Beware the Night

Hollywood horror shoots in Liwa desert.
There was no shortage of smoke and special FX on set.
There was no shortage of smoke and special FX on set.


If things had seemed quiet since Tom Cruise last graced these shores, don’t panic. Now it’s Abu Dhabi’s turn to bring the Hollywood A-list to town. Only this time it’s much, much scarier.

Hollywood was back in the UAE in force last month, and Digital Studio was thrilled to be exclusively invited to spend a weekend on the closely-guarded set of the latest Jerry Bruckheimer (you probably know him best as producer of Pirates of the Caribbean and Top Gun) production, Beware the Night.

The movie is a co-production with Sony Screen Gems, set for a tentative 2015 release, and twofour54 intaj provided all local production services for the Abu Dhabi section of the shoot.

Admittedly, the bulk of the movie was shot in New York, with Abu Dhabi serving as the location for only the movie’s opening scenes, but no one should be any illusions about the significance of such an A-movie shoot choosing Abu Dhabi, and the services of twofour54 intaj for this significant section of the film.

The team was here for two overnight shoots in the Liwa Desert, with a further day of aerial shooting, and another overnight shoot on set at intaj’s Abu Dhabi sound stages. The producers received assistance from Abu Dhabi Film Commission’s location and rebate services, as well as visas, permits, customs support and the all important rebate.

Twofour54 intaj, meanwhile provided full production services including crew, equipment and even on location catering from perennial favourites Fibber McGee’s. Six Emiratis from twofour54’s vocational traineeship program ‘intaji’ and twofour54’s Creative Lab community also had the opportunity to shadow the production team, gaining experience on a big budget Hollywood production.

Perhaps most significant of all, however, the movie’s producers chose to shoot a section of the movie on an intricately constructed set at intaj’s Studio B in Abu Dhabi.

We can’t give too many details away, having graciously been given access to both the outdoor shooting in the Liwa Desert and the closed studio set, but we can confirm this was a lot more than painting a few flats.

As executive producer Glenn Gainor, from Screen Gems, notes: “There’s location work, there’s studio work, there’s construction work and helicopter work. There’s pyrotechnics and special FX. That’s everything you need. It’s a Hollywood movie, right here.”

Likewise, we can’t give too much away about the script at this stage. We can tell you the producers promise it will be seriously scary, perhaps unsurprising with Exorcism of Emily Rose director Scott Derrickson at the helm, but also that it will not be your run-of-the-mill horror film (like a cross between ‘Dirty Harry and The Exorcist is Jerry Bruckheimer Film’s executive producer Chad Oman’s intriguing attempt to give the film a sense of location) and that the cast includes big names like Eric Bana, Olivia Munn, Sean Harris and Joel Mchale.

If you want more clues to the content, you could probably do worse than read the book on which the movie is based, NYC cop Ralph Sarchie’s autobiographical Beware the Night. That’s what Oman did some 11 years ago, and it seems to be an experience that’s stayed with him: “I read Ralph’s book 10 or 11 years ago, and was absolutely terrified.

I was reading it while my wife and kids were asleep upstairs, and all I wanted to do was be in a room with other people! Then when I saw the initial six page film proposal, I’d literally never seen anything like it.

It was both blue collar cop drama and high class religious exploration. It’s a difficult subject matter, but we had Ralph on set every day in New York as technical advisor and I think the film handles it really well without being in your face, and manages to still be very commercial.

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We initially took the idea to Disney, but it was really too scary for them, so that’s how we ended up teaming up with Screen Gems – they do this kind of movie very well!”

So, how did a NY cop film find itself shooting in the Liwa desert? Screen Gems’ Gainor is on hand to fill us in on the background: “Our story begins with soldiers fighting in Iraq. They come across something powerful there, and that takes the story to the Bronx where it impacts peoples’ lives.

“So the opening sequence needed a Middle East location. I’d met [intaj executive director] Paul Baker in LA [Baker previously ran Pinewood Studios’ LA facility] and he’d told me about his new position at intaj, so I called him and we had a meeting in LA.

I got on a plane few months later. I’d been to Dubai before and met film makers, though never actually filmed there, but at least I knew a little of the UAE. Just as then, one of the first things I noticed was how welcome I felt.

As film makers it’s important to know that we are welcome where we go to film, and the government of Abu Dhabi, with the 30 per cent rebate, has sent a clear message that they want film making. We’ve felt very welcome and the way they’ve helped us put the film together is fantastic.”

With the US not exactly bereft of deserts, it seems that hospitality, and of course the rebate, was a big factor for the BTN team: “Why this desert not the US? Sure, the rebate was a big swing,” admits Gainor.

