on location

Safe and soundstages: Morocco a film mecca

At this time of year, Morocco resembles Los Angeles with its pleasant days and cool nights. But when it comes to filming, the country is hotter than ever.

Paramount Vantage's "Babel," New Line Cinema's "The Nativity Story" and MGM's "Home of the Brave" are just some of the current movies that have shot there in the past year, as did an episode of CBS' "The Amazing Race." Universal Pictures' "Charlie Wilson's War" just finished shooting there, while New Line's "Rendition" and Warner Independent Pictures' Paul Haggis mystery thriller "In the Valley of Elah" are lining up shoots.

The main reasons are subject matter and safety. In the post-Sept. 11 world, most U.S. movies that deal with or are set in the Arab world have found their options for location shooting limited because of safety concerns. And Morocco has been the beneficiary.

"It's as safe a place as any," producer Steve Golin says. "It's a kingdom, and there's really, really strong security there, and you feel safe."

Golin produced "Babel," about 60% of which was shot in Morocco, and is in production on "Rendition," a thriller about an extracted Muslim national starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon.

"Rendition" didn't go to Dubai because that Saudi peninsula country doesn't have the look of a typical Middle East country ? instead, it has an aura of blazing white, oil-rich modernity ? and Egypt was considered but eventually was thought of as "too dicey."

"Everybody is concerned about safety" when it comes to filming internationally, Golin says.

"Rendition" will be looking to shoot at a large prison and a university and is working out the logistics for a scene involving a bombing at a roundabout traffic circle.

Irwin Winkler decided to film his Iraqi war drama "Home of the Brave" in the Moroccan town of Ouarzazate after learning that William Friedkin shot "Rules of Engagement" there in 2000.

"It is an Arab and Muslim country," Winkler says. "The people and the buildings were exactly what we needed as far as atmosphere and background."

The director's biggest obstacle wasn't the weather, laws or language but rather learning some of the customs. "When we went to somebody's house to put a camera in, they insisted on us having tea first," he says. "And they have very nice customs there, but we were itching to get in and out."

Winkler, like Golin, praised the strong infrastructure, with its seasoned crews and state-of-the-art soundstages, that has grown exponentially since the 1990s, when Ridley Scott shot "Gladiator" there. Scott since has come back to Morocco for "Black Hawk Down" and "Kingdom of Heaven."

In fact, if anything, there's so much production, particularly in Ouarzazate, that filmmakers are tripping over themselves.

"When we were there with 'Babel,' they were doing 'The Hills Have Eyes 2' and some Moses miniseries with Omar Sharif," Golin says. "So you're at the pool of the hotel and there are four other movie crews there."

He adds: "You get tired of your own crew after awhile, so it wasn't so bad."
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