Friday’s Metro Connection on WAMU carried a segment on my ‘Once Upon a Time in Almeria’ exhibition at the Embassy of Spain. The segment appeared, appropriately enough, on their annual Haunted DC Halloween special. I walked through the exhibit with reporter Emily Berman as we talked about the history of Almeria, about visiting deserted locations before dawn, and about the ghosts of movies past. The audio segment is available on the WAMU website .
From Metro Connection’s summary:
During the 1960s and ’70s, Almeria, a province on the southern coast of Spain, hosted dozens of filmmakers and movie stars. Even if it doesn’t sound familiar, chances are, you’ve probably seen it.
Whether a director wanted rolling dunes, desert mountains, or a rocky coastline, Almeria could fit the bill. Now, 50 years after the filmmaking boom, D.C.-based photographer Mark Parascandola introduces us to Almeria. Parascandola, a full-time epidemiologist at National Cancer Institutes, visits family in Almeria every year, and has captured the old sets and barren landscapes that give Almeria its haunting identity.
The prints are gigantic, some as long as 7 feet, and make viewers feel like they’ve stumbled into a screening room where 12 old movies are playing at once. The desert sun shines a technicolor glow onto the crumbling historic buildings and painted shacks.
For most of the 20th century, Parascandola says Almeria was one of the poorest regions in Spain. Hollywood crews started showing up in the ’60s and ’70s, and many locals thought it could be a game-changer. One of the first productions to film in Almeria was Lawrence of Arabia, winner of the Oscar for Best Picture in 1962.
Director David Lean began shooting in Jordan, but that soon became too expensive. Spain was cheaper, and the port of Almeria looked a lot like the port of Akaba. Lean filmed more than half of his movie there, and other directors soon followed. Patton, Cleopatra, all of Sergio Leone’s early spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood, and later, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade filmed there.
“Everyone thought that they were going to be the Hollywood of Europe,” Parascandola explains. “Some people even called it that at the time. Big named actors passed through there — Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor — many of them multiple times, making different films. “You had 360 days of sunshine a year, and these incredible landscapes, which look like Southern California or Nevada.”
The province’s boom years were short-lived. By the early 1980s, westerns weren’t as popular as they used to be, and there was less demand for Almeria’s rocky desert landscapes. Today, apart from the occasional music video or car commercial, Almeria is pretty much a ghost town. Parascandola’s photography series documents this little known chapter in film history. “I think it’s interesting for people to see how those locations look now. Many people got involved in working on the films. Some of the people who remember that time are now gone, and it’s in danger of being lost.”