U.S. pix: Out of Africa?

Caravan of projects being mulled for Morocco

Studios have committed more than $1 billion to a thicket of tentpoles scheduled to shoot in Morocco in the next two years. But the drums of war reverberating from Washington to Baghdad are giving Hollywood an epic headache.

The Muslim nation on the northwest coast of Africa has long been a mecca for Hollywood filmmakers. But not since the 1950s — the golden age of sword-and-sandal sagas — have so many producers descended on the desert to build casbahs and coliseums, marshal herds of camels and elephants, and costume thousands of extras in scabbards and loincloths.

The caravan of pics being mulled for Moroccan lensing includes “Troy” from Warner Bros.; “Tripoli” from Fox; “Alexander the Great” and “Gladiator 2” from DreamWorks and Universal; another “Alexander the Great” from Intermedia and Warner Bros.; and the next installments of “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.”

But there are storm clouds on the horizon, with a U.S. invasion of Iraq possible in the next two months.

At a fundraiser at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles on Jan. 29, former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke delivered a sobering message to an audience of talent agency toppers and film studio heads.

“We have to assume that within eight to 10 weeks,” Holbrooke said, “we’ll be at war.”

Holbrooke’s speech capped weeks of military buildup in the Persian Gulf and rising war rhetoric from Washington that is spooking the industry.

The financiers, execs and talent behind pics set to shoot in North Africa are confronting the possibility that a conflagration in the region could spread across the Middle East — inflaming tensions even in a moderate state like Morocco.

While Morocco is seven hours by plane from Iraq, a war could have a disruptive effect on regional filming everywhere.Given the complex production logistics and climate constraints in the region — the mercury in the Sahara climbs above 110 degrees after March — even a few months of production delays could create severe problems.

“Troy,” the Wolfgang Petersen Trojan War epic starring Brad Pitt, is scheduled to start production in Europe in April, traveling to Morocco in the scorching summer months of July and August.

The studio has staked out turf near Ouarzazate where execs say they hope to build a set for the pic, which being made under the auspices of its U.K.-based Warner Bros. Productions subsid.

But it has also considered moving the pic out of Africa to locations in Spain or Mexico.

“Whenever we undertake a production on location, we always explore alternate locations,” a studio spokesperson said. “Should our planned locations become unfeasible for any reasons, we have other options.”

Fox’s “Tripoli,” originally scheduled to shoot this spring, has been pushed back. Producer Branco Lustig says the threat of war hasn’t yet affected the schedule, and the pic, helmed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, could start shooting on the coast of Morocco in August.

But Lustig says that war insurance could add weight to the budget. In the 1991 Gulf War, he says, war insurance cost $3.5 million.

Insurance troubles could torpedo smaller productions set to shoot in Morocco.

Director Terrence Malick, who was recently in the region scouting locations for his next feature — an as-yet untitled desert adventure — has been telling people that he couldn’t get the film bonded.

Nobody likes to travel overseas during wartime, which means that even producers with contingency plans to shoot in other parts of the world may have to wait out the next few months.

Local crews in Morocco and a handful of American filmmakers remain optimistic that international events won’t derail their production plans.

Dino’s determined

Dino De Laurentiis has a lot riding on the security of the region. He is building a studio in Ouarzazate to house “Alexander the Great,” a $140 million biopic he’s producing with Universal and DreamWorks. Baz Luhrmann, a partner in De Laurentiis’ Moroccan studio, is helming and Leonardo DiCaprio is starring in the pic, which the producer says will start rolling in October or November and shoot for 24 weeks.

“Morocco is a no-risk country,” says De Laurentiis, who adds that if war is inevitable, it will be over by summertime. He says the pic even has the support of King Abdullah of Jordan and could shoot segments in that country, which borders Iraq.

De Laurentiis is locked in a showdown with another “Alexander the Great” biopic from Intermedia directed by Oliver Stone and starring Colin Farrell. Intermedia says its pic will roll in June, though soaring temperatures and a lack of prep time could make it impossible for Stone to shoot in the summer; he allegedly hasn’t even finished the script.

Worried Moroccan film crews have a heartfelt message for President Bush: Please don’t go to war.

Under the solicitous eye of the film-friendly King Mohammed VI, the nation has sought to position itself as the Canada of the Eastern hemisphere.

A popular Hollywood location dating back to mid-1950s productions like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and Orson Welles’ “Othello,” Morocco is alluring for big-budget filmmakers. There’s cheap labor and veteran film crews, major production facilities such as Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate, and landscapes and light conditions as cinematic as any location in the world.

In recent years, Morocco has hosted such large-scale productions as “Gladiator,” “Spy Game,” “Hidalgo,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Four Feathers.” The Moroccan film industry employs some 2,000 people and brings in $100 million a year in foreign exchange.

“Geographically, Morocco is farther West than France or Spain,” says Hicham Benkirane, a production consultant who serves as the Hollywood rep of Souheil Ben Barka, head of the Moroccan Cinematographic Center. “The country is secular and multi-ethnic. We have a great king who loves cinema.”

But for American crews, it’s still a far cry from Canada.

Two years ago, with the outbreak of the second Intifada, the producers of “Spy Game” aborted plans to shoot several key sequences in Israel, moving the production to Casablanca just weeks before shooting.

The Moroccan city had “the right look for Beirut,” says producer Marc Abraham. “But at times it could seem dirty and unsafe. Let’s just say, it didn’t live up to the romance and glamour of its name.”

Insurance companies are also balking at the prospect of shooting in Morocco during wartime.

Runaway factor

A growing aversion to overseas shoots is certain to have one salutary effect in Hollywood, however: It will help curb runaway production.

U.S. producers are already pondering locations in their own backyard, even for films about actual events in the Middle East.

Mace Neufeld is producing a film for Columbia Pictures based on the battle in 2001 for control of the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif and the uprising at Qala-i-Jhangi prison.

“Even though we have the cooperation of the Afghan ambassador to the U.S.,” Neufeld says, “we’ll probably end up shooting in Arizona or the Mojave Desert. We don’t want to put our people in harm’s way.”

Neufeld is planning to shoot another pic, “Pathfinder,” in Poland, but he adds, “I’ve done so many locations that I would love to shoot something close to home. Almost any place over there can be a hotspot if war breaks out.”

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