“But it’s more than that. The location itself was a really big deal. The guys here showed us some amazing locations. Mick Flannigan [Abu Dhabi Film Commission head] said ‘I’ve read the script, I understand the script, I know what you need.’ He’s a Hollywood guy and he really knew what was important to me. I showed his location pictures to the creative team and they said ‘that’s what we need.’

“Not every desert is the same and the golden sands of Liwa are very specific. Sure, films can compromise, but I don’t feel I’ve had to compromise at all by coming here to Liwa desert.”

Oman agrees: “It’s such a beautiful location. I didn’t realise how beautiful the desert here is. It’s a totally different feel to other deserts I’ve seen. Twofour54 was also a big factor.

I’d heard great things about them. And of course that tax credit is helpful – we only go where we can get credit whenever possible. We’d originally thought of shooting the desert scenes in New Mexico, but when we realised how much cheaper it is to build on the sound stages here, that was it.”

It may be cheaper to build on sound stages here, but did the producers not feel there was a degree of risk in handing such responsibility to such a young market? “The opening of movie is basically one continuous piece,” explains Gainor.

“So it made sense to shoot it all in one location if we could. But it’s true I took a risk to trust twofour54 to build a very complicated set. I did that on strength of my relationship with Paul, and Paul and his team did not let me down at all. The set looks amazing.

I was conscious that we were coming into a growing film market, and would be cautious not to overwhelm it with a larger film yet but this is a great first step and a true success for us.

“I did speak to one of the producers of MI IV about his experiences here, and he said he’d a had a great experience in Dubai, but there really aren’t that many producers who have filmed here to ask. I’m confident after this that many more will be calling me to find out more as I believe we’re the first big productionto take advantage of the new rebate.”

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Baker confirms this fact, noting: “The 30 per cent rebate for film making was originally launched last September, but it was really a soft launch while we brought Mick Flannigan in at the film commission and made some structural changes, so this is the first.”

So far, so good. The locations were perfect, the studio shoot was a success, but how did an experienced Hollywood team find the standard of crew and equipment in Abu Dhabi? “I’ll be going back with a glowing report of the crew,” says Gainor.

“Not one crew member has disappointed. I really think Paul’s team put together a team of some of the finest film makers in the world, and as they bring through more interns and more Emiratis to see how the global film community puts together a movie, they’ll pick up good habits and put them into practice here too.

It’s happened before. Some years ago a lot of US productions started going to Canada, and now Canada has a thriving industry. Abu Dhabi has that same opportunity right now and will pick up good habits from the French, English and US films that I’m sure will be coming here.”
It seems sourcing equipment proved straightforward too, at least judging by the rows of
Filmquip trucks on site, though the team did bring some of their own equipment, albeit largely for artistic reasons: “We were shooting on Sony F55s and we had a very specific set up with Cook lenses. Film makers can be very specific about the exact look they want, so we brought them with us.”

The only other potential stumbling block Gainor identifies is the lack of regional prop houses. Purely a symptom of a young industry and not one that needs to affect a well-prepared shoot: “You have to bring everything in with you, including things like weapons that may be illegal, so you have to have good advice and assistance and plan ahead, even more so when you’re shooting out in the desert – you’re not going to be able to pick up anything you forget.

In England or the US, you have prop houses you can fall back on, but of course as the industry grows here these things will follow here too and create new business opportunities.”
Creating new business opportunities is, of course, a key part of twofour54’s organic remit, and one that Baker has been bringing to the fore as part of this shoot.

While many of the crew he supplied, for example, were pulled from twofour54 intaj’s existing freelancer list, some were not so easily available locally. An obvious example would be weapons specialist Christophe Maratier, one of cinema’s leading firearms experts who had landed in Abu Dhabi fresh from the set of Luc Besson’s latest Robert De Niro/Tommy Lee Jones starrer.

Unsurprisingly, not too many people on the existing freelance list had access to the cache of Kalashnikovs and M4 assault rifles that Maratier brough to the set. Now he’s been here once, however, Baker is working on setting him up as a freelancer at twofour54 for future productions, and thus the industry continues to grow.

Leaving the Hollywood big guns (literally in this case) aside, it seems appropriate to give Baker the last word: “I can’t emphasise enough what it means for the local industry that these guys have said ‘yes, we trust you to build the set in the sound stage.’

It’s a really big thing. It coincides perfectly with what we’re trying to do at twofour54. We want to expand and build bigger stages, and this is a sign that we can do that. People are already hearing about it and calls are already coming in about future projects. I’m really confident that this is just the beginning of much bigger things”.

key figures

- 4,000 Pots of desert grass grown in Fujeirah especially for the shoot
- 06 Young Emiratis given the chance to work as internson set
- 04 Total days shooting in Abu Dhabi

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