Matthew Stillman
Prague film production pioneer

When Matthew Stillman came to Prague in 1993, he was 25 and had only 300 quid in his pocket. Today he runs Prague’s largest film production company, Stillking Productions, which has managed the Prague production of Hollywood blockbusters like Van Helsing and XXX, From Hell, Bourne Identity and Bad Company. In 2001, the Hollywood Reporter named him one of the “International Power 50,” a rundown of the biggest players in global entertainment and media. His company has played a key role in making Prague the Hollywood of Europe. Stillman remains personally involved in production side of films; he is “on set and around” for Everything Is Illuminated starring Elijah Wood, to be released in 2005.

Prague Compass: I’ll start with the question everyone asks expats: “Why Prague?”

Matthew Stillman: I had a friend who was teaching English here in 1992, and I came to visit him. Another friend and I wanted to set up a production company. At that time in London it was quite difficult to get production work going—it was very slow and bureaucratic - while in Prague the field was wide open. There were not many laws or restrictions at that stage and the place itself was a lot more dynamic than London.

We first started a nightclub, to raise some cash to pay for the office, which turned into a venue hosting 1,500 people a night [in what is now Slovanský dům]. It was exciting, a brilliant time, but I got completely burned out and decided I wanted to go back to the production company idea. This caused a lot of friction, because my friend wanted to stay on with the nightclub. It was also a major change because my group of friends was in that world, and I had to step out of it. Production was a lot less fun and much more hard work..

PC: What were some of your early film projects?

MS: We started with a video for k.d. lang, then for Dinah Carroll. After that, it got busy quite quickly. We shot videos for David Bowie, then Duran Duran. It was a great thrill to do the David Bowie video because he was always a big hero of mine when I was growing up. Ias realizing a dream
and that’s part of why I got into this, to realize dreams.

Our first feature was Plunkett & Macleane, with Liv Tyler and Robert Carlyle. That was a great project, because it was the first. All of a sudden we were doing what we set out to do, which was to produce a good film, with great actors, and all the rest. So that was very exciting.

PC: Have you seen a lot of changes from Prague in 1993 to today’s Prague?

MS: It’s changed a lot physically, and it’s also matured a lot. It’s not yet spoiled, not in the area that we’re in. There is a freedom, I think, amongst Prague’s younger generation. In London, kids are in debt as soon as they come out of school, so they have to get a job that pays. Here there are fewer material restrictions, so the younger generation can generally experiment with what they want to do, and try to find ways of making that work. The result is a very committed and dynamic group of people in the film industry, who enjoy what they’re doing. There’s a great spirit, and that makes a big difference.

PC: The film industry is vast. What does Stillking do?

MS: Last year we made seven films and about 200 commercials in Prague.  We have a Prague company, and companies in Italy, Spain, South Africa, Sweden and England.  Our involvement in the films is always slightly different—sometimes we develop, sometimes we co-finance and sometimes we just do the physical production.

PC: Your company has been a huge success. Do you attribute that to being in the right place at the right time, or did you do something in particular?

MS:It’s a bit of being in the right place at the right time, and luck, and it’s also having a great group of people.
We’re lucky that the same 8 or 10 people who were around at the beginning are still with us now and that the team has turned out to be pretty talented. The key challenge at the beginning was making Prague noticed. Most people, at least in America, thought Prague was in Germany or something, which meant that a lot of my focus was on increasing awareness, and on building up a team that could produce to the level we’ve needed.

PC: What makes Prague attractive to production companies today?

MS: It’s the infrastructure—the studios, equipment, crews, hotels, equipment—everything you need to make a film is here now. Costwise, it’s very competitive and because the city was never bombed it has a pretty eclectic look, there’s a great base of locations to do a whole variety of films—contemporary, historical, action, whatever. So it’s a combination of the infrastructure, the costs, and the locations. We have a big advantage in having all three; some places only have one.

PC: With costs rising in Prague, are you worried about losing business to cheaper locations like Bucharest?

MS: Possibly, but there’s better production value here. If you go to Bucharest, you often have to bring a lot of
stuff in [equipment and crews], so even though the rates could be lower, it ends up being as expensive or more. But the more films Bucharest, or Budapest, or Latvia, or Kiev, make, the more they will develop their
infrastructure and almost everywhere else apart from Prague has government support for their production industry: tax incentives or rebates. Hungarians have just instituted a 20% rebate scheme on any money
companies spend on production in Budapest. The government here hasn’t been proactive in any way and, unless it does, there’s a good chance that Prague will become increasingly uncompetitive.

PC: If costs rise, is there something that will still make Prague special and attractive?

MS: Well, it’s always going to have the locations. Bucharest, for example, struggles on the location front. But a lot of films, like Alien versus Predator, which we’re just finishing, rely on special effects.... and that’s all studio. Hellboy, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc are all studio-based so if somewhere else has an equivalent infrastructure, and it’s cheaper, they’ll go there.

PC: Then would you see Stillking staying in Prague, or would you move to a different city?

MS: A lot of people have asked us to be involved in different countries. But we still believe the production value for 90 percent of films is here and so as long as that’s the case, Prague will continue to be our focus. We’ve also spent 10 years trying to develop, promote and establish Prague, so it would be a bit of an emotional wrench as well as a professional one to think about going somewhere else. That´s why we’re now trying to put pressure on the government to help support the industry.

PC: What film have you most enjoyed working on?

MS: I like this one, Everything Is Illuminated. It’s very small; Liev [Schrieber, the director] has an amazing amount of heart and a great vision, and he’s passionate, but is also very smart. The actors, for the roles that they’re playing, are great. And there’s a good, essential human story to it. It’s very funny, and quite enlightening.

PC: You’ve done several action films. Is that by design?

MS: We’ve just had to work a lot with the studios, and that’s a lot of what they make. But now we’re doing Everything Is Illuminated, and Tristan and Isolde, a fifth-century love story, with Ridley Scott. So it’s a mix.

PC: Where do you see yourself going from here?

MS: We might set up an office in L.A. and finance a writer—a guy called Aaron Kreuger, who wrote The Ring I & II and Scream—and another producer, and do some development with them. We also set up a company in Cape Town about a year ago. But you have to consolidate each thing rather than rush through it, because you can get a bit overstretched. You have to maintain the focus, as well as seeing if there’s a way strategically to develop it.

PC: If you could send a message back in time to yourself 11 years ago when you first came to Prague, what advice would you give?

MS: I tend not to look backwards that much. I think we’ve been very lucky - we’ve had a great time with a great
group of people. I mean, we’ve made a lot of mistakes but we´ve learnt from all of them. So it’s been a good experience - I don’t know if we would change much.

PC: What advice would you give an expat starting a business in Prague today?

MS: If they were in the film industry, I’d tell them to get out of it— to stop competing with us! (Laughs) Now
it’s harder to start a production company, because there are many more established companies than when we first came in. At the beginning, you just have to be completely committed, not get put off easily, and
work very hard. A lot of people want to get involved in films, and hope that there’s a shortcut to “being a” something but the only way to do it is to get in there and work at it, often for a long time. It can get very tough and you don’t always enjoy it but you have to get through that stage. There are no shortcuts—not in what we do. So, stick with it, persevere, have an idea, and be committed.