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The Bostonwood Boom

Feature films find fertile ground in Boston

| From BU Today | By Patrick L. Kennedy

Scott Silver (COM’86) (center) at the Oscars with Micky Ward (left) and Dicky Eklund. Photo by Matt Sayles, AP Photo

In The Social Network, the protagonist’s girlfriend goes to BU and in the opening scene he insults BU to her face. She dumps him, and he pines for her for the rest of the picture. (Maybe it was his obsession with a BU girl, the audience is forced to wonder, that fueled the awkward Harvard kid’s drive to found Facebook and make billions.)

The film, which also included a scene shot in BU’s DeWolfe Boathouse, earned eight Oscar nominations in 2011, including one for Best Picture. The Fighter, shot in Lowell and scripted by Worcester native Scott Silver (COM’86), earned seven, also including Best Picture. Peter Dudgeon (COM’07) cast the extras—finding real-life Charlestown “townies” to play themselves—for the Ben Affleck heist flick The Town, which also garnered a nomination (Best Supporting Actor) and grossed $150 million worldwide.

Between 2006 and 2009, 54 feature films were shot in Massachusetts. That meant work for Dudgeon, Silver, many fellow College of Communication alumni, and hundreds of other film professionals. “It’s been good to me these five or six years,” Dudgeon says. And, says Silver, the summer they were there, “there was so much production.”

It seemed to happen overnight. To be sure, plenty of features were filmed in the commonwealth prior to 2006. Good Will Hunting, Next Stop Wonderland, A Civil Action, Blown Away, Next Karate Kid, School Ties—the list goes on.

“This market had its toe in the water for years,” says Joe Maiella (COM’78), president of the Massachusetts Production Coalition (MPC). “But those films just included Boston for scenics, and did most of the real shooting and preproduction and postproduction outside of Massachusetts.”

That has changed, thanks in part to Maiella. MPC represents film and video production studios, crew and talent unions, and related equipment suppliers, and its president was a major driving force behind the Bay State’s film industry tax credit.

By day the head of marketing and sales for a provider of payroll and staffing services for media production companies, Maiella in 2005 got together with a few other leading lights of the local film industry and began building a trade organization that today boasts 450 members. MPC’s primary mission was to make its home state, already attractive to filmmakers for its “scenic assets,” Maiella says, also attractive to budget-minded studio execs. “So we worked with our representatives on Beacon Hill to craft tax credit legislation that would be effective yet reasonable and a good investment for the people of Massachusetts.”

The credit soon passed on Beacon Hill. As Chris Faraone (COM’06) explains in the Boston Phoenix: “Similar to bills in other states, the act secured income and corporate-excise credits for 25 percent of all production costs incurred in Massachusetts. In other words, if Miramax spends $20 million on a film here—for everything from truck rentals and catering to seven-figure salaries—they receive $5 million back in credits, which they can either cash in for 90 cents on the dollar, or sell to local companies that use the credits to offset their own taxes.”

Major studios quickly realized that not only could more of a Boston-themed movie be shot in Boston now (much of 1997’s Good Will Hunting, for example, was actually shot in Toronto), but the Hub could be a viable location for all kinds of movies—for example, Steve Martin’s Pink Panther remake, which was originally scheduled to shoot in Paris.

The economic benefits that the MPC predicted came to pass for a variety of vendors, from caterers to seamstresses, as these “great caravans of production rolled into town,” as Maiella puts it. Faraone tells of a Fenway cleaners that earned $65,000 doing costumes for The Town, and “a Lowell paint-supply store that finished 2008 in the black thanks to a $28,000 sale to The Invention of Lying.”

Benefits have flowed to the community at large, as well. Happy Madison, the production company of New Hampshire native Adam Sandler, paid the Franklin Park Zoo $350,000 to shoot The Zookeeper there with Kevin James. It was a lifeline to the heretofore struggling zoo, and possibly a literal lifesaver to the animals, who might have been euthanized otherwise. Another James-Sandler flick, Here Comes the Boom, about a teacher who takes up mixed martial arts to save his struggling school’s music program, meant a windfall for Quincy: Columbia Pictures paid the city $114,500 to rent the old Quincy High and other buildings. Appropriately, $80,000 went to the real school’s music program.

