ON a recent visit to Morocco, I had a touch of déjà vu. It was my first time in the country, my first sight of the capital, Rabat, and the Kasbah of the Udayas. But walking up the outer staircase of that 12th-century fortress, a vivid image came to mind – a lucid memory of a silver car flying down these same steps, through the air, in the opposite direction.
“Maybe you’ve seen Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation?” asked my guide Aziz Goumi. Oh yeah, I thought. I’d just watched that movie a few days before, and recalled now the lengthy car chase that began right on this spot. The rest of that sequence, Goumi told me, was shot around Casablanca, pausing for a spectacular crash in front of Mosque Hassan II before continuing on superfast motorcycles along the Marrakech Highway.
Goumi has worked extensively with foreign film productions shooting in Morocco. The old towns of Rabat and Salé, its sister city just across the River Bou Regreg, are often made to look like other places, for other movies – Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down, Baghdad in Body Of Lies and Green Zone, more recently Fallujah in American Sniper. All of these being war stories, Goumi’s former job in set dressing would usually involve simulating the effects of bomb blasts by smashing up charcoal and smearing it across the streets. “I used to go home completely black, like I’d been working in a dungeon,” he said.
But his country is not just a convenient substitute for real locations too difficult or dangerous to film in. Since providing the setting, and the title, for Josef von Strindberg’s 1930 movie Morocco, with Marlene Dietrich, it has drawn generations of film-makers to shoot its rocky peaks, glowing dunes, and medieval skylines, under sunlight so clear and constant that artificial lighting is barely required.
In the past few years, all three of the world’s biggest spy movie franchises have set key sequences here. Tom Cruise brought the Mission Impossible team. Matt Damon ran across the rooftops of the Tangier medina in his last outing as Jason Bourne. And Daniel Craig’s 007 rode the Oriental Desert Express between Oujda and Bouarfa in the latest Bond film, Spectre. Opinion was divided on the latter in particular, but the Irish critic Mark Cousins wrote something about Spectre that I think is worth quoting at length:
“It arrives in location after location, country after country, [and finds] the angle to film that country which most emphasises the sublime. Cityscapes, mountainscapes, desertscapes … the elision of spaces between them creates a dream logic, a feeling of skipping from awe to awe.”
This surely articulates the core appeal of Bond movies, which have served as vicarious travelogues since the first one, Dr No, appeared in 1962. It also expresses something of the yearning that can turn an avid young viewer into a lifelong globetrotter. I’m pretty sure that my own abiding wanderlust originates in films of my childhood – when Roger Moore’s 007 went to Rio, Udaipur, and San Francisco, while Indiana Jones’s journey traced a red dot across the world map from Peru to Nepal to Egypt (though I later learned that those scenes were really shot on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, at England’s Elstree Studios, and in Kairouan, Tunisia).
“Awesomeness,” says film historian Marc Wanamaker. “That’s what you get from shooting on location. It might be a real place, but it also gives the audience a sense of the fantastic. And that’s what movies are all about, right?” Wanamaker is a self-confessed obsessive who claims to “live and breathe cinema”.
He was born in Los Angeles, grew up around the business, and worked within it for decades, becoming a leading scholar of the artform, co-founding and curating the Hollywood Heritage Museum. His new book, Location Filming In Los Angeles, uses rare on-set photos from the personal collection he stores at Bison Archives, dating right back to the early days of the industry.
The story of Hollywood, says Wanamaker, began with film-makers from the east coast of the United States coming west to shoot the first Westerns. Finding deserts, mountains, forests, all close to downtown LA, there was no real need for Cecil B. De Mille to shoot his debut picture, The Squaw Man, all over Utah, Nevada and New Mexico as originally planned in 1913. I’d always assumed that those pioneering movie moghuls built their own sound-stages and backlots in that city so as to control the high cost of production.
