Hollywood comes to Cayman

COVID-free status attracts film crews

Making movie magic. From left, Joel David Moore, Nicholas Tabarrok, Ron Perlman, Willam Santor and Jason Jallet. - Photo: Alvaro Serey

In case you hadn’t heard, the magical world of movies has officially come to the Cayman Islands.

Lights, camera and action are popping up everywhere – from West Bay to East End – and social media pages are being peppered with an upswing in celebrity sightings. Stars roam among us.

At the beginning of March, a press release from the former government’s Ministry of International Trade, Investment, Aviation and Maritime Affairs (mercifully acronymed to MITIAMA) announced that, through a collaboration between itself, several departments and private entities – along with production companies Productivity Media, Darius Films and Balcony 9 – the green light had been given for a series of feature films to be shot in Cayman as part of a multi-picture deal.

They had already wrapped the shooting of ‘Blue Iguana’, starring Bob Saget, Joel David Moore and even resident punk legend Iggy Pop, by the time I tracked down film producer and CEO of Productivity Media, William Santor. My mission (which I had chosen to accept) was to wheedle my way into the right person’s good graces so I could snag an interview with the movers and shakers on the second project, titled ‘The Baker’.

And so it came to pass, on the morning of Tuesday, 20 April, while the local election machinations raged on, my videographer Alvaro Serey and I were readying ourselves in a hotel boardroom to meet the three producers (Santor, Jason Jallet and Nicholas Tabarrok) and two lead actors from ‘The Baker’ (Ron Perlman and Joel David Moore).

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As much as I’d love to think this all came about because they were dazzled by my prowess as a journalist, rather than them just being accommodating, it turns out that – contrary to some people’s belief – not everyone working in the movie industry is arrogant and entitled. This lot was simply very happy to talk genuinely and enthusiastically about the films being produced and the positive experiences they had had thus far in Cayman. They were so laid-back and easygoing – a reggae band waiting to happen.

After repeating their names out loud in front of them, like a nervous kid entering a spelling bee, I gave Alvaro the signal to start recording. We were off to the races.

The little islands that could
Relative to usual industry timelines, the decision to move productions of this scale to the Cayman Islands happened overnight.

“I’m the guilty party,” Santor confessed, when I put the question to the group as to who got the ball rolling.

He and his family had settled here to ride out the COVID storm in early 2020 and after seeing how the government had reacted to the pandemic – enabling citizens to roam about freely by August – Santor fancied an opportunity was presenting itself.

“For us to put pictures together here was a lot more viable… a lot easier, than any other places in the world,” he explained, adding that falling in love with the island hadn’t hurt either.

The next step was to reach out to Jallet and Tabarrok to float the idea to them of filming four projects, back-to-back, in order to make the best use of the imported crew and equipment.

With the assistance of MITIAMA, the Cayman Islands Film Commission and Dart Enterprises, accommodations were made to bring the vision to life.

Moore, who is also president of Balcony 9 Productions and will be directing and producing the fourth movie in the locally-filmed quartet, spoke about the rapidity with which the idea got legs.

He said that he and Santor had flirted with the possibility of setting up shop in Cayman in November 2020, and come December, plans were looking more concrete.

“By mid-January we were booking travel,” he said, “and by early February, we were in quarantine. That’s how quickly this happened.”

Moore admitted that he didn’t know if an undertaking like this would have been considered outside COVID times, but now they were here in “literal paradise”, he said filming outside the US and Canada in Cayman was a welcome necessity.

Full speed ahead
Despite becoming used to pandemic protocols elsewhere in the world, the group rapidly (and happily) fell into the welcome routine of being maskless close-talkers once they exited quarantine here, although Tabarrok said it took him about 24 hours to adjust to the new-found freedom.

At the same time, an imported crew of approximately 70 people was finding its feet. Many of them had committed to six months in Cayman away from loved ones in order to work on the four films. Beyond that, training up local workers was crucial to the success of the venture.

Moore, who has experience working in television and film, including the blockbuster ‘Avatar’ series, said he had never seen an infrastructure organised in the timeframe they had set for themselves, praising the producers for their ability to assemble a talented team so quickly.