Born and raised in “Whusta”

Arestia Rosenberg (COM’07) with Kevin James on location at the Burlington Mall. Photo courtesy of Arestia Rosenberg

Moreover, the influx of feature work strengthened a homegrown infrastructure of film professionals and tradespeople. Arestia Rosenberg (COM’07) worked on both The Zookeeper (as did Dudgeon) and Boom, as the associate producer for the behind-the-scenes video used in the films’ DVDs and electronic press kits. “At heart, I’m a storyteller,” says Rosenberg, “and we’re telling the story of how this movie is getting made.”

A native of Long Beach, Calif., who gained sackfuls of know-how in the BU in L.A. internship program, Rosenberg made the once-counterintuitive move from California back to Boston to work for Hollywood. “I missed Boston—I loved it here,” she says. As soon as she returned, she found work as a travel coordinator on Paul Blart: Mall Cop, and hasn’t stopped since. Rosenberg works partly on set and partly in an editing studio in her South End home, holding office hours in the coffee shop downstairs.

She is one of a number of local film professionals, both freelance and union, who have flourished in the last decade. Faraone reports that between 2006 and 2009, the Boston chapter of the Screen Actors Guild grew by almost 30 percent, the number of area Teamsters servicing the film industry tripled, and the Massachusetts members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) saw their wages increase tenfold. At a time when the state lost jobs overall, the film industry added almost 1,700 jobs here, boosting resident personal income by $115 million, according to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue.

In the case of screenwriter Silver, picking up work in Massachusetts meant traveling back home. Born and raised in “Whusta,” Silver majored in broadcast journalism at COM, was a sportscaster in Florida, and made documentaries for Channel 7 in Boston before moving to L.A. to attend the American Film Institute, run by Jean Firstenberg (COM’58).

“It took time to become a screenwriter, but having a journalism background helped,” Silver says. “I think that’s where it started—telling stories. I still do a lot of true-life stuff, involving interviewing people, so there’s a journalistic quality to some of the work I’ve done.”

For The Fighter, Silver interviewed scores of people in Lowell. The movie, set in the Mill City in the early-to-mid-1990s, starred Mark Wahlberg as boxer Micky Ward and Christian Bale as his half-brother and trainer, Dicky Eklund. “I spent time with those guys and their mother, Alice, who unfortunately has passed away, and I got to know them pretty well,” he says. “I even talked to minor characters who didn’t end up in the movie.”

It helped that Silver was a local, a sports fan, and even a boxer in his spare time. “I’m from Worcester. I know Lowell. I grew up with guys like that,” he says. That combination of attributes helped him shape the brothers’ real-life struggles into a cohesive story that both rang true and worked as an enjoyable underdog movie.

Shooting on location was also key. “As a writer,” Silver says, “wherever you set a story, that’s where you want to shoot it. You want a sense of authenticity that’s hard to get anywhere else. There’s something about not only shooting in that place, but the osmosis of being there. Because Lowell is Lowell, man. You might find some place kinda like it, but you’re never gonna find a place that’s really like it. Scott Rosenberg, a friend of mine, who’s also from Massachusetts, sets a lot of his stuff here for the same reason.” Rosenberg (COM’85) wrote Beautiful Girls—and played a bit part in Fever Pitch.

Details count. “It was important to Wahlberg and me that they got the accents right,” Silver says. “Accents in movies about Massachusetts are usually such a [expletive]. Mark being from Dorchester and me being from Worcester, that little thing was important to us. It’s about getting it right and being true to those people and to that place.”

Casting director Aaron Kahl (COM’05), who cast all the extras in The Fighter, says the way characters look is crucial as well: “We needed a lot of Lowell-type people, including a lot of Cambodians since there’s a big Cambodian community there, and obviously people from the fight world. So I did a lot of research and local casting calls to get boxers, trainers, judges.

“The movie takes place not just in the early ’90s, but the early ’90s in Lowell,” he adds. “So the wardrobe people gave us specific instructions we’d pass on to the extras. Hair and makeup had a big job on that movie, teasing all the girls’ hair. We put a strong emphasis on making everything look accurate.”

