Bruges finally gets its 15 minutes


BRUGES, Belgium -- "In Bruges," Martin McDonagh's thriller shooting in the eponymous Flemish city, contains at least one episode that locals will find somewhat far-fetched.

The story has two Irish hit-men, played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, cooling their heels in the so-called Venice of the North, and inadvertently crossing paths with a fictional Hollywood film shoot in the city. Yet despite Bruges' picture-postcard pretty plazas, snaking canals and proud medieval heritage, it has been almost completely bypassed by filmmakers.

In fact, Focus Features' "In Bruges" is not only the biggest movie ever made in the city, it claims to be the largest production ever to hit Belgian shores.

Despite the presence of both the EU and NATO headquarters in Brussels, the capital, Belgium has failed to inspire any political thrillers of the kind Washington, London or Paris have hosted.

For its part, Bruges' cinematic heritage is meager. It was a location for the Audrey Hepburn vehicle "The Nun's Story" and features in "Malpertuis," a fantasy-horror film starring Orson Welles. (The 1971 movie "Double Trouble" features Elvis Presley in Bruges, though the King never actually set foot in Belgium: All his scenes were captured with a stand-in while the rest of the film was shot in Culver City.)

But McDonagh might be able to change the image of Bruges and Belgium. He says he fell in love with the city on a chance visit three years ago. "I had no idea of a story at the time, but as soon as I stepped off the train, the beauty and romance of the place struck me," he says. "As soon as I saw it, I wanted to put it up on the big screen."

McDonagh made his name in theater with bleak melodramas. At 27, the four-time Tony Award winner became the first writer since Shakespeare to have four new plays performed simultaneously in London.

Last year, McDonagh won an Oscar for his debut short "Six Shooter," a bloody Irish comedy that also starred Gleeson. McDonagh describes "In Bruges" as a black comedy. "It is so incongruous that these two guys would be in such a romantic city," he says.

The producers are getting support from the Bruges City Film Office and are using 1,200 locals as extras. Almost all of the movie will be shot in the city. "I was cleared to shoot in pretty much every stunning location I wanted, so we'll milk every part of Bruges," McDonagh says. "It has two main characters and it has Bruges. If they'd said no to me, I would have made a different film. Or I would have somehow shot it secretly."