Morocco: Dune location manager Christian McWilliams on "Hollywood's backlot"

LMGI member McWilliams' credits include Syriana, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and Jack Ryan. Here he talks about filming experiences, local crew, locations and incentives

Background

I lived and worked in Morocco for about 14 years, so it is obviously somewhere very close to my heart, plus my wife is from there. I have a Moroccan family and most of my closest friends are in the country. I had the good fortune to be sent out there once for a movie and I never really went home! I got to work with some of the directors that I may never have got the chance to work with in the UK, including Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott and Peter Weir. A large chunk of my life has been out there.

I worked on some of the biggest movies that were ever made there. Films like Prince of Egypt and Alexander, which had budgets of $100m+ – people turned up and built palaces and castles in the desert, had fight scenes with five or six thousand people… Things you just can’t do elsewhere.

Locations, logistics, light… and incentives

Morocco has a huge film history, going back to Lawrence of Arabia, Othello, movies like that. People have been shooting out there since before the second world war.

First and foremost, the appeal of Morocco is its proximity to Europe – just three hours on a plane from London to Marrakech, so the access is easy. Although, I love the idea that it is the closest place to Europe that feels the furthest way, both in terms of the culture and the fact that when you cross the strait of Gibraltar you are on the African continent and in such a different place. I think people love that sort of change of scene.

There’s also the light, which is very good there with longer days and very little rainfall. You don’t go to Morocco to shoot inside; you go to shoot outside. It’s very rare you’ll ever lose a day because of the weather.

Plus, the transport links are much better with the new motorways, railway lines and different airports all over the country. Although Morocco has always been catching up with Europe, it has moved with the times.

I was there last year and there was a whole series of Homeland shooting. They were going to shoot in Israel but decided it wasn’t safe, so were shooting in Morocco for nine months! That is extraordinary. Others like Prison Break and Jack Ryan have also chosen Morocco. They’re hosting between 12-25 shows a year there; some people are calling it Hollywood’s backlot.

When you look at the list of all the Hollywood stars who get invited to the Marrakech Film Festival – Nicolas Cage, Tom Hanks, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Leonardo DiCaprio – everybody has been there and had an experience which they’ve enjoyed and so they all tend to go back.

At the end of the day, it’s cheap to film in Morocco and it has a 20% tax incentive, which is a huge draw for productions. These days Netflix and producers will go anywhere there is a tax incentive.

Safety

It’s a safe Muslim country in terms of tourism, people like to go there on holiday, so of course all the friends and family of the crew like to come to visit. They’ve had their share of unfortunate incidents, but the government is very strong, and they tend to clear it up very quickly.

Most productions prefer to be based in Marrakech because it’s quite a multicultural city, with a variety of accommodation and restaurants. Plus, you’ve got great access from Marrakech into lots of different landscapes - within two hours you can be at a beach or standing at the top of a mountain.

Doubling for the Middle East

So many movies these days are about Iraq or Afghanistan, or troubles in the Middle East and desert-type films, and sadly wars are good for business when it comes to cinema in Morocco. So many of the productions that you’ll see on TV that are portraying Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Iran or Iraq have been shot in Morocco.

In the last ten years, and also post the Arab Spring, so many of the other countries people would have gone to – Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Tunisia – for one reason or another have become uninsurable. It’s all about whether you can insure Brad Pitt to go to one of these countries.

Cultural and religious matters

Films have been made in Morocco about terrorism, but the scripts have to be approved by the King’s office, so obviously they don’t like projects that are detrimental for Islam or put it in a bad light. However, they are more flexible than places like Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

Morocco also has a close relationship with lots of African neighbours and sometimes people turn up with scripts about African dictators, or very unfortunate things that have happened in Rwanda or countries like that, and the King’s department doesn’t want to be associated with a project that might be bringing up a very sad or unfortunate bit of history. They’re quite sensitive to what a project is about, especially if it might be pointing a finger or being very rude about one of their neighbours, which is fair enough. At the end of the day without them you can’t make the movie, so you have to respect the local framework and the fact that it is a Muslim country with a King.

Other popular locations…

Malta is also a fantastic destination to go to because they all speak such good English and cinema is considered to be so important. The fact it also has a 40% rebate is extraordinary. Plus, if you want to close a road or shut a runway at the airport etc you can actually go and have a meeting with the Prime Minister about it and he’ll say yes pretty quickly.

The Canary Islands are fantastic. That’s a place that has very cleverly got films there with an enticing incentive and incredible locations.

Portugal is another exciting country opening up for filming right now. They’ve just got a tax incentive. Traditionally people haven’t really been to Portugal before, but I think in the future they will go there, just because it’s a country that hasn’t really been overshot, whereas Italy, Spain, France, Hungary, Romania etc have had so much work.

