Marrakech (Morocco) (AFP)
Horse master Joel Proust hopes his stallions will soon return to the Moroccan movie sets that have made his name, ranging from Hollywood epics to “Game of Thrones”.
The North African nation’s dramatic desert sands and palm-filled valleys traversed by herds of camels have long provided substitutes for big-budget movie sets requiring locations in the Middle East, but coronavirus restrictions have hit the industry hard.
Last year has been “difficult,” said Proust, at an equestrian center on the outskirts of Marrakech, where the thunder of hooves heralds the sudden arrival of a herd.
Horses – including Arabian beards, Frisians, and Spanish thoroughbreds – gallop, trot, and play dead as they follow their instructor.
The 65-year-old Frenchman has choreographed equestrian action scenes for four decades for some of the biggest films shot in Morocco.
They include Oliver Stone’s 2004 swashbuckling “Alexander”, and Ridley Scott’s 2005 crusader epic “Kingdom of Heaven”.
Proust has fond memories of Stephen Sommers’ Egyptian horror fantasy “The Mummy” in 1999, which saw “200 horses galloping at full speed”.
But amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Morocco’s borders remain closed to 54 countries, including Britain and France, until at least June 10, according to the civil aviation authority.
# photo1 Last year, “we did a Moroccan tourist advertisement and only one film production, whereas normally we do 10 a year,” said the former stuntman, wearing a T-shirt and jodhpurs.
He says he’s gearing up for three major international productions, including Kevin Scott Frakes’ film adaptation of “The Alchemist,” by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho.
“We hope the country will open its borders,” said Proust. “Otherwise, things will get complicated. “
– Mother of dragons –
Since the 1950s, Morocco has welcomed international filmmakers, from Alfred Hitchcock to Pier Paolo Pasolini via Orson Welles.
Proust arrived in the kingdom in the early 1980s as an equestrian instructor, and began his stunt career soon after.
For Martin Scorsese’s 1997 mega-production “Kundun,” on the life of the Dalai Lama, he faced a particular challenge.
“I had to teach 40 Tibetans to ride horses,” said Proust, who has a story to tell in each film.
# photo2On location in the south of Ouarzazate for the successful fantasy series “Game of Thrones”, he evoked a dramatic scene with the British actress Emilia Clarke, who played the “Mother of dragons”, Daenerys Targaryen.
“At the last minute, the director decided that an army of 200 extras should hit the ground with their spears as they passed by on horseback,” he said. “The terrible noise confused the animal. “
In order to end the scene, he suggested that the actors “make it look like they were touching the ground” instead. The sound of spears was added later.
He said he gave riding lessons to Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson for “Waiting for The Barbarians” by Ciro Guerra (2019).
And for “Alexander”, he said Irish actor Colin Farrell had to spend a fortnight in military training in a camp near Marrakech.
“He managed to escape one evening to come and have a drink with us,” said Proust.
– ‘Hanging there’ –
Morocco has sought to attract major international productions in recent years by capitalizing on the diversity of its natural landscapes and by offering financial incentives.
But as the pandemic weighed on the global film industry, Morocco took a hit.
Annual investment in international feature films in the country fell by nearly 78% last year compared to 2019, according to a report from the Moroccan Cinematography Center (CCM). Only eight productions have been shot in the country.
Filming for “The Alchemist” is slated for mid-July, said Proust, who prepares horses and camels for caravan and battle scenes.
With a budget of around 20 million dollars, it is the biggest production for Morocco since the American series “Homeland”, according to local media.
Proust also operates equestrian centers at three resorts and organizes tourist trips to the desert, but the pandemic has put an end to all that as well.
The trainer, who seemed most comfortable with his animals, said he lost around $ 120,000, largely due to personnel costs and animal maintenance.
“We hang in there,” he says. “But things have to start over. ”
© 2021 AFP