2009 films use far-flung sites to enhance stories

International locations have played a role in the stories of countless Oscar-winning pics. This year’s contenders were shot in environments as far-flung as a shantytown in South Africa for Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9″ and the sandblasted streets of Amman, Jordan, for Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.”

In “District 9,” the choice of Soweto — a township still scarred by the events of apartheid — sharpened the themes of racial segregation and conflict, while, for the creative team behind “The Hurt Locker,” selecting a location so close to Iraq — where the film is set — helped establish the authenticity of the action and the characters’ emotional development.

“The choice of location was quite critical, and it would have been a very different movie if we’d shot it outside the Middle East,” says Mark Boal, a producer and the scripter on “The Hurt Locker.” “It would have been the same story, but it might not have felt as immediate and as visceral.”

The production team was also able to recruit Iraqi refugees as bit players and extras, which helped re-create the ambience of the Iraqi capital.

“In a way, the city of Baghdad is a character in the story — it is a cipher that is endlessly anxiety-producing and unknowable and is always pressing down on the soldiers,” Boal says.

But locations do not necessarily have to be exotic or unfamiliar to be effective.

In Lone Scherfig’s “An Education,” when 16-year-old Jenny — played by Oscar hopeful Carey Mulligan — steps out of the Bristol roadster of her unsuitable suitor, the 30ish David (Peter Sarsgaard), in the picturesque village of Turville, there is a palpable sense of the freedom felt by a girl who hitherto has been kept in the drab confines of her home, school and tidy streets of suburban Twickenham.

In the same way, the location reinforces the pic’s story of an innocent abroad and transformation from duckling to swan in subsequent scenes in Oxford, London’s West End and Paris, a city whose character has already been established as possessing the quintessence of sophistication and a mecca for aspiring intelligentsia.

“The West End, Oxford and Paris all contrast with her life at home, which is a claustrophobic suburban gray world,” says Finola Dwyer, who produced the pic alongside Amanda Posey. “These places were key for her story and character development, and for getting some scale into the movie.”

Paris also plays a role in Anne Fontaine’s “Coco Before Chanel,” which features a standout perf by Audrey Tautou as the eponymous fashion designer.

Here, the initial settings of the orphanage, where Coco and her sister are dumped by their father, and the seedy saloons and music hall of a provincial town where they entertain the drunks, add rationale and credibility to the siblings’ determination to seek a better life with the monied elites housed in and around Paris.

A romantic jaunt with English businessman Arthur “Boy” Capel to the fashionable seaside resort of Deauville then offers a glimpse of a more liberated way of life, reflected in the elegant facades of the Belle Epoque hotels and the simple lines and bright light of the beaches of Normandy.

This journey from orphanage to Deauville, whose place was taken in the film by the less-spoiled neighboring town of Trouville, mirrors the arc of the story and Coco’s character development, says Philippe Carcassonne, one of the pic’s producers.

In Stephen Frears’ “Cheri,” France’s Belle Epoque architecture is again deployed, this time to complement the decadence and fading beauty of courtesan Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer) in late 19th-century Paris and Biarritz. However, the locations were not secured without a fight.

“Eastern Europe was mentioned, and it would have been a cheaper alternative,” Frears told Variety earlier this year, “but really you can’t fake this kind of thing.”

However, many other pics have faked it. Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” opens with the line “Once upon a time … in Nazi-occupied France,” but apart from a three-day shoot in Paris, the rest of the pic was lensed in Germany — in no small part because it had a German co-producer, Studio Babelsberg, and coin from the German Federal Film Fund.

For Patrick Lamassoure, managing director of the French Film Commission, one of the reasons for launching France’s tax rebates for international production, which will be in place by the end of the year, was to persuade filmmakers like Tarantino to shoot French-set stories in France.

He describes Tarantino’s decision as “the best bad news we had ever had. It was the perfect example to demonstrate why we had to introduce the incentives. It was the trigger.”

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