Directors find safety zone in Jordan

Country lures Hollywood productions

Hollywood is setting its sights on an unlikely region for location filmmaking: Jordan.

Surrounded on all sides by political turmoil and conflict, the country is drawing a record number of productions with increasingly large budgets, as the media-friendly royal family dips into its black book of celebrity contacts to fast-track projects.

Helmers Nick Broomfield and Brian De Palma both wrapped shooting in Jordan on their Iraq-set projects, “Battle for Haditha” and “Redacted,” respectively, within weeks of each other in May. Kathryn Bigelow is set to begin lensing on “The Hurt Locker,” another Iraq drama, in June. One major U.S. studio will also be scouting for locations in the country for a $130 million project later this year. Scouts from a new $10 million version of “Ali Baba” will visit the country later this year for possible locations.

The lure has been Jordan’s authenticity. While Morocco has established itself as a popular destination with Hollywood productions, and even attracted other Iraq-set dramas like “Home of the Brave,” Jordan shares a border and similar landscape with Iraq, where it is nearly impossible to film because of the lack of security.

It’s not only international projects being made. Jordan’s first-ever feature, the $2 million “Captain Abu Raed,” went into production May 22, with another two local features set to start shooting by early next year.

Jordanian officials are making a big push on the education front as well. In September 2006, Jordan inked a deal with USC to build the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, the Middle East’s first regional film school, which will open in September 2008 in the Red Sea resort of Aqaba. The school’s first class, open to both Arab and Israelis students, will graduate by 2011.

Key to all this activity has been the creation of Jordan’s Royal Film Commission in 2003 and, coincidentally enough, the war in Iraq that began the same year. The commission has been able to count on help from the highest levels in its attempts to lure international projects.

“Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford are personal friends of mine, and I remember encouraging them to film part of ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ there,” says Queen Noor, fourth wife of the late King Hussein. “It was terribly important to help set up the capability for large companies to come in and film here. It will be interesting to see the impact of all the films being made in Jordan this year.”

The RFC’s Chairman is Prince Ali, the only son of the late King Hussein from his third wife. “The assistance of the government and the personal support of His Royal Highness Prince Ali has made Jordan ideal for filmmakers,” says “Locker” producer Mark Boal.

Also, the influx of anywhere from 750,000 to 1.5 million Iraqi refugees to Jordanian capital Amman has given filmmakers easy access to Iraqi extras and on-set consultants, one of the main reaons why Broomfield chose to lens in the country.

“Initially it happened by chance because being there let us meet people from Haditha itself,” Broomfield says. “It’s very close to the border, so they could drive and meet us in Jordan.”

In addition to facilitating everything from scouting and permits, the government has trumped rival locations by providing the Jordanian army’s assistance. “All three of the Iraq movies needed military equipment, with everything from Humvees, helicopters and planes to U.S. army uniforms,” says RFC general manager Pernilla Frykholm. “Morocco doesn’t have that, but through the good relations of Prince Ali and the RFC board with the army, we can provide that assistance.”

Current King Abdullah, from Hussein’s second marriage, has also played his part, presiding over the signing of the USC deal in Gotham. The king also helped establish

the RFC with the donation of a three-year grant worth $4.5 million.

You might think having Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Israel as neighbors would prove problematic in terms of attracting Western investment, but those countries’ political instabilities — particularly Iraq’s — have worked in Jordan’s favor. “Miraculously, it’s a very calm country given its geographical location,” Broomfield says.

While filming in the country experienced a brief hit immediately following 9/11 — reality producer Mark Burnett cancelled plans to do a “Survivor: Arabia” there — of greater worry was the impact of the terror attacks on a Jordan hotel in 2005 that killed dozens, including Arab-American producer Moustapha Akkad and his daughter.

Ever since then, however, the government has amped up security efforts in the country. “The RFC provides security 24/7 at no extra cost,” says the commission’s production services manager George David. “There has never been a single incident on a set in Jordan, whether theft, vandalism or any other criminal act.”

While filming in Jordan is nothing new, dating back to “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1962, to the likes of “The Mummy Returns,” “Mission to Mars,” and “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation,” what has changed is that

entire projects are being lensed in the country, not just second unit footage.

Of the three Iraq-themed projects, each has increased in terms of budget and size. De Palma shot “Redacted” for three and a half weeks. Broomfield’s seven-week shoot of “Battle for Haditha” accounted for his whole production phase, while Bigelow has skedded a 45-day shoot for “The Hurt Locker.”

“De Palma wrapped shooting four days ahead of schedule and under budget,” David says.

The sudden boom in film shoots has had a significant impact on Jordan’s economy. David estimates that the “Locker” shoot alone will generate $4.5 million. It’s all helping to sustain a general rise in Jordan’s fortunes that may see the country emerge as a genuine media and entertainment industry player.

RFC officials have been keen to nurture its grassroot helmers by working with the Sundance Institute’s Middle Eastern script labs. The annual event, now in its third year, is already garnering results. Iraqi helmer Mohamed al-Daradji tapped Brit multihypenate Antonia Bird to exec produce his sophomore feature “Um Hussein.”

One longer-term question remains over Jordan’s ability to continue attracting Hollywood productions beyond the current fascination with Iraq.

The RFC has plans to establish a public/private film fund that can finance films on a regional basis, and is also working on a studio city that will include facilities for film shoots in the country in the long-term.

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