While the eyes of the world’s movie buffs and celebrity spotters turn to Hollywood for the Oscars next week, the Observer on Sunday looks back at some of the surprisingly many films shot, in full or in part, in the Cayman Islands.
Cayman’s pristine sea, stunning sunsets and idyllic beaches have been a magnet for film makers over the years.
The Internet Movie Database lists 21 film or tv productions that have been filmed in Cayman since the 1970s. However, this usually definitive source of movie information leaves out several movies that have been shot partially or in full in the Cayman Islands in the last 35 years.
Perhaps the most fondly remembered of the productions filmed in Cayman in the ‘70s is The Cayman Triangle, which featured several local residents, including Barefoot Man George Nowak, Mary Gillolly, Arek Joseph and Brian Uzzell.
The film was released in 1977 and re-released on a special 30th anniversary DVD collectors’ edition in 2007.
The slapstick comedy adventure, starred Reid Dennis as pirate Durty Reid sent by the military to investigate the mysterious disappearance of eight ships.
Reminiscing about the movie, in which he appeared as the Court Jester, Nowak recalls an elaborate scene for a pirates’ feast at Pedro’s castle.
“Huge pigs were roasted – with apple in mouth, wine filled the pewter cups, the makeup department was going mad; as fast as the makeup went on, the tropical heat assured that the sweat drained it off.
Wenches were dolled up and pirates practised their lines – which amounted to nothing more than a few growls and grunts.
For the pirates who had difficulty acting their part, they were given huge doses of Heineken (better known as Greenies).”
Director Anderson Humphreys had track dollies built throughout the set to roll the camera and to give the scene a professional Hollywood look.
“There were a huge amount of lights. It was an evening shoot and the room at Pedro’s offered little outside light anyway.
It took an entire day to set up a scene that would show about five minutes on the final cut. ‘One minute and we roll,’ shouted the director.
The lights had been turned down to a minimum due to the heat they set off. We were in our places – the food, the rum, the wine, the makeup.
As court jester, my part was to sing while the merry-making and feasting took place.
“Cayman Triangle, scene 42, take one.”
The smacking of the clapboard starts the cameras rolling. “The lights! The lights!” shouted the director. “We need them all!” Seven high powered stage lights – each casting off 400 watts of radiance were turned on… and puff!
Everything went dead! CUC couldn’t take it.“Outside, set high up on its pole the transformer smoked.
The shoot was over and not a single shot had been filmed. Dismayed and exhausted the director barks – “ OK, everybody, that’s a wrap for today. Same time, same place tomorrow.
“We ate, we drank, we had a party… and did the whole thing again the following day,” says Nowak.
Four years earlier, a science fiction movie about a submarine crew sent to recover a marine laboratory, The Neptune Factor, featured underwater scenes shot in Cayman.
Venturing down a deep sea trench, the crew find themselves at the mercy of giant fish and monster killer eels. Seascapes were also shot in Cayman’s famed waters for 1975’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, based on Samuel Taylor Colridge’s epic poem and narrated by Michael Redgrave.
The 80s was a slow decade for film making in Cayman, but in the 1990s, things started looking up when Hollywood, in the form of Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman, came calling with 1993’s The Firm.
The financial services industry still blames that movie for portraying Cayman as a tax haven for dodgy businessmen and crooks who fly here on private planes, carrying suitcases of dirty money.
Former chairman of Cayman Finance, previously known as the Cayman Islands Financial Services Association, Eduardo Silva explains that, for many years, the Cayman Islands has suffered from a “Grisham effect”, as many of fiction author John Grisham’s books mention money stashed away by criminals on these islands.
“But, by far, the strongest effect has been caused by the book-made-into movie “The Firm”,” he says.
“In the early 90’s, when I said to a friend that I was moving to Cayman, his immediate reaction was “but haven’t you seen in that movie that criminals are hiding there and killing people!”
That was the first of many (perhaps thousands) of times when I had to explain that, just because it is in a movie, it doesn’t make it true.
“It’s been a battle for the last 30 years, but I believe that misconception has been replaced today by the recognition that Cayman’s financial industry is well regulated and cooperative, thanks to the combined efforts of government and private sector to engage the media and the regulators in other jurisdictions,” he says.
However, Silva points out that not everybody suffered from bad publicity after The Firm was released.
“It’s been said that the local distributor of Red Stripe beer made a deal with the producers to provide them free beer in exchange for exposure in the movie.
After the now famous scene when Tom Cruise opens a fridge that’s full, top to bottom, with bottles of the beer, what was only a local Jamaican brew became an immediate sensation in the US market. Not a bad deal, indeed,” he says.
