Written by James Peak on Mar 30, 2010. Posted in Production News

Green Zone uses Spain, Morocco and the UK for film locations

Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone, which puts Matt Damon back where he belongs at the heart of another action-packed thriller, has opened globally to excellent reviews.

The film, shot in Greengrass’ trademark verite style, is set in a chaotic, claustrophobic Baghdad, immediately after Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Every frame of the film is set in Baghdad, but obviously it was impossible to consider shooting the feature anywhere near Iraq. However, commentators have been unanimous in their praise for the way the locations - a patchwork of Mediterranean coastal Spain, Morocco, London and Surrey - have been stitched together seamlessly to recreate Baghdad’s confusing jumble of bazaars, palaces, pockmarked squares, luxurious Western hotels and high rises, and squalid wasteground.

Paul Greengrass has been quoted as saying that the real creative mission was to make a film every bit as compelling as the Bourne films and filled with the same action, excitement and mystery. He was looking to deliver “a privileged inside view to an extreme environment in downtown Baghdad in those desperate weeks immediately after the invasion.”

Many exteriors were shot in the region of Murcia where sweeping, expansive aerial views of Saddam Hussein’s palace were shot using the Academia San Javier, and where the disused military base in the town of Los Alcazares doubled up as Mukhabarat Intelligence HQ. But the shoot got complicated in Morocco and in the UK. It fell to Location Manager Giles Edleston, who ran the London shoot, to make it all work. But with a radically different climate and architecture than Baghdad, this was a tall order. How did they conjure up Baghdad without going near the place?

“We made our plans, thought long and hard and just trusted that Baghdad would miraculously emerge from the rushes. And it did!”

A Surrey native, Paul Greengrass has regularly chosen London and the south-east to shoot. But who could believe that the Camp Cropper prison and WMD site that Damon’s platoon storm was actually Longcross Studios in leafy Surrey? Or that the Saddam Hussein International Airport was actually the famous Sandown Park racecourse in Esher?

Giles says that Sandown was a great place to mock-up Baghdad:

“We had to bring in an enormous amount of stone and concrete debris and scatter it across the entire concourse of the racecourse, as this scene is ‘post-bomb’ in the script. The Sandown management were absolutely brilliant and very obliging. Even though the scene lasts a blink of an eye, you can trust me it was authentic post-invasion Baghdad.”

Some filming took place on the day that Terminal 5 opened at Heathrow, as Giles remembers:

“We had to recreate the Al Rashid hotel and at short notice we got into the Renaissance Hotel near Heathrow. On the single day we shot, there were 200 BAA executives celebrating Terminal 5 opening and another 400 delayed passengers checking in as Terminal 5 was not working! Then we had 200 US soldier extras, in full webbing, hanging around waiting for their scene.That was a busy day.”

Some of the most dramatic scenes in the film, where Damon’s squad storm a warehouse complex looking for WMDs was actually the Millennium Mills in East London’s Docklands. Giles says:

“We built a labyrinth of corridors and tunnels in six weeks and shot there for three days at this disused industrial site. It was a really good experience and the location worked so well I actually went back there for the Sherlock Holmes shoot.”

For the various highly dynamic chase sequences, either in Humvees, minicabs or on foot, Morocco’s Rabat was the answer. The flat red tile roofs and narrow, shadowy streetscapes evoke the humming, busy, claustrophobic atmosphere of Baghdad. How did Ben Rimmer, Production Manager for the Morocco shoot, like shooting there?

“The scale of the film, with those kinds of action sequences is really only possible in Morocco. The whole thing about Baghdad is that it is on the desert floor and has limitless space. Rabat could emulate that. For instance, it had grand boulevards and wide open spaces, but still felt like a city, just as Baghdad does. We turned a main road into ‘Assassin’s Gate’. We could not have done that many places in the world.”

Ben has filmed in Morocco for other projects, including Spy Game, and is never disappointed:

“Morocco is so film-experienced we were able to achieve absolutely everything we wanted. Since the King established his Film Commission (CCM) filmmakers are treated with reverence. The CCM granted permission for everything we needed. It extended even to military personnel, helicopters and military bases, and of course the time and space to get the action right. It’s difficult to access places like that and Morocco was our first choice.”

Ben explains that Morocco has a brilliantly experienced crew and production services infrastructure, which served Green Zone perfectly:

“Morocco has a great range of locations for historical epics and action films, and producers would do well to consider it.”

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