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FILMING IN THE CAROLINAS


Adapting to Changes...Adopting New Strategies



As production activity in the Carolinas dropped off in 2003 compared to 2002, both states are pushing new strategies to lure productions to the region. Not only is the area competing with generous incentives and currency exchange advantages of filming in Canada, but a number of U.S. states have instituted their own incentives, whose challenge must also be met. As a result, the Carolinas are working within their respective legislatures to create incentives - which both states recognize are now a very real part of the equation for attracting productions.

North Carolina

For many years, North Carolina has enjoyed the distinction of being at the forefront of the filmmaking pack, behind the states of California and New York, at times, flip-flopping with Florida for third place. Now it finds itself competing not only with Canada and other foreign countries, but also with states like Louisiana and New Mexico, which offer aggressive cash incentives, tax credits and rebates to lure production to their areas.

According to State Film Council Chairman Bob Seligson, North Carolina doesn't plan to watch helplessly from the sidelines. "This year [2003] the Council adopted a strategic plan dubbed "Bringing Home the Bacon - and not Canadian - to North Carolina," comments Seligson. "We've reviewed what other states are doing. . . we're going to be assertive and take some bold steps, then make a recommendation to the governor that deals with tax incentives and promotions."

Even though the N.C. Film Council planned to present the package to the governor in January, it would take until May at the earliest for the package to be passed by the legislature. Though Seligson remarks that the incentive package most likely won't be as high as that of Louisiana (a reported 40% tax credit for in-state investors), he indicates it "would be substantial and competitive."

Bill Arnold, N.C. State Film Office director, says that he's optimistic it will get the political support it needs. "The legislature is growing more aware of the fact that this industry could be lost. . . all the advantages that we've built up over the years could be wiped out." Citing North Carolina's infrastructure and deep crew base, Arnold points out that "if we came up with even a partial amount like that [Louisiana's package], then they [producers] would still make those savings without having to bring in people and equipment."

Even though North Carolina didn't have any major studio features or TV movies filming there in the last year, it did have two high-profile independent feature films with decent budgets, The Clearing and Stateside, along with a new TV series from Warner Brothers Television, One Tree Hill.

Shooting for four weeks out of a nine-week schedule in Western North Carolina, The Clearing is a thriller starring Robert Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe. Directed by writer/director Pieter Jan Brugge, the story was inspired by a true kidnapping case in Brugge's home country of Holland. Brugge's decision to shoot around the Asheville area was based in part on Michael Mann's experience filming The Last of the Mohicans there in the early nineties. Pointing out that the forest is an integral part of the film's visual storytelling, Brugge explains that "the Blue Ridge Mountains are such an extraordinary landscape that it became clear this was the right place to come to in order to shoot these scenes."

According to Brugge, shooting in the forest presented its own set of challenges, from creating rain over a large area to accessing the perfect vista that lacked an access road. "The road that was there had been overgrown and was at least 25-35 years old and could barely be made out." However, Brugge praised the cooperation he received from the landowner, who logged a section to remove the growth. "They got us a road all the way up to the top and re-opened the old road that existed, allowing us to be able to shoot this extraordinary place for one of the most important moments in the journey that these two men make."

Even though most of the filming took place in the forest, there were a few locations filmed in downtown Asheville. Brugge was really taken by one in particular, the contemporary-looking police station. "There was a certain simplicity to the architecture, particularly to the spaces of the observation room and interrogation room that I really liked. . . just this graphic quality that suited the film very well," remarks Brugge.

Brugge, who says that he has filmed more in the South and Southeast than anywhere else, admitted it was his first time shooting in North Carolina. "The local crew that came from North Carolina and Wilmington were terrific . . . it was arduous working in the forest, but it was a very exciting adventure and I think I speak for everybody on what a pleasure it was to make this," comments Brugge.