Scouring dive bars

Morgan Kling (COM’00) on the set of the comedy Ted, during a scene involving Star Wars fans. Photo courtesy of Morgan Kling

Ben Affleck demanded the same accuracy when the Cambridge favorite son directed The Town and Gone Baby Gone, two of the many films benefiting from Dudgeon’s casting work. Also a Cambridge native, Dudgeon did some acting as a kid before eventually getting an MFA from COM. He is also a hip-hop fan and a music-video director, and he knows which dive bars to scour to find the surliest-looking extras. “You can shoot in a s—hole in Southie,” he says, “but unless you fill that s—hole with people that look like they belong there, it’s not as convincing.”

One thing that Hollywood seems to like about Boston—the legendary criminal element—is also what once scared it away. Most notoriously, in the 1970s, gun-wielding Teamsters heisted film reels and extorted $1 million from the producers of The Brinks Job—a movie about a notorious armed robbery in Boston a generation prior. Today, ironically, the disappearance of such gritty mobster activity from the local industry has allowed Hollywood to return and shoot more movies about gritty mobsters who were more prevalent a generation ago.

But while some Boston-gangster flicks, however well done or entertaining as movies, nonetheless strike natives as the-Hub-according-to-Hollywood (Jack Nicholson, Lakers Fan Number One, as a Southie Irishman?), Affleck’s Boston-set films earn high marks for local flavor. “A lot of the casting in his movies is pulling from the real world,” says Dudgeon.

To cast Gone Baby Gone and The Town (with its nearly 1,800 extras), Dudgeon walked the streets of the blue-collar neighborhoods where the stories were set and filmed, invited residents to casting calls, filmed them, took thousands of notes, and worked directly with Affleck to find the right people. He took special care with the “featured extras,” characters given a line or two, or even a semiprominent role. He once called around to likely bars with a request: “If you see a guy with a cauliflower nose, call me.”

It was Dudgeon who suggested casting local rapper Slaine as a minor character in Gone Baby Gone and then as a major character—one of the four armored-car robbers—in The Town. Dudgeon recognized Slaine as not only “a Boston guy, tough, witty, biting,” but also as a savvy performer who would take to acting “like a duck to water. He just gets it.”

Morgan Kling (COM’00), a buyer for the set decorator, helped fill the sets of Gone Baby Gone with the trappings of a private detective’s office, a working-class home—whatever a scene required. “So I would basically go shopping all day long,” Kling says with a laugh. “Say for a house set, I’d shop for the couches, carpets, wallpaper, glasses—anything that’s already there when the actors show up. It’s an attention-to-detail job.”

More recently, Kling headed the prop department for the Parker Posey movie Sunny Side Up, and she became assistant property master on the Seth MacFarlane movie Ted, starring Mark Wahlberg. For that movie, Kling had to make bong pipes look used. “We took all these water pipes and hooked them up to a vacuum,” she says, “put fake pot in them, and basically power-smoked these pipes with the vacuum, so they’d appear used, but there wouldn’t be any residue or paint that might do the actors harm.”

Ted is one of the most recent crop of films to come to town since a dip in production in 2010, owing to some political turbulence over the film tax credit.

Massachusetts has a balanced budget requirement, so despite the nearly $1 billion of economic activity generated by the feature films, for budget purposes the tax credit must be considered a loss, to be offset by spending restrictions elsewhere. Looking at it that way, the state forwent $100 million in revenue through the credit just in 2010. That can sound like a big giveaway during a budget crunch.

Responding to that pressure, Governor Deval Patrick proposed a cap on the amount of studio spending eligible for the credit. That contributed to “uncertainty in the industry,” Maiella says, making 2010 “a bit of a down year” for production, even as films like The Fighter were being released to acclaim in the theaters.

Maiella and the MPC lobbied against the cap, and the legislature’s revenue committee voted unanimously to overturn it. “To his credit,” Maiella says, “the governor got back on the road, representing the state in Los Angeles to reassure studios that Massachusetts continues to be open for business.

“And as a result, in 2011, we’ve got films coming back.” (Watch your local theater listings for Ted, Here Comes the Boom, and R.I.P.D., filming in the Bay State recently, currently, or soon.) It helps that some directors, actors, and producers have local ties—and that others discovered the region’s many merits when they came for the credit.

“Scenics, crew, talent, wonderful architecture, professional infrastructure, manageability of the city, proximity to mountains and shore,” Maiella says, “all those things make Massachusetts a great place to shoot.”

A version of this story appeared in the fall-winter 2011 edition of COMtalk.

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