Featured in the Summer 2017 Issue | View Full Issue
THE DARK TOWER Odyssey
by Nancy Mills
Finding locations can sometimes prove dangerous—climbing mountains, crawling over rocks, entering destroyed buildings. Seldom does it involve encounters with AK-47s or hippopotamuses—unless your name is Deon du Preez, LMGI. A seasoned location manager based in Cape Town, South Africa, Du Preez has experienced just about every scary incident possible while scouting the African continent. However, the six-foot-tall warrior seldom gets scared for one simple reason. He comes into any situation super-prepared.
“You have to make sure you do your homework,” Du Preez, 48, says. “When I took (producer) Kevin De La Noy from Warner Bros. all over Africa scouting locations, at one point we had AK-47-holding ‘soldiers’ surrounding us. I disarmed them with a big smile and a piece of paper with an official stamp on it—in fact, with as big a variety of stamps as possible. It’s amazing what a massive smile and some stamped official-looking documents can do. It also helps to have a local fixer. Language is always a barrier in Africa, with all the dialects. It’s also best to hire someone local who’s connected because there’s a lot of corruption, politics and local government changes. You’ve got to work with the right people. It all comes down to relationships.”
Recounting his experiences traveling with Du Preez while scouting for The Legend of Tarzan, De La Noy says, “My brief was to go and scout and report back on the viability of ‘The Heart of Darkness,’ the Belly of Africa—to scout countries that all seemed to have in common one of two things. Within the past five years, they either had a civil war or Ebola! This scout was to work out where we would film the African jungle magnificence, the huge virgin-planet world into which Tarzan could be positioned. Because I’d shot in Mozambique, Swaziland and Sierra Leone on Blood Diamond, the idea of taking in units to these difficult locations was deemed viable under production-controlled conditions.
“Deon set up the scout and accompanied me through Congo Brazzaville, Gabon, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. We walked through a jungle over the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo to obtain vast vista shots, and ultimately, we forged relationships with the President of Gabon such that over a year later, WB was the first major studio to go and film there. Deon was excellent. And, being an ex-location manager with five African films under my belt, I was a demanding traveling companion. We were in countries with no cellphone signal and, at times, little semblance of law and order. I would unreservedly use him again on my next film in Africa. To work there you need a highly specialized skill-set, and he has it. He is a solid, trustworthy individual you would want on your team.”
During his 22-year career, Du Preez has worked as a location manager on several dozen movies and series, including The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Homeland, The Legend of Tarzan and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. He just wrapped Tomb Raider. He did the initial research scout in Ghana and South Africa for Blood Diamond, but didn’t film it.
“I’ve been shot at, but fortunately, never been hit,” he says, “but in the last few years, I’ve snapped an ankle, and both my knees have gone.” Such minor disabilities did not slow him down while searching for locations on his latest film, The Dark Tower, directed by Nikolaj Arcel. It’s based on Stephen King’s eight-volume series about a mythical structure called the Dark Tower. The story is set partly in present-day New York and partly in parallel universes.
The dark fantasy/sci-fi/horror/Western has been in the works for more than 30 years, ever since King introduced this world in The Gunslinger, the first in the series, in 1982. Filmmakers J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard took a crack at it. Javier Bardem, Russell Crowe, Viggo Mortensen and Aaron Paul were at one time or another named as possible stars. However, the project languished at several studios. Finally, Sony Pictures put it into production on a reported $60 million budget. The film opened with Idris Elba as Roland Deschain, The Gunslinger, who is locked in an eternal battle with Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black. The Gunslinger is determined to prevent the Man in Black from toppling the Dark Tower, which holds the universe together.
Although King was not involved in the production, Du Preez was very familiar with his books. He is also a fan of American Westerns, both books and movies, and spaghetti Westerns starring Clint Eastwood. “I knew I could do The Dark Tower from the word ‘Go,’” he says. “I thought totally out of the box because it’s supposed to be unworldly. South African landscapes are so contradictory and contrasting that people think it’s CGI.”