Jordan has a big cinema history. The film commission is similar to the one in Morocco, in that it’s the King’s. They’ve very proactive giving people free helicopters for recces and all that kind of thing, and they’ve been able to entice the likes of Michael Bay to go and make movies on top of mountains there. Denis Villeneuve’s new film, Dune, shot there because they wanted moon or Mars type landscapes to build spaceships on. The desert in Jordan has white desert flowers, salt lakes, mud flats and unusual rocks, which is cool.

Troubled spots…

Tunisia used to be a big centre for film production but not so much now after the recent terror attacks they’ve had - and of course they have a border with Libya, so it’s become a place the Americans are wary about going to, which is very sad. We often suggest going to scout there as it’s becoming safer by the day.

Egypt is another one. We see quite a lot of Egyptians in Morocco working on films because they’re not making as many films in Egypt anymore. Turkey also was very fashionable five or six years ago, but because of the border with Syria, there are very few projects going to Turkey. So, politics is always there.

 

McWilliams’ insights on big projects he’s worked on in Morocco….

The Old Guard, 2020 (Netflix movie, produced by and starring Charlize Theron)

We shot in and around the Marrakech area with some quite big sets in real locations. We used a hotel owned by Richard Branson’s sister in the Medina and we also built a fort out in the desert, some desert checkpoints, and did some helicopter work.

We managed to double the scenery for Kenya and Somalia. Morocco is very good at doubling – it’s what it’s famous for. Most projects that go there are shooting for somewhere else.

Jack Ryan series one, 2019 (Amazon Studios and Paramount Television)

When I worked on the Jack Ryan TV series a couple of years ago, we were doubling Morocco for Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and Yemen – to be able to do all these countries within an hour and a half of Marrakech is pretty unusual.

The producers knew what they wanted to do and had two units shooting at once over five weeks. We would sometimes have three different directors on one set shooting three different episodes on one particular day. Obviously, we had quite a few explosions and vehicles to blow up, scenes involving lots of special effects and it’s relatively simple to shoot aerial scenes using drones there.

The permit process is pretty straightforward so that everything is clear, and the Moroccan companies are experienced with doing these things – they’ve all been asked the same questions in the past, so nothing is really a surprise anymore. It’s well set up.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, 2019 (Lionsgate, Summit Entertainment)

We spent around four months prepping for a four-week Moroccan shoot. Erfoud in the south-east provided the dunes we were looking for. Elsewhere, the coastal city of Essaouira was used for beach scenes and there we also filmed a medina marketplace. We had specially-trained dogs for these moments in the film so they had to be carefully contained. Local production service company, Dune Films, proved particularly helpful with that shoot.

Morocco: Dune location manager Christian McWilliams on "Hollywood's backlot"
Morocco: Dune location manager Christian McWilliams on "Hollywood's backlot"

Background

I lived and worked in Morocco for about 14 years, so it is obviously somewhere very close to my heart, plus my wife is from there. I have a Moroccan family and most of my closest friends are in the country. I had the good fortune to be sent out there once for a movie and I never really went home! I got to work with some of the directors that I may never have got the chance to work with in the UK, including Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott and Peter Weir. A large chunk of my life has been out there.

I worked on some of the biggest movies that were ever made there. Films like Prince of Egypt and Alexander, which had budgets of $100m+ – people turned up and built palaces and castles in the desert, had fight scenes with five or six thousand people… Things you just can’t do elsewhere.

Locations, logistics, light… and incentives

Morocco has a huge film history, going back to Lawrence of Arabia, Othello, movies like that. People have been shooting out there since before the second world war.

First and foremost, the appeal of Morocco is its proximity to Europe – just three hours on a plane from London to Marrakech, so the access is easy. Although, I love the idea that it is the closest place to Europe that feels the furthest way, both in terms of the culture and the fact that when you cross the strait of Gibraltar you are on the African continent and in such a different place. I think people love that sort of change of scene.

There’s also the light, which is very good there with longer days and very little rainfall. You don’t go to Morocco to shoot inside; you go to shoot outside. It’s very rare you’ll ever lose a day because of the weather.

Plus, the transport links are much better with the new motorways, railway lines and different airports all over the country. Although Morocco has always been catching up with Europe, it has moved with the times.

I was there last year and there was a whole series of Homeland shooting. They were going to shoot in Israel but decided it wasn’t safe, so were shooting in Morocco for nine months! That is extraordinary. Others like Prison Break and Jack Ryan have also chosen Morocco. They’re hosting between 12-25 shows a year there; some people are calling it Hollywood’s backlot.

When you look at the list of all the Hollywood stars who get invited to the Marrakech Film Festival – Nicolas Cage, Tom Hanks, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Leonardo DiCaprio – everybody has been there and had an experience which they’ve enjoyed and so they all tend to go back.

At the end of the day, it’s cheap to film in Morocco and it has a 20% tax incentive, which is a huge draw for productions. These days Netflix and producers will go anywhere there is a tax incentive.

