Soft red rocks adorn the landscape, and fluffy capes of snow grace the mountain peaks, as the road winds through dusty villages to Ouarzazate, Morocco. En route, carcasses hang over makeshift grill stations where travelers stop to feast on the five-hour journey from Marrakech. I point at the red flesh hanging from a spike and feast on the chargrilled results.
My belly is still warm upon arrival at this distant outpost, known as the gate to the desert, and the dreaminess of the trip soon turns into another type of reverie. A large clapboard with the words “ACTION” welcomes visitors to Ouarzazate, where the stuff of dreams has long been transcribed into film.
The desolate city at first appears so quiet that it is hard to imagine there being much action. But this is home to two film studios: CLA Studios Morocco, and Atlas Corporation Studios, the world’s largest movie studio.
If Sony is looking for an escape from its recent North Korea scandal, it might do well to move here. Studio head Amy Pascal might like the anonymity, not that Hollywood types can’t sometimes be found here, including some of the directors to have filmed here like David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia was made on location here before the studio opened), Martin Scorsese (Kundun), Ridley Scott (Kingdom of Heaven), and Oliver Stone (Alexander The Great).
The actor Ben Kingsley once came here to film The Physician, alongside other high-profile talent for films like Spygame, Asterix & Obelix, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Considered to be the Hollywood of Morocco, many of the productions that film here are epic or Biblical in nature, and therefore the surrounding area would seem a natural fit. But others come to benefit from a reduction in costs and rely on local technicians who have been trained up over the years.
The studios estimate that filming here brings a saving of around fifty percent compared to working in the West because the cost of labor and living is so much less in Morocco, and incentives include an exemption from VAT on all costs. The film commission can secure film permits and help with identifying some of the beautiful locations on offer locally. A film commissioner, Abderrazak Zitouni, is responsible for all shoots here.
Atlas became the first film studio to open in North Africa in 1983 and sits on 20 hectares. It has since been kitted out with old-world sets and high tech equipment. Accommodation for visiting stars is provided in the Oscar Hotel on the Route de Marrakech, a stone’s throw from the studios. The rustic stone building looks somehow palatial, like something one of the heroes of these epic films would live inside.
Meanwhile, the sprawling studio looks as epic as the crumbling kasbah cities that can be found dotted about the area. Film is big business here, and seventy five percent of productions made in Morocco are filmed in Ouarzarzate. Meanwhile, nineteen percent of hotel rooms where taken up there for film shoots in the first quarter of 2014.
Since Lawrence of Arabia filmed in the area in 1962, scores of productions have taken place beyond the Atlas Corporation’s pharaohs with their gold and blue headdresses who watch arrivals at the entrance. Inside the sprawling lot one finds more stone carvings as epic as the films, pharaohs guarding tombs, and long rows of mythic-looking creatures poised silently in long stone rows.
Recent shoots include Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and the mini series King Tut, which told the story of the Egyptian Pharaoh and his rise to power and struggle to lead his country to glory, while his advisors, friends and lovers scheme behind the back of Egypt’s youngest king.
The Tibetan house from Kundun can be visited with its golden interiors and Buddhist statues found inside this slice of history left behind in the desert. The slave boat in Ben Hur is here, with its ropes, wooden benches, and a latticed wooden ceiling. There is also a Ben Hur house, with red pillars decorated with stone carvings.
On a studio tour, visitors can wander through a crumbling stone market place or a faux Medina, or enter an old world synagogue, or even visit the Bible “stage” with its vast red columns and epic interiors with old stone floors.
They can enter an Egyptian house with walls colored a deeper red than the desert, windows that are narrow slits letting the golden sunshine filter down from above, and with walls decorated with ornate carvings like a Pharaoh’s tomb. Sets like these have served as backdrops for films like Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story and Martin Weisz’s The Hills Have Eyes II.
One of the most popular places for filming is Aït Benhaddou, a beautiful fortified city. It has been used as a background for features including The Last Temptation of Christ and Gladiator. These local kasbahs with their hodge-podge of stone dwellings that seem to rise from the rocks, have been built and re-built over the years for movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, and Orson Welles’ Sodom and Gomorrah.
“You will find people from various cultural backgrounds in Morocco and can easily select the persons according to the demand of the script,” says the website shootinginouarzazate.com. “These people are perfect in speaking many languages such as English, Berbers, Spanish, French, Arabic and Portuguese.”
The website also offers other services which includes securing film permits and arranging location shoots. They also have a database of “experienced people who have worked on various big productions and thus help you in selecting the best actors for your film.”
The town even has a film museum. When I arrived, a guard sat watch in the midst of a crumbling collection of red-brown stone buildings where carpet-sellers plied their wares to the smattering of tourists.
Inside the museum there were vestiges of more shoots, sequences from films shot here like Lawrence of Arabia and Kundun and old set props from both films. Later that afternoon, when the sun set, it cast such a magical glow upon this desert outcrop that one could imagine Lawrence of Arabia riding towards on his horse.
On the way back to Marrakech, the journey turned into its own horror movie as the locals on the bus threw up in increasing numbers because the mountain roads were so winding. Suddenly, I was envious of the movie stars who arrived here in a stretch limo.