I’m holding a scarf under the blazing sun of the desert, it’s hard to remember that I’m not in the real Iraq but on the set of one of countless ranches outside Los Angeles that now pass for Iraq in America’s relentless obsession with dramatized war. The set consists of 400 meters of the streetscape of a dusty Iraqi town, plus an exact replica of a square in downtown Baghdad, including half a mosque (they only build the front half of the buildings). All of this looks like it’s made out of bricks, mud, steel and cement, but it’s actually all plywood. Like most things in Hollywood, when you walk up to a mud hut and knock it with your knuckle, it sounds like a hollow log.
The ranch belongs to Rene Veluzat, a rotund man with what can only be described as a porn star moustache. A man of great enthusiasm, and who has done well out of running three ranches, he wears a 3.5 carat diamond ring and drives a 1983 Rolls Royce.
Rene bought the ranch in 2000, with the intention of turning it into Mexico. “I was building my Mexican town and then the JAG TV series came along… they said, we’re going to be in Afghanistan now. This is Afghanistan.” He laughs. “They filmed here for three and a half years.”
In that time, Rene boasts he has rented the ranch to “all the major television series” including JAG, CSI, NCIS, Alias and Without A Trace. Recent movies shot there include Serenity and the epic Martin Lawrence film National Security. It has even been used as “Iraq” in US military training videos.
As the war drags on into its fourth year, Hollywood has started doing something it’s never done before – making television drama based on a war that still going on. And lots of it. With 486,000 US servicemen already serving some time over in Iraq since it began, the war has an impact on the lives of millions of families, and tens of millions of their fellow neighbors. In other words, anyone who can create a war drama that talks to these affected people will be onto a ratings killer.
Rene himself is a man almost as large in life as the 100 acres of his ranch. Now 65, Veluzat started his Hollywood career over fifty years ago, appearing in a regular spot as a minor character on Leave it To Beaver. From there his career was set, taking minor roles and doubling for major actors on Bonanza and Dragnet and in countless Spaghetti Westerns. Picking up mostly bit parts, Rene never really got a big acting break, and after a while, realized his real gift was for owning large tracts of land within the union-sanctioned 30 mile radius of Los Angeles – the treasured “Hollywood Zone.” Luckily, his father owned a 500 acre ranch. From there Rene bought three more.
Today he has left the Rolls at home and is showing me around in his late model Hummer.
“There’s my crashed helicopter site,” he says, pointing to a green helicopter hidden in some scrub. “I built that. Then there’s Ho Chi Minh trail, there’s the bin Laden hideout cave.” On the mountainous steeps of the California desert, every 100 meters or so, Rene has transformed a piece of land into a completely authentic different bit of the world. “I’ve done a zillion little Taliban, Afghanistan shows,” he says.
We reach the summit of his mini-world and look down upon the various streets, service stations, army tanks, a (working) aircraft hangar. “This is what we call a Kodak moment,” he says proudly. In the middle of the picture, standing above the rest of the buildings, is the distinctive shape of a minaret atop Rene’s magnificent plywood mosque.
Before 2001, of course, there was no mosque. “Before that, if you built Afghanistan, they would’ve said Afghani-where?” he says referring to the location scouts who constantly call him with requests. But now it’s a different story. “That works all the time that mosque. That’s what I call my Baghdad street.” Built in conjunction with Paramount Studios, the set is taken directly from hundreds of photos of a real Baghdad landscape, and cost $1 million.
With the war in Iraq dragging on, business for Rene has never been better. “This ranch has been nothing but luck for me,” he confides. “The top countries in demand are the middle eastern, all of the middle eastern. They say ‘do you have a middle eastern set’? I say yes. They say ‘Does it look like Afghanistan?’ ”
So what’s the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan? “Not very much, it’s all adobe buildings. The cars, the people might be different. Little variations. But not very much – it’s all middle eastern.” Rene senses that his comment may sound a little insensitive, so he explains further. “I’m not very versed in the difference of cultures down to the toenail of things, but the art designers who come here are very versed on that. This was India in the last show. It was an SBC TV commercial.”
Rene loves the versatility of his industry. “This is the thing: If you have buildings, they’ll come. For example, Tim Allen came here and shot The Shaggy Dog. They prepped it for 18 weeks to make it look like Shanghai, China. It took three weeks to turn it back to Iraq.”
Charles Firth, a founder of The Chaser, a satirical paper based in Sydney, Australia, now lives in Brooklyn, with his son and two wives.