Safety

It’s a safe Muslim country in terms of tourism, people like to go there on holiday, so of course all the friends and family of the crew like to come to visit. They’ve had their share of unfortunate incidents, but the government is very strong, and they tend to clear it up very quickly.

Most productions prefer to be based in Marrakech because it’s quite a multicultural city, with a variety of accommodation and restaurants. Plus, you’ve got great access from Marrakech into lots of different landscapes - within two hours you can be at a beach or standing at the top of a mountain.

Doubling for the Middle East

So many movies these days are about Iraq or Afghanistan, or troubles in the Middle East and desert-type films, and sadly wars are good for business when it comes to cinema in Morocco. So many of the productions that you’ll see on TV that are portraying Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Iran or Iraq have been shot in Morocco.

In the last ten years, and also post the Arab Spring, so many of the other countries people would have gone to – Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Tunisia – for one reason or another have become uninsurable. It’s all about whether you can insure Brad Pitt to go to one of these countries.

Cultural and religious matters

Films have been made in Morocco about terrorism, but the scripts have to be approved by the King’s office, so obviously they don’t like projects that are detrimental for Islam or put it in a bad light. However, they are more flexible than places like Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

Morocco also has a close relationship with lots of African neighbours and sometimes people turn up with scripts about African dictators, or very unfortunate things that have happened in Rwanda or countries like that, and the King’s department doesn’t want to be associated with a project that might be bringing up a very sad or unfortunate bit of history. They’re quite sensitive to what a project is about, especially if it might be pointing a finger or being very rude about one of their neighbours, which is fair enough. At the end of the day without them you can’t make the movie, so you have to respect the local framework and the fact that it is a Muslim country with a King.

Other popular locations…

Malta is also a fantastic destination to go to because they all speak such good English and cinema is considered to be so important. The fact it also has a 40% rebate is extraordinary. Plus, if you want to close a road or shut a runway at the airport etc you can actually go and have a meeting with the Prime Minister about it and he’ll say yes pretty quickly.

The Canary Islands are fantastic. That’s a place that has very cleverly got films there with an enticing incentive and incredible locations.

Portugal is another exciting country opening up for filming right now. They’ve just got a tax incentive. Traditionally people haven’t really been to Portugal before, but I think in the future they will go there, just because it’s a country that hasn’t really been overshot, whereas Italy, Spain, France, Hungary, Romania etc have had so much work.

Jordan has a big cinema history. The film commission is similar to the one in Morocco, in that it’s the King’s. They’ve very proactive giving people free helicopters for recces and all that kind of thing, and they’ve been able to entice the likes of Michael Bay to go and make movies on top of mountains there. Denis Villeneuve’s new film, Dune, shot there because they wanted moon or Mars type landscapes to build spaceships on. The desert in Jordan has white desert flowers, salt lakes, mud flats and unusual rocks, which is cool.

Troubled spots…

Tunisia used to be a big centre for film production but not so much now after the recent terror attacks they’ve had - and of course they have a border with Libya, so it’s become a place the Americans are wary about going to, which is very sad. We often suggest going to scout there as it’s becoming safer by the day.

Egypt is another one. We see quite a lot of Egyptians in Morocco working on films because they’re not making as many films in Egypt anymore. Turkey also was very fashionable five or six years ago, but because of the border with Syria, there are very few projects going to Turkey. So, politics is always there.

 

McWilliams’ insights on big projects he’s worked on in Morocco….

The Old Guard, 2020 (Netflix movie, produced by and starring Charlize Theron)

We shot in and around the Marrakech area with some quite big sets in real locations. We used a hotel owned by Richard Branson’s sister in the Medina and we also built a fort out in the desert, some desert checkpoints, and did some helicopter work.

We managed to double the scenery for Kenya and Somalia. Morocco is very good at doubling – it’s what it’s famous for. Most projects that go there are shooting for somewhere else.

Jack Ryan series one, 2019 (Amazon Studios and Paramount Television)

When I worked on the Jack Ryan TV series a couple of years ago, we were doubling Morocco for Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and Yemen – to be able to do all these countries within an hour and a half of Marrakech is pretty unusual.

The producers knew what they wanted to do and had two units shooting at once over five weeks. We would sometimes have three different directors on one set shooting three different episodes on one particular day. Obviously, we had quite a few explosions and vehicles to blow up, scenes involving lots of special effects and it’s relatively simple to shoot aerial scenes using drones there.

The permit process is pretty straightforward so that everything is clear, and the Moroccan companies are experienced with doing these things – they’ve all been asked the same questions in the past, so nothing is really a surprise anymore. It’s well set up.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, 2019 (Lionsgate, Summit Entertainment)

We spent around four months prepping for a four-week Moroccan shoot. Erfoud in the south-east provided the dunes we were looking for. Elsewhere, the coastal city of Essaouira was used for beach scenes and there we also filmed a medina marketplace. We had specially-trained dogs for these moments in the film so they had to be carefully contained. Local production service company, Dune Films, proved particularly helpful with that shoot.

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