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Down, dirty in Morocco

You get it all here: dust, scorpions, palatial banquets, cheap labor, searing heat, stunning locations. This is filmmaking way off the lot.

October 16, 2005|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

Ouarzazate, Morocco — IT was lunchtime when the dust storm blew down from the hills. It had been looming for hours, purple clouds piling on the horizon, but the film crew had willfully ignored the gathering storm.

Then darkness fell, dust blotted out the sky, and winds screamed over the set. A hard gale knocked its way into the caterers' tent, where actors, sound technicians and makeup artists hunched over turkey and rice. In a blink, the air was hazy with grit.

There was nothing to do but trudge back up the hill and keep filming. It was time for the gangly mutant named Lizard to fight Doug on a craggy pass in New Mexico. In the thin air of the Atlas Mountains, the actors scuffled against the rosy rocks and Doug's cry of fury echoed over the valley.

The crew turned their shoulder blades into the hot wind and wrapped scarves around their heads like nomads. There were Italian cameramen, Trinidadian soundmen, American producers and a French director. Nobody expected to call it a day; they know that time is money. Still, the complaints slipped out from muffled faces:

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 22, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Hills Have Eyes" -- An article in Sunday's Calendar section about the Morocco location shooting of a remake of the movie "The Hills Have Eyes" said the 1977 original was filmed in New Mexico. It was shot in the Mojave Desert in California.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 30, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
The original "Hills" -- An article Oct. 16 about the Morocco location shooting of a remake of "The Hills Have Eyes" said that the 1977 original was filmed in New Mexico. It was actually shot in the Mojave Desert.

"Love that desert."

"Welcome to Morocco."

The crew had been toiling in Morocco through the thickest heat of summer on a $15-million remake of "The Hills Have Eyes," a campy horror flick that grew a cult following after it was first shot by a then-lesser-known Wes Craven in 1977.

A traditional sword and sandals picture it's not. "The Hills Have Eyes" is steeped in American iconography: There are pickup trucks and shotguns, a Baptist mother and a sinister gas station owner who drowns his sorrows in Jack Daniel's.

Because this is a horror movie, the landscape is also stalked by nuclear-deformed mutants who live on human flesh. Beneath the spatters of blood is a story about civilization, savagery and culture clash.

When it was filmed nearly 30 years ago, the movie cost $325,000, and producers rumbled into the New Mexico desert in a Winnebago to set up their scenes. This time, they've loaded dozens of people from 17 countries, trunks of costumes and crates of props onto airplanes to re-create the American Southwest deep in the red hills of northern Africa. Despite the inconvenience, they expect to save millions of dollars by shooting here. In the process, the production will flush the local economy with cash.

The kingdom of Morocco has become a magnet for all manner of films, a sandy, evocative darling for the productions that are leaving Hollywood en masse. Pictures have been shot here ever since the days of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. But in these times of globalization and outsourcing, the influx of big-name films has turned Morocco into one of the most popular backdrops for American films, with "Black Hawk Down," "Sahara," "Kingdom of Heaven," "Alexander" and "Gladiator" all shot here.

But just as selling an A-list star on the wonders of Bucharest is no easy task, so too is marketing Morocco, an Arab, Islamic country with a recent history of suicide attacks. The crew gets muddled in linguistic and cultural misunderstandings and speaks of feelings of isolation. Skittish American backers are leery of entrusting a big money project to an Arab country that's been a cradle for Islamist jihadis.

But the bureaucracy is light, the scenery stunning and the economy thirsty.

"The country itself really embraces film," said Sam Layani, the owner of one of Morocco's biggest production companies. "They do what it takes to get it done."

Stretching a buck

DIRECTOR Alexandre Aja had his hopes pinned on Morocco from the beginning. He knew he could make "Hills" into a bigger picture here; he knew the landscape was right and his dollars would stretch.

"You can stay in Los Angeles," said Aja, sipping bottled water at the edge of a hotel pool under a sky clotted with stars. "Or just move to Morocco and get two times, three times, four times more."

Although his home is in Paris, Aja feels at home here; his family tree is knotted into North Africa. His mother's family immigrated to France from Cairo. His father, celebrated French director Alexandre Arcady, was born in Algeria. Aja's wife, 30-year-old Laila Marrakchi, is a Moroccan filmmaker.

At first, Morocco made the producers nervous. They fretted that the infrastructure wouldn't be up to snuff. Would the intense heat bog down the production? How would women be treated? And then there were the suicide bombings that ripped through Casablanca on a spring night in 2003. After the attacks, "Troy" pulled up stakes and headed for Australia, and a chill passed over Morocco's film boom.

A few months before the cameras began to roll on "The Hills Have Eyes," Time magazine ran a story headlined "Morocco: The New Face of Terror?"

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