It was 2000. I was one of the lead location scouts in the UK on Spy Game. The late and great Tony Scott was the director and he inspired and terrified me at the same time. I had seen all of his movies from The Hunger to Enemy of the State. I was a fan—a huge fan, I could recite almost the entire script of True Romance, still one of my favorite films.
But I got lucky when I found and secured the main two UK locations: a Victorian
prison to be used as a prison in China and the “CIA Interiors at Langley,” just outside
London in Hemel Hempstead. Tony was delighted. I was standing a foot taller and
felt the confidence growing as the foreign locations began to go wrong and and suddenly, I was cast as the problem solver.
“Can you go to Budapest? The Hungarians are showing me the same locations over and over again and I want something new and different.”
Tony’s producers explained the problems of the service company showing only locations they had used before.
“Sure,” I said, packing the camera bag. To get to go abroad on a movie had been an ambition, after 10 years of grueling work as an assistant in London. This was exciting.
I had worked my way up the ladder from runner to assistant from television to film and from low budget to high budget. London’s grey skies and red tape were getting to me. Howard’s End, the Merchant Ivory epic, kick-started my career. The locations looked lavish; the film won Oscars; every designer on the phone, wanting to know where they could be found.
But now a new challenge and a new country presented itself. Coupled with a brilliant production team and a director who appreciated my efforts, I could not have been happier, being trusted to scout distant locations.
After a month in Budapest, the locations all found, I was back in London sitting in on meetings, and feeling motivated, in seventh heaven. Tony had even given me a cigar. To have the opportunity to witness a genius director of such quality up close, and to hear the stress and strains of the studio system, as well as the politics of Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, was an eye-opener. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Spy Game used Israel as its principal foreign location for Beirut and Vietnam. A production team had already been in place there for four months. They invested $3 million, including the cost of a building they bought to blow up. Tony had scouted twice, he had copious files of photos and he was really excited about the shoot. What could possibly go wrong?
I was at home, drifting off to sleep, 1am on a Sunday morning when the phone rang. It was Tony’s producer. “We have a problem in Israel,” he said, making the understatement of the year. The crew hotel was just evacuated and bombed. The Israeli art department was attacked by the Palestinian construction crew, who they had been working with. The first Intifada had started, in an attempt to overthrow Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “Pack a bag,” he continued, “you’re flying. Tony is deciding where to send you. Be at the studio at 6 a.m.!”
I did not sleep, packing the world into my holdall, not knowing where in the world I would be sent. My brain was in overload.
“Christian, we have 76 hours to save the movie. Here are the location references, here is a float. Your plane leaves in three hours. We will call you and tell you what desk to pick up your tickets from, now go!”
“Um, where am I going?”
“Maybe Turkey, maybe Tunisia , maybe Morocco! Now get out of here!”
The unit car was waiting, and I was rushed to the airport.
At the airport, I waited to hear my fate. It was a nervous two hours, scouring the bookshop, looking at travel guides. Then the call came: head to the Royal Air Maroc desk. So I bought the Rough Guide to Morocco, had a few glasses of wine to steady the nerves and I closed my eyes. When I woke, the travel guide was open on the center pages: “The History of Cinema in Morocco—From Laurence of Arabia to Kundun.” Wow, there it was in the guide, all the movies that had come to Morocco, I soaked up the information, clinging to my camera bag, seeking inspiration.
Morocco is the closest African country to Europe, but it felt like another planet. The heat, the chaos, the traffic, the call to prayer, the shouting, and the hustle and bustle of the Arabic world, all rolled into one magical city: Casablanca.
My images of a small romantic Andalusian city were crushed upon landing. A local team who normally worked in casting picked me up. The camera was on my knee, the hairs up on the back of my neck. I was simultaneously terrified and exhilarated, yearning for the ultimate challenge. And then the panic and pressure of Tony’s imminent arrival slowly dawned on me: “Seventy-six hours to save the movie.” Right.
Casablanca is a huge sprawling city with 7 million people in a constant rush, and more color, life, and light in one place than I ever experienced. And the locations, oh wow! I shot 48 rolls before lunch on my first day. I was like a kid in a toy shop. Every corner seemed to reveal a surprise or treasure. “I think I am going to like it here,” I told myself, during the moments when the panic abated.
Spy Game was a huge success. I loved the Moroccans and they seemed to like me. The Chief of Police in Casablanca gave me a black Jallaba at the completion of filming. I felt like I owned the place. The streets were a dream—we could close any street we wanted within 48 hours toward the end of the production. True to form, Tony Scott was wonderful and gracious with the local dignitaries. Brad Pitt had all the local girls swooning. Huge crowds turned out to watch the smallest scene. The main set was an apartment building I found that we could blow up. The permit was incredibly difficult to procure, as the building was on the edge of a factory owned by the King of Morocco, who finally agreed. Months of planning culminated in the biggest explosion I have ever witnessed. It blew Tony off his feet, and the rushes were amazing.
One film led to another. And the moment I got home, I was sent back to Morocco for Syriana. Six months later, I was in Los Angeles to meet Oliver Stone for a movie called Alexander. Ten months later, it seemed that home had traversed continents, and the chaotic hustle and bustle that was Morocco became my life. London was the past; Morocco the future.
I had grown up on military bases in Europe and the Mediterranean. The film industry was never on the career list. My father was a teacher who went into the Army. We traveled a lot and I never really had a home. My aunt was working as a casting director, and holiday visits to film sets had planted an idea in my head at the age of 15.
I started as a production runner at 18, became a 3rd AD, thought I wanted to work with actors and extras, NOT. Then a friend recommended me for a location assistant job on Howard’s End. He told me I had a talent for being diplomatic and calm under stress.
Flash-forward 25 years: I am married to a Moroccan woman, and have two adorable girls who speak four languages. I live in Marrakech. The pink city, palm trees and snow-capped Atlas Mountains provide the view from my window. Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Michael Bay, Paul Haggis … all on the CV now. I have to pinch myself to realize what this business can do for your life and career. You just never know where you might end up.
In my time here, I have found desert locations where palaces were constructed, I’ve employed villagers to build Kasbahs in the mountains, dreams rising up from nothing. I’ve closed motorways and ports, diverting shipping lanes and closing airport runways. I’ve helped set fire to almost everything, blowing up cars and buildings. I’ve worked on two-men CNN-go documentaries, British video clips, tiny independent films and huge Hollywood blockbusters. I’ve witnessed children with no shoes become movies stars in a matter of months. I’ve seen battles with 5,000 soldiers and 700 stunt men. I’ve experienced sandstorms and floods, fallen off a mountain, and lost a large piece of my calf to a shepherd’s dog.
It’s been quite a ride, and this is quite a country. And I am proud to call it my home.
Location manager and problem solver Christian McWilliams works in Morocco, Dubai, Tunisia, China, Hungary, Malta, Sicily, the Canary Islands, Mauritania and anywhere else the winds blow him … his credits include The Take, 13 Hours,Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Body of Lies, Heart of the Sea, World War Z, Star Trek Into Darkness, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Babel and Braveheart.