In Morocco I Felt Like A Movie Star


It’s true—I stood next to a mostly naked Matthew McConaughey. I also dined with Penelope Cruz.
Before your imagination gets carried away, let me tell you how I came to spend months rubbing elbows with movie stars, and what I learned from that experience.

I went to a special type of college called a maritime academy. There are seven of them in the United States. They’re like military academies (we wore Navy uniforms) but most graduates don’t go on to military careers.
I attended California State University Maritime Academy (CSUM). In addition to getting a Coast Guard license to drive ships of any size, I also earned a business degree. I would go to sea in the summers, and during the school year I’d take business courses and classes to be a ship captain.

CSUM – often referred to as Cal Maritime. I lived and worked on that 
ship during the summers while I attended that school. 

CSUM is where I met my good friend, Harry. He enrolled in school to get away from his family’s business—they worked on movie and TV shows as maritime coordinators and boat drivers. When I met Harry my freshman year, he had just finished filming Titanic. He said James Cameron and the whole crazy production had burned him out, and he was looking to do something else.

Harry and I rowed crew together and were captains of our rugby team, so naturally we built a strong friendship. After college he got sucked back into the family business. One day he called me and said they’d landed a contract to work on a movie called Sahara with Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz. The contract would last a year and take them to locations outside of London, on the south coast of Spain, and in Morocco. Harry said he needed someone he could trust, and wanted to know if I was interested in a job.

I had two questions for him: “Is it okay that I don’t know one thing about the movie business?” and “Can I bring my wife?” He said yes to both, and we boarded a plane three days later.

Part of my job was to accompany directors and producers on scouting trips to Morocco. I would help determined if the locations that were previously identified for the film were suitable for the boats they wanted to take there.

I took this photo on a location scout while in Morocco. 
It was fascinating to see people using these make-shift rafts.

This was an amazing experience, exploring mountain lakes above Marrakesh, and little known villages along the Moroccan coast. I, of course, was in fake-it-till-you-make-it mode. Harry trusted that I had enough common sense to not screw it up.

Eventually the whole crew came to Morocco. They built sets and got everything ready, and then the actors showed up. I was stationed at the port town of Azemmour, where the Er-Rbia River meets the Atlantic Ocean. One day, I was eating with a coworker at our hotel when he suddenly kicked me under the table. I looked up at him, pissed about the pain in my shin. He signaled me to look to my right. Two women sat at the table next to us. (Outside of the U.S., restaurant tables are placed close together, so the women were only inches away.) I looked back at my coworker and motioned: So what? Why did you kick me? He mouthed the words, “Penelope Cruz,” which was when I noticed the famous movie star sitting next to me.

This was the 2nd day of shooting for the movie outside 
of London. I took this picture while driving a support boat.
I silently mouthed back the words: So what? Don’t kick me. I was desensitized to movie stars, as I had spent that afternoon standing next to a mostly naked Matthew McConaughey.

It was my job to familiarize Matthew with one of our jet boats. He would be filmed in one scene driving the boat. When I and my fellow crew members welcomed him aboard, he was very kind and professional. He was also dressed appropriately for the cold and windy winter weather. Like the rest of us, he wore multiple layers for warmth. After introductions and a walk around the vessel, we set off up the river to show Matthew around the area where we would be filming. That’s when things got weird.

Not two minutes after leaving the dock, Matthew McConaughey began to strip off his clothes—right there next us. My fellow crew members gave each other perplexed looks, as if to ask: What is he doing? When Matthew finished undressing, he wasn’t wearing much. It became clear that he wanted to work on his tan while we were out on the boat. We knew he must have been freezing, yet that was how the whole day went—us standing next to the exposed body of a movie star.

I can say with certainty that Matthew was all business when it came to his job. He worked hard and did not complain. I tell that story a lot, because when people hear I worked on that movie they typically ask about the two stars.

The real reason I bring up my experience in Morocco is not to talk about movie stars. It’s to tell you about the locals.

I loved Morocco, but not because of the sights (although I saw some amazing things). It was because of my interactions with the local people. To give you an example, when I went to a coastal village ahead of the production crew, there was just my wife and me, one other coworker from the marine department, and our driver, who spoke no English.


This is Azemmour, where my basecamp was set up. 
The movie crew built a dock in this location for a scene in the movie.

Typical scene of how many locals transport goods.
There were no other crew members anywhere. No one around who spoke any English. Yet I needed to accomplish a lot in a short period of time, so I told the head of the Moroccan movie crew that I wanted to hire a translator as soon as possible.

The next day I came out of our makeshift office to find a queue of about 20 men standing outside the door. They were all there in hopes of getting hired as a translator. I don’t think this town saw many foreigners, and they must have known the pay would be decent. They all seemed excited about the opportunity.

I just needed to hire one person, so I began to see them one at a time. I discovered that they all spoke some English, but my pathetic inability to understand their accent kept us from communicating.



My wife took this picture. She and my parents took these 
camels into the Sahara Desert to camp overnight.
I asked them only one question as they sat down in front of my desk: “Please say and spell your name.” Seems simple enough, right? But I had a heck of a time understanding or pronouncing their names. Trying to follow along as they spelled them was a nightmare.

I was awfully discouraged until the last guy sat down and introduced himself. He almost sounded American when he said his name—“Amir”—and spelled it out for me. I looked up at him and said, “You’re hired.”

I complimented him on his English, and asked how he learned to speak it so well. He said that he ran the music stand around the corner. He sold pirated copies of CDs and tapes. Much of what he had in his collection was American music. He smiled and sang a couple of verses from Snoop Dog. He’d been listening to American music every day for the last decade, so his English was pretty darn good.

A Moroccan Village on the outskirts of the Sahara.  
A few days after I hired Amir, he helped me hire other locals to prep the site and get ready for the delivery of boats and production sets. They all worked very hard and never complained.

I spent a lot of time with Amir. Every day he was by my side, helping me give directions to the crew members. He laughed with me when I did something silly, and he even started to anticipate what needed to be done. He would take care of things before I asked.

Amir accompanied me when the crew members invited me to their homes for a meal. I loved these visits, because I could see how they lived. I learned more about the people who worked next to me each day. They didn’t know the popular actors working on the movie. To them, I was the movie star. I went out of my way to show them respect and appreciation for their work, their home, and the meal. They almost burst with pride when I sat down at their table for a meal. This, in turn, made me feel like a celebrity. I would glance at Amir with a look that said, “This is amazing.” Amir would smile back as he enjoyed the experience with me. 


This is Amanda and I in front of the Hassan II Mosque 
(a gigantic landmark on the shores of Casablanca).
I was in Morocco for more than three months, and I got to know many of the local crew members well. They were some of the kindest and loveliest people I’ve ever met. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

At the end of my stay, I said my goodbyes to Amir. I haven’t spoken to him since. But I often think about those months I spent with him. Without Amir, I likely would not have seen the side of Morocco that I appreciated the most.

Before my trip to Morocco, it was already part of my nature to treat people with respect and kindness, no matter where they came from or where they lived. But what I learned in Morocco was that when you show genuine respect and kindness to those who don’t expect it from you, you surprise them. They often honor you back tenfold.

I don’t know how best to describe it, other than I got a glimpse of how it feels to be a movie star.