Down, dirty in Morocco

Times Staff Writer

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.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 22, 2005 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.

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:

“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?”

“The producers, they were scared to come to Morocco,” Aja said. So he joined them on a quest for another location. They journeyed from Namibia to Mexico to New Mexico. In southern Africa, the scenery didn’t quite fit. New Mexico was expensive, and -- in an ironic twist -- the land turned out to be owned by religious Saudis who demanded to read and censor the script, Aja said. Morocco’s Islamic government, in contrast, doesn’t tamper with film content.

In the end, the director got his way: Morocco it was.

The dizzying sweep of the Atlas Mountains cries out for the camera. So do the blinding stretches of the Sahara, the wave-pounded beaches and the shadows of the ancient alleyways. Extras and day laborers earn less than $20 a day, but by local standards, it’s a healthy paycheck. Men trained as lawyers and accountants work as drivers. Hopeful men loiter outside the studio gates, looking to pick up work.

“When a family hasn’t fed its kids in three days and a film rolls into town,” Layani said, “you’re seen as a messiah.”

Just in case that isn’t enough to lure Hollywood, the Moroccan government spreads incentives before filmmakers like glittering trinkets in the palm of a hawker.

It isn’t only a question of escaping Hollywood’s high costs and labor restrictions. It’s the sweeping liberty of a developing country, the fact that there are no hassles. A single, one-time permit gives carte blanche to work anywhere in the kingdom. Thanks to Morocco’s tourist trade, there are decent hotels within striking distance of rugged scenery. And Ouarzazate has developed itself into a respectable moviemaking hub, complete with two studios and a film school.


“It’s been much easier than I ever expected,” said Marianne Maddalena, the film’s producer. “I thought it would be hotter. I thought it would be scarier.”

The enthusiasm has swelled since 1999, when King Mohammed VI, a film buff laboring to steer his impoverished nation to economic stability, climbed to the throne after his father’s death. There are wild stories of just how far the government will go: The royal army deploys at the filmmakers’ whim to guard the set, appear as extras or use its heavy machinery to lug sets through the wilderness. When “The Hills Have Eyes” needed Airstream motor homes, the king sold them his old hunting trailers.

Layani recently kept a flight from taking off at the Casablanca airport so an actress wouldn’t miss her connection. And when an actor’s child was burned during the shooting of another film in Marrakech, the princess sent her private plane to scoop the child to safety.

“There are no rules, no laws,” said Frank Hildebrand, a producer of “The Hills Have Eyes.” “As long as you get permission to shoot in the country, you can do anything.”

But they have to fight Morocco too. Sets have been demolished by hailstorms and dust devils. When the rains come, the roads wash out. Scorpions lurk in the sands.

Dry and hallucinatory, the heat haunts the set like another actor. The crew tosses back one plastic bottle of water after another.


“Who’s going to come here in the summer?” producer Peter Locke said early one blistering morning as the temperature crept toward 115. “Nobody. This is mad dogs and Englishmen weather.” (Locke has a stake in a Romanian production facility, another magnet for Hollywood’s offshore filmmaking.)

In a measure of the spotty technology, the film has to be shipped off to Paris to be processed. Unable to find a local child with fair enough skin, the producers persuaded a couple from Malta to bring their baby to Morocco. When the crew imported a box of fake limbs, customs officials thought “arms” meant weapons, and seized the props.

“We’re saving a lot of money filming here, but you have to be incredibly organized,” said Dan Maddalena, the film’s publicist. “If your costumes don’t come, you can’t just go to a big department store or Wal-Mart.”

Homeland boy makes good

LAYANI grew up here, his head stuffed with dreams. He was in love with the glamour of cinema from boyhood; he yearned to be an actor. He landed a few parts in Moroccan films, “but I was always the bad guy,” he says with a shrug now. “Never the lover.”

But his career blossomed all the same. He’s riding Morocco’s film boom -- specifically, the clause that requires foreign filmmakers to team with a Moroccan production company. He started out 30 years ago, organizing transportation for “The Man Who Would Be King.” Today he rubs elbows with movie moguls and takes telephone calls from the king.

