Low Prices Lure Directors to Morocco

By Angela Doland

Marrakech, Morocco (AP) -- Take a warrior king or a crusading knight. Throw in lots of sandy desert, some grisly battle scenes and an army of extras.

The sword-and-sandals flick is getting a Hollywood revival, thanks to "Gladiator." There's only one problem: Many upcoming movies are set in the Middle East, where "shooting a movie" could take on a whole different meaning right now.

Enter Morocco.

The North African kingdom has the obligatory desert and extras willing to work for cheap. Morocco has also convinced directors that it's still one of the safest places for desert film shoots -- despite a big scare in May, when suicide bombings killed 45 people in Casablanca.

Oliver Stone is making an epic about Alexander the Great here; the Moroccan army is sleeping on his battlefields. They're extras -- and extra security.

Stone never even considered leaving, said Thomas Schuhly, who is producing "Alexander," starring Colin Farrell as the Macedonian conqueror.

Stars unwilling to shoot there were dropped. "We lost several actors that way," Schuhly said, without naming names. (The cast includes Jared Leto, Anthony Hopkins, Rosario Dawson, Angelina Jolie and Val Kilmer.)

The budget for the film is $150 million. Shot elsewhere, it could have more than doubled.

"Without countries like Morocco, this kind of film is not possible," Schuhly said.

Ridley Scott, who shot "Black Hawk Down" and parts of "Gladiator" here, is putting his faith in Morocco again for a new movie, set in the 12th century during the Crusades. It's tentatively called "Kingdom of Heaven," and shooting starts in January.

Morocco "affords us what Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Libya and Egypt would give us in terms of landscape," Scott told reporters at the Marrakech film festival this month. "I don't really want to go to some of the countries I just mentioned."

Morocco's neighbor Algeria, which has most of the Sahara Desert in its territory, has been fighting an Islamic insurgency that has killed 120,000 people in more than a decade. Largely Muslim Morocco has been spared such violence and has a reputation for tolerance. The May 16 suicide bombings, which killed 33 people and a dozen bombers, stunned the country.

Some filmmakers panicked. Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge") was planning to shoot another Alexander the Great epic starring Leonardo DiCaprio in Morocco. But in the days after the attacks, the movie's producer was widely quoted as saying that Hollywood actors might be a target in Morocco.

"Unless the situation changes in five or six months, any important actor could be a target," Dino De Laurentiis told Variety at the time. "It's a risk I cannot take."

The movie is reportedly still scouting for locations. Universal Pictures did not return repeated calls seeking confirmation.

One big-budget film pulled out of Morocco even before the May attacks -- its makers worried about traveling because of the Iraq war. "Troy," a movie about the legendary siege starring Brad Pitt, instead recreated the ancient world in Mexico. Warner Bros. wanted to stay closer to home.

Before the boost from Scott and Stone, Morocco's film industry was suffering the effects of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Kamal Belghmi runs Atlas Corp. Studios in Ouarzazate, a flourishing studio that hosted shoots for "The Jewel of the Nile" and "The Living Daylights." He says he had barely any business in two years. Now, Scott has signed on to use his studios.

"It's a real relief," Belghmi said. Since the May terror attacks in Casablanca, he tripled his private security force at his desert outpost, where sets look like ancient Rome and Egypt.

Though the desert is Morocco's main draw, it also has the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlas Mountains nearby. Its versatility has allowed it to stand in for Somalia ("Black Hawk Down") and even Tibet ("Kundun").

Louis Lumiere, one of the pioneers of cinema, shot a movie here in the late 19th century. And 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia," which starred Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif and won seven Academy Awards, was shot partly in Morocco.

The two legendary actors will reunite next year in another Morocco shoot, "Gilgamesh," based on one of the oldest known tales in the world. The shoot will use Morocco's exotic desert architecture to recreate the lost civilization in the land that became Iraq.

"It's a trip to an exotic world," producer Beni Atoori said.

Few of the movies shot here are supposed to represent Morocco, with a few exceptions, including "The Sheltering Sky."

Of course, most moviegoers associate Morocco with a film that wasn't shot here -- "Casablanca." The Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman classic was filmed in a Warner Bros. studio. Its most exotic location was the Van Nuys Airport in California, where the lovers bid their famous adieu.

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