Horse master Joel Proust hopes his stallions will soon return to the movie sets in Morocco that made his name, ranging from Hollywood epics to the Game of Thrones.
The North African nation's dramatic desert sands and palm-filled valleys traversed by camel herds have long provided stand-ins for big-budget film sets needing Middle East locations, but covid-19 restrictions have hit the industry hard.
Last year was "difficult", Proust said, at an equestrian centre on the outskirts of Marrakesh, where the thundering of hooves announces the sudden arrival of a herd.
The horses—including Arab-Barbs, Friesians and Spanish purebreds—gallop, trot and play dead as they follow their instructor. The 65-year-old Frenchman has for four decades choreographed equestrian action scenes for some of the biggest movies shot in Morocco.
They include Oliver Stone's swashbuckling Alexander in 2004, and Ridley Scott's Crusade-epic Kingdom of Heaven in 2005. Proust has fond memories of Stephen Sommers' Egyptian horror fantasy The Mummy in 1999, which saw "200 horses galloping at full speed".
But amid the covid-19 pandemic, Morocco's borders remain closed to 54 countries, including Britain and France, until at least June 10, according to the civil aviation authority. Last year, "we did a Moroccan tourism advert and a single film production, when normally we do 10 a year," the former stuntman said, wearing a T-shirt and jodhpurs.
He says he is readying for three big international productions, including Kevin Scott Frakes' film adaptation of The Alchemist, by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. "We hope that the country will open its borders," Proust said. "If not, things will get complicated."
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Since the 1950s, Morocco has welcomed international filmmakers, from Alfred Hitchcock to Pier Paolo Pasolini and Orson Welles. Proust arrived in the kingdom in the early 1980s as an equestrian instructor, and began his career as a stuntman not long after.
For Martin Scorsese's 1997 mega-production Kundun, on the life of the Dalai Lama, he faced a particular challenge. "I had to teach 40 Tibetans how to ride", said Proust, who has a story to tell from every movie.
On location in southern Ouarzazate for smash-hit fantasy series Game of Thrones, he recalled a dramatic scene with British actress Emilia Clarke, who played the "Mother of Dragons", Daenerys Targaryen.
"At the last minute, the director decided that an army of 200 extras had to strike the ground with their lances at the moment she passed through on her horse," he said. "The terrible noise disoriented the animal." In order to finish the scene, he suggested the actors "make it seem like they were hitting the ground" instead. The sound of the spears was added in later.
He said he gave riding lessons to Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson for Ciro Guerra's Waiting for The Barbarians (2019). And for Alexander, he said Irish actor Colin Farrell had to spend a fortnight doing military training in a camp near Marrakesh. "He managed to slip out one night to come and have a drink with us", Proust said.
Morocco has sought to attract big international productions in recent years by capitalising on its diverse natural landscapes and providing financial incentives. But as the pandemic squeezed the global film industry, Morocco took a hit.
Annual investment in international feature films in the country was down nearly 78 percent last year compared to 2019, according to a report from the Moroccan Centre for Cinematography (CCM). Only eight productions were filmed in the country. Filming for The Alchemist is planned for mid-July said Proust, who is preparing horses and dromedaries for caravan and battle scenes.
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With a budget of around $20 million, it is the biggest production for Morocco since the US series Homeland, according to local media reports. Proust also manages equestrian centres in three holiday resorts and organises tourist trips into the desert, but the pandemic brought all that to a halt too.
The trainer, who appeared most at ease with his animals, said he had lost around $120,000, due largely to staffing costs and the upkeep of the animals. "We're hanging in there," he said. "But things need to start up again."