An interview with Johann Grech of Malta’s Film Commission
By John Henderson
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
A walled city made of gold limestone stood before us as we walked across a 1,200-year-old stone bridge.
Below was a grassy knoll that was a moat when this town of Mdina was Malta’s capital in the 1400s. We walked under the arched entryway into a large courtyard bathed in shadows. Apartments – very expensive apartments – lined the upper levels.
Our guide pulled her cellphone. She clicked Play. Before us on the tiny screen was the scene from Season 1 of “Game of Thrones” when Ned Stark kissed Catelyn Stark for the last time. We looked around.
We stood in the same space they did.
Malta’s Movie Sets
In Malta, 60 miles south of Sicily, you could spend your entire week’s vacation touring movie sets. Hollywood is still the movie capital of the world and Bollywood produces more movies than anywhere, but this small island nation has its own proud moniker.
More than 150 films have been made in Malta. That includes 20 in the pandemic year of 2020. At one time last year, four films were being made at the same time. If you’re a movie buff, you can tour dozens of movie sets on an island only 17 miles long and nine miles wide.
What films and TV series have been shot in Malta? Grab some popcorn and pull up a chair.
A very partial list: “Gladiator,” “Troy,” “Game of Thrones,” “Munich,” “World War Z,” “Captain Phillips,” “The Count of “Monte Cristo,” “Midnight Express” (2017 version), “By the Sea.” Madonna shot “Swept Away” here.
Robin Williams made his second film, “Popeye,” here. They even preserved the 1980 set into a tourist attraction called Popeye’s Village. View full list
Crowe Loves Malta
When I visited in June, Joaquin Phoenix had just finished filming “Kitbag,” where he plays Napoleon Bonaparte who led France’s capture of Malta in 1798.
Russell Crowe returned last year to film “Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher” about the British boxing champion in the 1800s.
During filming, Crowe tweeted, “I fell in love with Malta in 1999 and I’m being reminded on every corner exactly why. This place is fascinating.”
In one morning, I not only saw a “Game of Thrones” set but where vengeful Israelis celebrated their hit on the Munich Olympics murderers.
I toured where convicted hashish smuggler Billy Hays spent his prison days, where Brad Pitt ran from the zombies in “World War Z” and where Tom Hanks swam away from the pirates in “Captain Phillips.”
I stood on the edge of the biggest water tank in the world, where they have shot three “Dracula” movies due for release next year.
Jurassic Park: Dominion
Oh, yes. I finished the day eating lunch in a waterfront restaurant next to where a month later I’d see pissed-off dinosaurs run rampant in “Jurassic Park: Dominion.”
“We want to create a world-class film industry in Malta,” said Johann Grech, commissioner of the Malta Film Commission.
“We nearly have 100 years of experience in filmmaking. We are proud of our history but not chained to it. We want to make the next 100 years better than the first 100 years.”
Grech, 43, is the genius behind the recent rise in Malta’s international film profile.
The Malta native became commissioner five years ago and teamed with the government to prioritize filmmaking.
The government now offers filmmakers 40 percent back on eligible local expenditure for any production where at least €100,000 is spent on the island.
Malta’s Familiar Geography
Malta’s main draw, however, isn’t money. It’s the same reason it’s attractive to tourists: geography. The capital of Valletta, a sea of limestone architecture, could pass for the Middle East.
The numerous outdoor cafes could be cities in Europe. The forts look straight out of Europe in the Middle Ages. And the Mediterranean Sea and 300 days of sunshine could be anywhere.
In the 2005 film “Munich,” Malta doubled as six different countries.
Filmmaking and tourism dovetail into dual sources of income for Malta. In the previous three years the film industry has poured €98 million into Malta’s economy. It’s why the government also wants those movie sets accessible to tourists.
Tourism makes up 11.6 percent of Malta’s economy. They want more ways to attract tourists than the eternal sun, warm sea and unique cuisine. (Like rabbit anyone? It’s Malta’s national dish.)
“We are working with the ministry and Malta Tourism Authority because this is a plan we can achieve together,” Grech said. “It’s not by working alone but jointly as a country working together to achieve more. We want to keep investing in keeping sets.”
It’s working. My guide, Audrey Marie Bartolo, said film sites have become a major part of her job.
“It’s the first time I’ve had Americans, Canadians coming over to Malta for the very first time and I would actually ask, ‘What would you fancy doing?’” she said. “They said, ‘A Game of Thrones tour’ without knowing I was involved in it.”
Working as Extras
Bartolo knew her way around the movie sets since she, like many Maltese, worked as an extra on most of them.
Our first stop was Malta Film Studios and its two water tanks. Located on a desert-like landscape, one measures 112 x 95 meters and is two meters deep.
It looks like a giant infinity pool blending into the Mediterranean beyond. This is where Tom Hanks splashed around in filming “Captain Phillips” nine years ago.
Up the hill is a giant empty basin 11 meters deep that holds 12 million gallons of water. It looks like a giant wok that could feed Shanghai. If you watch next year’s “Last Voyage of Demeter,” one of the three Dracula films, you’ll see the tank.
“We had a big storm sequence all summer long, shooting vampires on deck and werewolves,” said Alan Cassar, the water tanks’ operations manager. “It was an amazing film.”
On to Rabat
Bartolo then drove 15 minutes to the town of Rabat. It’s where St. Paul preached Christianity to the population after his ship crashed in 60 A.D. It’s also the home of Vince Bar.
We had coffee at that same spot where the vengeful Israelis gathered after killing terrorists in “Munich.”
Bartolo broke out another video showing them drinking celebratory wine with the same St. Paul’s Church in the background that we were seeing.
After Mdina, we returned to Valletta and Fort St. Elmo. I had toured its excellent War Museum two days prior and did not know it served as the prison scenes for “Midnight Express.”
We went to the back entrance where Bartolo showed a clip of the final scene: Billy Hays, wearing the uniform of the guard he killed, walking slowly up an empty street away from the “prison,” sweating out one passing car then slowly breaking into a joyous trot.
I looked up from her phone and there was the same street, decidedly busier on this warm June day.
The street leads directly to another frightening film. St. Anne’s Street is a narrow, dark alley only about 70 feet long. This is where Brad Pitt and thousands of others frantically ran trying to avoid the clutches of the zombies grabbing terrified people through the wire roof.
The roof is gone. Electrical wires hung everywhere.
“It’s changed a lot,” Bartolo said. “It’s all repainted.”
We finished our tour at an Italian restaurant called Don Bosco. We looked down at the harbor and its plethora of million-dollar yachts. Next to us stood the Church of St. Senglea and the Malta Maritime Museum.
Back home in a cinema, I saw a dinosaur the size of a semi leap onto the roof next to me. I saw raptors chasing star Chris Pratt and his motorcycle through Valletta’s narrow Strait Street.
I saw the same St. George Square I hung out at, where a carnotaurus ate a man on his electric scooter like he was … well, a rabbit.
Malta is just getting warmed up when it comes to movies. I asked Grech if it’s true Russell Crowe will return to film a “Gladiator 2.” He let out a knowing laugh.
“I’m sure our country is a potential candidate,” he said.