When producing a $50m film with a host of international stars, Colombia would not necessarily be on any producer's shortlist. But for Scott Steindorff of Stone Village Pictures, who recently wrapped Love In The Time Of Cholera in Cartagena, the experience was well worth the trouble.
Colombia was not his first choice to shoot the adaptation of Nobel-prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel. In spring 2006, Steindorff was beginning pre-production in Brazil, where he previously shot his travel-horror flick Turistas.
But then he received a phone call from Colombia's vice-president Francisco Santos Calderon with a last-minute request to rethink his location. Calderon says: 'It was a matter of national pride. First, because Love In The Time Of Cholera is a masterpiece of our most recognized writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and also because the story happens in Cartagena, our most precious city. It had to be filmed here.'
So in April 2006, Steindorff, director Mike Newell and production designer Wolf Kroeger visited the country. 'We went to Cartagena,' remembers Steindorff, 'to see all the places in the novel, like the opera house and the old town. Once there, I looked at Newell and said we should film here.'
'Perception of violence is worse than the reality'
Security was a primary concern. 'You think of Colombia,' says Steindorff, 'and the first thing that comes to mind is kidnapping and guerilla warfare. But the government promised us protection.' Now Steindorff believes that 'in hindsight, the perception is worse than the reality'.
However, while nothing happened to the production, the threat of violence was present. Newell remembers that 'on low twitch days, we had the city police, when the warning was higher, we had the army, and on really bad days, there were the marines.'
Even with government-guaranteed security, Steindorff faced the daunting task of mounting a $50m production in a country with nearly no film culture or industry. While the producers brought in department heads and imported production crews from Brazil, they still needed to hire many locals to construct the set and assist in the production.
'We would pick up unemployed people off the street, hand them a hammer, and that is how sets got made,' quips Newell. 'Like Swiss Family Robinson, we had to make these things up as we went along. When we said 'now' we learned that 'now' was on a sliding scale in Colombia. Was 'now' tomorrow' Next week' Never''
Complex demographic makes casting easy
In casting the hundreds of roles in the historic epic, Newell took advantage of Colombia's complex demographic. For the aristocrats and middle class, Newell cast out of Bogota which he sees as 'very European, with the same faces in Madrid, or even in Berlin'. The rich ethnic mix in Cartagena provided much of the rest of the casting pool.
Newell jokes that, 'In a way we began with great trepidation - 'please God save us from Colombia' - but at the end we didn't see how we could have made the film without being there.'
And Colombia is hungry for more film production. Claudia Triana, who heads up the film promotional organisation Proimagenes En Movimiento, says: 'Beginning in 2008 and onwards our goal will be to have at least two large productions shoot at Colombian locations every year.'
To attract productions, vice-president Calderon promises a coordinated push among different governmental departments as well as future tax incentives. 'Colombia is the entrance gate to South America, just two hours by plane from Miami,' says Calderon. 'What else could a producer ask for''