What, I ask, makes a good location scout? Robert-James Bova taps the wheel, the desert flashing past on his mirrored sunglasses. "It seems to help," he says, "if you like to drive." We're on the road to Al Ain to visit the set of Abu Dhabi's biggest travel commercial to date and I've lost sight of my photographer in the rear-view mirror. We're moving fast. I phone to say we'll pull over and wait for him to catch up, but there's no answer. "He probably doesn't want to pick up the phone while driving," I say. Bova snorts. "And he's a photographer?"
Bova is various kinds of photographer himself, and these days he lives on the road. Unfamiliar turnings, images in magazines with a backdrop he can't quite recognise - these are the things that set him off. His background is as a film cameraman, "mostly motion-controlled, stabilised, computer-programmed cameras", he says. He used to set up rigs to move a camera through two or three dimensions of space, gliding over huge distances on wires, as in the long swooping pans during the opening ceremony to the Beijing Olympics. That was Bova's handiwork. But now it is he that is weaving through space, snapping stills as he goes.
He spends his time criss-crossing the UAE to compile an index of cinematic locations - the soft, smooth dunes around Liwa, for instance, or the switchback roads up Jebel Hafeet. It isn't just a question of light and scenery. "For a feature film, you have 200, 300 people," he explains. "You have to have hotels for them. You have to have catering. You have to have a lot of other support services. Some locations are very difficult. You try to find the ones that aren't."
Bova is the Abu Dhabi Film Commission's location manager and his task is to help visiting film crews set up in the most accommodating sites. His own life might be interpreted as a similar search for a congenial environment. He was born in Miami, grew up in Hamburg in Germany and moved to the UAE, by a rather indirect route, five years ago. He had cut his teeth on big feature-films - V for Vendetta, Tristan + Isolde and others. Honey Baby, a particularly arduous project shot by the Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki in northern Russia, persuaded him to change direction.
"It was an interesting road movie," Bova says. "I decided I never wanted to be in snow again." He headed south, working in Morocco and Tunisia before ending up in Dubai. Then the Film Commission job came up, presenting the opportunity to jump the fence from crew to production. Having got used to the 15-hour days and six-day weeks of life on set, he imagined that the planning side would offer a more serene existence. Not so. "Production departments are pretty busy," he laughs. "I was quite surprised. Before, I was always part of the crew - I worked on the set. When I got the job offer here to work in production, obviously my first thought was: production - that'll be nice. I'll be gone at five o'clock. In the end I was doing 20-hour days. You don't get so dirty but the hours seem to be longer."
At Al Jahili fort, the British production company Ridley Scott Associates has set up to shoot a tourist commercial for Abu Dhabi. Bova helped sort out the shooting clearances, a large part of the administrative burden on filmmakers in the UAE and one of the commission's main day-to-day tasks. As Rupert Unwin, the advertisement's producer, confirms: "In the past when I've filmed in other countries in this region, the difficulty you have is getting the permits that you need even if you have a long lead-time. Having one commission that can facilitate that and understands your needs and understands the urgency with which things need to happen is very important."
When we arrive, there isn't much sense of the urgency with which things need to happen. Everyone has gone to lunch at the hotel. Even when the set starts filling up again there's an air of lassitude. Pieces of scaffold are humped back and forth, the crew pausing to exchange laconic jokes with Bova, whom they all seem to know. But in fact the schedule is tight. The company has arranged a performance of traditional ayyalah song and dance, which it wants to film at the magic hour - that moment at the end of the afternoon when the light turns soft and golden. And as Bova notes: "The magic hour is a little bit shorter here than other places. The sun goes down pretty fast."
The director on the shoot is Babak Zand Goodarzi, an Iranian-born, British-raised filmmaker best known for a video for the retro-psychedelic British pop group Broadcast. Today he is dressed in baggy shorts, elasticated biker boots and a scarf, which one of the Emiratis on the set tries without success to arrange into a proper ghutra. Despite his Bohemian air, Goodarzi presents himself as a craftsman who has risen through the guild.
"I was a runner, a tea boy, for Ridley Scott, and I'm still working for that company," he says. "They're very photographic, very classical in the way they make films. So that's my education. Not huge post-production or fancy stuff like that but using incredible light and getting to the heart of nature and using the elements you've got to make a beautiful image." He has some promising ingredients. The gravel arena of the Al Jahili fort is filled with men in khandouras clutching drums and sticks. They assemble into opposing rows and start singing a cyclical melody, the drummers revolving in the centre as the outside ranks raise and lower their sticks. A camera moves back and forth on rails beside them.
"It's about connection," says Goodarzi."We're filming these dancers and singers here, and there are certain key members within that that make that work. "It's like a machine, basically, and those key members are keeping the rhythm going and connecting with the drummers and connecting with the dancers in a particular way. And when you get to the core of that, it's very inspiring." Goodarzi has worked in the UAE before, making commercials for the DIFC and a historical film for an exhibition at the very fort in Al Ain where he has set up now.
He already had an idea of the kind of things he wanted to shoot before the ADFC got involved. "I've come here quite a lot now and I've got my eye in to a certain extent," he says. "Rather than just shoot cliche, I'm trying to get to the core of certain things that resonate with me as a filmmaker, but also get at the heart of what Abu Dhabi is about." What that means, he says, is respect and hospitality.
"They're cliches in a way," he says, "but they're all to do with connection, so if you meet someone who's incredible with animals, it's the relationship with animals and how I can capture that- It's a bit of magic. And if you can get that magic across the board while filming, as a filmmaker you've achieved something because you've got to the soul of the country." All the same, as Unwin notes, it's easier to get to the soul of a country if it invites you in. "There seems to be a great movement and huge amount of support, certainly in Abu Dhabi, for moving image, for film," he says. "People are very open here, and eager to help, which is great. And I think people have shown a lot of interest in what we're doing, and making sure that it happens."
For the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, projects like this commercial are just the beginning. "Right now Abu Dhabi is still very new - it is a new place; a lot of people are under the impression that we're still kicking around with camels here," says Bova. "People don't really realise how modern everything is here and how fast the city is growing, or the UAE in general is growing." Most of the film companies who come to the emirate are making advertisements and want the city to appear as itself.
"What's mostly being used now is pretty much the classics," Bova explains. "The Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the Emirates Palace, the Corniche, and now we have Yas Island." But the ADFC is courting feature productions, too, which would allow Abu Dhabi to try out a dramatic role. "There are a few different films, a few different production companies that are interested in coming out here," says Bova. "We've been approached by Jackie Chan's production company for a film called Twelve Heads. It's also a film that's been shopped around for years, so we're looking to see if we can get a couple of other people to come and shoot here."
A good location, in Bova's view, is rather like a decent character actor: it vanishes into its role. "What we're looking for when we look for locations is that they can be used for more than one thing," he says. "You just turn the camera around and it's a completely different look that also fits the film." At Al Jahili, as the white-clad dancers chant and revolve in the dying day, there's no mistaking the UAE; indeed, as Goodarzi might say, we're looking at its soul. All the same, as Bova assures me, the fort "does have a lot of different faces to it".
If you look at it from an imaginative point of view, who knows where it might be?