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Costa Rica: Hollywood South?

In 1992, Hollywood film director Ridley Scott hired 170 Costa Rican indigenous for about $35 a day to play West Indian natives for Paramount Pictures’ “1492: Conquest of Paradise,” starring Frenchman Gérard Depardieu as Christopher Columbus. Back then, a newly formed countrywide film commission was said to have had a hand in the choice of Costa Rica for part of the movie’s setting.

Fourteen years later, this small nation has an official Centro de Cine (Film Center), which operates as a division of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, and is a growing destination for U.S. production companies looking for a one-stop location offering various filming options.

Just last month, Mel Gibson, director of the controversial “The Passion of The Christ” and star of the “Lethal Weapon” series, was in the country filming some jungle vistas and weather effects for his latest movie “Apocalypto,” a story about the decline of the Mayan empire (the picture itself is being filmed in Mexico). Perhaps Gibson’s 2004 visit to Costa Rica, which included a tour of the country and a meeting with then Foreign Minister Roberto Tovar, resulted in the footage shot here on our own turf, and Tico actor Mauricio Amuy being cast in the role of the Mayan chief.

While Gibson was working in Costa Rica, he utilized independent producer Sergio Mirando, owner of Costa Rica Production Services, who has been assisting filmmakers and productions here for more than 15 years. His job is to take care of actors, executives, crews and attendant personnel who work on films or television shows shooting in the country. Mirando acts as a liaison with the government, hires contractors and finds actors, doubles, locations and props – you name it, he does it.

Mirando was on hand for “1492,” as well as the Frank Marshall-directed thriller “Congo,” released in 1995, for which Costa Rican forests provided the jungle setting. His company also helped scout and secure Manuel Antonio National Park as a location for 2002’s “Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams.”

For the small screen, MTV regularly programs here. Cameron Diaz and Kelly Slater taped an adventure around the coasts for the series “Trippin,’” and MTV’s “The Real World: Austin” taped a week here last March when the cast visited Tamarindo, on the northern Pacific coast, and based themselves at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp. They went on a canopy tour, barhopped, rafted some whitewater and took surf lessons. Additionally, CBS’ “The Amazing Race: Family Edition” shot an episode here. Mirando’s company worked with all of the above productions.

Years ago, in my other incarnation as an entertainment publicist, I received a phone call from a contact at E! Entertainment Television in Los Angeles asking me for help in putting together an hour-long “Wild On Costa Rica.” The show was filmed around the country and three years later is still airing around the world on the E! network.

The attention Hollywood has been shining on Costa Rica helps generate potential in the country’s local film industry as well.

The most notable recent example is “Caribe” (2005), a Tico-made movie written by Ana Istarú and directed by Esteban Ramírez that was cited by Variety – the Hollywood magazine bible – as the picture that “put Costa Rica on the cinematic map.” Costa Rica officially submitted the movie as an Oscar entry in the Best Foreign Film category, and it won numerous international awards.

With all this film activity reeling by, Costa Rica appears to be on the brink of becoming something of a Hollywood, Central America. Mirando agrees.

“Costa Rica has a lot of potential as a remarkable destination for film and video,” he says. “Solitary beaches, volcanoes, waterfalls… this country is the best tropical film location close to the United States, facilitating inexpensive travel for crew and equipment as opposed to going farther south or to Asia. Our government needs to pay more attention to this area.”



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