Perlman echoed the sentiments, stating that he’d had his own small production company for about seven years, and knew the challenges firsthand.

“Making movies is hard. It’s really as hard as anything you could try to put together,” he said, adding that there were so many moving parts, yet Santor, Jallet and Tabarrok made it look easy.

There had been barely any break between the films. ‘Blue Iguana’ wrapped up, and about five days later, everyone was pivoting to ‘The Baker’.

Tabarrok stated that although committing to multiple films in a row – produced overseas, no less – had definitely not been an easy undertaking, it had proven to be a worthwhile risk.

He added he would absolutely recommend Cayman as a filming location to other production companies (“Hands down, hands down… it’s been fabulous”), perhaps partly due to everyone in the room’s positive experiences interacting with the island community, which they were eager to share.

Cayman crew
Santor said that the process of training locals had been a very rewarding one and cultivating a national crew base would be the next step towards encouraging future projects to film here. He said they had “exceeded all expectations”.

Perlman agreed, adding that every culture has tradespeople, such as electricians, plumbers and carpenters, who could turn their hand to these kinds of productions. He said that when most get a taste of what it’s like to work on a movie, they want to continue; it becomes addictive.

Moore had facilitated introductions for the 19-year-old son of a hotel employee to get him work on set, and spoke enthusiastically about the teenager’s progress.

He said that the lad had been eager from the first day, and had learned so much since he started. “Not many kids his age get this opportunity,” Moore said, adding with a laugh that he, of course, had to report back to the mother to keep her apprised of her son’s accomplishments.

‘The Baker’
The title of the second film of the four – ‘The Baker’ – was only recently released, possibly due to a spanner thrown into the works by the Man with No Name himself, Clint Eastwood.

Tabarrok said that a couple of writers, Thomas Michael and Paolo Mancini, had brought him the script 10 years ago. A lifetime from concept to realisation in some industries, but not abnormal in their world, he explained.

The original working title was ‘The Mule’, but then Eastwood directed and starred in a film of the same name in 2018. Not wishing to steal Eastwood’s thunder [my words, not Tabarrok’s], they changed it to ‘The Baker’.

“We deliberately didn’t want this film set in North America,” Tabarrok said, so when Santor contacted him about the possibility of Cayman as a location, he realised it could work.

They wanted it to be shot in a place that fit the lead character’s backstory: A man in self-imposed exile, living a quiet life.

Jonathan Sobol was brought on board to sit in the director’s chair, and with his participation confirmed, locking in the actor to play the main part was the next step.

Whether ballots were cast secretly or out in the open, one thing was clear in this interview: All agreed it was go Perlman or go home.

When they started talking about the character of The Baker, everyone, including Sobol, had the ‘Hellboy’ thespian (there’s a juxtaposition) at the top of their lists.

“To get your dream wish is so rare,” said Santor, referring to Perlman’s agreement to join the project. “One of the hardest things for the producers is getting the perfect cast together.”

From there, the rest of the pieces started falling into place, including the recent announcement that Harvey Keitel has officially signed on.

[At this stage, I proudly reached for the information I had been given about the plot of the film, and immediately managed to bungle it by revealing a plot spoiler right off the bat, on camera. Such a professional… Just be grateful I didn’t ask to audition for the part of Candlestick Maker. To save my faux pas, Moore kindly took over the reins of the synopsis before I could do more damage.]

Moore started with his character Peter’s story arc: Peter has a daughter and the mother is out of the picture.

“Peter happens upon the most valuable lesson that he could ever [learn] in his entire life, and it comes in a very valuable package,” Moore explained. “That package is something that’s going to change – fundamentally change – his existence with his daughter.”

Intrigued? Read on…

Due to circumstances yet to be revealed, Peter has to reach out to his father, played by Ron Perlman, whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in a very long time. He leaves his daughter with her grandfather while he goes to take care of some things back in the city.

“That is where the adventure or the journey – the true journey – begins,” Moore continued, “because this is really a two-hander between Ron’s character and my daughter’s character… and what a two-hander it is!”

He went on to laud the talents of 10-year-old Emma Ho, who plays his daughter.

