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On location in paradise

Burgeoning film industry in The Bahamas


Location, location, location used to be the mantra of real estate hustlers, investors and salesmen. What are the three most important things to consider when investing in real estate? Location, location and location.

The concept spread, particularly to the movie industry. The expression "on location" generally means some exotic place outside of New York or Hollywood, such as Paris, Monte Carlo or Bora Bora.

It wasn't accidental that Nassau and the islands of The Bahamas were discovered by movie makers, particularly when searching for locations for films that included underwater scenes. The clarity of the water and the kindness of the climate were natural lures.

Creatures of the deep
The underwater film industry in The Bahamas dates back nearly 90 years. Photographer John Ernest Williamson in 1914 brought his revolutionary Photosphere from Chesapeake Bay to Nassau to make an underwater film. He had already produced still photography with his invention. Williamson's underwater camera was slung from a 30 ft barge.

The contraption consisted of a four-ft-wide flexible metal tube 30 ft long, and a 3.5-ton glass-sided viewing chamber from which he filmed. His initial efforts included shooting Bahamian youngsters diving for coins.

He then moved on to the reef world, inhabited by what he described as "creeping, crawling creatures of the deep bumbling silently among the coral."

The film, which needed no plot or story line, was shown at Washington's Smithsonian Institution, and later to sellout crowds in London, New York and Chicago. The Williamson Submarine Expedition is still shown on television today.

His first major underwater film production was the original 1916 silent version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, filmed in The Bahamas. Kirk Douglas, James Mason and Peter Lorre starred in the remake of the movie 38 years later. It was also filmed in Bahamian waters. In 1922, Williamson wrote, produced and introduced the world to slow motion footage with Wonders of the Sea.

The Bahamas film genre, and particularly the underwater branch of it, has spawned a sophisticated industry with all the capabilities of Hollywood.

Special film section
The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism saw the importance of the film industry and made it a priority to encourage and facilitate filmmakers. A special section within the ministry was created in 1985, dedicated to encouraging, collaborating and cooperating with the industry.

The Bahamas Film and Television Commission is headed by Angela Archer. She attends film festivals, industry conventions and seminars, and deals with other government departments involved - including Customs, Police, Public Works and Immigration - in a sometimes complex scenario. For film producers, she is the bridge over the often-troubled waters of red tape.

"We maintain a good close working relationship with the government departments involved." says Archer.

The commission coordinates 250 to 300 film-related projects a year. "That includes films, television series segments, commercials, fashion shoots, product shots and catalogue work, magazine covers and stories," she says.

Boost for economy
Feature films can generate up to $30 million for the economy, says Archer. "Most business is commercial and fashion shoots. Harbour Island is a favourite for fashion photography. We do a lot of TV shoots and BBC does a lot of its programmes here.

"The average commercial production can leave $200,000 in the local economy over a four-day period," says Archer.

Parallel with the ministry's efforts, a loosely knit cadre of film people has developed. They include extras, stand-ins, doubles, models, coordinators, gophers, stuntmen and women, artists, technicians, still photographers, cameramen, boat owners and operators, sailors, drivers, divers, dispatchers, set designers and builders, cooks and an infrastructure of knowledgeable helpers who can be assembled at the click of a shutter.

The availability of all this talent, non-unionized production labour, clear water and accessibility to the US mainland, keep producers returning to The Bahamas.

Stuart Cove, who runs Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas on the south side of New Providence, also heads Stuart Cove's Underwater Productions. He taught Sean Connery to dive for the film Never Say Never Again, which was basically a remake of Thunderball, also starring Connery.

Shark action
Cove's primary role is setting up underwater stunts and action, including shark scenes and attacks. He doubled for Hulk Hogan in Shadow Warriors but spends more time arranging the action, particularly involving sharks. His film and television work includes Flipper and the Flipper series, Sea Quest and a segment in Hard Copy.

