Eye of beholder

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Machetes, AK47s, firing squads – film scout’s travel tales.

Queenstowner Dave Comer reckons a good nose for dodging aggro has been his passport to travelling the world as a top film location scout.

On home turf, the Kiwi is the first port of call for major movie studios when an experienced eye is needed to suss out sites for New Zealand-shot flicks. 

Comer’s impressive CV includes unearthing spectacular locations for international box office smashes such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Wolverine and 10,000 BC.

But his job has also seen him have some hair-raising times visiting hot spots in South America, North Africa and Asia.

“In the mid-1990s I was working on a TV commercial in NZ when out of the blue the director asked me to ‘go to Bolivia and see what’s interesting there’,” Comer says.

“That led to more than 10 years spending large amounts of time scouting other countries.

“After a few of these trips they found I seemed to avoid getting kidnapped, shot, arrested, sick or too rattled – so I had found a niche.”

The soft-spoken dad-of-one was once even mistaken for a terrorist while scoping a Toyota car commercial in a remote mountain area of Peru – and found himself facing a squad of armed soldiers, their guns pointing at his chest.

He was only let go after some heated negotiations with his guide, who the troops fortunately had recognised as an actor from a Peruvian TV soap opera.

“Since the arrival of my young daughter, going away out of the country for long periods isn’t as attractive as it once was,” Comer explains. “Especially to places where there are lots of AK47s and machetes.”

Originally from Dunedin, Comer – who’ll only admit to being “50-something” – has called Queenstown home for the best part of 30 years.

He lives with his documentary-maker partner Peta Carey and daughter Billie above Glenorchy Road.

The couple directed and produced the 2004 short film Ata Whenua – Shadowland, which captures the stunning landscape of Fiordland and is still screened daily to gob-smacked tourists in Te Anau.

When not working as a scout, director or movie stills photographer, Comer also chairs the Film Otago Southland Trust – set up to combine resources of councils and industry to promote a healthy and sustainable screen production industry in the lower South Island.

And he’s passionate about continuing to attract TV and moviemakers to the Wakatipu.

“I see it as important to pull projects into the country and our region so I like to throw my weight behind that objective,” he says.

“I often get involved in the early stages to tip a project in and then leave the location management of the shoot to others.”

He believes Queenstown is still holding its own but faces increasingly stiff competition from similar-looking areas in other countries such as South Africa, Argentina and Chile.

“We also have increasing layers of compliance which is making production more difficult and more expensive than it used to be,” Comer explains.

“A particularly acute issue now is the steadily-increasing restriction on access to Department of Conservation land for filming.

“It’s not widely known but the likes of The Lord of the Rings trilogy couldn’t be shot as it was in NZ these days due to DoC restrictions introduced since the films were done.”

Recently Comer has been quietly working behind the scenes scouting locations for The Hobbit, on which Kiwi film-maker Peter Jackson is executive producer.

But he insists the project is strictly hush-hush and won’t disclose if anything will be filmed in and around Queenstown.

“Loose lips sink ships,” he adds.