Moviemaker Magazine
Winter 2004

Puerto Vallarta, A Town 'Built on a Film'
F our Decades of the Iguana: Sun, Sin and Celluloid in Puerto Vallarta





Forty years ago, John Huston’s gritty Night of the Iguana put Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on the paparazzi map. Other movies – from Predator to Kill Bill Vol. 2 – have since followed in the big man’s footsteps, capturing the area’s sugary beaches, coastal cliffs and rainforest-swathed Sierra Madres.

Now the Pacific resort is making a bid for true cinematic power and glory: handing out plaudits and trophy case trinkets. The Film Festival of the Americas, debuting in November, will bestow "Maverick Awards" to filmmakers with Huston’s iconoclastic flair.

"He’s is among the most celebrated directors in Hollywood’s history. His work constantly teaches as it commands attention from both filmmakers and filmgoers," explained Robert Roessel, executive director of the festival. "John Huston is a legend and Puerto Vallarta is honored to be part of his past.

"When I arrived in 1991, I quickly learned the town seemed to be built upon a movie. To this day, the city continues to grasp the history of Night of the Iguana. If any destination in Mexico deserves its own film festival, it’s Puerto Vallarta."

Indeed, the fishing village had just 12,500 inhabitants when the director arrived (legend claims his plane skimmed the runway several times, before managing to shoo cows off the strip). Now it’s 250,000 strong with over three million visitors each year, mainly in the drier season from November–April.

The movie featured a defrocked priest (Burton), bawdy widow (Ava Gardner), spinster artist (Deborah Kerr) and nymphet (Sue Lyon, fresh from Lolita). But Liz Taylor upstaged the entire 1964 film with her saucy shenanigans. Her passionate affair with the leading man – both were married to other partners – won headlines around the world. After the filming, the couple lingered in the idyllic tropical town. For her 32nd birthday, Burton gave her Casa Kimberly, a $57,000 villa linked to his own by an arched, cotton-candy-pink bridge, one storey above the cobbled street.

Also present were the peculiar playwright Tennessee Williams and rowdy, pistol-packing Mexican director-actor Emilio Fernandez. Once Huston reminisced: "The press gathered down there expecting something to happen with all these volatile personalities. They felt the lid would blow off and there would be fireworks. When there weren’t any, they were reduced to writing about Puerto Vallarta. And, I’m afraid, that was the beginning of its popularity, which was a mixed blessing."

Huston – who began his love affair with Mexico as a teenage lieutenant in its cavalry – eventually retired to a remote cove outside Puerto Vallarta. "He found great happiness there in his last years ... in the jungle, beside the sea, lit by the stars," remarked his daughter, actress Anjelica Huston. Vallarta Adventure now runs daylight and dinner tours of Las Caletas, his refuge (Avenue Las Palmas 39, Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit; 322 297-1212;

Iguana obsession aside, the area has hosted other productions, such as Predator with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Revenge with Kevin Costner and the lemon of Love Bug sequels, Herbie Goes Bananas. Other full-length features include Solo, The Savage is Loose, Le Magnifique, Swashbuckler, The Domino Principle and Harvest.

Jacques Cousteau puttered around offshore, filming around the pristine Marietas islands. The mid-90s Acapulco HEAT, a terrorism thriller series, was set in Puerto Vallarta. And, of course, a camera crew from America’s Most Wanted hit the action jackpot, as bounty hunters captured Max Factor cosmetics heir and convicted rapist Andrew Luster in June, 2003.

Recently, Quentin Tarantino shot parts of Kill Bill Vol. 2 there and Arthur Allan Seidelman Puerto Vallarta Squeeze. The 2003 film, starring Harvey Keitel, traces an American hit man on the lam with two hapless travellers in tow. Robert James Waller, of The Bridges of Madison County fame, wrote the superb novel, evoking the jaded lethargy of many gringos in Mexico. Despite the story’s prowess, distributor Showcase Entertainment downplayed the movie.

Its producer Robert Katz had "the best experience possible". He continued: "I'd film there again, just not in the summer, when the heat and humidity are unbearable." Puerto Vallarta is not a hassle-free location, however. Working in the jungle can be both expensive and inconvenient. And then there’s paranoia to combat.

"A couple of the actors were afraid of the notorious kidnappings they had heard about in Mexico," Katz said. "Some of Harvey Keitel’s friends in NYC convinced him that he and his wife would be kidnapped. I explained that Puerto Vallarta wasn't Mexico City. Anyway, we hired a team of bodyguards to follow Harvey during the shoot." The star dismissed the security squad after a week, feeling comfortable in the mellow, safe state of Jalisco.

That easy-going nature can translate into production problems, though. "Running on Mexican time," is an expat euphemism for "late". Late not as we know it, mere minutes past due, but days late. Excuses appear like sunburn on sorority girls beachside: the drain clogged, the burro went lame, the consulate’s only open three hours each morning and, anyway, the triplicate forms must be notarised...

Yet the country – and Puerto Vallarta in particular – has an exquisite courtesy that counterbalances the chaos. Business people exchange sunny streams of compliments and chitchat. The readers of Condé Nast Traveler voted it the friendliest city in the world, in fact. And favours – enormous, backbreaking, Rumplestiltskin-sized favours – are commonplace. "The city really co-operated with our crew. Even in the most remote regions in the mountains, we received all the help we needed and everyone was gracious," Katz recalled.

He’s not the only one charmed. Conrad Vernon, co-director of Shrek 2 (and voice of the Gingerbread Man), considers the town a second home: "I’ve visited Puerto Vallarta three times in the past year. The beauty and friendly people keep me coming back.

"Being a filmmaker, I can’t help but notice the incredible diversity between the quaint town and the incredible lushness of the forests and jungles. Now I know why John Huston made films here and eventually lived in this great city."

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"Liz Taylor upstaged
the entire 1964 film
with her saucy

"Running on Mexican
time," is an expat
euphemism for "late".
Late not as we know it,
mere minutes past due,
but days late.

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