Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
Take a midnight stroll or afternoon walk around its Old Town or in one of the many Soviet-era microdistricts, and you’ll quickly realize why so many directors have chosen Tallinn to be another character at the center of their stories.
While most people thought Tom Cruise was the star of Michael Mann’s neo-noir crime action thriller, “Collateral,” the honor belongs elsewhere. And it wasn’t Jamie Foxx, although he could have been, brilliant actor that he is. And it wasn’t Jada Pinkett Smith or Mark Ruffalo, either. The real star of the movie was probably something else–the location.
And indeed it was. Michael Mann is no stranger to turning cities into characters, and rarely has Los Angeles been portrayed the way it was in “Collateral,” as an eerie, yet somewhat compassionate witness to the brutal murders and almost senseless self -justifications of a clean-cut unfeeling hit man.
But you don’t have to be Michael Mann to squeeze more out of a location than its buildings or crossroads. And you don’t need to shoot in LA to give a location a subtext brilliantly suited to the story. The world is full of such places, most much more willing than Los Angeles to stop all traffic at noon so you can film a 25-minute car chase.
So consider Tallinn, the capital (and perhaps the only actual city) of Estonia. Take a midnight stroll or afternoon walk around its Old Town or in one of the many Soviet-era microdistricts, and you’ll quickly realize why so many directors have chosen Tallinn to be another character at the center of their stories. From old Russian movie classics such as “The Legend of Till Ullenspiegel” to a modern Estonian arthouse, countless films have been shot there—and for good reason.
Tallinn has been ruled by the Danes, Swedes, Germans, and Russians, and all of their influences are evident. The architectural landscape of the city is unique, and its Old Town is one of the best- preserved medieval cities (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in Europe. Any period piece would benefit from the medieval glory of the town, and there’s little reason to engage CGI if you have the real thing a relatively short flight from any European capital. Tallinn isn’t the only medieval town in the region, but it surely is the least exploited, and few movie studios outside of Estonia have discovered it.
But however illustrious its Old Town is, a twenty-minute ride and you will find yourself in an entirely different world, one seemingly overlooked and unaffected by the rest of the planet. Should a dreary Soviet-era micro-district with its sinister, 16-story cookie-cutter structures from the 1970s fit a script for a science fiction film or spy thriller, you should go to Lasnamäe, a place marked by its gloomy mass housing and maze-like streets. Considered by many to be too bleak to endure even a visit, you may find it the perfect backdrop for a gloriously dark movie.
Some modern Estonian filmmakers, in fact, seem to be attracted to the place, as few contemporary Estonian films have not included at least a scene or two from grim Lasnamäe. If this area doesn’t quite fit or seems too crowded (the population of the district is the biggest in Tallinn at roughly 120,000), you might try Kopli, another dismal reminder of the dark, failed architecture of the Stalin years.
However, there is some positive movie industry history attached to Tallinn, as the city hosts the Black Nights Film Festival, an annual event held there for over 20 years. With over 250 feature films screened each year, the festival is one of the largest in Northern Europe. In 2010, in fact, the European Film Awards ceremony was held in Tallinn, an event that brought major international talent to Estonia.
Describing a city such as Tallinn is beyond the scope of this blog post, but it should be on the list of every location scout, not only for its unique and powerful images, but because of the generous cash rebate system that could save you up to 30% on eligible production costs.
Used photos: Visit Estonia