The ‘90s also saw one of the National Lampoon series shot in Cayman. Scenes for National Lampoon’s Last Resort, starring Corey Feldman and Corey Haim, were shot here.
The movie was released straight to video in 1994.
Throughout the last decade, Cayman’s profile in the movie world has heightened.
This momentum was given a boost in 2009 with the establishment of the Cayman Islands Film Commission, set up to promote Cayman as a location for movie, tv and advertisement production.
Lesley-Ann Thompson, head of marketing for the Cayman Islands Department of Commerce and Investment, which runs the film commission, said that in the last year, the commission had facilitated about 60 work permits for small crews to film here.
But long before the film commission was launched, Cayman’s reputation for clean, gorgeous water and incredible scenery was attracting filmmakers.
English director Tony Maylam filmed thriller Phoenix Blue, released in 2001, in Cayman. Starring James Murray (seen recently in BBC America’s Primeval), the movie centres on a journalist’s search for a reclusive recording artist who she finds living in Cayman.
Cayman-born independent filmmaker Frank E. Flowers returned from Los Angeles to film two movies in his home town – 2003’s short film Swallow, about a drugs mule, and 2004’s full length feature Haven, which starred Orlando Bloom, Bill Paxton and Zoe Saldana.
And it’s not just Grand Cayman that producers have focussed on – Cayman Brac has also gotten in on the act.
The sister island appears briefly in 2005’s Deep Water, a documentary about amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst’s ill-fated attempt to sail around the world.
Today, the wreck of his boat, the Teignmouth Electron, lies rotting on a beach on the Brac.
The Brac also features largely in Cayman Went, about a fading tv underwater action star who goes to the island to convince the locals to sell their land to a developer.
The film was a joint effort by production company Working Pictures and the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism’s US ad agency Chowder Inc.
Cayman’s reputation as a favourite of freedivers has also attracted makers of freediving movies.
Director Sky Christopherson chose to film The Greater Meaning of Water here in 2005, during a week when a competitive freediving team was completing world records off Cayman’s shores.
The film – about a freediver who plunges physical and emotional depths pursuing competitive freediving as a relief from a chronic lung disease – had its Hollywood premiere last year.
Asked at the premiere why all the open water scenes were filmed in Cayman, Christopherson replied: “Visibility – that was key, and on those days we had over 100 feet, which underwater, that’s a gift. It was the right week to be there and we had the HD camera in a case and had a rebreather diver take it down.
I shot most footage above ground and in the pools personally, and we had an underwater camera operator Chris Brandson who did a great job on those shots hundreds of feet down.”
Makers of a 2008 documentary called Sink Faze brought their cameras to Cayman to explore the freediving world and efforts by Martin Stepanek, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, George Lopez and Kirk Krack to break international freediving records.
The documentary also featured magician David Blaine as he trained for his “Drowned Alive” stunt, in which he spent a week fully submerged in a water-filled transparent bowl in the middle of the Lincoln Center in New York.
In 2009, British film maker Jamie Stanton based his 10-minute short “Four Brothers”, later renamed “The Island” in Cayman, using young local actors in the main roles.
And in the summer of 2010, Scottish film maker Bob Carruthers turned his attention to North Side where he filmed Cayman’s first (though not its last, he says) zombie movie.
Zombie Driftwood, penned by Phil Eckstein who runs the Driftwood Bar, starred local actors and a plethora of extras drawn from residents and tourists.
The film had a limited cinema release in Cayman and was also shown in London.
Heading back underwater, film makers again visited Cayman this January to shoot scenery for the opening credits of Dolphin Tale, starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd.
The movie’s producers filmed background shots on which computer-generated images will later be added.
The film, based on a true story, centres on an 11-year-old boy and his friendship with a dolphin that lost its tail in a crab trap.
The Cayman Islands Film Commission, which was instrumental in helping to get Zombie Driftwood and The Island off the ground, continues to supply filmmakers with information and resources that may make further projects a reality.
Interested parties have been accessing the commission’s website, which includes lists of all kinds of resources needed by film makers, including data on actors, carpenters, lighting technicians, caterers and many others.
Thompson says that between 27 March 2010 and 1 February 2011 the film site had 3,515 visits from 117 territories/countries, including the US, India, Canada, UK, Nigeria and Italy.
Of those, 2, 886 were unique visitors, with the balance being returning visitors to the site.
She said that while there are number of small projects, such as documentaries, commercials and still shoots going on, at the moment, there are no feature films in the pipeline right now.