By Andrea Lumsden
Until recently, the Cayman Islands was not considered a prime location to film movies.
When filmmakers and their teams scout film locations, they consider factors such as budget, aesthetics, permits, logistics and, for the past year, travel restrictions. They may also consider how experienced ground support is, which is why production-friendly places such as New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto and Atlanta are all popular filming locations.
However, because of the way the Cayman Islands has contained COVID-19 and its ability to provide a safe and sophisticated place to work, international filmmakers have taken notice. As of this month, producers of six feature-length films have chosen Grand Cayman as a primary filming location.
Not since “The Firm” (1993), starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman, and “Haven” (2004), starring Zoe Saldana and Anthony Mackie, has the Cayman Islands hosted elite film productions on its shores.
Celebrities such as Iggy Pop, Bob Saget (Full House) and Ron Perlman (Hellboy) are headlining two of these new films and Zoe Saldana is confirmed to be starring in her second Cayman-based production, “The Bluff,” a Netflix movie co-written and directed by Caymanian Frank E. Flowers and produced by the Russo brothers of Marvel Cinematic Universe fame.
Last year, producer and film financier William Santor, founder of Productivity Media, was on island and witnessed how effectively the government was able to suppress and contain the spread of COVID-19. Wheels immediately began to turn.
After conversations with some key people on-island, including Dart President of Business Development Jackie Doak, about possibly filming in Cayman, Santor contacted producing partners back home saying, “Hey, crazy idea, why don’t we think about shooting in Cayman?”
His biggest selling point was Grand Cayman’s “COVID-free status.” It was not a hard sell.
Earlier in the year, Santor worked on films in Utah, Arizona, Los Angeles and Toronto where he experienced stress because of the pandemic, saying that it was a challenge to find places where he felt confident to work without the risk of infection.
“You’re always wondering when that crew or cast member might test positive, despite all of the protocols that are in place as a result of the Screen Actors Guild requirements,” he said.
The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is the union that currently governs on-set and on-location COVID-19 safety protocols. Prior to filming, every production must submit a health and safety plan. One requirement is that cast and crew members working in what they call “Zone A” — which is “any perimeter within which activity occurs without physical distancing or the use of PPE” — must be tested a minimum of three times per week using the PCR method of COVID-19 detection.
“Because of Cayman’s COVID-free status, we applied to see if we could get some consideration regarding the protocols that are required elsewhere,” said Santor.
As a result, the union approved modifications for the Cayman-based cast and crew.
“To our knowledge, we are the only productions globally that have been able to achieve the type of scenario we are experiencing,” Santor said. “And it’s only because of the work that the [Cayman Islands] government has done to put the island in this great position.”
When Santor first pitched the idea of filming in Cayman, some of the first questions he received from producing partners were about infrastructure and crew base. His answer: “This is virgin territory.”
However, he and his co-producers, which include Nicholas Tabarrok of Darius Films and Jason Jallet, quickly discovered that there are more resources than anticipated in the local film sector and that the process to import equipment went smoothly, thanks to support from Cayman Islands Customs and Border Control.
In addition to COVID-19 safety, the island’s natural beauty — which provides a scenic backdrop of larger-than-life skies, glistening waters and lush vegetation — combined with the country’s stable government, low crime rate, sophisticated infrastructure and ease of doing business were big draws.
Eventually, it was the efficient collaboration with the Cayman Islands Government Ministry of International Trade, Investment, Aviation and Maritime Affairs, the Cayman Islands Film Commission and Dart that made these productions a reality.
In early March, the government announced that Cayman was confirmed as the location for Productivity Media’s four feature length films, including “Blue Iguana,” which wrapped filming last month, and “The Baker” starring Ron Perlman and Harvey Keitel, which is currently in production.
At the time, the Ministry of International Trade, Investment, Aviation and Maritime Affairs Chief Officer Eric Bush commented about the effect the deal could have for Cayman in the highly competitive arena of global film production.
“This multi-film project will contribute immensely to Cayman’s growing film industry.”
The Cayman Islands Film Commission, which was revived as part of this process, was instrumental in facilitating all the work permits and entry allowances for the more than 60 cast and crew members and their dependents, which was a big selling point because they had to be away from friends and family for roughly six months.
Jason Jones, known for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and more recently “The Flight Attendant,” is eager to return.
“Let’s put aside the perfect weather, the crystal clear water and the daily margaritas in a COVID-free paradise,” he says. “Visiting an island where the people offer this thing called Caymankind is a little unnerving … like what do you guys really want? Oh. Nothing? Ok then, I’ll be back as soon as I humanly can.”
A quick scan of the social media accounts of cast members such as Joel David Moore (“Avatar”) and Carly Chaikin (“Mr. Robot”), who are both in the cast of “Blue Iguana,” indicates they also enjoyed Cayman’s friendly, stress-free lifestyle.
