Exotic locations make fore adventures in filmmaking
EmptyNow that domestic tax incentives have become rich and plentiful, fewer productions are choosing to shoot abroad for strictly economic reasons. For those that do cross international borders, the decision often is based less on the need for cheap labor and facilities and more on the desire to capture exotic looks and authentic atmospheres that can't be created by redressing a backlot in Burbank or a side street in Los Angeles. This is especially true of big-studio tentpole features such as Buena Vista's upcoming "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and Universal's planned August release "The Bourne Ultimatum."
"On the 'Bourne' films, they're sort of proud of the fact that they've really put everybody in the real places," the film's unit production manager Nigel Gostelow says. "So often people go to Prague, and they tell you it's London, Amsterdam and so many other places, but all they've done is travel around the corner. We're not going to go three miles from Pinewood Studios and put a couple of palm trees there and call it Tangier. If the script says Tangier, we're going to Tangier."
And go to Tangier they did, along with Berlin, London, Madrid, New York, Paris, Riga (the capital of Latvia) and the District of Columbia. "Tangier is a huge port on the north coast of Morocco, and it's Africa's link with Europe, so there are just people teeming through in both directions, as well as a huge population living there," Gostelow says. "It's an amazingly busy, frenetic, slightly intimidating place, and I think that was the appeal for 'Bourne,' to try to capture some of that."
Production was complicated by the fact that the entirety of the three-week shoot took place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. "It was hot and sticky, and by the middle of the afternoon, everybody was in a bad mood because they couldn't eat or drink or smoke or do anything (due to the religious restrictions)," Gostelow says. "As an employer bringing non-Muslims into the country, we didn't say to people, 'We will follow the rules of Ramadan,' but, for the sake of public relations, we didn't let our people drink or smoke or eat in the street during daylight hours."
While Tangier was crowded and bustling, Dominica and St. Vincent -- the West Indies islands used in "At World's End" (portions of which were shot concurrently with the previous "Pirates" film, 2006's "Dead Man's Chest") -- were remote and undeveloped.
"On islands like that, you completely overwhelm the infrastructure," says the film's unit production manager Douglas C. Merrifield. "Because of the size of the trucks and equipment we needed to move on and around the island, we ended up improving a number of roads and building others. We also built up their Internet and communications systems. On Dominica, there wasn't one resort that could accommodate us. I think we were in 78 different places, between small hotels, private houses and apartments scattered on the north and the south ends of the island. And you can always tell when we wrapped because people would go back home at night and plug in their computers and cell phones they needed to charge, and you could literally see the power drain. I think we caused more than one blackout."
The facilities were superior, albeit untested, in the Bahamas, where most of the major water sequences for "Dead Man's Chest" and "At World's End" were shot. "We picked the Bahamas because at the time we were scouting in the summer of '04, there was an investment group there that was planning to put together a facility called Gold Rock Studios on Grand Bahama Island, and in the second phase of their development they were proposing a tank," Merrifield says. "We convinced them to make the tank Phase 1 of their development. We had Grand Bahama Power (Co.) run massive power loads to the site, and improved it and leveled it, and again improved the communications, Internet and all of that on that end of the island. It was a good facility, and if anyone ever wants to do a water picture, the infrastructure there is all in place, ready to go."
Lionsgate's upcoming thriller "Captivity" was shot in Moscow -- hardly a remote location, but like Dominica and St. Vincent, one lacking infrastructure. The city once had a thriving state-supported film industry, but it collapsed along with the Soviet Union in 1991. Production has increased in recent years, but not to a level that can support a substantial crew base. What is there, however, is cheap. Producer Leonid Minkovski estimates he saved 30%-40% by shooting in Moscow instead of Los Angeles or New York, where the film is set.
But even with a team of translators on hand, the language barrier between the crew and the film's British-born director Roland Joffe was sometimes hard to overcome. "The translators didn't know motion-picture lingo for the most part," recalls Mark Damon, another of the film's producers. "For the first couple of weeks, it was a little tougher going than it should've been, just because there was this stilted communication. But towards the end, the translators were understanding motion-picture expressions, so they were able to properly communicate them to the balance of the crew members, who were primarily Russian. And the attitude of the crew was very positive."
Minkovski says Joffe will be returning to Moscow next month to film "Finding t.A.T.u.," a coming-of-age story about the relationship between an American girl and a Russian girl who share a mutual obsession with the Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. "This script is set in Russia," notes Minkovski, who's producing the film through his production company Russian American Movie Co., or RAMCO. "Roland said it's so much more interesting and exciting for him to do a movie about Russia in Russia than a movie about New York in Russia."