Movie Picture

Director Breck Eisner talks about the action in Sahara

Sahara shows quite a range of exotic locations, from the intensity of the desert heat, to the big action packed scenes shot on the water. What was it like filming in such riveting locations?

One of the most dynamic things about doing Sahara was the vast number of locations that we utilized in shooting the movie. From the deserts of Morocco, to Marrakech, as well as three cities in Spain, and London. You always have to move and create so many different bases of operation, so it creates a bigger machine to deal with. We had to string up lines to get high speed Internet, and to get more phone lines. We also had to build storage rooms to lock up our equipment. In Morocco, right on the Algerian border, is where we created a tent city, so that I could live with the actors in these camel hide tents in order to be near the set. There are no hotels within two or three hours of the location.

One of the most challenging locations to lock down was the river. In the script of the movie, they get in a boat named the Calliope, and travel from Lagos all the way to Mali. It's about a thousand-mile journey ranging from lush green foliage to dry desert-adapted river, something like the Niger. In order to get the look of the Niger River, we shot in Spain and Morocco. We shot on two different rivers, in one ocean bay and one reservoir and then combined those four different locations to create the effect of one location – the river.

I can imagine given your selected locations, there are certain elements that would be key in sticking to your filming schedule. Can you talk about some challenges you faced that were often beyond human control during the production of Sahara?

BRECK LAUGHS - There were so many things beyond human control in filming Sahara. When we first started shooting the movie in the deserts of Morocco, it was great. It was about seventy degrees and sunny, and we didn't think there would be any problems, it seemed to be easy. Then coming into the 2nd weeks, major rains came. Then once the rains dissipated, the sandstorms came in for another week. Like in the movies, when you see a film where a sandstorm comes in, you question whether it could really be that crazy and insane…it really is. It is like a wall of sand that comes in and envelopes everything and it completely shut down the set. So, that is just one of the most difficult things you have to deal with in filmmaking. Just dealing with the weather when you have a primarily outdoor movie, as in Sahara.

Sahara in general is full of larger than life action scenes. From diffusing dangerous bombs in a matter of seconds, to intense fight scenes in very compromising locations. What was it like directing these types of scenes?

Directing an action scene is an incredibly complicated thing and the work begins months and months before you get to the set. In a way, the work on the set is the easy part. You start with a script, then you have to break it down and do storyboards. I create thumbnail drawings, and I am not very good at drawing, so I do thumbnail stick figure drawings of what is going to happen. I bring in a story board artist to elaborate those storyboards and then I have a whole plan of attack. I give those storyboards to the crew, and they then isolate which areas are appropriate and factor in their field of expertise, and go about bringing in all of the elements that are needed to put the whole piece together. Finally, we go to the set and I work with a second unit director to brake out what is going to be a first unit sequence and what is going to be a second unit part. So a lot of it is in the up front planning, so that you are ready when it comes to set time.

There are some very complicated stunt scenes in Sahara. One in particular shows the three actors jumping from galloping camels onto a moving train! Generally, stunt people tend to execute these scenes, but it appears as though the actors completed the stunts themselves. Was this a more difficult task than the magic of movie making proves it to be on screen?

For us, one of the things we wanted to do with Sahara is go back to old school filmmaking, and not use wire rigs for the fights and not have stunt men doing all the sequences. Instead we tried to have all of the actors do as much of the stunt work as possible. Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn and Penelope Cruz did many of their own stunts. They were really physical and trained very hard for it. Matthew McConaughey in particular came out two weeks before just to get military training in and work with firearms.

All three actors trained through out the course of the movie on camels. To gallop a camel is a really difficult thing to do. Unlike a horse, camels don't want to run. With a horse, you kick it, you get it going, and it keeps running. A camel, hates to run. So you have to kick it and whip it, and slap it to keep it moving. What we did first is we trained these camels to run along side a train, so that they weren't scared of the train. Simultaneously to that we were training the actors on how to get a camel to run. By the time we got to the train sequence, which was about three-quarters into the schedule, all three actors were done with their training on the camels, and the camels were trained with the train. For the sequence itself, Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn and Penelope Cruz are all galloping at forty miles an hour right next to that train and are getting ready to make their moves to jump onboard.

Some of the scenes in Sahara really work because of the chemistry between the members of the A-List cast. Can you speak to what is was like to work with such an amazing team of actors?

Obviously we had incredible actors in this movie and working with them was a real treat for me. Starting with Matthew McCounaughey. He was the first actor on the movie and had incredible presence. He was amazingly dedicated to this role and was amazingly passionate about it. Steve Zahn and Matthew McCounaughey came out two weeks early to actually start training, and then Penelope Cruz came out when we actually started shooting. The fact that we spent so much time together early on really gave us a chance to bond and get to know eachother. In a movie like this where the two characters Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn, Dirk and Al, are life long friends, its really important that the actors know eachother well before you even start to shoot. That real bond comes across in the movie.

We started shooting in a small town called Erfoud, which is a tiny dirt town consisting of one street, in the middle of the desert, on the edge of Morocco, south of the Atlas Mountains. It is a really isolated desert outpost. Having everybody there, in the same environment, with nothing else to do but shoot and hang out by the pool on the one day we didn't shoot was a great way to get to know each other and create a bond between the actors and the crew. It created this family that all worked extremely well together.

The actors were so dedicated and so passionate about the movie, so it was really a pleasure for me to work with them. Their dedication to the film made it such a pleasure to come to set everyday.