Dara Weintraub, the film's co-producer/line producer, agrees wholeheartedly. "It's always a worry for line producers. . . will they get taken care of in these places that they don't know because they don't know the ropes. Mary Nell Webb [then film commissioner] really navigated us." Weintraub also praised the helpfulness of Blue Ridge Motion Pictures, a local production facility where they screened their dailies. "They were the only production source in town. They were similar to the film commission because they knew anything production-related in the area that you'd need and where to go."

Started two years ago by partners Leanne Campbell, Merwin Gross, and Tom Barkstedt, Blue Ridge Motion Pictures offers 40 acres of private property and 80,000 square feet of warehouse space. According to Campbell, they rent out their facility to production companies, but also do their own productions, usually local commercials. So far, BRMP has mostly been used by local independent filmmakers, including James Suttle and Ellen Pfirrmann, owners of Eljapa Media Group (Dead Air) and independent filmmakers Paul Shattel (Sink Hole) and Kurt Mann (The Salsa Man).

Filming of North Carolina's other high-profile independent feature, Stateside, took place on the opposite side of the state in the coastal region of Wilmington. Produced by Holds Barred Production in association with Seven Hills Pictures, Stateside will be released in May by First Look/Overseas Film Group and the Samuel Goldwyn Company. The feature film sported an all-star cast which included Rachael Leigh Cook, Jonathan Tucker, Agnes Bruckner, Val Kilmer, Joe Mantegna, Carrie Fisher, Ed Begley, Jr., and Diane Venora.

Budgeted around $15 million, Stateside is based on an original screenplay by writer/director Reverge Anselmo about a rebellious teenager who falls in love with a female rock star while's he on leave from the Marines. The production shot for six weeks around the region, filming at Orton Plantation, a ship docked along the Cape Fear River, downtown Wilmington and on the sound stages at Wilmington's EUE Screen Gems.

According to producer Bonnie Hlinomaz, she and her producing partner Robert Greenhut had scouted Paris Island and Camp Lejeune for the "Marine element" of the story. "We stopped at Screen Gems to see the facility and liked it. We realized it would be cost-efficient to move the location there even though it's supposed to be set in New York and Greenwich, Connecticut." Hlinomaz states that they were able to replicate Greenwich for the most part in Wilmington, even though they went back to New York and Greenwich for two weeks to do a little more filming.

With the exception of five crew people brought in from New York, the entire crew was local. According to Hlinomaz, the experience was wonderful. "Everyone was professional. They knew their job and the crews were very good. We were very pleased bringing in big-name celebrities, pleased putting them up and feeding them. Everything was first class." Asked if she would go back there again, she declares, "Absolutely. I think it's a wonderful alternative to Canada. If we want to support the U.S. and Americans, we really have to look for new options rather than keep sending our business to Canada."

A new Warner Brothers TV series that everyone hopes will remain in North Carolina and not move to Canada is One Tree Hill. The new series followed on the heels of Dawson's Creek, which finished shooting its final 12 episodes in Wilmington last April. Starring Chad Michael Murray and James Lafferty, One Tree Hill is a teenage basketball drama about two estranged half-brothers who play on the same team. The TV series has already shot the pilot plus twelve episodes in Wilmington and, with an order for another "back nine," will shoot through April.

According to line producer Greg Prange, producers Mike Tollin and Brian Robbins (Tollin/Robbins Productions) had already shot a couple of things in the Wilmington area, including Summer Catch, and liked the area and the crews. "The plan had been they wanted to do the project here and Jordan Levin at the WB had wanted to have another series here after Dawson's Creek finished . . . so here we are," says Prange.

However, Prange notes that a cash incentive was needed to lock down the deal with the Warner Brothers network. States Prange, "Wilmington film commissioner Johnny Griffin and a lot of people in the state were very aggressive in raising money to subsidize the production and that's the reason it's here." According to Griffin, they provided a $750,000 cash incentive: $500K coming from the state, $125K from the city, and $125K from the county. Griffin points out that it makes economic sense, since "the local impact is approximately one million dollars per episode for this type of show and out of 125 crew, 120 are residents of Wilmington."

