Wales has long been associated with myth and magic; after all, its national emblem is the dragon, and it has strong ties to the King Arthur legend.
As a result, it is fitting that Lucasfilm chose it as the setting for the Disney+ fantasy series "Willow." The production was based at Dragon Studios in Bridgend, South Wales, and was shot in 32 different locations throughout the country.
Many iconic movie scenes have taken place in the Celtic nation over the years, including the Bat Cave in "The Dark Knight Rises," The Slaughtered Lamb pub in "American Werewolf in London," and the castle in the opening scene of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
Wales also hosted a portion of the original 1988 "Willow" film, directed by Ron Howard and starring Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, and Warwick Davis. In the new series, the latter two actors reprise their roles as Sorsha and Willow, respectively, alongside Ellie Bamber, Ruby Cruz, Erin Kellyman, Tony Revolori, and Amar Chadha-Patel.
Wales has carved out a significant niche for itself as a location and production base for premium TV series such as "Da Vinci's Demons," "Doctor Who," "Sherlock," "Sex Education," and "His Dark Materials" over the last decade or so. According to the government agency Creative Wales, production spending in Wales has totaled £139 million ($167 million) since 2020.
The "Willow" series could have been shot in any number of international locations, including New Zealand, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, but Wales ticked all the right boxes for the show's executives and creatives.
"Willow" executive producer Roopesh Parekh, who previously worked on "Da Vinci's Demons" and "His Dark Materials," says he and showrunner Jonathan Kasdan asked themselves: "Where is the best place for us to evoke some of the nostalgia from the original movie? What will contribute to the magic of the world we're attempting to create?"
"It always starts with the creative requirements, and so for this series in particular, we needed a place that imbued a sense of magic and otherworldliness," says Lynwen Brennan, executive vice president of Lucasfilm. And, of course, coming from Wales, I knew exactly where you'd get those feelings, because I believe Wales has always felt like an ancient, magical place. There's nothing else like it."
The United Kingdom has become a major production hub for Lucasfilm, with headquarters primarily in Pinewood, near London, which strengthens Wales' ability to attract projects from the Disney-owned company. "We have two production hubs for Lucasfilm: one in the United Kingdom and one in Los Angeles, in Manhattan Beach," Brennan says. In Pinewood, we shot ['Star Wars'] Episodes VII, VIII, and IX. We've also recently expanded to Dragon Studios in Wales, as well as Shinfield Studios near Reading [in England]. We're currently filming a series ['The Acolyte'] there, as well as doing some location work in Wales. We had already established a significant presence in Pinewood, but as we expanded into streaming television, we required significantly more space.
Parekh says that after scouting for locations, they realized that within two hours of Dragon Studios, “we could find incredible locations that were really going to service the story, and that were going to work on that epic scale that we wanted,” he says. “The show had to stand on its own feet against shows like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones.’ Those are the properties that Lucasfilm is most known for, and we wanted to make sure we made something that was equally compelling, that had the heart and humor of the storytelling, but also had that epicness.”
They also needed “gorgeous, stunning locations” that weren’t familiar to viewers and were “a bit of a blank canvas.” “With ‘Willow’ being a traveling quest show, we never go back to where we’ve been,” Parekh says. “So, we needed an abundance of locations that we could build into each episode, and we found that Wales was going to give us that. So, it began with what was going to work for the story creatively, and then came all the production benefits.”
Morlais Quarry, where the show begins, was one of the locations used. "We wanted to feel like we were on the edge of the world. You want your series' opening shots to be memorable, and we felt that gave us that production value and scale," Parekh says. Willow's home, Nelwyn Village, was set in Merthyr Mawr. "We wanted to evoke the feeling that this is a world that isn't entirely ours, that has a surreal quality to it," he says.
Another fantastic location was Neath Abbey. "We shot a beautiful action sequence among the ruins of Neath Abbey. These visual effects creatures are flying around and attacking our Questers. Neath has got that magnetic feel to it. There’s something historic and ancient about it,” Parekh says. Another notable location was Cwm Cadlan forest, where the Bone Reavers camp was filmed.
The show also traveled to the north of Wales. “We needed just the most stunning landscapes, particularly for traveling, when we’ve got the Questers all heading off to various parts, and that’s when we went to Snowdonia, and all the way up to Holyhead, because we wanted to give that sense of passage, of travel,” Parekh says.
