A walkie talkie crackles. “Insurgents are ready and standing by”.
It’s long after midnight in a misty, moonlit grove of palm trees on the edge of the world’s largest sand desert, and a towering dune looms above, a few gusts of wind away from devouring all in its path.
Don’t worry – tabloid! isn’t at the heart of a battle – at least, not a real one, even if it is very realistic.
We’re on the set of Beware The Night, a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Hollywood film that last week shot its gripping opening scenes on location in Liwa.
The thriller, based on the book of the same name, is one of the first, and certainly the highest profile, productions to benefit from the rebate launched late last year by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission. 30 per cent of the costs of the shoot in the desert and at TwoFour54’s Mussafah studio are paid back, in an incentive to encourage international productions to come to the capital.
The film stars Australian heartthrob Eric Bana as a Bronx cop with a nice sideline in exorcisms who faces his toughest challenge in a seemingly possessed soldier returning from Iraq. Sadly for his fans, Bana’s scenes were shot entirely in New York and he wasn’t on set in the UAE. The scenes filmed here featured Prometheus actor Sean Harris, who plays the soldier, discovering something very, very bad – and in the role of the Iraqi desert is the UAE’s very own Liwa.
“The landscape is awesome,” says Beware’s director Scott Derrickson, an old hand at horror films, having directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister.
“We wanted an opening set during the Iraq war and we felt that there wasn’t any place in the States that was going to look like that landscape and there were very few places that would have been even remotely affordable. Abu Dhabi had everything we needed.”
Derrickson sat in front of two monitors where he could instantly watch playbacks of footage being shot, and from where he and his first assistant director Glen Trotiner sent forth thrilling cries of “rolling!” and “action!”. A giant, snaking smoke machine pumped what they termed “atmosphere”; one of the biggest challenges of the night was to get the balance just right. Behind them worked dozens of cast and crew: technicians from the UAE, a first responder handing Harris an endless stream of ice-cold towels, military advisor Terrence Bramble and weapons specialist Christophe Maratier, and make-up artists touching up a fatal gunshot wound on insurgent number two.
In the scenes being filmed on Friday night, Harris’ character, a US Marine, and his comrades, chase three insurgents through a dense palm forest flanked by dunes before stumbling upon a cave with something nasty inside. The shoot involved scenes of gunfire using real guns – AK47s and M16 assault rifles – modified to shoot very loud blanks, as well as grenade explosions.
Your typical horror film, this is not.
“It’s a thriller with some horror elements. A dark thriller, it’s also got some action. It’s a hybrid,” said Derrickson as his crew set up a green screen for the next shot. He pulls out his script and points to a note on the top. “I remember on the front of my script, I remember thinking about what I should call it at the time. I called it ‘a creepy mystical cop thriller with some action’,” he says, reading his early note with chuckle. “It’s got a lot of things people like in the movies all rolled up into one.”
“It’s like Dirty Harry meets The Exorcist,” Chad Oman tells me in an air-conditioned tent on the set as insurgents and marines rehearsed exhausting chase scenes through the sand in their military gear. Oman is Bruckheimer’s man on the ground here, in his role as a creative executive producer on Beware. (Bruckheimer Films is the company behind the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, among others; Sony Pictures’ Screen Gems are also producing the film.). Oman says Beware, based on a non-fiction account of life as a Bronx cop/exorcist by Ralph Sarchie, was a long time coming. “I read the original six-page book proposal by Ralph, 10 or 11 years ago and at that point went after the rights. I’d never seen anything like it, across genres, between a blue-collar cop story and high-class religious thriller. It is a bit of a horror — we do go into some very scary things.”
Of Harris, the film’s bad guy, Oman recalls a scene from Harry Brown, a Michael Caine film featuring the young British actor. “There’s one scene that Sean Harris is in, a strong scene, and it’s really scary. He’s really good.” Sadly, Harris, appearing to almost never leave his character, was not able to chat on Friday.
Oman admits bringing such a large production to the UAE was something of a risk but the success of the shoot so far meant he’s already scouting locations for more Bruckheimer movies.
“It gave us everything we wanted. I didn’t realise how beautiful the desert was here. It’s better than I hoped. We at Bruckheimer have a couple of projects that are very suited to be filmed in this environment. Every time we talk about movies that have this sort of location, we think of Morocco, now with this set up, the UAE may overtake them [Morocco].”
“A very interesting thing is we are changing perception of Abu Dhabi,” says twofour54’s Paul Baker. “This industry is built on relationships and trust. They are going halfway across the world to make a film, they have to rely on the people at the other end that it’s ready. It shows a great deal that they had faith in us.”
The man he had to convince was Screen Gems’ head of production Glenn Gainor, also on set in UAE.
“I took a risk to trust twofour54’s management to build a very complicated set. I did it on the strength of the relationship with Paul, and I’m happy to say Paul and his team did not let me down at all. It’s important as filmmakers to know that we are invited.”
As to why he didn’t simply use a location in the US, Gainor said the rebate meant he didn’t have to compromise. “Not every desert is the same. Films can compromise, films can cheat, but in this case I don’t feel like a cheated the film at all; I feel like I made a better film for being in Liwa.”
How Abu Dhabi’s bringing in the films
The Abu Dhabi Film Commission’s rebate is very much geared towards Abu Dhabi becoming the production hub of this region, says Paul Baker. “Our focus is to develop the infrastructure, develop, the crew, develop the UAE nationals to be integrated into the creative industries. It’s proving to be quite effective — we’re having loads of enquiries.
One condition of the rebate is that a number of UAE nationals must be involved in the production.
“One particularly exciting aspect about Hollywood movies such as Beware the Night being filmed in Abu Dhabi is the opportunities they afford to young Emiratis seeking filmmaking experience,” says twofour54’s chief executive Noura Al Kaabi. “The inspiration gained on set and on location will drive a new generation of Emirati talent and ultimately help to build Abu Dhabi’s film and entertainment industries.”
Eight Emiratis from twofour54’s vocational traineeship programme intaji and the creative lab community were due to be on set when production moved to the Abu Dhabi studio on Saturday.
“It’s been completely embraced by all the productions that we’be worked,” added Baker. “They completely understand that the rebate is there to grow production but it benefits them to have stronger crew here, and particularly benefits Abu Dhabi to be creating these high-skilled, high-pay jobs in an exciting industry. That’s the long-term sustainable bit.”