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Baja Hollywood

With tax breaks, cheap labor and fresh scenery, Mexico is vying to be a major film location. Some recent products: 'Titanic' and "Zorro.'

May 25, 1997|Mark Fineman | Mark Fineman is The Times' Mexico City bureau chief

ATOTONILCO DE TULA, Mexico — The dust hangs in the morning haze over a dozen gritty cement quarries, gaping orange craters gouged into a landscape too dry and too desolate to yield much more than agave or an occasional minimum wage. For a few dollars a day, local workers with pickax and shovel start early and labor as they have for more than a century--by hand--filling trucks with the raw material for high-rises, highways and high-priced homes in the Mexican capital an hour's drive to the south.

Most of these mines, however, are empty now, abandoned when recession and competition combined two years ago to shutter a local cement factory, taking away hundreds of already scarce jobs.

But wait. Up on that ridge. Perched on a sheer face of the long-abandoned Tlamaco Mine. Flashing swords. A cracking whip. And the mark of the Z.

It's Zorro!

Well it's two Zorros, actually: actor Antonio Banderas and his Oscar-winning "master," Anthony Hopkins. And the mine they are working in is full of life--and money--teeming with cameras, lights, action and a cast of hundreds, all of them laid-off local cement workers now earning well above minimum wage as Hollywood extras.

Their role: Mexican peasants, enslaved by Spanish conquerors in Southern California 150 years ago. Zorro's role: To liberate them from their poverty.

In a way, Zorro already has accomplished this task, as Hollywood fantasy and Mexican reality have become inseparable here at one of the biggest film locations ever built in Mexico--a huge symbol for an industry that this nation hopes will help turn its struggling economy around.

"This is an historic event for us," says Epigmenio Gonzalez Borja, the mayor of Atotonilco de Tula, as hundreds of townsfolk--dressed in rags and chained at the feet--slave away for the cameras in the nearby mine set; not far away, other locals are laboring in real mines.

"When the factory closed down here two years ago," the mayor explained, "it paralyzed this town. Some 500 people were fired, and most have gone without work since then. Even though this is just a temporary project, it gives the townspeople some work for two or three months. For us, the filming of 'The Mask of Zorro' here gives us a chance to breathe again."

This scene in rural Hidalgo is testimony to what Mexican officials and Hollywood producers and actors say is fast becoming the latest film trend: making movies in Mexico. With a direct investment of about $20 million here, TriStar Pictures, for example, is shooting south of the border every scene of "Zorro," an ambitious remake of the action-adventure classic.

When "Zorro's" principal photography ends here in the next week or so--the film is scheduled for Christmas release--producers Doug Claybourne and David Foster will have employed more than 7,000 Mexican extras at haciendas, beaches, mines and other locations scattered across five Mexican states.

They will have paid top dollar to scores of talented Mexican technicians, costume designers, camera crews, set managers, actors and grips--and exposed them to a major Hollywood production 100 times more costly than the average Mexican film. And they will have changed a half-dozen small towns like Atotonilco de Tula for years to come.

That is just what the Mexican government has had in mind since it actively started courting Hollywood and European filmmakers more than two years ago.

Cut to the second-floor chairman's office at the government Churubusco Studios in Mexico City. Here is a color-splashed, state-of-the-art complex where "Zorro" and a half-dozen other foreign productions are shooting interiors this year.

As he leans forward in his producer's chair, Jorge Santoyo Vargas, 44, is straight out of central casting: Leather pants, fur-lined leather coat, button-down collarless shirt and salt-and-pepper beard.

Santoyo, head of Mexico's National Film Commission, also wears a beckoning smile. But beneath this warm exterior, the career filmmaker means business. Big business. Hollywood business. Mexican business. "Filmmaking," he says, "is the future of Mexico. . . . Our goal is to make Mexico the idyllic location for movie making in the world."

As chairman of the nonprofit government body created two years ago to entice Hollywood and its millions south of the border, Santoyo already has racked up some impressive credits: Eight major foreign productions filmed in Mexico last year--among them, Baz Luhrmann's box-office hit "Romeo & Juliet" and James Cameron's mega-budget "Titanic," still tentatively scheduled for release in July.

Already this year, six more major foreign movies are in production. They include John Sayles' experimental, Spanish-language "Hombres Armados" shot in the poverty of Chiapas, and sequences of "The Game," starring Michael Douglas, shot on the streets of Mexicali.

The Mexican countryside is filling fast not only with visiting film crews but with permanent evidence that Hollywood is hot for Mexico.

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