Filming ‘Game of Thrones’ where winter never comes

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Story highlights

The town of Ouarzazate is often called Morocco's Hollywood

Ridley Scott's film "Gladiator" and parts of "Game of Thrones" have been filmed in the area

The industry is making a comeback after being hit hard by the global financial crisis

CNN  — 

In “Game of Thrones,” Yunkai might be a fictional city ruled by an oligarchy of slave merchants, but the scenes had to be filmed in the real world.

The citadel of Ait-Ben-Haddou in Morocco near Ouarzazate (pronounced Wa-za-zat) was chosen as the location, and is one of the most popular film-making destinations in the region.

And scenes set in the ancient city of Astapor, which was a big part of the final episode of season three, was filmed in Essaouira – also in Morocco.

But the creators of “Game of Thrones” were not the first to use the region’s beauty as the backdrop for a major international production. More than a decade before them, Ridley Scott chose the North African country to film the gory glory of ancient Rome in his epic “Gladiator” starring Russell Crowe. And so did the producers of “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” which starred Jake Gyllenhaal.

Indeed, big foreign productions seeking a Middle Eastern backdrop (and possibly an academy award) have long chosen Morocco for its relatively cheap price tag and safety – and nearly half of the films shot in the kingdom are made in Ouarzazate.

According to Amine Tazi, who runs two of the town’s biggest studios, foreign directors come for the dramatic light as well as the wide variety of landscapes.

But Morocco’s appeal goes far beyond the beautiful vistas. Filmmakers can find experienced local crews that help productions save half the cost they’d pay in Europe or the U.S.

“Logistically, [Ouarzazate is] very good,” says Tazi, general manager at Atlas & CLA Studios. “Everything is very close by. Hotels are close by. People are very movie friendly and very efficient.”

Tazi’s studios also offer dozens of set options – from Styrofoam Egyptian temples to plaster-cast Tibetan Palaces. National Geographic used one of his sets in the mini-series “Killing Jesus” – the seven-week production was filmed by a crew of 250 people and included 4,500 extras.

Bargain Hunting

Atlas Studios opened in 1983 to host the Michael Douglas classic “The Jewel of the Nile.” Since then, around 200 TV shows and films have been shot there, including “Babel,” starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

“Morocco is one of the countries that goes out of its way to welcome film makers,” says Tony Reeves, writer of the Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations. “Technical crews in Morocco are well sought after – builders, painters, extras, electrical resources.”

But in recent years productions have been hit by the global financial crisis and the uncertainty following the Arab Spring which ripped through North Africa. Between 2008 and 2013, Tazi’s revenue dropped by 50%.

Such a slowdown hit Ouarzazate’seconomy, where many of the 100,000 citizens rely on the cinema industry from employment.

“The city is poor. There [are] few job opportunities,” says resident Abdelaziz Bouydnayen, who once played Osama Bin Laden in a National Geographic documentary. “We are all just waiting…There are millions of dollars that come into this city, but the city is still poor.”

In the past decade, both of the town’s theaters have closed leaving residents without a place to watch the films shot in their back yard.

Changing Times

Yet, a series of recent developments have started to show the start of a revival.

Last year, 22 films used Tazi’s studios – up from 12 in 2013.

Foreign film projects spent $120 million in 2014, according to the country’s film commission – up from $23 million the previous year.

And part of the reason filmmakers keep coming to Morocco are the tax-incentives – foreign crews are exempt from paying value added tax. But the other reason is the experience of Moroccan talent.

“Making stories of biblical proportions requires that there be casts of hundreds” says Roma Downey, who is producing the upcoming TV series “A.D.” in Morocco. “To wrangle that many people and have them be so focused and understand what they’re doing is a big part of what they’re doing. It save time, saves money.”

Tazi is so confident that the current boom will continue that he plans to build a brand new Roman-themed set this year.

He’s hoping to keep the cameras rolling and action going in Morocco’s Hollywood.

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