Lights, camera, Africa: Morocco is a place of deserts, mountains and unique film sets (The Independent)
After a 15-minute drive into the infinite horizon of the desert road from Ouzazate to Agadir you come across a very unlikely looking petrol station. From a distance, through the dust and heat haze, it looks like any piece of unremarkable roadside architecture, but the closer you get, the more peculiar it looks. Its sign, ‘Gas Haven – last stop 200 miles – cold beer’ is pure 1950s American, all rhomboid panels and Jetsons circles on stalks. It’s not so much weathered as knackered out and… not quite right. In this North African country where everything looks artfully distressed, this petrol station has been art directed to look distressed, and it’s dressed up for a landscape tens of thousands of miles away. Even in Nevada, it would be an unsettling visual conceit, like a Bates Motel or a House of Wax, which is about right, because it is, in fact, the abandoned set for the recent remake of the horror classic The Hills Have Eyes in which a car load of tourists pull in to fill up and are despatched in Grand Guignol fashion by a bunch of mutants. Since the filmmakers left, the only thing that’s changed is the addition of a thin string of barbed wire to stop pan-Atlas truckers pulling up and attempting to refuel. Most peculiarly, a wee Berber chap has set up camp inside. If you grease his palm with a few Dirham, he’ll gladly take you on a tour of the fragile plaster structure that he now calls home.
Many cineastes may ponder the great David Lean vistas of Lawrence of Arabia when it comes to Morocco’s cinematic history, but over the last decade or so it’s attracted a more unusual bunch of auteurs as well as slasher-movie directors and CGI wizards. A mixture of big budget detritus, renovated Kasbahs and lesser known landscapes have been brought to the attention of the cinema-going public and make for an offbeat way to tour the country, particularly the area within driving distance of Marrakech.
If anyone’s talking about the burgeoning film industry in Morocco, Ourzazate will be mentioned right from the off. This down at heel town that marks the starting post of many a tourist trek through the Sahara might not look like much (actually it definitely doesn’t look like much), but it’s the hub for the international film industry. A vast new studio complex, CLA, opened recently, modelled on Cinecita in Rome. They own everything from the front gates to the mountains in the far, far, far distance. You can tour the backlots of CLA, but far more interesting is its older sibling, Atlas Studios (www.atlastudios.com), a few minutes down the road.
It’s possible to stay on-site at Atlas, in the kooky little Hotel Oscar full of film posters and old projectors. It’s home to many a visiting stuntman and Best Boy for the duration of a production. Alternatively, on days where there is no filming going on, you can spend the afternoon touring the abandoned sets. There’s something thrillingly Scooby Doo about walking around a huge, faux, decaying Cleopatra’s palace (from Franc Roddam’s Hallmark Cleopatra and a later Asterix romp featuring Gerard Depardieu). There are warping, collapsing steps, columns piled around like giant toothpicks and Sphinx’s with their rear ends torn asunder to expose their timber and plaster ephemeracy. Most of the sets are open air and in various glorious states of disrepair, patched up only when someone wants to recycle them. Ridley Scott’s 12th century Jerusalem Kingdom of God set stands, still immaculate, in the distance, while a fighter plane from Jewel of the Nile sits in front of the temple from Kundun, just around the corner from a very dodgy looking fibreglass approximation of a red Ferrari.
A short drive from the Atlas Studios brings you to Kasbah Tamdaght, a barely-standing settlement with some ornate crumbling turrets crowned by huge stork’s nests. Camels and locals meander around out front. Tamdaght is a current favourite with filmmakers looking for a verité locale, while its neighbour, the oft lensed Ait Benhaddou, has become one of the most essential photo opportunities in the country. Before Sir Lew Grade, Franco Zeffirelli and Robert Powell came here to film Jesus of Nazareth in 1977, Ait Benhaddou looked like Tamdaght – close to ruin. The production team painstakingly reconstructed what is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site village, and it’s remained a photogenic favourite for sword and sandal epics since; Gladiator and Alexander were both filmed around the artfully haphazard tiers of the village. The town itself is better experienced from an adjacent hill top – the closer you get the less impact it has (shoddy nick nack stalls abound), and there’s a lot more to experience in the surrounding desert.