Developed to meet the multiple needs of film makers, Cove's Underwater Productions is now a leader in underwater shooting and production, and one of the major draws for producers. Cove, his wife Michelle, and experienced diver, stuntman and cinematographer Gavin McKinney, work closely together on underwater filming projects.

Joan Carroll, a freelance coordinator, is much in demand by Hollywood producers who want to film in The Bahamas.

"I'm called a location manager in industry terms," explains Carroll, who laments the loss of film locations in the area.

Beach accessibility is becoming a problem, according to Carroll, "especially beaches with palm trees. Lethal yellow has killed a lot of the palms at Love Beach, and with the development of Old Fort Beach, it has become inaccessible. Paradise Beach is no longer accessible . Sandy Cay is fine but expensive, and then there's the cost of chartering all the boats and transportation for the people and equipment to get out there.

"It's good for the Out Islands. Grand Bahama is still great with its beautiful beach running all along the south side. Abaco is still good and of course Harbour Island. The Out Island beaches look great, but there's often the problem of accommodation especially if you have a large crew.

"Nassau is losing its locations. The harbour is completely lost now with all the containers. You used to be able to find nice little harbourside restaurants where boats could pull up. It was ideal for filming. That's all gone now, replaced by containers," says Carroll.

Music, beer and soaps
Nevertheless, filming in and about Nassau continues with the Bahamas Film and Television Commission facilitating more than 150 projects of varying sizes during 2002.

They included a wide variety of subjects, including music video shoots with Ricki Martin and Lenny Kravitz, a Michael Jordan golf tournament and the PGA father/son tournament on Paradise Island, Kalik, Molson Export and Miller beer commercials, Sandals Royal Bahamian promotional films, Sears Canada spring and summer catalogue shoots, behind-the-scenes filming of Live with Regis and Kathy, fashion shoots for Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Elle and other magazines and catalogues, as well as a host of other film-related projects.

Meanwhile, McKinney has produced Ocean Wonderland 3D, a 42-minute underwater film. Its world premiere was held at Simons IMAX Theatre at the New England Aquarium in Boston in Feb 2003.

The film, 18 months in the making, was shot in The Bahamas and Australia, with the support of the World Wildlife Fund, (WWF), the International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN) and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), the environmental voice of the UN.

Saving coral reefs
"I am delighted this film has been made," says Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP. "Such an outstanding film can only serve to raise awareness further about the moral, economic and environmental imperatives for saving the world's coral reefs for both current and future generations."

Ocean Wonderland, originally called Blue Magic by McKinney, is the first large format movie entirely shot with digital technology.

Most of the film was shot using natural light. It showcases the incredible beauty of coral reefs and their important role in supporting marine life by providing habitat and food for a wide variety of fish species. It highlights threats facing coral reefs and calls for increased protection.

"WWF believes that Ocean Wonderland 3D will raise considerable public awareness about both the importance of corals, and the perils they face," said Dr Simon Cripps, director of the WWF's Endangered Seas Programme.

Bahamian film credits
Among films shot in The Bahamas - some of them memorable, others forgettable - are the following.

Bahama Passage, 1942, featured Sterling Hayden as a macho Bahamian stud and Madeleine Carroll trying to win his affection. Beneath the 12 Mile Reef, 1953, featured two rival groups of divers fighting for sponge beds. It starred Robert Wagner, Richard Boone, Terry Moore, and Peter Graves.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1954, the Jules Verne epic, starred Kirk Douglas, James Mason and Peter Lorre. Lamar Boren, legendary underwater cameraman, shot it mainly around Goulding Cay, off Lyford Cay. The film won Academy Awards for Art Direction and Set.

Flame of the Islands, 1955, featured Yvonne De Carlo as a smouldering chanteuse, as well as Howard Duff, Zachary Scott and James Arness. It was shot aboard the charter boat Alpha and around the old Montagu Beach Hotel.