“The biggest challenge was doing the great locations justice,” says supervising art director Guy Potgieter, who has previously worked with Du Preez. “There was no rock unturned to find and secure some of the locations. Deon had the difficult task of presenting options of a parallel world that looks somewhat like Earth but is more dramatic and has an uneasy edge to it. That’s a very broad brief to execute. He scoured the entire country for months to find great locations, many of which had never heard of Stephen King or seen anything remotely like a large film crew with all the bells and whistles. We discussed the look, feel and art application. Once the process was honed and the designer and director had chosen a location, Deon would always be on hand to help with assisting the logistics.”
Du Preez spent seven months on the project, including three months of actual filming. He estimates that 70 percent-80 percent of the film was shot in South Africa, much of it in Cape Town Province. A small part filmed in New York, where a chunk of the story takes place. “It was a tug of war,” Du Preez says. “The producers wanted to do a little more here, but there was no getting around doing some of it in the States. We had to have some recognizable New York cityscapes.”
South Africa’s highly varied scenery was a big draw for the production team. So was Du Preez himself, who has a relentless work ethic and deep knowledge of what his country has to offer. “Deon is considered one of the ‘founding fathers’ of what used to be a fledgling industry here in SA,” says The Dark Tower’s SA line producer Cheryl Eatock, who has known him for 20 years. “Everything about Deon is ‘can do.’ So far away from Hollywood, South Africa has had to be competitive, efficient and able to deliver to the standards that the mainstream movie industry demands. Location managers like Deon paved the way. He has a unique way of steering a creative vision without being irksome. He quickly becomes a wingman to the director, designer and DP.”
“People know I can get into some locations and work locations that others might find difficult,” Deon acknowledges. His goal on The Dark Tower was straightforward. “I wanted it to be spectacular.” His first instinct was to bring the creative team to “as many different and diverse locations as possible. I showed them some of the most spectacularly scenic places in South Africa: Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga and the Cederberg Mountains Nature Reserve, with its dramatic otherworldly rock formations and San rock art. Blyde River Canyon assisted in telling the story of Jake and The Gunslinger’s journey and transition from one region to the next. It’s the second biggest canyon in Africa. It’s a full green canyon with a river system and lake at the bottom. It’s unbelievable. You go from the lush green landscapes of the canyon to the Cederberg Mountains, which are completely dry and arid with weird red rock formations that are all mangled and twisted. It’s the most unbelievable view.” Another featured location is the Tankwa Karoo. “It’s a completely arid, flat moonscape,” Du Preez says. “An area we shot at had a lava outburst in the region, so there were these black pebbles and weird outcrops of lava. It was complete nothingness.”
Ultimately, Du Preez and his team cleared and prepped between 25 and 30 locations. Once in a while, the challenges became overwhelming. “There were a few occasions where I got despondent,” he admits. “The director was very particular about what he wanted, so when we couldn’t find it, we kept on going until we did. We had to show otherworldly landscapes. There had to be a slight edginess. You’d look at it, and it would be slightly off. That’s where the design came in quite nicely.”
Adds Eatock, “The premise for ‘slightly off’ was to have normal environments and then suddenly a quick movement of ‘what was that’ in people, costume, faces, looks, etc. It’s a full moon feeling. Something isn’t right. Working with the design team, Deon sought out locations with character, weird dimensions, unfinished architecture—nothing you can put your finger on but unnerving. It worked.”
One of Du Preez’s biggest challenges was finding locations appropriate for the secret valley where a village was situated. “At the beginning when we were looking for that damn valley, I was very discouraged.” The valley had to be hidden and secret to assist in telling the story of a civilization that managed to survive undiscovered and off the grid for quite some time. A small village (the Manni Village) would be nestled in this hidden valley. The idea was that when The Gunslinger and Jake round a corner, the village and valley would all be revealed in one spectacular shot.