Using the same crew as he did on Dawson's Creek, Prange says they spend five days on location for every two days on stage. "Downtown Wilmington has a really unique look to it that we utilize constantly. We have a basketball court that happens to be on the Cape Fear River, so you get the whole city in the background over the river," notes Prange. "We really try to utilize the whole town as a character of the show."

Meanwhile, the rest of the state has seen a constant increase in low-low budget independent film production, with many aspiring filmmakers hoping to follow in the footsteps of North Carolina School of the Arts graduate David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls). Piedmont Triad Film Commissioner Rebecca Clark reports that two of the independent features shot in the region during the last year (Chicks 101 and Little Chicago) were produced by graduates and/or instructors at NCSA's School of Filmmaking in Winston-Salem.

Chicks 101 is a romantic comedy written and directed by Lovinder Gill, a film instructor at East Carolina University (ECU) and graduate of the NCSA's School of Filmmaking. Gill partnered up with fellow ECU professor Geoff Thompson, then brought SOF faculty instructor Steven Jones onboard as line producer. According to Gill, things really started moving when they received a grant from Kodak of 16,000 feet of 35mm film and assistance from noted film industry attorney John Cones, who put together a financial package offering. From there, they were able to put together a group of N.C. investors by forming two limited liability corporations.

Filmed around the Triad during the summer of 2003, the film stars actor Keith Harris (From the Earth to the Moon), a North Carolina transplant now living in L.A. whom Gill knew from film school. "When I was thinking about making this movie . . . there was no doubt that no one but Keith could play that [role]." Gill points out that "even though we had a casting session in L.A. and held two in New York, we ended up casting 99% of the film in North Carolina."

Also shooting during the summer of 2003 was Little Chicago, another low-budgeted independent feature that was shot on high definition (24p). Directed by NCSA School of Filmmaking instructor Richard Clabaugh, the film stars Scott Miles, who also wrote the screenplay and produced the film along with fellow actor/producer Dena Wilkinson and local Winston-Salem producer Tim Collare. The film shot for five weeks during the summer, mostly at local businesses, restaurants and private homes in Winston-Salem.

Despite having only limited production resources, Clabaugh points out that "the community really helped to make this production far, far easier than I had anticipated." According to Clabaugh, one family even rescheduled their vacation to accommodate their production schedule. "We were able to get a better look on screen than we could ever have gotten in a more film-saturated market such as Los Angeles or New York," remarks Clabaugh. "The film commission helped us get where we needed to be and put us in touch with the people we needed to talk with to make things happen." As with Chicks 101, Little Chicago is also in post-production and once their completed films can be screened, the filmmakers hope to land distribution deals.

SOUTH CAROLINA

South Carolina Film Commissioner Jeff Monks reports that feature film activity has fallen off in 2003 as compared to 2002, while production of reality TV series and TV commercials has gone up. Monk notes that, as is the case with their neighbors in North Carolina, nowadays "incentives are definitely part of the equation for attracting production" and their state legislature is also considering a new incentive program during the 2004 session that is "a combination of credits and rebates."

However, South Carolina did land the biggest budgeted movie to be shot in the Carolinas in 2003. The New Line feature The Notebook, based on Nicholas Sparks' book of the same name, was directed by Nick Cassavetes (John Q) and produced by Mark Johnson (The Rookie, Rain Man). The "30-something" million dollar movie shot for 64 days in the Charleston, South Carolina area from late 2002 to early 2003.

Even though the filmmakers scouted New Bern, N.C., where the story is set in the 1940s and the present day, producer Mark Johnson says they chose Charleston, S.C. instead. "We needed a big, beautiful home on the water, a house that we could see at different stages of its existence. It [Charleston] gave us a downtown area in Mt. Pleasant. . . it gave us a whole variety of looks." Johnson said that all the filming took place within a 40-minute drive of downtown Charleston, with the exception of one day in Montreal to shoot a snow sequence.

