Crews tackle new logistics in Africa

Hollywood finds that the advantages of a young industry outweigh the problems

For pics set in Africa, the decision to shoot in the county where the story takes place may create greater authenticity and may even save money. But the challenges can be enormous.

“There was absolutely no infrastructure there at all,” producer Lisa Bryer says of Uganda, where her pic “The Last King of Scotland” was shot. “There was no film industry, no trained workers, nothing.”

When Bryer says no, she means it. For example, a slow Internet connection made each email take 10 to 15 minutes to send. When the filming ventured outside the capital city of Kampala, there was no air conditioning in the hotel rooms. The film had to be developed in Germany, so it took three to four days to see what had been shot. And of course the crew was plagued by malaria and dysentery.

One morning, during the filming of a scene that involved cars and trucks, “King” director Kevin Macdonald said “action,” and nothing happened: The fuel had been siphoned off overnight.

To give them a leg up, the creators met directly with the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni and got his full support and permission for access to various government buildings. “He felt it was a story that should be told. He seemed to trust us as filmmakers,” Bryer says.

‘Babel’ village

The Morocco storyline in “Babel” was filmed exactly where much of it’s set — in a 300-person village for the scenes with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, and some barely inhabited desert areas for the scenes featuring the trigger-happy children. Producer Jon Kilik says he purposefully wanted to create a “low impact” shoot. Because Kilik’s “Alexander” — which was also shot in Morocco — required huge battle scenes and elaborate sets and costumes, he brought a crew of 300. For “Babel,” he kept it to 30.

The creatives on the film wanted to create a spirit of intimate interaction with the locals. “We kept the impact on the village, by our presence, to an absolute minimum in order to try to preserve the natural environment,” says Kilik.

For instance, Moroccans taught the set builders how to add an extra room to an existing stone house in the Moroccan desert. The veterinarian who comes to stitch up Blanchett’s character was played by an actual village vet who brought his own needle. The villagers in the film were played by people who lived in the town where the pic was shot, and so on.

“We wanted to have continuity between what’s going on behind the camera and what your goal is in front of camera,” Kilik says. And that they did: When a helicopter lands in the village, the reaction shots from the villagers were genuine. “It landed right in the middle of their homes, and it was something that was a supernatural sort of experience (for them), and it feels that way when you watch the scene, because we really included people’s reactions,” he says.

Kilik says the main challenge was the language barrier — which, perhaps not coincidentally, fits the pic’s theme. While the crew on “Alexander” hailed mostly from the U.K., the “Babel” crew came from Morocco, Mexico, the United States, England, Germany, France and Italy; and while English was the common language, some of the Moroccan cast and crew — including the child actors who play major roles — did not speak a word of English. Among the translators was a Palestinian actress, Hiam Abbass, who could translate the finer points of acting into French and Arabic.

“Catch a Fire” and “Blood Diamond” were filmed in Mozambique and South Africa. While South Africa has a fairly established film industry and often hosts shoots for commercials, the country isn’t used to big-budget Hollywood filmmaking and doesn’t have major soundstages.

For that reason, the decision by “Fire” producer Robyn Slovo to use mostly South African department heads was unique. It’s cheaper, but there were also creative reasons. “It’s a South African story,” says Slovo, “so let’s use a South African production designer, South African costume designer.” Still other crew members, such as the Steadicam operator, were brought from Europe.

Genevieve Hofmeyr was line producer on “Catch a Fire” and her company, Moonlighting Films, did production services on “Blood Diamond,” which she says relied more on non-African crew members than “Catch a Fire.”

Sometimes it helps to hire Hollywood experts with previous work experience in the area. The production designer on “Catch a Fire,” Johnny Breedt, had been production designer on “Hotel Rwanda.” And Andrew Wood, line producer on “The Last King of Scotland,” had filmed in Rwanda on “Shooting Dogs,” and brought in crews from Rwanda and Kenya.

While Africans aren’t familiar with the “culture of filmmaking,” Hofmeyr explains, “the advantages of a young industry frequently outweighs this problem, i.e. lower costs, enthusiastic crews, absence of regulation, etc.” Labor costs can be a third of what they are in Hollywood, she notes.

“There is enormous talent in South Africa and too little experience,” Slovo observes. “This will change in the next five or six years. It’s just that these people never get used other than for local productions.”