Filmmakers reaped benefits by making Jordan their 'Locker' room


It was during a dinner with Prince Ali bin Al Hussein and Princess Rym Al Ali of Jordan that the makers of "The Hurt Locker" realized just how important it was for their movie to shoot in that country.

"(The princess) said, 'How come Hollywood uses Moroccans and North Africans as Middle Easterns? They are not; they're from Africa,' " recalls Mark Boal, the writer and a producer on Kathryn Bigelow's action drama, which was picked up for distribution by Summit last week at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Morocco is one of Hollywood's go-to places to shoot Middle Eastern-set movies. Even Ridley Scott, who goes to great lengths to create authenticity in his films, shot his upcoming Leonardo DiCaprio thriller "Body of Lies" -- which is set in Jordan -- in Morocco.

So why is Jordan, a country every bit as modern and safe as Morocco, getting the short end of the kebab?

"It almost goes back to the days when Hollywood would cast Italians and put paint on their faces and make them play Indians," Boal says. "It's not quite that extreme, but it is pretty extreme, especially from that part of the world's perspective."

Adds George David of the Royal Film Commission-Jordan: "People notice. It doesn't even have to be the landscape. It can be the look of military vehicles. But people notice."

"Locker" did scout Morocco, which has its pluses: better film infrastructure and more skilled labor. And with Jordan, you have to ship more equipment and bring in crew members. But as the "Locker" production discovered, Jordan's overall rates are lower, making up the difference. In addition, there was no premium for acts of terrorism when it came to getting insurance, producer Greg Shapiro says.

"Everyone thought there would be big security concerns, but we really didn't have any problems," he says.

Jordan has two other aces up its sleeve.

One is authenticity, something Bigelow was advocating. You can't get any closer to Iraq for an Iraq-set movie than Jordan, its neighbor to the west, and Amman, the city where "Locker" was shot, has similar architecture to Baghdad. It also has Iraqi expatriates --many of whom became part of the production in front of and behind the cameras -- as well as camps of refugees from neighboring war-torn nations. All of this suited the production, which often used a scaled-down crew to capture the tensions of war life.

The other ace is the Jordanian royal family, which is committed to the growth of the film industry and oversees the country's film commission. The family and the commission saw the movie as an opportunity to show what the country is capable of doing and that it's safe for Westerners to shoot there.

"Locker," an war movie with a small budget, received access to such Jordanian military equipment as helicopters and Humvees and even had army personnel acting as PAs as it turned blocks and blocks of the city into its own set -- a war zone with snipers attacking from behind corners and the smoking entrails of explosions snaking down streets.

The production did have to import dozens of guns and thousands of rounds of ammo for the shoot, a sensitive proposition in today's political climate, especially in that part of the world.

At one point, the production was within eight hours of filming a major set piece when it learned that its very real props were being held up at customs and looking at a four- or five-day clearing process.

"We had very high-level personal intervention from the government," Boal says. "Someone who basically controls the entire military picked up the phone and said, 'Get these guns through.' "

The production was able to incorporate the natural rhythms of Jordan into the movie (a small sandstorm caked actors Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie, something Bigelow went with) while enjoying the hospitality of a people who found the movie shoot novel and exciting (when shooting in front of homes, locals sometimes invited filmmakers and crew members in for tea).

The "Locker" production appears to have had some effect already. The movie created an internship program, and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" arrives there next month for a short shoot. And last week, the country's first film school, the Red Sea Institute for the Cinematic Arts, welcomed its first students.