Shooting wrapped last month on the long-awaited Gerard Butler project Kandahar and here are some exclusive behind the scenes photos from the film, which is notably one of the first major U.S. titles to shoot its entirety in Saudi Arabia. The film, which is produced by John Wick outfit Thunder Road Films and Capstone, reunites Butler with his Greenland and Angel Has Fallen director Ric Roman Waugh. While this certainly isn’t the first action thriller the bankable Scottish actor has starred in, Kandahar is one of the first big-budget Hollywood titles to shoot in the country’s northwest AlUla region, which is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hegra.
Butler stars as Tom Harris, an undercover CIA operative, stuck deep in hostile territory in Afghanistan. He must fight his way out alongside his Afghan translator, to an extraction point in Kandahar, all whilst avoiding the elite special forces tasked with hunting them down.
Capstone is financing the project along with Middle East media group MBC Studios. The title has had backing from the Saudi Film Commission and producers have tapped into the local rebate scheme. Thunder Road’s Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee, Brendon Boyea produce along with G-Base’s Alan Siegel and Butler and Capstone’s Christian Mercuri. Exec producers are David Haring, Scott LaStaiti, Ruzanna Kegeyan, Andrea Dimity and Jonathan Fuhrman.
Capstone is handling international sales and hinted that it may be showing footage to buyers during this week’s European Film Market. CAA Media Finance reps U.S. rights and arranged financing.
Deadline sat down with Capstone Chairman and CEO Mercuri a few days before the project wrapped to get the low-down on shooting in Saudi Arabia, a country that only lifted its 35-year-old relgion related ban on cinema in 2017. With KSA ramping up its efforts to attract local and international production to shoot in the region, Film AlUla is playing a major part in the government’s Vision 2030 plan to modernize the country. The 27,000km area boasts two mountain ranges, three volcanoes, a nature reserve and more than 100 tombs.
DEADLINE: Why did you opt to take this film to Saudi Arabia and Film AlUla?
CHRISTIAN MERCURI: There were a few things that went into it. Obviously, you have to creatively be into it so your talent side has to be willing and they were the ones that actually went first. They were invited by Saudi [Arabia] and they did a trip to scout it and check it out. We just became enamoured with the location with the look, the feel, the authenticity of it all. So that was really phase one. If you don’t have that, if it doesn’t work creatively, there’s really nothing else to talk about. After that, it was about the support that we would get from the region and what we would get from the government, when it came to financial matters. There was a rebate they were working on and then we took on a partner, MBC, the biggest broadcaster out there, and we put it together.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about the budget and how much did the Saudi rebate step up and invest?
MERCURI: Let’s just call it a large budgeted film. It’s certainly a big budget and then you take in to account any COVID costs. That was also something that didn’t help when we pushed it from last year into this time slot. Borders were shutting down because of the Delta variant flying around. But you know, the rebate is what you’ve seen online and that’s sort of what they were working off of [in December the Saudi Film Commission unvealed a 40% cash rebate for local and international productions]. They had been working with us and trying to figure out how it works and what to apply so it was an organic process with us as they tried to set an official rebate. And it’s paid out to date and it’s been solid.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that they key cast were on board for it. Was there anyone you had to convince to come out to KSA?
MERCURI: No. Capstone were the last ones brought on and everybody was energetic and excited about the challenge. There was certainly, from my perspective, nobody that needed to be convinced. It was just my job that the financing was there to finance the movie and do my side of things. But from the perspective on the ground and for the talent, no everyone was excited about it and up for the challenge.
DEADLINE: How did the shoot go?
MERCURI: I think it’s been great. There are logistical things that, when you go into a new region that doesn’t have the infrastructure yet that can be a challenge. But everybody signed up for that from the start and the government supported us and gave us everything that we needed and everything that we asked for. So, although challenging, I think it’s going to be rewarding and, from what I can see, from what I know that the talent has said, what we have in the can right now is pretty amazing. We’re excited to showcase that in the near future.
