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Picture Perfect: The History of Movie Making in Puerto Vallarta

Published Sep 9, 2005 - (Updated Dec 21, 2012)

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Stunning. John Huston knew it. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor knew it. Ingeniero Guillermo Wulff knew it. Banderas Bay and the vibrant village at its core, Puerto Vallarta, were destined for greater things and a future on the big screen. They knew this pristine paradise was too desirable to remain untouched forever, too enchanting not to be shared. As Richard Burton´s character extols in "The Night of the Iguana," "This is Mismaloya, garden spot of the west coast. You will be grateful to me until your dying days for bringing you here. In all of Mexico, there is nothing equal to this." After all the years and all the development, the words still ring true.

In the beginning

When Ing. Wulff arrived from Nogales with his young family in the '50s, he saw potential for growth in the unbridled beauty of this "green mountain on the sea," still raw and untapped in those idyllic days. Through a friend in the film industry, he was able to convince John Huston to bring his cast and crew to this remote locale that then offered virtually no electricity, no infrastructure and no support services. What they did have was an abundance of natural splendor and a little magic. The superb quality of light found here didn't hurt either.

Huston was not a hard sell, and the Hollywood stars he brought with him fell in love with the rugged coastal hideaway despite the hardships. Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Huston, Burton and Taylor all stayed in villas on the hillside behind the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, fabulous villas where the celebrities and their jet set friends hung out, homes that can still be rented to this day: Casa de La Luna, Casa Tabachin, Casa Kimberley and Villa Leonarda. The preproduction and filming took almost six months, and when it was over some of the stars were unable to leave Vallarta behind. Elizabeth and Richard purchased the villa they had stayed in, Casa Kimberley, and John Huston built a home in the remote cove of Las Caletas. For Elizabeth, Puerto Vallarta held a special place in her heart as the beginning of her marriage to Richard Burton, halcyon days when they were desperately in love. The presence of these Hollywood legends made a long-lasting impact on tourism, and as benevolent and respectful residents of this small town on the Mexican Riviera, they left an indelible imprint on the area.

Evolution:
Sophisticated Starlets, Ex-Beatles, Love Bugs and Hit Men


The notoriety of that first movie made in Vallarta set the stage for other productions and ushered in a whole new era of filmmaking. Puerto Vallarta evolved from a secluded fishing village to a world-class resort and one of Mexico's most popular travel destinations within a few decades. Modern highways, an international airport and upscale hotels such as the Camino Real provided the necessary means to accommodate a burgeoning tourist industry. Hollywood took notice and a succession of well known and critically acclaimed (albeit hard-to-find and out-of-print) films were produced here. Between 1973 and 1977, four major motion pictures with important actors and directors were shot on these shores. "The Savage Is Loose," the story of a family stranded on a deserted island, was directed by and starred George C. Scott and wife Trish Van Devere. "Le Magnifique" starred French heartthrob Jean Paul Belmondo and a coquettish young Jacqueline Bisset. "Swashbuckler," a fun pirate flick, was appropriately filmed in this former pirates' hangout, gold doubloons having been found in caves near Punta Mita. Although the plot in "Swashbuckler" is set in the Caribbean, movie reviews note the "beautiful scenery" and "lush sets." The film featured an all-star cast including Robert Shaw, James Earl Jones, Peter Boyle, Genevieve Bujold, Angelica Huston (John's daughter) and Beau Bridges. Later, Puerto Vallarta served as the location for the assassination plot thriller set in Latin America, "The Domino Principle," based on the best selling novel by Adam Kennedy, directed by Stanley Kramer ("Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "The Caine Mutiny") and starring such Hollywood luminaries as Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, Richard Widmark, Mickey Rooney and Eli Wallach.

The sophisticated story lines of the late '70s gave way to comic relief in the early '80s in Puerto Vallarta with the filming of two perennial favorites, Disney's "Herbie Goes Bananas" and the Ringo Starr vehicle, "Caveman." "Caveman" became famous not because of its utter banality (there is no dialogue in the film) but because the lead actress, ex-Bond girl Barbara Bach, fell in love and married her shaggy costar, former Beatle Ringo Starr. Many of the other "cave people" in the film are local Vallartenses dressed up in wigs and furry outfits. Locals recall this film as having one of the largest concentrations of Puerto Vallarta residents cast as principles and extras.

The late '80s became the era of the action hero, and who better to lead the way than Arnold Schwarzenegger. His 1987 blockbuster "Predator" was filmed in the vine-choked jungle above Mismaloya. Today you can visit the area where they filmed "Predator" by taking a taxi up the long mountain road to El Eden jungle restaurant, where gorgeous rain forest trees spire over a sparkling waterfall and crystal clear swimming hole. Afterward, you can amble over to The Sets of The Night of the Iguana Restaurant and John Huston's Restaurant, both part of the Jolla de Mismaloya Hotel, perched on the southern cliff of Mismaloya cove. The Set restaurant is the site of the original hotel set built specifically for "The Night of the Iguana" and, although completely reconstructed, both restaurants still evoke scenes from the movie. You can see the emerald water on the white sand beach below where Sue Lyon wreaked havoc in the palapa bar and Ava Gardner did her night swimming in those scenes with the beach boys.

