean a resuscitation of British filmmaking because many of the new big-budget films are American.

But Kenneth Branagh, who has just finished "Mary Shelly's Frankenstein" at Shepperton, insisted on filming in Britain with a British crew and mostly British actors, including himself as the innovative doctor, Victor Frankenstein.

He nevertheless cast Robert De Niro as the ever-lovable monster, perhaps as a subconscious reflection of one British view of the United States: an artificial creation gone monstrously awry. The director/actor has said his film explores the father-son relationship between the good doctor and his creation.

Mr. Branagh's first international success, "Henry V," was made at Shepperton. His "Frankenstein," which is produced by Tristar Pictures and Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope company, both eminently American, cost about $40 million to make. The premiere will be in Hollywood Nov. 1 with Prince Charles in attendance.

Americans find Britain a good place to make films because labor costs can be 25 percent to 30 percent cheaper than in Hollywood, and the dollar-pound ratio is favorable (stable at about $1.50 to the pound), British film crews are good, and there is a plethora of excellent actors and actresses.

And, of course, they speak English, if not American, in Great Britain.

"We've never had an inquiry from a French-language film in this studio," Mr. Olliver says dryly.

British filmmaking has benefitted from the recent successes of "Howards End," "The Crying Game," "Remains of the Day," and especially "Four Weddings and a Funeral," which surprised everybody by making $53 million in America alone, plus another $39 million here. "That's created a whole climate of people wishing to make films within the United Kingdom," Mr. Olliver says.

British crews have an unsurpassed reputation for being able to handle huge, high-tech, special-effects films.

"Americans know we are very good at making difficult films," says Sydney Samuelson, British Film Commissioner.

He recites the roster: The three Star Wars films were made in Britain, three Indiana Jones movies, the apparently endless James Bond series, "Batman," "Superman" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" which Mr. Samuelson thinks might have been the most difficult movie ever, with its complex and sophisticated mix of animation and live actors.

Many were made at Pinewood Studios, the other great British film production center, and Elstree Studios, now inactive. Filmmaking began in 1932 at Shepperton, in 1936 at Pinewood.

"It doesn't take any stretch of the imagination to understand why 'Judge Dredd' came to the United Kingdom," Mr. Olliver says. "The special effects facilities in the U.K. are second to none. Nowhere in the world -- per capita -- are crews as good as in the United Kingdom."

The "Dredd" set is a convincing demonstration of their craft. What appears to be a jerrybuilt edifice of scaffolding and raw wood supports a startlingly solid-looking stone and steel Mega-City One, a wasted sci-fi New York of 2000-something after ecological disaster has reduced most of the United States to the Cursed Earth. Broadway and 84th Street is the precise location, according to a street sign, a battered strip of Virtual Reality Sex and Dead Flesh Burger joints.

"Judge Dredd" is based on an enormously popular British comic strip. Steve McManus, a chronicler of the Judge, says the superhero -- who is American -- still sells 100,000 copies a week, a total of 80 million since he was created 18 years ago.

Judge Dredd is a post-apocalyptic lawman: cop, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner -- "genetically chosen to be tough -- but fair." He's not a very big jump in characterization from Mr. Stallone's Rambo.

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