Specifically, to the deserts of Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, which are inextricably tied to the Canadian director’s passionate vision of the planet Arrakis. These countries have also played key roles in several of the “Star Wars” installments, giving all these films a soul they never could have attained using green screens and the CGI visuals of most sci-fi movies.
Villeneuve in several interviews has said he started scouting for “Dune” a decade ago in Jordan when he first came to the region to make his 2010 Oscar-nominated breakout film “Incendies.” Even then, he was dreaming of bringing Frank Herbert’s book to life. As heard in promotional materials for the film, Villeneuve vowed to himself that if he ever got to make “Dune,” “this is where I’m coming.”
Productions from Hollywood, Bollywood and Europe are increasingly opting to film in the region. They include the mesmerizing rock and sand formations of Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert, where way before Villeneuve, David Lean shot the iconic sequences of his Oscar-winning “Lawrence of Arabia.” Then there are the UAE’s Liwa desert, also used by Villeneuve for “Dune” and by J.J. Abrams for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” as well as the breathtaking sands and mountains of Morocco that recently hosted Harrison Ford and director James Mangold for “Indiana Jones 5.” Oman’s greener scenery has drawn several mostly French productions, and Saudi Arabia, a newcomer to the global filmmaking market, just lured Gerard Butler thriller “Kandahar.”
These international projects, and other big-budget pics, stand as testimony to the region’s growing attraction not just for its stunning locations, but also as a production-friendly environment offering generous incentives and efficient crews.
Throughout the Middle East, the depth of local crews with solid expertise is growing as the regional film and TV industry makes a quantum leap forward, prompted by growing demand for domestic content from giant streaming platforms, incentives and governments that are generally willing to bend backward to accommodate productions.
Abu Dhabi, which is building a large state-of-the-art complex for the media and entertainment industry called Yas Creative Hub, has been trumpeted as a milestone in the country’s efforts to diversify from its oil-based economy and become a production hotspot in the region.
The Emirate is one of the few places in the world where film and TV production never stopped during the pandemic. Now, after managing the feat of hosting major Hollywood blockbusters such as “Mission: Impossible 7,” as well as regional and local productions, it is on track to attract more than $100 million in physical production spend in 2021, says Abu Dhabi Film and Television Commission chief Hans Fraikin.
For “Mission: Impossible 7,” which shot in Abu Dhabi and the surrounding area for roughly five weeks starting in January, “we pulled out all the stops,” Fraikin says. He adds that during prep the government was super cooperative. “It was a triad: the film commission, Paramount and the government.”
The prep work involved putting together a COVID-19 production protocol involving a meticulous safety system of “microcosm bubbles,” and “all sorts of testing stations” that became known as the “Mission Possible” protocol, which they have replicated for a dozen subsequent shoots.
“Grace and graciousness, magic and majesty, hospitality and hope. Of the many challenges we’ve faced on our journey, none will be greater than outshining the gifts Abu Dhabi has given us,” wrote “M:I7” director McQuarrie on Instagram when he left.
Incentives can be generous in the region, where Abu Dhabi offers a 30% cash rebate, while the rebate is 25% in Jordan, 20% in Morocco and 18% in Tunisia, and all these countries offer a VAT tax exemption.
But what can be just as important are pristine unspoiled landscapes such as the ones boasted by Saudi Arabia’s sprawling AlUla area, which recently launched a film commission to promote itself as a destination for international film shoots. AlUla, which is roughly the size of Belgium, comprises a lush oasis, vast sandstone canyons with giant boulders and an ancient city with beautifully preserved tombs carved from the rock.
Since Saudi Arabia lifted its 35-year-old religion-related ban on cinema in 2017, the kingdom has experienced a boom in all aspects of film industry activity, recently becoming the region’s top-grossing territory in terms of theatrical box office returns.
Stephen Strachan, film commissioner of the Royal Commission for AlUla, says construction of a film crew accommodation facility Film Camp, comprising 150 self-contained comfortable living units, has been completed.
“Kandahar,” a spy thriller directed by Ric Roman Waugh in which Butler plays an undercover CIA agent whose classified mission is exposed, started shooting in mid-November with AlUla doubling for Afghanistan. They are offering financial incentives that are being decided on a case-by-case basis since Saudi’s official rebates are still on the drawing board.
“We’ve got the participation of a lot of different government entities [who] want to take part in international filming,” Strachan says. “I think, for all of us, it’s a bit of a learning process. And it’s great to see that everyone’s come together from the government and really tried to support these movies.”
Another relative newcomer that is gaining traction as an international shooting destination is Oman, which has more than 1,200 miles of coastline, luscious green valleys interspersed with gravel desert and rugged mountain ranges with terraced orchards.
“The locations are beautiful; the country’s infrastructure is modern; and it’s probably the safest country I’ve lived in, in terms of not having to lock your car, or leaving your handbag on a set and finding it at the end of the day,” says line producer Julia Prat, who runs Muscat-based Barasti Prods.
The company serviced the shoots of Kristen Stewart-starrer “Personal Shopper” and actor-turned-director Mélanie Laurent’s “Plonger,” which filmed on mountains and beaches, as well as underwater in the Arabian Sea, using locally sourced boats, equipment and crew.
More recently she serviced another French production, Alexandre Astier’s medieval fantasy spoof “Kaamelott,” inspired by the Arthurian legends, which involved “all the heavy logistics of costumes” and also “equipment that was also super high tech.”
Oman doesn’t offer any incentives, “which is actually quite liberating, because the costs are not that high,” Prat says.
Productions can negotiate on their own and work out commercial deals with airlines, hotels and pretty much every vendor that impacts their budget while not being tied to what she calls this “sort of kickback system” that forces hiring a certain percentage of local crew. The Oman Ministry of Tourism is very supportive, she adds.
Governments in the Middle East are clearly willing to go out of their way. For “Dune,” this meant making the Jordanian Air Force available at night — the first time this was done for a film production — to help bring Villeneuve’s vision to the screen.
“Drones could not do it,” says Jordan’s film commission chief Mohannad Bakri, “they needed to use specific helicopters with cameras built in at the bottom of the chopper itself.”
Bakri proudly points out that for him, “This was among the highlights of the ‘Dune’ shoot.”