“There was a catch. We had to build the entire village from scratch and erect animal pens, plant actual crops, etc., as well as film and service the location. But we had to be near an area where we could establish our logistical base.” After many weeks of scouting with little success, Du Preez resorted to Google Earth. “I went snooping onto farms within various mountainous regions,” he says. “After a few attempts, I spotted a small valley on the edge of a wine estate in the Worcester region, about an hour’s drive from Cape Town. I headed out there and managed to persuade the owner to allow us to scout the valley, which turned out to be a winner. We could swing a camera almost a full 360 degrees, being surrounded by mountains, without seeing anything related to modern civilization.”
Du Preez and his crew spent almost six months on this location, from prep to wrap. “We put logistics in place in advance of any official prep,” he says. “We built access roads and parking areas on the verge of the intended set area, pipe water nearer to the site, etc. Although it was on private property, we still have national environmental legislation to comply with, which makes it tricky. It’s an ongoing process ensuring that almost 200-plus crew and contractors are all aware of these restrictions and abide by the regulations on a daily basis. Once we completed filming and removed all set infrastructure, we also had to complete a land rehabilitation process. In the end, it worked well and looked great. Our art department and construction teams built the most spectacular little village, which we then burned down.”
To keep people on their toes, Du Preez made sure everyone was reminded about the rules. “We had to keep good relationships with the owner,” he says. “Every morning he’d have from 200 to 700 people driving past his homestead’s window to get to the
valley and village set. We had to maintain that relationship. We had to be precise and thorough, so we wrote notes on the call sheet.”
Explaining in detail, he says, “Cape Town City is mostly surrounded by various nature reserves, national parks and marine reserves. As such, we have a massive amount of rules and regulations to comply with almost every time we step off a road. In addition to that, we are a high fire-risk region, and even the smallest fire could have a devastating effect on the environment.To ensure that all crew were well aware of all the rules, I drafted a Location Memo listing them, as well as anything else pertaining to that specific location. This was distributed in the prep phase to all crew and contractors. During the shoot, this Location Memo was added to the call sheet. The crew mostly complies. It’s usually contractors and casual staff who would break the rules.” No matter how small the infringement might seem, it could have major repercussions. Du Preez gives an example. “If the catering crew hid their litter in the bush in a reserve at wrap, that could result in all future permits for that project being pulled, as well as a hefty fine. So we cannot assume that all crew will comply. It makes our days longer as we have to double- and triple-check the set during filming and at wrap.”
“Deon respects his locations as if they were his own,” Potgieter adds. “He will never break contracted parameters. I always feel Deon can facilitate anything the art department throws at him.” The key to it all is Du Preez’s persistence and sense of responsibility. “We had a long, intense search, with six or seven scouts traveling,” he remembers, “block by block, grid by grid. We knew the area, but it was a matter of finding fresh locations. With landscapes, we know what we can get. But to get a very specific landscape, you might have to go down a valley, cross a river, cut over a mountain ridge to a secret valley. To tell a story as required, it becomes a long, intensive search.” He always went the extra mile. “We shot in government nature reserves that are very restricted,” he says. “Idris’ name made it easier to get support.”
Because landscapes are so important to The Dark Tower, Du Preez often needed to get clearance for drones. “Drones are always an issue,” he says. “Most of the time we managed to get permission. We wanted to show as much of the landscapes as possible. We were selling the wide, sweeping vistas.” Du Preez is not accustomed to hearing the word NO. “I generally get what I want except when it comes to national parks,” he says, “but I know what to expect. Because I have enough experience, they generally trust my judgment and feedback. We had to film in a few environmentally sensitive reserves with strict regulations. In one instance, we couldn’t shoot with a drone at this beautiful canyon (Blyde River Canyon), so we put a crane on the edge and swung it out over the drop. Our lead characters were positioned in the gorge below and followed the exact path which the park ranger had carefully marked out in advance, avoiding damage to the sensitive flora. You win some, you lose some. It still looked amazing.”
