Culture

Jordan, a blockbuster location for Hollywood

AMMAN: The lunar landscape of Jordan’s Wadi Rum valley gets a starring role this week when the next and final episode of the Star Wars saga opens to global audiences. The spectacular desert, with its shimmering red sands, majestic dunes and stunning rock formations was also where Peter O’Toole was filmed in the 1962 epic “Lawrence of Arabia.”

From Matt Damon in “The Martian” to Will Smith in Disney’s “Aladdin,” Jordanian authorities have worked to ensure the country’s diverse landscape features in some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters.

“When you travel to locations everything changes inside of you,” Smith told a news conference earlier this year in Jordan’s capital Amman. “... all of a sudden you begin to embody the feelings of the characters like when we were in Wadi Rum ... It was absolutely spectacular.”

Jordan’s Royal Film Commission was set up in 2003 to promote the country as a “huge open air studio,” says RFC managing director Mohannad al-Bakri.

To entice foreign filmmakers, the commission (chaired by King Abdullah II’s half brother, Prince Ali) offers financial incentives.

Production companies can enjoy a cash rebate of between 10-25 percent for a minimum of $1 million (0.9 million euros) spent in the kingdom, as well as tax exemptions on equipment imported for filming. Filmmakers also come to Jordan to shoot because they are attracted to the diverse and rich landscape they find in the desert kingdom, according to Bakri.

Over the years dozens of movies have been filmed in the country, including Hollywood classics such as Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Starring Harrison Ford, the 1989 movie brought to the big screen the magic of the rose-red archaeological city of Petra, famed for its ornate temples cut into rock.

The stunning and well-preserved sandstone facade of Petra’s Al-Khazneh (Treasury), which some date back to the first-century B.C., featured as the entrance to a temple housing the Holy Grail.

Parts of Disney’s “Aladdin” remake were filmed in Wadi Rum - “the natural choice” for us, director Guy Ritchie told reporters in Amman in May.

“Like Will said,” said Naomi Scott, who played Jasmine, “it makes perfect sense ... When you are in an environment like this,” it helps enforce the character the actor is trying to portray.

“There is such a peace out there in the desert,” Mena Massoud, who plays Aladdin, told the same news conference. “There is nothing like it.”

Wadi Rum served as the backdrop for director David Lean’s award-winning “Lawrence of Arabia,” which critics have described as perhaps the best, or second best, film ever made.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” was also filmed in the desert, known to some as the Valley of the Moon, before the location was again chosen for the saga’s latest and final episode, “The Rise of Skywalker.”

Munir Nassar, managing director of production services company Zaman Project Management and ex-tourism minister, said it took five months to prepare for the filming of the last Star Wars instalment. “When the actors came [to Jordan],” Nassar, said, “filming was completed in 12 days and then they left.”

Nassar’s company was also involved in shooting four other movies in Jordan, including “Mission to Mars,” providing everything from meals to hotel bookings and transport.

“The unique, timeless and diverse landscape of Jordan, along with its highly motivated production crews, makes it an ideal destination for filming,” Prince Ali is quoted as saying on the film commission’s website.

The picturesque town of Madaba south of Amman has been used to replicate old Greek villages, Bakri said, while the Azraq westland natural reserve has served to recreate South Asian regions.

Iraq war film “The Hurt Locker,” which won Oscars for best picture and best director in 2010, and the thriller “Zero Dark Thirty” about CIA operatives tracking down Osama bin Laden were also filmed in Jordan.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 18, 2019, on page 8.

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