Filmmakers set their sites abroad

Never underestimate the value of a change of scenery.

There’s often no better inspiration for a veteran filmmaker than a new milieu. And it’s especially valuable when it’s one that allows audiences a glimpse of a location heretofore rarely seen on film: Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” gave most Americans their first view of post-War Vienna, while Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy brought new attention to New Zealand, almost single-handedly sparking a sudden upswing in tourism.

Of course, making films in unfamiliar surroundings can sometimes be a dicey proposition. William Friedkin’s ill-fated Dominican Republic-set “Sorcerer” comes to mind, as does Francis Ford Coppola’s ultimately successful yet traumatic Philippine adventure for “Apocalypse Now.” But this year saw a number of established helmers elude such traveling-director traps.

Woody Allen was lured to Barcelona by the region’s generous production incentives, but clearly found inspiration that went beyond mere financial concerns. His fourth film since exiling himself from his native New York habitat, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” saw the director garner some of the best reviews of the past several decades, utilizing ultra-scenic locations such as Antonio Gaudi’s Guell Park, the Tibidabo amusement park and nearby towns Aviles and Oviedo to punctuate the film’s intersecting love stories.

Allen’s presence in Barcelona was a prominent story in the local press, with some Barcelonans upset that the government had financed a film from a non-Spanish director, while others were thrilled to simply have the director (who is in many ways more famous in Europe than in the U.S.) soaking in their city.

As Allen observed in his production diary printed in the New York Times: “Barcelona is a marvelous city. Crowds turn out in the streets to watch us work. Mercifully they realize I’ve no time to give autographs, and so they ask only the cast members.”

Where Allen was lured into Barcelona, Baz Luhrmann took the opposite tack for “Australia” — taking his cast and crew far beyond what most filmmakers would consider civilized territory. His first film to feature prominent Australian locations since “Strictly Ballroom” (“Moulin Rouge” was filmed in the country, but entirely within soundstage walls), “Australia” boasts no shortage of sweeping shots of the underpopulated Kimberley region, rarely seen on film.

Small town Kununurra served as the central location (despite triple-digit temperatures and unseasonable floods that besieged production), while other, more remote locales were featured in the film’s cattle-drive centerpiece.

While numerous critics noted “Barcelona’s” possible second life as a tourism lure upon its release, “Australia” was seized upon from the start. Federal agency Tourism Western Australia launched a tie-in publicity campaign titled “See the Movie, See the Country,” and the national tourism bureau even tapped Lurhmann to shoot a series of ads for the country.

While his vision of Mumbai might not be as strong a tourism incentive, there is perhaps no clearer example of the rejuvenating effect of a new locale than Danny Boyle’s trip to India for “Slumdog Millionaire,” through which the slumping Brit director discovered an entirely new style.

Boyle recalled recently for Variety his first impressions of the city: “The city is in fast forward. Everything is rushing at you at the same time from all sides.”

To capture that feeling, Boyle and his Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan used handheld, on-the-fly camerawork, conveying the hyperkinetic swirl of the city’s densely packed slums as well as the Juhu beaches and the Taj Mahal.

Further deepening the sense of place, Boyle had the advantage of telling a multiyear story in a city of rapid change. Switching its name from the colonial-era Bombay and rapidly developing into a major, cosmopolitan world city, Mumbai had a character arc as sure as any of the film’s three protagonists, highlighted by Boyle’s skyscraper views of housing developments rising over the city’s former slums.

This year also saw Belgian Flemish capital Bruges play home to its first major film since “A Nun’s Story” thanks to Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges.” And neighboring Greek islands Skopelos and Skiathos both burnished their degree of name-recognition with moviegoers thanks to “Mamma Mia!”

Whether these sudden closeups will lead more filmmakers to the same spots remains to be seen: Catalonia has since clamped down on the generous incentives that lured Allen; Western Australia is still a harsh, unaccommodating region; and Mumbai has enough governmental red tape to give any filmmaker pause.

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