Shuttling back and forth between Casablanca and Paris, it’s Layani’s job to make sure the foreign film crews get what they need -- extras, caterers, a pig in a country where pork is religiously prohibited -- and that Morocco gets what it expects: jobs for its people and a certain deference to local mores.


“I see the things [the foreign film crews] don’t see, and I don’t want them to see,” he said. “People around here live in misery.”

Layani, a vegetarian whose family has mostly abandoned Morocco in favor of France and Israel, strides purposefully over the sands in military khakis and boots. He keeps a walkie-talkie in hand, a cellphone at the ready and gives off the firm, friendly aura of a man you don’t want to cross. He prides himself on arriving on location first and leaving last. He calls himself “a steel hand in a velvet glove.” Then his leathery face splits into a grin, “Sometimes, the glove isn’t there.”

Drive out of Ouarzazate, south through the mountains. The road writhes through the hills; herds come across the valleys in clouds of kicked dust. Houses packed from mud and straw march over the hills, and there is no seam where the slumped earthen buildings meet the earth itself.

Built by the crews of “The Hills Have Eyes,” the filling station sneaks up on you. “Gas Haven,” shouts the roadside sign in loud block letters. “Last stop 200 miles. Cold beer.”

When you’re drowsy from driving, head heavy with the heat, you might not stop to wonder why it’s miles instead of kilometers or why there’s no Arabic or French. It might not strike you that the trashed cars littering the barren side yard have New Mexico license plates. It looks oddly American, but a gas station is a gas station. Paul Lowin, a producer staying in Ouarzazate while filming Hallmark’s “Ten Commandments,” pulled over one day to fill his tank.

But there’s no gas. The pumping station is ringed with barbed wire and guarded by a gnarled man with a knit cap. He squints into the sun; his face looks like it was cut from crinkled brown paper. Dogs bark at his feet.


The cars are rent-a-wrecks. The boxes of macaroni and cheese on the shelves of the convenience store, the smeared globe of the gumball machine, the cracked plastic of the booths -- all of this is canned, carefully crafted Americana.

Set-building in Morocco doesn’t tend to involve high-cost leases or building permits. Some films don’t even have to clean up after themselves. Where most countries would see an out-of-place eyesore cluttering the desert, Moroccan officials treat the old sets as another resource to exploit -- kitschy souvenirs from visiting celebrities. “You can build a set and leave it there,” said Lowin, the Hallmark producer. “The studio makes money showing it to the tourists.”

A few miles up the road, “The Hills Have Eyes” has built an abandoned “nuclear test village,” the ghostly hulk of a small town gone empty. The wallpaper peels; the tricycle stands abandoned; the seesaw is frozen. Curtains open onto a plain of dirt.

“Military area, risk of radiation,” reads the bullet-riddled sign at the edge of the village. “United States Department of Energy.”

There are other remnants too spangled across Ouarzazate, the “Hollywood of Morocco”: The fake Crusader castle erected when Ridley Scott filmed “Kingdom of Heaven” hulks up from the desert floor, an attack dog roaming at its base.

It was a blazing August day, and a Moroccan guide led a straggling line of tourists on a winding trek to gawk at the abandoned sets at Atlas Studios. They peered in bewilderment at the aging Buddhist temple left over from Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun”; snapped photographs of towering Egyptian monuments with their carved ram idols and massive bowls for fire; wandered through the bleached alleyways of the Jewish slave quarters.


Lowin was leading a tour of his own through Atlas Studios, showing off the biblical sets he had built for the “Ten Commandments” to a group of filmmakers. “Our plan is to try to get more value out of these sets,” he said. “We’ve created so much.”

Strangers in a strange land

OUARZAZATE too has the feel of a half-built stage set. Its square, lumpish buildings are washed in salmon; a straggle of locals make their way through the sun-baked streets; the sky is painted in desert hues, softened by the breath of clouds. Behind tidy facades, the backs of the buildings yawn open, unfinished.

The cast and crew can see for themselves the deprivation, but it doesn’t intrude much in their busy, cloistered business of spinning fantasy. They are filming fast, squeezing the day for every minute of light. They drive out of town in the morning and don’t come back until night has closed down over the hills. They stay in a resort hotel with a poolside bar, its grounds lush with orange and pomegranate trees.