DEADLINE: When will that be? Will you be showing footage to buyers at EFM?
MERCURI: Everything’s on schedule. Most of the world has sold but we will continue to make sales. There’s a few more territories left and we’ll continue that process until we get to the release but everything’s on schedule. We will try, if we have enough time, to show some footage in Berlin but we’ll certainly do something big for Cannes.
DEADLINE: You mentioned the impact that COVID had on the pre-production of the film. How tough was it to stick with it given you were already at the starting line and had to push it? You’re one of the first major Hollywood films to shoot its entirety in Saudi Arabia.
MERCURI: It was really tough. We were all learning for the first time. When you’re ramping up a major production, you’re spending a lot of money and there’s always that risk that you don’t expect, as organic as a film is and all of the challenges we deal with anyway, without a pandemic. There are a lot of things that happen in the push to get an independent film made, schedules have to align, everything has to come into place and you can lose momentum and money if you’re not careful when you’re trying to ramp up. And then you’ve got Covid shut down costs so there were a lot of things going into that.
But nobody ever wavered on the talent side or on the Saudi side. We kept working and putting together everything that we needed logistically to get it done and to get us into a timeframe that would be ok. We obviously couldn’t shoot in the summer out there as 80% of the film is shot in the desert and it’s sort of warm there in Saudi Arabia in the summer. But we were able to push to fall and we were able to do it and get it off the line. With the pandemic, it wasn’t just the costs that went into it as we were forced into the push because of border closings as well. With heads of the department, crews and a lot of materials coming internationally as well, it meant the push was costly. But we got through it and nobody wavered.
DEADLINE: How much of the local crew did you use?
MERCURI: Most of it is local crew. It’s a big set and most of the crew are actually locals except for a few heads of department which are international. There are a lot of Saudi actors in the film. When you go to a region, of course you have to use local otherwise you don’t go. There’s a mix of international with this one but there are definitely local crews. Not everything has been brought in from the outside.
DEADLINE: It feels like Kandahar, an action title set in the Afghan desert, is a type of film that works well shooting in Saudi Arabia. But can the region offer more in terms of the types of films it might facilitate rather than action desert films?
MERCURI: Absolutely. When you think of Saudi Arabia, we think of the desert obviously and there’s a reason for that because it certainly has plenty. But there is a jungle there, a lot of water there so there are different temperatures. Jeddah is very humid and warm, Riyadh is more like LA and dry. It has a lot of terrain, a lot of mountains and it’s a beautiful landscape. But as they are building their infrastructure and building some studios, I think they’ll be able to take on more. There’s a lot to offer with regards to outdoor shooting and this film happened to be very organic in the fact that most of it is shot out in the desert so that played into the fact that this was an opportunity to be an authentic place to shoot.
DEADLINE: Saudi Arabia, of course, has an extremely conservative government and is historically a very patriarchal society. Given you guys are some of the pioneers filming in the country, what would you say to international producers and financiers considering working in the region?
MERCURI: We’re artists at the end of the day and we work in the film industry and we try to focus on that. As a support system, the government was extremely supportive of us. They were hands off but supportive and providing and gave us a rebate incentive to maximize the shoot. People are extremely warm, polite, helpful and very intelligent. As things are opening up, you can see they are very hungry for this new modern era that’s taking place.
I think the misconceptions we all had of them, myself included, and what you hear from the Western world is ignorant and misguided. I was very impressed and it’s a truly safe and warm place with warm and helpful people and it’s been an amazing experience. You can ask the talent as well as everybody was really encouraged and enjoyed their time there. The fact is the material that is going to come out of it is going to show that and that doesn’t happen if you don’t have support from the region, support from people on the ground and help from crews and cast. If anybody is thinking of it, I would certainly recommend shooting in the region.
DEADLINE: Would you go back to shoot another film there?
MERCURI: 100%. I would absolutely go back. DeadlineIn a heartbeat.