For a special episode of "ER," actors gathered in Kualoa on April 30 on a set made to look like the Congo.
cast isles as
It comes partly out of a necessity
for the survival of Hawaii's
film industry, insiders say
In the beginning, Hawaii was Hawaii, and it was good.
These days, though -- on screen at least -- Hawaii finds itself being used less often for classic island images of breeze-tickled palms and gem-blue Pacific waves lapping ashore a pristine beach. Instead, it's frequently posing as any number of locales from Nigeria and the Congo to Brazil and Venezuela.
The shift in role on television and film productions, insiders say, comes partly out of necessity for the survival of Hawaii's film industry, which drove an estimated $135 million into the state's economy last year.
"Hawaii -- for it to be a player in this business -- has to represent itself as more than just Hawaii," said Chris Lee, a former studio executive and producer who is now overseeing a new University of Hawaii program including film and digital arts.
"If you said we're only going to be Hawaii, it's very limiting."
Perhaps most enduring are big-screen images of Hawaii playing itself, like Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on a deserted beach in 1953's "From Here to Eternity" or a surfboard-straddling Elvis Presley in 1961's "Blue Hawaii."
But moviegoers, since the beginning of film, have also seen Hawaii act as an impostor, from 1958's "South Pacific," in which Hawaii posed as an unnamed Pacific island, to 2000's "Jurassic Park III," which cast the state as Costa Rica.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, industry figures say, casts and crews, for both safety and convenience, have increasingly avoided foreign locations perceived as dangerous.
"Every month, people become more reluctant to go to more exotic, less secure places," said Bill Bowling, a veteran Hollywood location manager who has scouted in Hawaii.
"Hawaii is situated just extremely well right now."
Last year alone, the islands saw the filming of "Tears of the Sun," the Bruce Willis flick set in Nigeria, "Die Another Day," the James Bond film set off Korea, and "Welcome to the Jungle," the forthcoming movie with the Rock starring as a bounty hunter in Brazil's Amazon.
The islands have also played Tahiti ("Six Days/Seven Nights"), New Guinea ("Krippendorf's Tribe") and Venezuela ("Dragonfly"), among other places.
"It's kind of limitless," said Timothy Hillman, another veteran location manager whose most recent project brought him to Hawaii for "50 First Kisses," a romantic comedy with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore.
"There's jungles where you can pretend you're anywhere in South America and Africa. There's places downtown that can pass for middle America."
To be fair, films set here continue to be shot here. Last year -- like the Sandler flick this year -- brought the filming of "Blue Crush" and "The Big Bounce" -- films set in Hawaii.
But, more and more, productions that might have previously ventured farther from home are ending up in the central Pacific.
The hit NBC show "ER," for example, first filmed on the islands in 2002, for an episode chronicling Dr. Mark Greene's final days in Hawaii before succumbing to a brain tumor. This year, the drama returned to film two more episodes -- both set in the Congo.
"They were all determined that they were going to go to South Africa" to film, said Ginger Peterson, who was the location manager for the shows. "I was able to take pictures of locations that nobody's ever shot at before, and they were kind of blown away."
For years the state-run Hawaii Film Office has been trying to spread the message that Hawaii is close yet offers a window into faraway worlds.
The office has run ads and inserted posters into trade magazines such as the Hollywood Reporter, billing the islands as "As close as faraway gets."