Du Preez was fortunate that the film was not dependent on shooting in the highly restrictive national parks. “Fortunately, there are many regional parks, but they could be just as problematic,” he says, “so we had to give up on some ideas. In the Cederberg Mountains, we weren’t permitted to use a helicopter, but the parks management compromised, and we could use a drone.”
Du Preez insisted that he never felt in danger on The Dark Tower. Then he remembered the wildlife. “The Blyde River was inhabited by hippos and crocodiles, with leopards in the mountain above the river,” he says. “Every day before crew arrived on set we had a team of rangers with rifles sweeping the set areas and perimeter. Snake experts swept the same areas because some of Africa’s most poisonous snakes and scorpions live in the forest along the river’s edge. Some of the crew were freaking out because these are some of the most dangerous animals in the world. The hippos scared the **** out of me. Each year they are responsible for the most attacks and deaths on humans. They will wander around exactly where they want to and if you find yourself between a hippo and the water, you may have over 1.5 tons of hippo coming at you at the speed of a freight train. The risk and effort were definitely worth it, as the canyon is truly one of the most spectacular locations in SA.”
Eatock was particularly taken with the Cederberg Mountains, which are home to an ancient landscape where the Bushmen once lived. “South Africa holds many an ancient site,” she says, “and rock paintings with evidence of Bushmen habitation are part of our history. The geology of this region is so very different to anything you can see anywhere else in the world. The uniqueness and sheer vastness provided the connective tissue of traveling through worlds, wastelands and environments to make the journey of The Gunslinger a real one for audiences.”
“The Cederberg Mountains Reserve has been used in some movies over the years but not often in big features,” Du Preez adds. “It’s difficult to take vehicles in as one has to remain on single-track roads and set up logistical support in very small parking areas. We can only get so close. Because it’s a nature reserve, there are restrictions. We parked the trucks and walked everything in. The actors hiked in, climbing over rocks to get to the spot we wanted. Idris loved it. Everyone was up for it, so we got on with it.”
Du Preez’s approach is 100 percent hands-on, whether he’s researching, prepping or lugging equipment. “You get in the car and you drive and you go look for it,” he says. “You’ve got an idea of what the landscape looks like, so you know where to start. You go up and down every dirt track and check out every property, even those with signage that says, ‘KEEP OUT. TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT!’ You may be frustrated, but you’ve got to keep going.” This dogged quality is what got Du Preez into location work. “I’ve always loved cinema and the outdoors and wanted to travel,” he says about his early life. “My older brother was a location scout, and after hanging out on sets with him, I got hooked. I gave up my 9-to-5 job, got a truck and camera and started knocking on doors saying, ‘I’m a location scout.’ I initially worked for nothing. People saw that I was going to keep bugging them. I was ruthless. I went after it 100 percent. I had no fallback plan.
“There was not a lot of filming in the mid-’90s—mostly commercials and European movies that went straight to video. Later it got easier.” And he got better at it. “The people I work with I’ve known for a long time,” he says. “I always tell those I train up that it’s about relationships and trust. I get into private properties others might not. It makes it easier if I say, ‘This is how it will be run,’ and it will actually be run that way. That’s why we’re able to come back to the same place.”
Line producer Eatock adds, “A lot of South Africa’s ancient landscapes are understandably governed by strict access and activities. Finding a farm or estate that contained this type of landscape in a private capacity under the strict supervision of ECO (environmental and conservation requirements) officers was paramount. Deon and his colleagues scouted extensively, knocking on every door, driving, walking or hiking onto private land to make contact with land owners. The farm we found for the Manni Village had ancient rock paintings of historic significance. We lucked out. The owners let us in.”
Eatock, who worked with Du Preez on the TV series Strike Back and Dominion, stresses his supportive side. “Deon is gentle but straightforward—no mincing of words, no ‘ifs’ or ‘maybes.’ He hates wasting anyone’s time. What makes him unique is that whilst you always feel he will stop at nothing to get a location we need, he is 100 percent committed to playing fair, respecting all locations. He also has a passion for ECO compliance. The politics of that balancing act is hardly ever put onto production.”