Wanamaker tells me this is partly true, but also reminds me that American studios were sending crews to distant settings even in the silent era, when location filming might mean weeks of travel by train and steamship. The Edison Company, for example, shot Westerns along the Trans-Canadian Railroad circa 1910, interacting with native tribes and capturing them on camera, adding authentic texture to the staged drama in the foreground. Edison even opened a separate studio in Cuba to make the most of the island’s exotic backdrops.
“It all stopped for the first world war, and again for the second, when nobody really went anywhere. But then you’d have another boom. There were American companies filming all over post-war Europe, and most of the major movie epics of the 1950s and 60s were made on location. Cleopatra in Italy, Lawrence Of Arabia in Morocco and Jordan.
“Yes, it was expensive,” continues Wanamaker, “but the studios also felt that a certain realism was essential. By then they were using VistaVision and CinemaScope to create these spectacular images that would bring in big audiences, and the right setting was important to the overall effect. The feeling was: spend money to make money.”
Smaller productions that couldn’t afford a full location shoot would at least send out a second unit to get on-site footage with or without the lead actor, to be matched up later with images filmed on studio backlots. This was literally Wanamaker’s department, when he worked in movie art design. “If it was done well, you’d never know the difference.”
He did his share of location work too, in the late 60s and early 70s when so-called Spaghetti Westerns – set in America but made in Italy – were more often shot in Spain because of increasingly restrictive Italian labour union rules. “We called them Paella Westerns,” says Wanamaker. His credits include Catlow, with Yul Brynner, and Chato’s Land, with Charles Bronson. Both were filmed around Almería and the Tabernas Desert, where the great director Sergio Leone also shot his classic Dollars Trilogy with Clint Eastwood. That was a relatively fallow period for Hollywood production, when it seemed like movies could be made cheaper and better outside the studio system.
These days, explains Wanamaker, the studios themselves are more inclined to shoot well away from LA, in those cities and countries that offer the best financial incentives. New York, for example, is a pretty expensive place for tourists, but relatively affordable for visiting film crews, who can write off some 35% of their production costs via tax credits.
Nick Carr, a New York-based location scout, says the city of Atlanta, Georgia is now an even better deal, which explains why Marvel’s mega-budget superhero movies have been made there lately, including the recent Avengers sequel and the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War. “The new Ghostbusters is shooting in Boston,” says Carr.
“Even though it’s set in Manhattan. So they’re cheating a little on that one too.” His own favourite challenge is to “cheat” in much the same way, and find locations in Manhattan or the city’s outer boroughs that look like somewhere else. “That’s always the most fun,” he says, recounting a particular scene that was set in the Afghan desert but actually shot in the Bronx, on mounds of sand being used to build a new golf course for Donald Trump.
New York, of course, is perhaps the most mediated city in the world, a place that people feel they know from films – even if they’ve never been, even if they’ll never go. Directors often tell Carr they want to shoot its streets and buildings in a way that’s never been done.
“So we go and take pictures of all these odd parts of the city. But usually, the director doesn’t like those, and what they really want is all the usual A-list neighbourhoods you’ve already seen in a million other movies. Fine. I don’t care. It makes my job easier.”
In 10 years, Carr worked his way up from checking the phone and wi-fi connections in Tom Cruise’s trailer on the set of War Of The Worlds to working closely with director Martin Scorsese on location choices for The Wolf Of Wall Street. The nitty-gritty of that work might involve “securing permits, signing contracts, dealing with angry neighbours”.
“If we do everything right, there’s nothing left for us to do when it comes time shoot the scene, which is why a lot of people on set think we don’t actually do anything.” On the contrary, says Carr, they have a lot to do with the look and feel of the finished product.
“The director might choose this park or that apartment, but only from the range of options that we present.” He has come to think that “locations” is the best job in movies, but also that locations are the best thing about movies.
“Films set in anonymous places are never your favourites, are they? Like the movies that are shot in Toronto because it looks like any big city. We call it ‘Generica’. Whereas the films you really love are always set somewhere that feels real. The location is an actual character. It makes you want to go there. And if you can’t go there, you can always watch the movie again, which is almost the same thing, or maybe even better.”