‘Syriana’ director sparks international incident
By Borys Kit
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – Stephen Gaghan invaded
The “Syriana” director didn’t do it intentionally, of
course — unless he’s really an undercover CIA agent. But while
making his political thriller in the United Arab Emirates,
Gaghan, his crew and an armed camel train strayed into that
country’s southeastern neighbor and squared off with the
Omanian army. Like the characters in his movie, he discovered
how easily one can get lost among the invisible borders of the
In late 2004, Gaghan’s movie filmed in locales ranging from
Baltimore and Washington to Geneva and Casablanca, working in
five languages over 74 days. Scenes that involved the movie’s
unnamed oil-rich kingdom, the story line with the
impressionable Pakistani teen and the movie’s climax were among
those shot in and around Dubai, one of the seven city-states
that make up the UAE.
Few films have been shot in the UAE, let alone a Western
one, and getting permission involved the politics of persuasion
and negotiations with the country’s royal family. And even when
their request was granted, and Gaghan and his crew had arrived
in the country, it was taken away.
“They heard that the script was anti-Saudi,” says Gaghan,
explaining that Saudi Arabia has a multibillion-dollar investor
in the country, and the head of the royal family, Sheik
Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, could have found himself in
potential choppy political waters by allowing the film.
Luckily, a general in the country’s armed forces and the
deep connections of Robert Baer, the CIA officer whose book,
“See No Evil,” the movie is based on, turned things around. “We
had support in the intelligence sectors,” Gaghan says.
Being in Dubai caused some culture clash, particularly
since the production was there during the holy days of Ramadan.
Muslims fast all day during that period, and at one point
Gaghan and his some of his Western crew hid below dashboards to
munch on snacks in order not to offend.
While other movies have shot in Californian deserts or
deserts in Africa to double for the Gulf, Gaghan says it is
impossible to duplicate elsewhere the unique light of that part
of the world.
“We think of the desert as dry heat, like Death Valley dry.
But the Persian Gulf has 100% humidity. It’s like a wall that
hits you,” he says. “The air is filled with pink dust (from
ongoing industrialization), and in that combination, the light
refracts a certain way. What you see in the film is basically
unretouched negative. The light actually looks like that. We
had to get that feeling of what it is really like.”
As for the incursion into Oman: For a scene that ultimately
was cut from the movie, Gaghan wanted a camel train traveling
along pink sand dunes against the backdrop of mountains. He
kept going further and further into the desert to shoot “all
these guys who looked like Berber smugglers; they had machine
guns and pistols and they were on these huge camels.”
That’s when the army vehicles arrived, demanding to know
what was going on.
The filmmakers explained they had permission from the
sheik, that they had permits. “Where do you think you are?” the
officers said, scoffing at the paperwork. When the dust
settled, Gaghan was told he had wandered into Omani territory
and the production was ordered to turn back.
Gaghan says the whole Dubai experience was eye-opening.
“It was exciting to bring a big Western movie there in
these times,” he says.