Driving back from Ouzazate, it’s astonishing how much difference there is from one valley or mountain range to the next: Greige and silver mercurial streaks run through the rocks beside nearly dry streams, and pink flowers bloom in abundance in spring. It’s also stunning how a mere flash of colour can often recall classic movies shot here: The striking jade banks of river bed close to Ait Benhaddou are where key scenes in the Man Who Would be King with Sean Connery where filmed, while a detour to the tropical looking Oasis of Flint finds a stand in for the kind of South East Asian tropics usually seen doused in napalm to the tune of Ride of the Valkyries. Twenty minutes drive past Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot, 60km outside of Marrakech at the foot of Jbel Toubkal, sits Kasbah du Toubkal (www.kasbahdutoubkal.com). Today it’s a luxe mountain retreat reachable only by mule (Kathleen Turner rode up last year for a visit), but 11 years ago it was one of the main off-studio sets for Scorcese’s Kundun. The surrounding countryside makes for an unlikely but authentic looking Tibet.
Driving between Ourzazate and Marrakech is a swerving, vertigo-inducing experience of perilous drops and snow-streaked peaks. There are barriers at the start and end the climb and they’re often lowered when sudden snowfalls make the road impassable. The drive itself is up there with the Amalfi Coast and Great Ocean Road in terms of scenery, though you wouldn’t want to be caught up there on ice. Every so often, on flatter terrain, you’ll pass a big discoloured grey square near the road; evidence of a production team’s base camp. Low production costs, a user friendly attitude and committed work ethic from the locals (including free use of government owned land and buildings) has made Morocco more attractive than ever for film companies from all over the world. As James Cutting, a British expat who works in Morocco as a producer and location manager for overseas companies tells me on a days sightseeing around Ourzazate, ‘Finance aside, it’s the diversity of the locations that brings people here. There are areas north of Fez, with tin roofed Caribbean style shacks and palm trees, which can easily double as Jamaica. Right now I’m looking for somewhere that can double as Canada and I’m sure I’ll find it.’
Back in the city, you might think that Marrakech with its crazed souks, daredevil moped riders, labyrinthine Medina and Muessin’s call to prayer wailing across heat hazed pink rooftops is as cinematic as the Manhattan skyline. In fact, it hasn’t taken top billing in as many films as you might think, although it has had its moments. For many buffs it’s the pivotal murder scene in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, shot in the bustling main square of Djamaa El Fna with its fruit stalls, amateur dentists, story tellers, snakes and monkeys, that is Marrakech’s finest hour. Less iconic but eminently more entertaining, even if just for the repeated use of the word ‘minky’, is Return of the Pink Panther, although Marrakech appears in odd Clouseauesque disguise as the capital of the fictitious nation of Lugash. More recently, parts of the Badii Palace, the 16th century Saadian royal palace in the Medina, doubled as a detention facility in the Jake Gylenhall movie Rendition.
If it’s the deserts and film studios that get most of the filming action, Marrakech is where the actors gravitate to, whether it be Ben Kingsley taking time out from the just-shot video game-turned-movie Prince of Persia, Brad Pitt staying at the super luxe Amanjena (www.amanresorts.com) in the Palmerie, Jonathan Rhys Myers partying surrounded by belly dancers at Le Comptoir Darna (www.comptoirdarna.com) or Colin Farrell leading a white pony around the pool at Nikki Beach (www.nikkibeach/marrakech) for the wrap party for Alexander. During the Marrakech Film Festival, each November, the city is star central. Last month the garden at the Sofitel (www.sofitel.com) resembled the Chateau Marmont with the likes of Charles Dance, John Hurt, Brian Cox and Christopher Lee breakfasting together. French action pin-up Anne Parillaud (Nikita) danced the night away at a Dior party at the Palace Es Saadi (www.essaadi.com) and Michelle Yeoh and Sigourney Weaver introduced open air screenings of their movies in Djamaa El Fna. It’s becoming one of most glam events on the international film calendar. Similarly, more and more films are being shot within a day’s drive of the Medina, partly because the landscape is so diverse, partly because the costs are so low and partly because, let’s face it, if you were Brad Pitt, wouldn’t you rather spend two months in rose petal strewn, orange fragrant Marrakech than in a trailer in the Nevada desert?
Mark C.O’Flaherty flew from Gatwick to Marrakech with Easyjet (www.easyjet.com). Prices from £65.99 each way. He stayed as a guest of the Sofitel Marrakech Imperial Hotel & Spa (www.sofitel.com; 00 212 24 425600). Prices from £155 per night, room only.