Talking to the location manager of Syriana, the George Clooney and Matt Damon film shot in the city last month

Almost everyone knew what was being filmed in Dubai last month - the George Clooney-Matt Damon movie Syriana - but almost no one knew where.

Finding the locations became a secret treasure hunt with phone calls of “sightings” becoming a regular during the period. Michael Sharp, location manager of Syriana, is amused by the attention.

Preferred place

“Of course it’s perfectly natural, considering it’s a Hollywood venture, but believe me, there was no extra effort to keep it a secret,” he says, after the film was shot in Dubai.

But there wasn’t any effort to give it any publicity either.

“That’s true, but it’s only because we need to ensure minimal interference and disturbance during the tight schedules we have,” he says, before adding that in today’s filmmaking industry, “time is money”.

So what did they film and where?

“As you know, the film is a mainstream film and we came here for the desert, the hi-tech ambience and the large highways, so we filmed outdoors in the desert and then the city centre area (not the mall) and inside a few commercial buildings,” he says, refusing to divulge more.

“The beauty of this place is that I’m certain the places we filmed in will be completely different in a year or two and this constant development makes it a future favourite,” he says on Dubai’s prospects of becoming an international destination for filming.

Though other countries offer a desert landscape, Sharp, who is based in Scotland and works on individual movies, elaborates on Dubai’s advantage, “Dubai scores over other places in terms of proximity to the main city area and excellent accommodation facilities.”

He has worked on many high-profile projects, such as Alexander, Braveheart and Cold Mountain.

“One of the key tricks or responsibilities to being a location manager is trying to find locations that are anonymous in nature,” he says highlighting how North Carolina and Virginia were recreated in Romania for Cold Mountain.

“In the same way, Syriana is not based in any particular country so the challenge is in trying to bring one country (real or fictional) into another,” he says.

As Sharp sees it, a location manager reads the script of the film, decides which locations are necessary for it and then scouts for them. This naturally means a lot of travelling.

For the Scotsman, this is what he calls an occupational privilege. In 18 years, Sharp has been all over the world, many times, but insists he’s still Scottish in his principles.

“It’s much better than going on holiday,” he says of his travels and long stints abroad. “I don’t see the place with a tourist’s eyes as I’m living there for a long time and end up immersing myself in the culture,” he says.

Sharp spent 13 months in Romania for Cold Mountain. He does regret not being able to spend more time in Dubai. “I definitely wish I could stay longer, but I’m hopeful to return for other projects,” he says.

After scouting for locations, photographing them endlessly and securing the director’s approval, a schedule is drawn out and filming begins with the crew.

“I didn’t have to make trips to Dubai to scout as we had some excellent sources out here, who managed everything for us. Otherwise I’m in charge of logistics to and from the location as well,” he says.

Being a location manager is not something that can be taught in school, though Sharp says many film students join him in his work. “It’s an interesting point of coordination in the movie-making process that requires an eye for visualisation and great organisational skills.”

“I was a photographer before I got into films and learnt on the job,” he says of his own experience.

On his experience of working with Oliver Stone on Alexander, Sharp says: “He is an excellent director and has been working on this film for the past 10 years. I’ve been fortunate and selective of the projects I’ve worked on, so all experiences have been pleasant and memorable.”

Life with celebrities

Sharp’s on-set life doesn’t always include hobnobbing with the actors and other celebrities. “I guess I’m typically Scottish in that sense, but I’m clear that I’m here to do a job and so are they.

"It’s different if we’re on set together for a long schedule and we get along, or we work on numerous consecutive projects together, but I’m not one for chatting them up just because of who they are,” he says.

But the stars of Syriana, he says, had a wonderful time as he concludes by offering some inside information from the sets of the movie.

“The whole crew enjoyed themselves in Dubai. Most of us hadn’t been here before and most of us hope to return.”