Brennan underscores the point that the variety of landscapes available in Wales was key to the decision to shoot there, given that at the core of the series is a journey. “It’s a journey of discovery for the characters, but it’s also a physical journey through many different lands and landscapes. So having a place where we could have the studio footprint that we really needed, as well as have this mix of landscapes within an easy couple of hours driving distance from that studio was essential. We filmed in 32 locations in Wales – from beaches, to lakes, to mountains, to woods, to quarries, to castles. I can’t think of that many places where you could have that mix of that many locations, great studio space, and then talent. You know, we’ve been able to tap into the local talent there, and also grow some talent there as well. Many roads pointed to Wales for this one.”
Another key deciding factor for Lucasfilm to commit themselves to Wales was the support of Creative Wales, whose funding helped bring on board 25 trainees for at least six months. “We wanted to ensure that we left a legacy behind, and to ensure that we were contributing to the filmmaking community as well as the community at large,” Parekh says.
“It meant that people who wouldn’t traditionally get an opportunity to work in not just film and TV, but on a very high-scale television show, a fantasy show – where so many niche and unique skills are being applied, and crafts and technical skills are required – got a window into how the magic gets created.”
Lucasfilm was able to find the majority of the crew for “Willow” within Wales, and then complemented that with below-the-line talent from the rest of the U.K. Of the 335 full-time crew members, 206 were Welsh. The production had 29 departments, 17 of which had a Welsh citizen as their head or in a senior role. “It was a great mix. We were able to get a lot of talent that was already there, and then we brought in some people that we had worked with on our other productions,” Brennan says.
There was a determined effort to employ local crew in senior roles, Parekh adds. “One thing we tried to encourage was that if we brought in a head of department from outside of Wales, the most senior person on their team had to be Welsh. And then there was a trickle-down effect from that, because then they knew who to speak to, and who the rising stars were, and how to attract the right talent. So, we needed to make sure that we were pairing any non-Welsh crew up with Welsh crew.”
The 25 trainees on the show have added to the talent pool that other productions can draw from. “It was important to us to make sure that we had a positive effect on the crews that other productions after us, including us, can tap into. And really, really strong crew. The production values on the series are incredible across the board. It was wonderful for us to tap into this incredible new pool of talent in Wales,” Brennan says.
The fact that Lucasfilm has a major concentration of production activity in the U.K. helps the crew it employs there, Brennan says. “We create such longevity and relationships with these crews, so many of our crew will go from one of our projects to another, and the more consistent we are with having work in that location, the more that we can hold on to that great talent and not lose them. We can be a consistent home for them.
“We are not only developing a shorthand with them; we are building on everything we’ve learned in every film or series that we work on. And, importantly, for each one of our productions, and ‘Willow’ was no different in Wales, we’ve really taken an active role in bringing on trainees and apprentices, so that we’re building out in each one of our departments on a production. Each department takes on some trainees, so we’re building that next generation as we grow. And that’s been a good strategy for us.”
Dragon Studios proved to be a “phenomenal” base for the production, with four stages, and when even that proved insufficient, a fifth stage – totalling 28,000 square foot – was added, Parekh says. “I think that speaks to the strength and the ingenuity of the talent there. You know, it’s like: There’s a problem; how do we solve it? It just speaks to the passion of the filmmaking community [in Wales],” he says. There is also a six-acre backlot at the studios, on which they built Tir Asleen Castle, and “a gorgeous mystical land” called the Immemorial City, which evokes “Blade Runner 2049.”
Lucasfilm had 20 additional buildings around the studio, devoted to creature creation, puppeteering work, special effects construction, costumes, and so on. During the pandemic, having an abundance of space and plenty of ventilation was important to ensure a safe environment for the crew.
Lucasfilm also carried out much of the show’s post-production on the site. “With series production, a lot of post-production is happening at the same time as we’re shooting, so it was invaluable for us to be able to have that capability there, so that we could be more holistic in the way that we were working through the plan,” Brennan says. “And then we did some post in the U.S. as well. But in order to be able to make sure that we were moving through the production pipeline while we were still shooting, I don’t think we could have done it any other way. Lucasfilm, via ILM, has our own studio in the U.K. as well, so they took the lead on the visual effects work, and that was fantastic.”
Disney has yet to announce whether “Willow” will move into a second season, but Parekh says they are ready if the call comes. “I would like to think that we reach a very satisfying conclusion to the first [season], but there are definitely enough seeds planted that if Lucasfilm, Disney and Jon Kasdan wanted to go again, there’s plenty of scope available,” he says. “So, I don’t know what will happen at this stage, but keeping fingers crossed.”