Pioneers of Service Productions – An interview with Ildikó Kemény

The tax rebate going up from 20 to 25% is a big attraction. We are busier than ever,’ says Ildikó Kemény, managing director of Pioneer Pictures/Pioneer Stillking, one of Hungary’s leading production and service companies. As mentioned on the pages before, they have busy months behind them. We interviewed Ildikó on the set of their latest project, the HBO pilot Virtuoso, to discuss the past, present and future of the company.

How did you become a producer?

I was already working on international productions as an assistant to directors and producers, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to direct or produce. Soon I realized I was actually more interested in producing, especially after working on Meeting Venus with David Puttnam and Warner Brothers. Following this, I applied to the National Film and Television School in England to study producing, as it was impossible to do this in Hungary at that time. I was at film school for four years and during that time my life changed a lot: I got married and started a family as well as my producing life in London. I produced my first short films which won various awards, and fairly soon we could proceed with our first features. When the Hungarian film law was introduced, my friends from the British film industry started sending me projects to see if they could be shot in Hungary. I was attracted by this combination of lower production costs and the tax rebate, which has matured into a world-class system.

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Ildikó Kemény

What is the difference between pioneer pictures and pioneer productions? Pioneer Productions was set up in 1995 by Jennifer Webster, Ilona Antal and Eleonóra Peták. It was the very first company in Hungary to work on top international commercials, with directing talent like Jonathan Glazer. When they decided to extend their business into film and TV, they were looking for partners. I was still mostly working in London but I jumped at the opportunity to partner up with them as they had set such high standards in the services they provided for incoming producers. I thought if those standards got translated into the film world, we would be able to create something truly exciting. So we set up a separate company in 2005, Pioneer Pictures, fully dedicated to film and TV production, in which I am both a partner and managing director.

And what is Pioneer Stillking?

Pioneer Stillking is a new venture. As of January 2015, we’ve entered into full partnership with Stillking, a Prague based production company, run by Matthew Stillman and David Minkowski. The joint venture is about pooling our resources in order to handle more and bigger international productions.

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Which were your first productions?

Our very first project was Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution, a fairly low-budget Anglo-Hungarian co-production, starring Catherine Tate and Iain Glen. The BBC drama Einstein and Eddington followed, with Andy Serkis and David Tennant.

What were the greatest milestones for pioneer pictures?

Our biggest milestone was undoubtedly The Debt, which Miramax financed. The film’s story took place in East Berlin, Ukraine and Israel – but they went looking for the “old East Berlin” in Berlin and couldn’t find it because the city had been cleaned up so much. I got a call from the director, John Madden, asking if they could hop on a plane from Berlin and have a look around Budapest. At that stage, we were a new company so it was quite a challenge to persuade Miramax to accept us but, after two conference calls, we got the job and it turned out to be a really gratifying partnership. The movie starred Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Tom Wilkinson and Sam Worthington.

Which one was your most challenging project so far?

They’re all challenging in their own ways! For example, after The Debt, we did The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum and directed by Kevin Macdonald. We had to re-create Roman Britain in Hungary. Everything in the movie that takes place south of Hadrian’s Wall was shot in Hungary, and everything over the border was shot in Scotland. The big challenge was to find places where we could build a Roman fort, the uncle’s home, and basically be able to turn around 360 degrees and not see anything modern in the background. We constructed magnificent sets in four different locations not too far from Budapest and manufactured all the Roman costumes in Hungary.

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What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I find it most rewarding when we have financiers and producers coming back to us. For example HBO, Sky, BBC Films, Film 4 have all returned while, just to mention a couple of names, Laurie Borg, our producer on the Virtuoso pilot, has worked with us previously on Bel Ami and similarly, Bill Shephard, who came here first for Einstein and Eddington, later returned for three seasons of Strike Back.

We also recently did a small film called The Duke of Burgundy, directed by Peter Strickland who lives here in Hungary. This was our very first film together but hopefully many more will follow! We shot it last summer and it received great critical acclaim first in the UK, then the US and now in Hungary too, following our premiere a couple of weeks ago at the Titanic Film Festival. It’s a niche film for a certain type of audience so originally Mozinet, our distributor, was only going to release it in art-house cinemas. However, following the fantastic reception in the press, we’re now opening in multiplexes too.

You had an extremely busy past 12 months.

Oh, yes. Besides The Duke of Burgundy, the HBO-Sky series Strike Back came back for a third season. Then there was Disney’s The American Girl (now re-titled: Grace Stirs Up Success), Hunter’s Prayer starring Sam Worthington and also the Canadian TV-series, X Company. At the moment, we’re wrapping HBO’s Virtuoso, a pilot written and directed by Alan Ball, the writer of American Beauty and creator of Six Feet Under and True Blood. It’s such an honour to have him around. The story takes place in 18th century Vienna in a music school run by Salieri, where young music prodigies study. If the show is green-lit by HBO, the rest of the episodes will hopefully also be shot in Hungary next year.

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Ildikó Kemény and Alan Ball

Which of your upcoming projects can you tell us about?

Well, we’ve just had three new projects green-lit. One is an American production called A Manin the Dark which is a psychological thriller produced by Sam Raimi. It takes place in Detroit, but they will start here in Hungary for an 8-week shoot before moving to the US. X Company, a Canadian-Hungarian co-production, is coming back for a second season – last year we filmed 8 episodes, now 10 episodes are commissioned for the new season. We will shoot it from July to October. We will also work on Maigret, a new TV se- ries for ITV, whilst developing, budgeting, location scouting, negotiating on new potential projects including a very exciting Hungarian film.

What do you consider the Hungarian film industry’s biggest challenges?

Crew training is certainly what we need to establish, and actually we have just started working on it. Andy Vajna and the Hungarian National Film Fund commissioned a study and I am one of the advisors. I believe the UK system is working very well, so it would be very good to introduce a training program like that here in Hungary.

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