The release of "Revenge" in 1990 brought some of the old-style Hollywood glamour back to Banderas Bay. Kevin Costner was a hot commodity in those days, with groundbreaking films such as "Field of Dreams" and "Dances With Wolves" respectively released immediately prior to and right after "Revenge." He executive produced "Revenge" with the aid of Ray Stark, who also produced "The Night of the Iguana." Legendary actor Anthony Quinn portrays Mexican mafioso, Tiburon Mendez. The local scenery is highlighted, including Costner's pad in the movie at the Quinta Maria Cortez, where you can still rent a suite and stroll down the same Conchas Chinas beach where sparks fly between new lovers Kevin Costner and Madeleine Stowe right before they plan their escape from Anthony Quinn.

It seems these movie insiders had a thing for Vallarta. A year later, one of Costner's costars from "Revenge," Miguel Ferrer, returned to Puerto Vallarta to film "The Harvest," an independent film released only to cable and video. A shocking thriller, written and directed by David Marconi (screenwriter "Enemy of the State"), "The Harvest" is based on a true story surrounding a homosexual murder that took place in Gringo Gulch in the '80s. The photography is visually stunning and Puerto Vallarta landmarks are clearly recognizable. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski, who also worked with "Revenge" director Tony Scott on "The Hunger, takes advantage of the surreal light found at dusk in this pueblo, the "gilded hour" when the orange sun setting in the bay reflects off the white stucco buildings and bathes the town in pink and gold. Actor Miguel Ferrer, son of Rosemary Clooney and Jose Ferrer and cousin of George Clooney, is better known for his role as the mysterious FBI agent in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" and most recently as the government witness in "Traffic." In 1991, fresh off the set of "Revenge," Ferrer also holes up at the Quinta Maria Cortez in "The Harvest." He also repeats a love scene from "Revenge" taken in a fast-moving open-air vehicle, a feat rarely seen, now available for viewing in two movies filmed back to back in Puerto Vallarta. Although not widely distributed, "The Harvest" cast many locals as extras, bringing countless jobs to Puerto Vallarta and, more importantly, showcasing the enticing imagery of this beautiful bay on film.

Back to the Future

The future of film and television production in Puerto Vallarta holds great promise. Just in the past year, two important organizations dedicated to the cinematic arts were formed: The Municipal Film Commission of Puerto Vallarta and Puerto Vallarta Film Festival 2003. Puerto Vallarta film commissioner, Adalberto Hernandez Ponce, says his office has received more than 30 applications for various productions since its inception in August 2002, including music videos, commercials and short films, and has completed production of nine projects, including two feature films. "Puerto Vallarta Squeeze," based on the novel by best-selling author Robert James Waller of "Bridges of Madison County" fame, was produced by media conglomerate Chambers Communications, headed by part-time Vallarta resident, Carolyn Chambers. "Puerto Vallarta Squeeze," starring Harvey Keitel and Scott Glenn, finally wrapped filming here in December 2002 after several delays due to destroyed sets from Hurricane Kenna in October. The first scene of the movie had to wait until the very last day of filming while extensive repair work was being done to the Malecón sea wall. Another major movie production, "Kill Bill," Quentin Tarantino's latest film starring Uma Thurman, finished shooting in Careyes in mid-February. Located an hour and a half drive south of Puerto Vallarta, there were reports of local socialites and people "in the know" heading to the wrap party in the wee hours of the morning.

One of the many roles of the film commission is to provide permits and authorizations, traffic control and security. According to Ponce, the film commission worked with federal authorities to help clear the way for filming of "Kill Bill" in Careyes. The commission plans to create a government-funded production guide that will promote Puerto Vallarta as a location and create a database of local talent, crew and production staff. The city has already been represented at two film expos in Santa Barbara, California and Mexico City. Upcoming production projects for Puerto Vallarta include another feature film in the works by Utah producer Gary Rogers and a prime time Mexican telenovela starring an "important actress" from Latin American television giant Televisa.

The legacy lives on

In March 2002, John Huston's son, director Danny Huston, got married in front of his father's statue on Isla Rio Cuale. A guest at the wedding, Wayne McLeod, editor of the English-language newspaper "Vallarta Today," approached Danny on the subject of filmmaking in Vallarta. Under John Huston's bronze gaze, the two discussed the importance of establishing a film commission in Puerto Vallarta and the possibility of organizing a significant international film festival here, similar to Sundance or Cannes. Other local film industry veterans were interested in promoting Puerto Vallarta as a location for movie production, including Roland Emmerich, director of "Independence Day" and "The Patriot," who offered to serve as an honorary board member of the film commission, and Silver Alexander, a long-time Vallarta resident who has participated in various film projects over the years, including "Revenge" and "The Harvest."

The idea for a film festival rapidly gained support, as well, under the direction of Puerto Vallarta resident and former Warner Bros executive, Robert Roessel. A much-publicized press conference was held in January 2003 by Danny Huston and sister Angelica Huston, where they announced plans for a Puerto Vallarta Film Festival tentatively scheduled for November 1. The Huston family envisions an international festival large in scope, with jury selections and awards, and hopes to include avant-garde and "maverick" films, representative of their father's legacy.

Thanks to positive response from city officials, the potential for Puerto Vallarta as an important location for film and television production is now considered a major factor in contributing to the tourist-driven economy. A prominent artistic and business force such as the film industry can have a far-reaching and tremendous impact on the community, providing employment opportunities and international recognition as just a few of the primary benefits. Fortunately, in Puerto Vallarta the spirit of filmmaking lives on, sparked by those ingenious forefathers who saw a hidden jewel waiting to be discovered, a picture perfect setting for a fantastic movie.


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