Johnson recalls that one of the challenges they faced was shooting a summer movie in the winter, and "Charleston in the winter can get quite cold." With cooperation from local associations and downtown merchants, several city blocks were shut down to film a scene where two lovers meet on a street. "In the context of the movie, you don't know how cold it is," remarks Johnson. "It just seems like a chilly summer night, but it was freezing. As soon as the director called cut, these actors would jump into big overcoats but they're dressed in summer wardrobe."

There was one scene in particular that Johnson, as well as Butch Kaplan (executive producer and line producer/UPM) and Leon Dudevoir (New Line production executive), describe as being the most challenging but also the most spectacular. According to Dudevoir, the scene involves "a multitude of birds in a body of water where our two lovers are rowing a boat."

Kaplan agrees, noting that it's an extraordinary scene as written but the studio and even the filmmakers themselves were concerned about being able to pull it off. Kaplan credits cooperation from the S.C. state government, both from the film commission and Department of Natural Resources, and in particular, Tim Ivy, "who were incredibly helpful with everything that had to do with the nature aspect of the film."

Ivy's training of the birds was "real thinking out of the box," according to Dudevoir. "One of the things I did early on was call a few of the Hollywood animal people that I like. At least one of them said, 'Leon, I'm going to have to turn you down because I can't guarantee that I can do this.'" However, Dudevoir says that Ivy was confident he could deliver what they wanted and spent months training the birds, from the time they were hatched to the time they were adults. Dudevoir predicts this scene will be "one of the things that people remember about this movie the most . . . the movie is not only a great movie but it's going to be a nice postcard for the South and South Carolina."

Dudevoir reports that the movie came in on budget and only went over schedule by a few days, "and that was mostly for creative reasons, spending a little more time on scenes that we felt needed more time." As for the cooperation they received, Dudevoir remarks that "the state of South Carolina and city of Charleston were excellent, better than most places I've ever shot in. I would not hesitate to go there again if the script was suited for that area."

Ralph Coleman, location manager for the Disney film, The Haunted Mansion, echoes similar praise for the cooperation he received from the state film office, stating "they were just incredibly helpful and very organized with their visual information." Coleman needed to find two locations somewhere in the South for two days of second-unit photography. The first had to be the spookiest stretch of road imaginable for a background plate of a car-driving shot for the approach to the haunted mansion. The second was a cypress swamp with a road going right through the middle of it for another driving shot. Coleman said it was like "looking for a needle in a haystack" and "everybody laughed at us, saying they just don't build roads through swamps." After an exhaustive search in eight Southern states, Coleman sent Dan Rogers at the SC Film Office a picture that was "sort of what we're looking for and asked him to 'better' it. They did, and that's what brought us there."

Both locations are situated in South Carolina's "low country," the "spooky" road 30 miles outside of Beaufort and the swamp 30 miles north of Savannah in the town of Switzerland. According to Coleman, the residents of Switzerland were a bit suspicious why anyone, especially Disney, would want to film in their swamp. But Dan Rogers at the film office "cut through the red tape and gave our project credibility," getting them the clearances, traffic control, and road closures they needed from the state Highway Patrol and the Department of Transportation.

In addition to those two theatrical films, Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain returned to South Carolina in 2003 to shoot for one day on Edisto Island before moving over to North Carolina for another one-day shoot. In 2002, Cold Mountain shot in South Carolina for two weeks. South Carolina and North Carolina also shared an IMAX film about the history of NASCAR racing that, according to Monks, had a good-sized budget.

As with North Carolina, South Carolina also had its share of independent films in the last year that ranged from "credit card films up to one, two, and three million dollars," reports Monks. Probably the highest profile independent film that shot in the state and in neighboring Georgia was Undertow, a co-production with Content Films, Edward Pressman Films, and Sunflower Films. Directed by NCSA's School of Filmmaking graduate David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls), the film starred Dermott Mulrooney, Josh Lucas, and Jamie Bell. According to Monks, the film shot there for 4-6 weeks last May in the southern coastal area of Beaufort and Jasper counties. Other independent films that shot in South Carolina during 2003 included Tackle Box and At the Point.

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