“Cayman Islands is COVID-free and I can’t even express how nice it is to be able to safely live life again,” said Chaikin in a recent Instagram video post where she’s seen singing karaoke with the cast and crew at Deckers Caribbean Inspired Grille.
Ron Perlman posted a photo of a “Special Release Single Bottle” of Seven Fathoms single barrel rum, produced by Cayman Spirits Co. for his birthday, with a sketch of Perlman on the label — a perfect example of Cayman’s thoughtful hospitality.
Santor, who is also on island and in regular contact with members of the cast and crew, said the number one comment he heard during the mandatory quarantine was, “This is the best view for quarantine I could ever imagine.”
When the isolation period was over, he said, “It was amazing to see how quickly people, who have spent the last year of their lives being told to stay away from each other, embraced that contact … it was lovely to see.”
At a post-quarantine welcome party for the “Blue Iguana” cast and crew held at The Beach Deck at Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa, a series of fun and clever signs encouraged not wearing masks and to “hug the person next to you,” giving them their first taste of freedom and normalcy after a year of lockdowns, mask wearing and physical distancing.
As for the work itself, long days are typical in the movie industry and long hours on Grand Cayman sets are no exception. However, Santor describes the crew’s local experience as an “entirely different way to achieve work-life balance” when compared to other jurisdictions.
He said that on Grand Cayman, cast and crew members could enjoy two or three hours in the ocean after a 12-hour day on set and that downtime could be spent on the beach or snorkelling, scuba diving and visiting Rum Point, Stingray City, Starfish Point or walking the Mastic Trail.
“The amount of golf played has been remarkable.”
On one of his last evenings on island, Bob Saget posted a photo on Instagram of a dinner on the beach before going “back to reality” and a caption that read, “Enjoyed the dream of no COVID here.”
He later said he thoroughly enjoyed the experience of filming on Grand Cayman.
“I found the people who worked and lived there so kind and welcoming,” he said. “The Kimpton Seafire [Resort + Spa] was so wonderful as well, as were all of the restaurants we had the privilege to dine at. To be able to do a film feeling so safe and welcome was a true gift.”
Santor said that Caymankind is definitely real, comparing it to locals saying, “You’re not an outsider. Please come in and we will wrap you in this nice warm blanket.”
A NEW ECONOMIC PILLAR
After the films were approved, three shipping containers and a jet’s cargo hold were filled with film production equipment headed for Grand Cayman. Roughly 60 cast and crew members arrived on island in March, resulting in more than 60 hotel rooms booked for approximately six months.
This meant that hotel staff, who were either furloughed or on reduced work schedules, were able to return to work full time. “Many of those are Caymanian housekeepers,” said Doak. “It’s an exceptional outcome when we can make magic happen and actually put people in the tourism sector back to work when our borders are closed.”
Additionally, nearly 50 local crew members have been put to work and nearly 500 members of the public have been cast as extras.
“This is an excellent training and development opportunity for the local crew,” said Doak. “They’re gaining valuable real-life experience that not only gives them credibility, but also begins to form the foundation for the future of film in Cayman. This is a key that will enable us to attract other productions on a regular basis.”
Doak also said the desire to cultivate Cayman’s film industry is strong and her team is working with interested parties to develop parameters for growing it as a pillar of the economy. This includes long-term considerations that will attract independent filmmakers, who have much smaller budgets than studio productions, in the post-COVID-19 world.
One example is cost of hotel accommodation. Dart’s future plans include the development of Hotel Indigo and the rebranding of Comfort Suites to Hampton by Hilton, creating two affordable options.
“We are hopeful to be able to structure what film productions need so it does not become cost prohibitive to shoot here,” said Doak. “We’re still in early stages, but it would also be great to come up with a facility that could provide meaningful training for Caymanians in all aspects of film. This could even lead to having our own movie studios.”
Doak believes that the films currently in production will support the industry’s development by showcasing Cayman’s natural beauty, infrastructure and people on the world stage.
“There’s a lot of work ahead and a lot has to happen,” said Doak. “But the past few months have shown us that there’s a will and desire to make this a reality.”
As for Santor’s crew, they’ve already been asking what the plan is for next year and have expressed interest in returning to Cayman.
“Word is getting out,” Santor said, “I don’t see why Cayman can’t make a serious run at developing a local film industry. We are getting submissions from other filmmakers, including one of the actors on “Blue Iguana” who was in the middle of writing a script and changed the location of the story after falling in love with the island. We have already confirmed our first film for next season with several others under serious consideration.”
Importantly, the business of filming on Grand Cayman was successful.
“Across the board everyone is really stepping forward,” Santor said. “Every challenge presented to our crew [was met] with the support of the island. It really has been a great collaboration.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2021 print edition of Camana Bay Times.
About the author
Andrea Lumsden has worked with Dart since 2013 and has been writing professionally since 2003. Graduating from university with a BA in Communication, Andrea has worked with clients across a range of industries, including financial services, hospitality and real estate. Raised in the Cayman Islands, she’s a bookworm at heart who enjoys cooking and travelling with her husband and three children.