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Exotic, but still part of the USA

Scout & About: Puerto Rico 2012

Filmmakers who’ve worked on tropical locations caution that crews tend to observe “island time,” as if the overabundance of sun, surf, palm trees and umbrella-topped drinks has literally slowed their metabolism. Things happen when they happen, and those who try to push it will be met with indifference.

But when production designer Charisse Cardenas traveled to Puerto Rico last summer to make “Runner, Runner,” starring Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck, she found the opposite to be true.

“Across the board, everyone just jumped in and did it,” Cardenas says. “No matter what the request was, it just happened.”

The crew base in Puerto Rico is bilingual, but it is only about four productions deep. However, producer Justin Kanew says that worked to their advantage on the low-budget comedy “Welcome to the Jungle,”starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, which shot there in early 2012.

“They’re a pretty tight-knit group down there, so they take pride in what they do,” Kanew observes. “I’ve made a couple of things where you’re just one product on the conveyor belt, but in Puerto Rico it felt like everyone had ownership of the project and cared, and when you’re trying to do a lot for a little, that’s really important.”

Puerto Rico has no soundstage facilities, but what it lacks infrastructure it makes up for in photogenic locations, including a wealth of beaches and rainforests, capital city San Juan’s modern urban landscape, well preserved colonial Old San Juan, neighborhoods that can double for the suburban U.S. and verdant mountain ranges that look like they could be in Colombia, Ecuador or Peru.

In “Runner, Runner,” Puerto Rico subs for Costa Rica. In recent years it has stood in for locales ranging from Brazil in “Fast Five” and Mexico in the second season of HBO’s “Eastbound & Down” to the Iraqi desert in “The Men Who Stare at Goats” and India, Bolivia, Chile, and the U.S. in “The Losers.”

All told, Puerto Rico has hosted some 90 shoots since 1999, including episodes of TV series such as “The Big C” and “White Collar” and the recent BBC adaptation of “Treasure Island,” but Cardenas believes filmmakers have yet to take advantage of all it has to offer visually.

“You typically see the same few things — the rainforest, the beach and Old San Juan,” Cardenas says. “But there are a lot of interesting neighborhoods that haven’t been touched or shot yet that look like they’re right out of a movie.”

As examples, Cardenas cites two locales she used for “Runner, Runner” — Fort San Felipe del Morro (aka Morro Castle), a 16th-century citadel on the northwestern tip of San Juan, and La Perla, a slum on the northeastern wall of Old San Juan that is home international drug traders, arms dealers and narcotics distributors.

Director John Stockwell is planning to take advantage of the latter locale for his Cargo Entertainment feature “In the Blood,” which is scheduled to begin shooting Puerto Rico this month.

“You don’t go in there unless you have the permission of the local people, and our location scout knew enough people that we could at least scout it safely,” Stockwell says. “Everyone seemed very friendly and open to us filming there, so hopefully everything will come together.”

The good news: if they run into any trouble, they can call for help on their smartphones.

“The best part is your phone works there,” Kanew says, “so you don’t have to get an international cell phone.”

Scout & About: Puerto Rico 2012
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