Help, 1965, with Ringo Starr and the rest of the Beatles, featured an eight-armed goddess that was supposed to rise off Paradise Beach. Constructed mainly of styrofoam but with arms of scaffold piping, she was a little top heavy and kept falling over as she rose above the water. The scene was eventually scrapped. Local diver Gardner Young had the task of preventing Starr (who couldn't swim) from drowning in a scene that called for Starr to jump off a boat fully clothed.

Darker Than Amber, 1970, with Rod Taylor as John D MacDonald's houseboat detective, Travis McGee, included a spectacular fight scene on Prince George Dock.

Salty, 1973, the story of a lovable and mischievous sea lion, was produced by Ricou Browning. The movie was filmed around the Montagu Beach Hotel. The Day of the Dolphins, 1973, with George C Scott and local diver Willie Meyers as a villain, was filmed at Treasure Cay, Abaco, and at Clifton Pier.

Splash, 1984, starring Daryl Hannah as a mermaid and Tom Hanks, featured a galleon built as a set and sunk off Green Cay, north of Rose Island. The film also featured John Candy, Shecky Greene, a memorable lobster scene and direction by Ron Howard.

Cocoon, 1985, with golden oldies Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley, Brian Dennehy, Hume Cronyn, Jack Gilford, Maureen Stapleton, Gwen Verdon, Jessica Tandy and Steve Guttenberg. Underwater sequences with dolphins were shot around Clifton Pier. Ameche won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and the film won for Best Visual Effects. Cocoon: The Return, 1988, was also shot in The Bahamas.

For Jaws IV: The Revenge, 1987, an underwater train track was built off Clifton Pier in 27 ft of water. Coral Harbour served as the land base where most of the work was done on the mechanical monster. The intact remains of the white Cessna that crashed near the end of the movie lies in 46 ft of water about a quarter-mile offshore. Divers can get inside and sit in the pilot's seat.

The final scenes of an Academy Award winning film, Silence of the Lambs, 1991, were shot in Bimini. Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster earned awards as Best Actor and Best Actress. The movie was voted Best Film and director Jonathan Demme won an Oscar.

My Father, The Hero, 1993, is the story of a 14-year-old girl and her divorced father visiting an island paradise. She tries to pass her father off as a boyfriend to impress a boy, with predictable misunderstandings. The major set was a bungalow built on the beach at Paradise Island just west of the Ocean Club.

Flipper, 1996, starred Paul Hogan and Elijah Wood. The set was built on a beach between Lyford Cay and Clifton Pier and much of the shooting was done off a barge in Clifton Bay. The Flipper set can be seen today at Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas, where it forms part of the dive shop scenery.

Zeus and Roxanne, 1996, a film about the relationship between a dog and a dolphin, was filmed in the Taino Beach area of Grand Bahama. Kathleen Quinlan and Steve Guttenberg starred.

Speed 2, Cruise Control, 1997, featured Jason Patrick and Sandra Bullock. Filming was moved from St Martin to The Bahamas because of the clarity of the water. Frenetic disaster action shows Bahamian Gavin McKinney doubling for Patrick in underwater scenes. The film earned several awards, unfortunately all of them were Golden Raspberries.

The Insider, 2001, with Al Pacino, is about the tobacco industry and was filmed mainly on and around Manjack Cay in Abaco.

Sea Hunt was a television series in the late 1950s with Lloyd Bridges playing tough guy, diver and trouble shooter Mike Nelson.

The trailer for Deep Blue Sea, 1999, featuring Samuel L Jackson and LL Cool J, was filmed in waters around New Providence.

The Guiding Light series marked the first time a soap opera had been filmed on location, when it shot scenes in The Bahamas in 1978. It used the Royal James, now a sunken dive boat diving site at Goulding Cay. Veteran underwater cameraman Al Giddings did most of the filming off the Lyford Cay wall.

In Jan 2003, producers of the soap opera All My Children, engaged two separate crews in three consecutive days of filming at Atlantis on Paradise Island. Uncharacteristic cool weather kept the stars bundled up between scenes.


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