Week one of working on King Tut, Spike TV’s maiden drama series starring Ben Kingsley. I’m playing a general in Tut’s army and I’ve been knee deep in rehearsals since touching down in Morocco at the end of August.
The show is shooting in the picturesque town of Ourzazate. It may sound like exotic North Africa, but you probably know it better than you think. If you’ve ever seen Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Patton, Last Temptation of Christ, Alexander, Babel or Game of Thrones, among myriad other films, than you’ve gotten a taste of magical Ourzazate.
The French Foreign Legion marked the area as a strategic base along the route between the mountains and the desert, and built their first garrison here in 1928. It was a tranquil outpost: “Ourzazate” translates to “No Noise” in Berber, an ethnicity indigenous to the Northern Nile Valley.
But by the 1960’s, a steady of influx of film production from Europe and the US were rockin’ the proverbial Casbahs, and Sharif does like it, ‘cause it’s been a steadily expanding income stream ever since. In addition to Tut, five other big-budget features are presently taking advantage of the breathtaking Atlas mountains, lake El Mansour, and the wide variety of sun burnt, sand swept medinas, including Ridley Scott’s Exodus, Batman vs. Superman, Aladin, A.D. and Mission Impossible 5. I have yet to see Tom Cruise, but I’ll be sure to recommend swapping Scientology for Allah when I do…
A great deal of King Tut’s history was erased by the envious Pharaohs who succeeded him. Respect for political predecessors hasn’t changed much in the 3000 years, and as a result, his true story has been literally buried in the sands of time. But his nearly fully intact tomb, discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter and George Herbert, has revealed enough to piece together an inherently dramatic narrative. A boy king thrust into power at 8 years old. An arranged marriage to his sister, Ankhe. An advisor, Aye, with Iago-like ulterior motives, and a greedy priest class consolidating power in an attempt to out maneuver the boy king.
The Egyptians had multifarious enemies during their three dynasties: Nubians, Hittites, Assyrians, Hyskos, and during Tut’s reign at the height of the 18th dynasty (1332–1323 BC), the Mitanni. The Mitanni bested the Egyptians in early battles, attacking with powerful chariots the likes of which Egypt had never seen before . But the rulers of the Nile Delta were quick learners, and before long they had built chariots of their own that were smaller, lighter and faster. They eventually defeated the Mitanni and dominated the next millennia until facing another boy/God conqueror, Alexander the Great.
There’s no better way to learn this history than preparing for a role. We’re not just reading about it all, we’re reenacting it. Week one of fight training included work with Kopesh swords, archery with recurve bows, and chariot riding– the most challenging element to date. No shocks on these equine-powered bi-wheelers, so your knees and lower back feel every rocky blow.
Some of the horses– studs flown in from southern Spain for the shoot– aren’t keen on pulling the heavy carts, and they buck and kick. Maybe if production had popped for business class they’d be in better moods. Either way, trying to thread a bow while bouncing around in one of these shaky ancient machines is borderline comical. Firing an arrow off at full gallop with any accuracy whatsoever is nearly impossible. I’ve formed an entirely new respect for just how skilled these historical warriors were in defending their civilization.
Our fight training is orchestrated by an impressive array former special forces badasses and stuntmen from France, England, Spain, and Romania. Many have settled in Morocco because of the near continuous film production, mastering everything from complex horse stunts to thousand-man battle choreography. Others were born and raised here and have become seasoned film talent purely by being in the right place at the right time.
They’re modern day warriors, showing little fatigue during the ten hour days in hundred plus degree heat. While the cast is downing liters of Emergen-C spiked water, most of the stunt crew are burning through Marlboro Reds, frequently one off the other.
The steady flow of dedicated Moroccan stuntmen is equally inspiring. They slaughter and are slaughtered day after day, week after week, in film after film after film. No CGI filling in here. These are real dudes crashing into each other, flying off of chariots, falling from roof tops, taking swords to chest, arrows to the back, and spears to the throat. They show up two hours before the cast does, just after the day’s first call to prayer, to begin their rehearsals.
Over all, the project boasts a collective of artisans from eighteen different countries, all congregating to make this artistic Giza a reality. Producers from Montreal, London, New York and Los Angeles. Thesbians from Australia, London, Vancouver, LA, NYC, Marrakesh, Fez, and Tangier. A costume department almost exclusively from Rome. Hair and Make-Up from the UK. Camera team from Capetown. And a security team headed by former New Zealand and England SAS military, some fresh from Donetsk, Ukraine. There are five hundred plus carpenters, plasterers, painters, sewers, metallurgists, leatherworkers, camel wranglers and cooks laboring from sunrise to sunset. The catering has been excellent.
Local Moroccan fair almost never disappoints. Lamb, chicken and fish tagines, lentils in every way imaginable, smoky or sweet eggplant and zucchini spreads, couscous, saffron rice, green olives, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, red mullets, octopus, calamari and the bevy of spices we’ve come to crave the world wide like ginger, paprika, cinnamon, cumin, anise and sesame seeds. If the French left any legacy, it’s the coveted skill wine making. The local vintages taste like their straight from Cote du Rhone.
Lou Reed put it best when he sang, “It’s the beginning of a great adventure.” There’s so much more to explore… I’m looking forward to being out of the western news loop for the next few months. Don’t think I’ll miss it much. I did, however, whack my back out a bit during a three-Mitanni-kill-combo this morning. Anyone out here know a good Cairo-practor?