Backlot: Made in the Caribbean

Issue 53 - Made in the Caribbean: Rum Diary
Peter Mountain/GK Films

Bahamas resident Johnny Depp stars in The Rum Diary, shot in Puerto Rico.

Chameleon-like locales and accommodating film commissions have transformed these island nations into a producers paradise

If Hollywood bean counters had their druthers, they’d shoot all their films in Michigan to take advantage of the state’s generous 42% tax credit. But chilly exteriors and rugged landscape limit the state’s ability to stand in for exotic climes.

For producers in need of greater flexibility, the Caribbean delivers far more than white sandy beaches and placid blue waters.

With a wealth of locales that can double for everything from Mumbai to Massachusetts, Hollywood has come calling of late to tap the region’s versatility and production savvy.

So why the sudden activity? Look no further than the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. In addition to jumpstarting the local production sector, the Disney blockbuster has been a wake-up call to local film commissions, prompting them to actively market the islands as an inexpensive alternative to similar locales in Australia and Hawaii.

Sure, direct flights from Los Angeles are tough to find, hurricanes are an ever-present danger and getting from island to island can be a challenge, but those who make the trip are usually glad they did.

A snapshot of the region’s strongest players:

Puerto Rico
Thanks largely to its 40 percent transferable tax credit, Puerto Rico has been the most popular film and TV production destination in the Caribbean during recent years, attracting such upcoming features as Fast Five, starring Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel and Paul Walker; Potsdamer Platz, directed by Tony Scott; and the Johnny Depp vehicles The Rum Diary and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

The credit had been only applicable to Puerto Rico residents, including local crew members, hotels and equipment vendors, but Gov. Luis Fortuno recently introduced legislation that would expand the credit to nonresident talent at a reduced rate of 20% and boost the program’s annual cap from $15 million to $50 million.

Another thing that sets Puerto Rico apart from other islands in the region is its proven ability to play a multitude of locales, from the Iraqi desert (2009’s The Men Who Stare at Goats) to India (this year’s The Losers).

“We have a modern city with a downtown that can look like Miami or maybe L.A. as well as neighborhoods that can double for the suburban U.S. and [the colonial city] Old San Juan, which has played Cuba numerous times,” says Mariella Perez Serrano, executive director of the Puerto Rico Film Commission.

Dominican Republic
This island nation is “Puerto Rico 20 years ago,” according to Alejo Menendez, a Miami-based location scout. “There’s a lot of terrain there that’s not as developed as Puerto Rico, and you can get accommodations and labor a lot cheaper.”

It is currently facing uncertainty thanks to the cholera outbreak in neighboring Haiti, but the Dominican Republic has made progress in its struggle to overcome government corruption. In March 2009, Leonel Fernandez fired 700 police officers and forced the retirement of 31 military and police generals because of their suspected involvement in the drug trade.

“For many years, it was on the blacklist of locations,” Menendez says, because of an incident involving the 1990 film Havana, starring Robert Redford. “They filmed there, then when it was time to leave, the guy in the government who all the deals were made with was gone, and there was suddenly a new guy with a new deal. But that’s too difficult for them to pull off now.”

U.S. Virgin Islands
When The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shot on the island of St. Thomas in 2006-07, FilmUSVI development manager Steve Bornn was able to give producers the warm, clear water they came for and a whole lot more.

“They were looking for a boat all over the place,” Bornn says. “We pulled into one of the local marinas, and bam! — there is the boat.” When the paparazzi hounded star Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, “we prosecuted them and locked them up in jail. The head of Mr. Pitt’s security said, ‘We’ve been all over the world, and that’s never happened.’ ”

Productions ranging from 1989’s big-screen comedy Weekend at Bernie’s to the current Bravo reality series The Real Housewives of New York City have come to the USVI. But Bornn is also proud of the islands’ versatility. “We have urban settings, farms that could be in Midwest and towns that look like they could be in New England or on the California coast,” he says.

Depp had such a good time shooting the second and third Pirates movies in the Bahamas that he bought an island there.

“He comes here in January ?for practically the entire month and just enjoys the weather,” Bahamas film commissioner Craig Woods says.

Similar to the USVI, the ?Bahamas has no formalized incentive, but it has negotiated generous tax-credit deals with several productions recently including Pirates, the James Bond film Casino Royale (2006) and the German miniseries Sea Wolf (2009).

Last year, it had a good run with visits from such features as Killers and Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too? But this year, things have been slower featurewise, with only a three-day visit from Gulliver’s Travels to pick up aerial shots and ocean views.