'Kingdom' required a firm hand
Filmmakers hired consultants to get Mideast shoot 'exactly right'The request: Someone in the U.S. wanted to ship guns to Abu Dhabi. True, they were Hollywood prop guns, but with Abu Dhabi smack dab in the middle of the Middle East, such a request might raise some eyebrows.
But Rich Klein, from the consulting firm Kissinger McLarty Associates, was unfazed. That request was just one of the challenges his firm helped address during the production of Universal's "The Kingdom," which opens today.
The movie, directed by Peter Berg and produced by Michael Mann and Scott Stuber, follows a team of FBI agents who go to Saudi Arabia to investigate a terrorist attack on an American installation there.
Initially, the production wanted to shoot in Saudi Arabia, so Mann called Kissinger McLarty, which had assisted him when "Miami Vice" filmed in Paraguay and the Dominican Republic. The East Coast-based company, founded by Henry Kissinger and President Clinton's former chief of staff Mack McLarty, acts as a consultant to international businesses that want to enter new markets, engage with foreign governments or need political and economic risk assessments.
"Films are not what the company was started to do, but it has become a growing part of our work," says Klein, one of about 20 strategic advisers at the firm who are former diplomats, White House officials or members of the State Department.
"Kingdom" didn't end up filming in Saudi Arabia because of that country's lack of industry infrastructure as well as sensitivities about the script. While the overall story was seen as positive to the Saudis, individual episodes, taken separately, might have raised hackles.
Kissinger McLarty instead chose to film in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, where the company swiftly began laying the groundwork.
"They took us out there, and we met with the crown prince of the U.A.E. and his brother, who runs Abu Dhabi," Berg says, adding that the nation was hungry for American investment. "I went there three different times, and it turned into one of the most fascinating experiences of my life."
Meanwhile, Klein already was moving on to the next stage.
"Pete, Scott and Michael realized early on that the script had a certain importance to get it exactly right, and they couldn't allow even a fraction of an inch of inaccuracies or it would put the whole script into question on some really sensitive political and cultural topics," Klein says.
So his firm suggested script revisions to get the language and dialogue right. It also helped find technical advisers and dialect coaches for actors working in Arabic and also played roles in location scouting, intergovernmental relations to secure permissions and support and coordinating preproduction and security.
Kissinger McLarty's suggestions about accuracy, for example, affected how a motorcade was shot.
"Saudis do a motorcade differently than the way a U.S. motorcade would be staged," Klein says. In the U.S., it is common practice to use a series of motorcycles that ride up ahead and block off streets. In Saudi Arabia, motorcades are smaller and rely on speed, with three or four Suburbans traveling closely together at 120 miles an hour.
The production's main set, a U.S. compound that is hit by a bomb, was built in Arizona, where a good part of the film was shot. Parts of an explosive, bullet-ridden highway car chase also were shot there and then seamlessly combined with footage shot in Abu Dhabi. The one constant between the two locations: temperatures approaching 130 degrees.
Hollywood never had mounted a major project in Abu Dhabi, and there was some getting used to the fact that that country's weekend takes place Thursdays and Fridays, which combined with the Western world's Saturday and Sunday created a shortened window for complex import-export and visa issues.
"If you miss the day, you lapse into a four-day weekend, and then you are four days behind … and any equipment would sit there while going through a customs-clearing process," Klein says.
Because the motorcade scene also required an Apache helicopter, it was necessary to enlist the support of the United Arab Emirates military.
To bring guns and other military equipment into Abu Dhabi also required cooperation from the Justice Department, the U.S. ambassador in Abu Dhabi and numerous levels of the local government.
At the same time, Klein had to allay the anxieties of the Western cast and crew. He prepared a briefing paper, met with crew heads and sat down one-on-one with the actors who ended up traveling to Abu Dhabi. Of the movie's stars, only Jennifer Garner didn't make the trip, mainly because of family concerns, so a stunt double was used.
Kissinger McLarty is now working on the Afghanistan-set "The Kite Runner," which is doing some postproduction work in the Middle East. It also assisted Ridley Scott on his latest feature, the Middle East-set "Body of Lies," and it will team again with Berg on "Lone Survivor," also set in Afghanistan. The firm also is working on 10 scripts with other writers and production companies.
The new assignments, Klein says, "reflect how serious studios have become in getting their stories right, in being accurate and truthful and understanding the global marketplace. Studios now see the math and know that for every dollar they earn in the U.S., there are two or three dollars to be earned in the overseas markets."