A rented van sped out of town one morning, climbing up into the red clay hills. “Basically what’s happened is that the mutant family has kidnapped the baby,” Dan Maddalena said of the day’s shoot. On the side of the road, a stooped Moroccan laborer heaved his shovel back onto his shoulder and trudged along; children squatted in a field of dirt.

One night, a car full of crew members passed a throng of marching men. An ambulance wended slowly behind the men. They were headed for the cemetery. “It’s a funeral,” said the Moroccan driver. “Oh,” replied an American producer. Then there was silence; there was nothing more to say.

The relationship between the Moroccans and the foreigners is filled with the bemused distance kept by two groups who are a curiosity to each other. These were among the impressions of Moroccans given by various crew members: Moroccans don’t understand sarcasm. Moroccans sit on hillsides at night because they don’t have enough privacy at home. Moroccans don’t think ahead. Moroccans are mostly illiterate and unemployed, and now that they have satellite dishes they are content to watch television and stay that way. That is because, according to an Irish makeup artist, Moroccans are mysteriously devoid of the impulse for self-improvement.


Crew members ventured into the nightclubs and found men dancing with other men to the pounding beat of music that was, by Hollywood standards, depressingly outdated. “It was like a club you would go to in South Dakota,” said Cody Zwieg. “I think they were playing, like, ‘YMCA.’ ”

There were a few single women working the crowd -- but it turned out that they were, literally, working the crowd, searching for a suitor that paid cash. Their price to the men: about $30.

At night they sit under the stars, and the swimming pool glows like chemical light in the grove of palms. Waiters in very white shirts circle past, trays heavy with beer. Liquor gleams behind the bar. Tourists’ children roam in the grass. Voices mix and rise. They remind one another, lazily, that the service is terrible. When things get rowdy, they jump into the pool wearing their clothes.

“It’s almost like the world outside doesn’t exist,” Maddalena said. “It makes us appreciate how lonely we are in the U.S., because we have this community here.”

Dinner with the gov

THE sparse lights of Ouarzazate glittered below them like rusty jewelry. Opera music floated vaguely up the hill. A leaden quiet settled over the table.

The producers and director of “The Hills Have Eyes” had been invited to dine at the governor’s palatial hilltop home. The waiters came with a vast tray of salad -- tomatoes, citrus, smoked salmon. Chicken, buried in rich sauce. A baby lamb, cooked whole in its crisped skin. Each time another platter arrived, the American producers made a polite fuss of “oohs” and “aahs.”


Producer Marianne Maddalena looked dubious. She’s a low-carb devotee who traveled here with a stock of Balance bars and cups of Sylvester Stallone’s high-protein pudding. “That way,” she had explained earlier, “you don’t actually have to eat any food.”

The lamb came in steaming purple slabs, coated with a thick blanket of yellow fat. Everybody ate; there was no way around it. Marianne broke into her roll, giving into bread as if an irrevocable damage had already been done. The waiters brought trays loaded with delicate glasses of mint tea.

“You drink the tea when you eat lamb here, it’s tradition,” explained Aja, the director.

“In Britain, you eat mint jelly with lamb,” one of the Americans pointed out.

More silence. Chewing. In keeping with Islamic practice, there’s no wine.

The governor, Zbadi Alami, wore his shirt open at the throat. He sat alongside Layani, the Moroccan producer, and talked quietly in a French and Arabic melange. He answered questions politely when asked but made few inquiries of his guests. The linguistic walls were obvious to everybody: Only half the guests spoke French, and the governor spoke no English.

Aja’s brow was furrowed; he looked trapped and dutiful. Filming had run late that day, and he was scrambling to prepare for the next day’s shoot. The producers kept murmuring that he should excuse himself and return to the hotel. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” he replied. His Moroccan wife sat at his side, smiling with closed lips.

Dessert came like a reprieve. White peaches and soft bananas heaped high. Traditional almond paste cookies. “I know them,” said producer Locke. He helped himself. The last glass of tea was poured. It was almost time to go home.