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Who wouldn’t want to escape to the Caribbean right now? That’s the premise of new comedy film One Year Off, in which a group of friends hightail it to a tropical paradise – and also the reality for its British cast and crew, who have swapped snowy Britain for the Covid-safe island of Nevis in the West Indies.
Although filmmaking is currently allowed in the UK under lockdown rules, it’s a fraught business, says Philippe Martinez of the Yorkshire-based production company MSR Media. “The problem is if you have a Covid case on set, you have to shut down, and you don’t know how long that interruption will last. We’ve seen that happen with films such as the new Mission: Impossible.”
But mega-budget movies like the Tom Cruise vehicle can weather shutdowns, Martinez explains. “Or if you’re the BBC or Netflix, or a big studio like Paramount, it’s not pleasant, but you can afford it. For independent producers, it’s a different story.”
Last October, Martinez “had a bad feeling” about filming in Britain, given the surge in Covid cases, and was concerned “about the safety of our cast and crew. I hope that with more people vaccinated and the lockdown, we can go back into production in the UK at the end of April.” But it had already affected their filming schedule: “Last year, we only did three movies, as opposed to our usual six.”
So, he started hunting around for another place to shoot his planned slate of five films, and was soon attracted to the tiny island of Nevis in the Caribbean. Part of the twin-island federation of St Kitts and Nevis, it’s in the Commonwealth, with The Queen as head of state, and so has close ties to the UK already.
But what really sealed the deal for Martinez was the island’s “very strict Covid policy and extremely low case rate.” In a population of just over 10,000, Nevis has had only “12 cases of Covid - all imported - no community spread, no hospitalisations, no deaths” and has “some of the most robust protocols in the Caribbean,” points out the Nevis Premier, Mark Brantley.
Martinez says they brought about 40 crew members and actors over from the UK. All completed a mandatory two weeks of quarantine, staying at the Marriott hotel on St Kitts and in villas – with a security guard posted outside – at the Four Seasons on Nevis.
“The 14 days is what makes the differences,” believes Martinez. “You have to take an RT-PCR test before you travel to Nevis, and again at the end of the quarantine. Local authorities are strict, as they should be.” Thankfully, no one tested positive at the end of the two weeks, and principal photography is set to begin on February 25.
While the vaccine rollout hasn’t begun on the island yet, Brantley confirms that it is part of the COVAX Facility - a global initiative led by the World Health Organization, among others, helping ensure equitable access for all nations. The UK has pledged £548 million to the programme. Brantley hopes that the vaccine rollout will begin on Nevis “in the second quarter of this year.”
However, given the tight controls on transmission already, the island is essentially a filming location where Covid isn’t a major factor. “We still have protocols on set, as we would in England, like wearing masks and sanitising,” notes Martinez. “It’s of paramount importance that we protect our cast and crew, and of course all the locals who interact with us.” But he feels “very secure working in our Nevis bubble.”
Logistically, it was something “of a military operation” to prepare for filming, with all of the necessary equipment, props and wardrobe imported in giant containers aboard ships - since it’s much harder to source materials on this remote island than back home. However, Martinez praises the local Nevisians’ “total efficiency and enthusiasm in making this happen. It’s meant we can provide jobs for our British crew and actors, as well as for people here. These are the luckiest actors in the world right now: they’re on a beach in the Caribbean, and they’re all working, which lots of people aren’t able to do.”
Originally, this movie - One Year Off - was written “to be shot in England,” Martinez explains. But he was so charmed by Nevis that he rewrote the script to reflect it. “I was really inspired by the history: the story of the sugar mills from the end of the 17th century, the fact that it’s the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, and that [Horatio] Nelson got married here. There’s a whole history on a small island.”
Martinez also changed the film’s plot. It’s gone from a rekindled romance to “a group of friends who are reunited when one of them inherits a property on Nevis, from a father they didn’t know. They take a week’s holiday so he can come and sign the inheritance papers, then life is so wonderful here that they decide to take a year off - to change their lives, be together, and think about how to be happy.”
It’s a story that will resonate strongly, he thinks. “Covid has redefined our lives - we’re in a new normal now. It forces you to think about what’s important in life.” It will also offer “escapism - a light, fun film is just what we need after this tragic time.”
Casting hasn’t yet been confirmed, but Martinez does say he enjoys working with a specific group of actors across numerous projects, “like a theatre company.” These include John Cleese, Kelsey Grammer and Elizabeth Hurley, who were all in his previous film Father Christmas is Back, so we may well see some or all of them heading out to the Caribbean shortly. Cleese is a long-time visitor to Nevis - and has even expressed a desire to come live on the island.
Although small - Nevis is around 36 square miles - Martinez says its variety of locations is very handy, from verdant, unspoiled beaches to the dramatic dormant volcano, Nevis Peak. He “fell in love” with the striking boutique hotel Golden Rock, owned by artists Brice and Helen Marden, so that will now feature heavily in the film, as will the funky South of France-styled restaurant Chrishi Beach, and the island’s iconic Sunshine’s bar, whose charismatic owner serves up a lethal rum punch known as a Killer Bee.
“As soon as I went to Sunshine’s, I thought ‘No way can I make this movie and not shoot a scene here,’” recalls Martinez. He’s also taken on Sunshine’s son Mandela as his assistant. “He’s the man! He’s right on the ball - he gets whatever we need.”
Additionally, several local actors have been cast in the film, and plenty more will appear as supporting artists - some doing their real jobs, like selling produce in the market or bartending. Martinez was eager to “use the local resources and really respect what the island has to offer.” That also includes supporting local businesses, like shops and restaurants.
As part of a long-term investment in the entertainment industry on Nevis, Martinez has set up an acting academy, pairing up local talent with the established actors and creatives. “The British team are absolutely thrilled to join - it’s a great way to give back. And it means we’re building up the pool of talent here for future films.”
So far, a deal has been made to shoot two movies on Nevis, with a possible three more after that. It offers a vital financial boost to the island: Martinez estimates that the four months of filming will inject about US$1 million into the economy.
Brantley says it’s a “welcome diversification” from their traditional income source of tourism. “At a time when the health crisis of Covid has become an economic crisis on an unprecedented scale, these films provide an opportunity to generate much-needed jobs. I am hopeful that this represents the start of a fully-fledged film industry for Nevis.”
Brantley is keen to extend the offer to other investors and filmmakers, noting that Nevis “is open for business”. Martinez echoes that sentiment. Thanks to its similarly low Covid rates, New Zealand became a filmmakers’ favourite in 2020, and the Caribbean could follow suit, he thinks.
“It’s even better since the flights to from the UK to Nevis are much shorter [than from the UK to New Zealand], and from the US as well, so it has real potential.” Although there aren’t tax incentives, Martinez points to the invaluable help they’ve had from Brantley on smooth customs entry and arranging accommodation, with a local realtor, Suzanne Gordon, organising the latter. “More British companies should definitely consider this. That would be brilliant.”
Although the island has never hosted an international film before, it’s already on the radar of fashion magazines: supermodel Giselle Bundchen graced the cover of Vogue Paris after shooting on Nevis in 2019. And another Caribbean island, Guadeloupe, has benefitted hugely from its showcase in BBC drama Death in Paradise.
Might the same happen for Nevis? Martinez thinks so. “People will see this magical place and want to come here - either to work or for holidays. I hope we can make an entertaining film that also lets you dream about travelling again and finding happiness somewhere beautiful like Nevis.”