Du Preez is solidifying his role as elder statesman of the South African location community. He recently spent 10 weeks taking a health and safety course through the University of Cape Town. He says, “Health and safety have become part of our day-to-day job, and anything I can do to help make productions run smoother and make my job easier, I will. A couple of senior location guys get together every few weeks and have a catch-up chat. We share information, focus on doing things the right way and discuss ways of adapting to changes or new regulations.”
This does not mean that Du Preez is stepping away from hands-on location work. If anything, he is widening his geographical range. He now considers most of Southern Africa his territory. “I go all over the place,” he says, “Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, parts of Kenya, Congo—all over Africa.
“I met my wife in Botswana when we were both working on The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. (They have an 8-year-old daughter and live in Cape Town.) She was an accommodations coordinator. She knows location work is my passion and is very understanding. I’m comfortable enough to work anywhere, although it can be tough being away from my family for long periods at a time.” As more and more projects shoot in Cape Town, Du Preez may be able to stay home for longer stretches. Giving a shout-out to the city, he says, “A lot of people don’t realize that Cape Town can stand in for the UK and various USA scapes. We have a cheap San Diego, a cheap LA, a cheap New York. That’s what we do. We can do landscapes for the American West, Afghanistan, Russia, Poland, European countries. Over the last two centuries, we’ve become very diverse in landscapes and architecture. It’s nice to get all the big studios coming to South Africa. To keep growing we’ve got to train more people coming up through the ranks. The more of the country we can show, the better. Word gets around and people come.” However, higher demand can mean cutting corners. “A lot of youngsters coming in pick up the phone and call a location agent (to help find locations),” Du Preez says.
“Everyone wants to shoot in Cape Town because of what it offers as a city. It’s a First World city in a beautiful environment. People feel comfortable here, and there’s so much to do for crew in their time off. As a result, some areas in Cape Town can be overshot. You can only cheat so much, and there are only so many weekends.”
He, of course, is in there fighting for his own projects. After completing The Dark Tower, he served as location manager, South Africa, for the new version of Tomb Raider, starring Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft.
“I think that besides the favorable exchange rate and rebates, one of the main reasons why they chose to film in South Africa was that we have incredibly beautiful and diverse landscapes on offer within a radius of 34 miles from the city center of Cape Town,” Du Preez says. “We scouted all over South Africa as we wanted to show off the best of what we have. However, we managed to contain the locations to mostly the Western Cape region, with the exception of some spectacular locations along the coast of the Southern Cape and inland and in the Kwa Zulu Natal region. Without giving away too much, the biggest requirements were dense jungle and tropical island locations in true Lara Croft style. When we started the project, 70 percent was going to be shot here and 30 percent in the UK, but we ended up shooting over 90 percent here.”
Next up for Du Preez is The Warrior, a 10-episode Cinemax series inspired by an idea from the late Bruce Lee, to shoot in Cape Town. Cinemax describes it as “a gritty, action-packed crime drama set during the brutal Tong Wars of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the second half of the 19th century.”
Interesting as that might be, The Warrior is unlikely to present the enormous challenges of The Dark Tower. “The Dark Tower legacy comes with huge responsibility,” Eatock concludes. “We are talking about the love child of Stephen King developed and written over 25 years of his career! The fan base of The Dark Tower literary works is massive and demanding. To bring Mr. King’s legacy to life, we knew was going to be like nothing we ever had to produce before in terms of locations. We had to offer the most interesting, left field, breathtaking locations with every camera move we had.
“The Dark Tower provided the location department with the ultimate challenge—which was to not be restricted! Go crazy! Open all the doors you can! Be as out the box as you like! A challenge indeed, but who wouldn’t want that challenge?”
The Dark Tower South African Location Team:
Deon du Preez, LMGI
Assistant Location Manager:
On Set Location Manager:
Jacques Stemmet, Loyiso Qonongo
Lourens Potgieter, Gary Davids