A Gerard Butler action movie is the first Hollywood production to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first to shoot in the country’s majestic, barren and hitherto off-limits AlUla region, writes Adrian Pennington.
With a plot set in Afghanistan involving the CIA, the Taliban and Pakistan’s intelligence service ISI and a lot of guns, terrorism and explosions, the Gerard Butler vehicle Kandahar might seem an odd choice for Saudi Arabia’s first servicing of a foreign film production. But if nothing else it showcases the spectacular canyons, sand dunes and oases of the country’s vast north-western desert.
Shot between December 2021 and February 2022 Kandahar is also the first big-budget production to shoot in Saudi since the conservative Muslim Kingdom began to culturally open up in 2018. That year also saw a lifting of a 35-year ban on commercial cinemas and the introduction of a generous 35% location rebate on films shot there.
“The idea was for a road movie with the epic quality of Lawrence of Arabia in locations that nobody in cinema has seen before,” explained Miguel de Olaso, the Spanish director of photography who goes by the moniker Macgregor.
“This region has been closed to tourism for so long, so to get the opportunity to shoot here was - from a cinematographer’s perspective - one not to be missed.”
He described the UNESCO World Heritage Site at AlUla as “a version of Utah and Jordan times ten.”
“It’s a vast area full of archaeological sites and older civilisations mixed with amazing rock formations.”
For all that, Saudi was a stand-in for a story set in Afghanistan across which Butler’s CIA agent and his Afghan interpreter must travel hundreds of perilous kilometres to safety at the border.
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To that end, one of Macgregor’s main visual references were the iconic photographs of Afghanistan and its people shot in the 1980s by Magnum photographer Steve McCurry.
“I grew up with those images which transport you to a world that might as well be happening 200 years ago or 200 years into the future,” he said. “AlUla does look like another world.”
BTS: Kandahar – desert experience
Director Ric Roman Waugh (Angel Has Fallen) appreciated the fact that MacGregor had prior experience of filming in desert conditions. The DP had shot and directed the 2018 documentary short Mauritania Railway: Backbone of the Sahara tracing the transport of iron ore over 700km to Africa’s Atlantic coast.
“One thing I learned was that the desert looks more beautiful at sunset for sure but it looks more like the true desert when the sun is higher. For much of our story we needed to portray the desert as a miserable and desolate place. Our main characters endure a very rough journey so it didn’t make sense to shoot everything to look perfect in the magic hour of dusk and dawn.”
Most scenes were shot two camera on Alexa Mini LF with additional Sony FX6 and FX3 as crash cams and rig cameras. He selected Panavision E series and Primo 35mm anamorphics but found that after weeks on the road their optics became a little warped.
“We were extremely careful with lenses, especially when changing them, but this was a very demanding shoot. We mostly shot chronologically and towards the end I could see how the glass inside was started to be a bit misaligned. The fall-off of the focus was completely different to how they started out. That worked great for the aesthetic since it suits the battering our characters have taken by the end of the journey.”
BTS: Kandahar – cameras and drones
A major cat and mouse sequence set at night in the desert was accomplished using a Sony FX3 mirrorless camera with infrared sensor conversion.
“We would shoot Gerard Butler’s point of view night vision footage during the day using the FX3 which makes the sky look dark and the vegetation appear infrared and then the same scene at night with huge lighting set up on the Alexa.”
Drone shots were made using the Mini LF with Vazon full frame anamorphic lenses. All the gear was kept wrapped in plastic to avoid exposure to the sun and to keep out dust. Macgregor applied thin filters around the camera vents to remove sand while keeping airflow.
He estimates that 95% of Kandahar was filmed in AlUla with additional shots including airport scenes in Jeddah, Dubai in the UAE and some sequences of Butler driving across the desert shot in a studio using conventional back projection.
BTS: Kandahar – varying conditions
“There are a variety of landscapes within a 15km radius [of their AlUla base] including the market town which stood in for Herat and an area of black volcanic lava. We all had Green Cards and got full freedom to do anything we wanted.”
The finale features a massive practical FX explosion that generated a sandstorm that lasted for five minutes and “would have been impossible to recreate with fans and Fuller’s earth. It threw up sand taller than the Empire State building and affected the light - even the local weather.”
The camera crew were mostly from Spain, the camera electrician and gaffer from Mexico and additional crew from Dubai. MacGregor is an experienced commercials DOP and wanted a smaller crew who would be able move quickly scene to scene. The local Saudi crew are still learning the ropes.
Since Kandahar the Saudi Arabian psychological thriller feature Matchmaker has shot in the country for Netflix. The Saudi region of Neom, a sponsor of the Media Production and Technology Show, is also marketing itself as a media hub and has mooted plans to legalise alcohol.
As The Hollywood Reporter pointed out, while the country continues to combat negative perceptions about its human rights record — including the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — this has all been backed by a significant promotional campaign that has helped AlUla become a dominant presence across most major festivals.
BTS: Kandahar – A love for Scotland
Macgregor’s passion for moving pictures was evident aged 9 when he got his first video camera but on leaving high school his parents dissuaded from a career in film.
“I went to study mining engineering but it was the most boring thing ever. Within six months I knew I needed to be a filmmaker.”
He left to go to film school in Madrid only to be kicked out “for not being focussed enough.”
Instead, he went to the European University of Madrid to study AV communications “things like art history and advertising which they don’t teach you as a filmmaker but which I found very, very useful,” he said.
“I had a late start to my career and no contacts. Even though Spain produces a lot of content and has a lot of very talented people there’s a lot of competition for work.”
Moving to LA opened those doors up. “There’s less ‘show us your CV’ and more ‘show us what you’ve got’ attitude in the US. I wish I could have started there in my 20s rather than my mid-30s.”
He has shot a handful of features including Fall, the 2022 breakout hit which succeeded in bringing a terrifying sense of vertigo to the tall story of two friends who scale a 2,000-foot-high TV mast.
Of his unusual nickname, which he has mischievously trademarked on his website, Macgregor said he has been called this since he was at school.
“I was and am in love with Scotland,” he said, “And now I’ve made a movie with a great Scottish star.”
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