“I’m telling you, some kids are great and some kids just have it, and this kid has it,” he said.

Perlman said it was the writing that attracted him to ‘The Baker’.

“I discovered very, very early on that the writing is the most essential part of the spark that eventually lights the fire,” he said.

He said that rather than information being revealed in its entirety to the audience, it instead teased them along the way, asking them to draw their own conclusions.

“The question every character in the film keeps asking is, ‘Who is this guy?’, and the beauty of it is that you see the… mythicism, but it’s never explained,” he said, adding that he loved the dialogue.

“That’s why I’m here, because the script is phenomenal and I just couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into playing this character.”

Moore, who played one of the leads in ‘Blue Iguana’, said he had signed on for ‘The Baker’ without knowing who would be playing his father. He, too, was very happy to hear that “legendary actor” Perlman had joined the cast, and also touched on the strength of the writing.

What I’ve learned, he said, is that you can make a “bad movie from a great script, but you can’t make a great movie from a bad script”.

Shoots with benefits
When not on set, the team has been revelling in the exploration of a COVID-free Caribbean island.

Moore, who has been here for weeks with his wife and kids, managed to fit in some personal time between the two films, raving about the family having “the best Easter of our entire lives” in Cayman. He said seeing his children able to run around and participate in Easter Egg hunts was a privilege when he knew that such freedoms were “a rarity on planet Earth right now”.

Perlman, arguably the most prolific pop-up pic in local social media feeds, made his presence known the moment he stepped out of quarantine. He headed to the pool bar at the Kimpton Seafire Resort and began drinking margaritas, assembling “a network of friends and family down here, while I was getting tipsy”. It’s not surprising that residents were a bit starstruck and drawn to the actor, whose wide grin – coupled with a quick, dry sense of humour – is Hellboy IRL.

One particular new associate of Perlman’s – Ronnie Hughes, Krav Maga instructor and owner of The Academy – made a big impression on him, getting him into a fitness routine to benefit his role in the film.

This is “about as action hero-oriented a role as I’ve ever been given,” Perlman said. “[T]his guy has to go through the gauntlet.”

Revealing that he was 300 pounds when he was 13 years old, and speaking about being on countless diets and working with many trainers throughout his career, Perlman said that Hughes’ help had been invaluable. He has also developed a fondness for Green2Go juices.

Aside from juicing it up, Perlman is a confessed foodie, saying that he had already eaten at many local restaurants such as Brasserie, Bàcaro, Casanova by the Sea, Le Vele and Mizu.

“I haven’t had a bad meal here,” he said.

“I’ve never eaten so much fish in my life,” Moore laughed.

The fact that Santor, Jallet and Tabarrok have known each other and worked on projects together over the years has clearly helped with the dynamic for this ambitious idea of shooting so many films in a row. Moore has also known Santor for about 10 years.

Perlman may be new to the group, but based on the camaraderie I saw in the room that day, he’s fitting in nicely. He spoke about all the laughs they’ve been having on set, which is always a good sign.

Positive word-of-mouth has also got back to agents and companies in the US and Canada about what’s going on here, creating great buzz about the initiative.

I asked if friends back home were jealous of their present circumstances. “In a word: very,” came the response.

That’s a wrap!
Near the end of the interview, I inquired about whether there would be a special advance screening of the films in Cayman. Santor simply smiled and said, “We’re working on things.” Either way, it’s obvious that everyone around the table hopes the burgeoning film industry in Cayman will flourish in their wake.

Caymanian filmmaker Frank E. Flowers, a big advocate of bringing projects to his home island, has already expressed interest in filming his next movie here.

Jallet mentioned that they were working on setting up a community outreach programme or bootcamp for teenagers, to offer an introduction to the film industry for enthusiastic students. The idea would be to see if some would take the education further, and maybe return to Cayman to make films here in the future.

Perlman said it would be a great shame if the “phenomenal risk” that the producers took by doing four films back-to-back, didn’t bear fruit and set a path for others to follow.

“It would be a crime if there wasn’t some momentum created by all of this to turn this into a destination for other filmmakers to think about coming to,” he said.

No argument here.

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