On Making a Films in the Berkshires (or Any Rural Area)
Written by Marc Maurino | Posted by: Anonymous
I was recently at a birthday party with one of my kids when another dad asked what I do. I said that I’m a filmmaker. Surprised, he asked, Oh, is Western Massachusetts a hotbed of filmmaking?
Well, not a hotbed, exactly, but there are as many compelling benefits to making films in this region as there are drawbacks. I’m a short filmmaker, aspiring to write and direct full time. While I’m a clear-eyed proponent of filmmaking in my own community, I also think that I’ll eventually move to New York or Los Angeles for my directing career.
I’ve shot four shorts in Berkshire county. The last two were produced with a professional cast and crew: the family drama Trigger Finger played multiple festivals and premiered at the Berkshire International Film Festival; and All in the Game, a crime drama which is still in post, will be on the festival circuit in 2009. Both films tapped in to the best resources of the county as well as illustrated the limitations of shooting a film far from New York, Los Angeles, or even Boston.
The major drawback I faced was similar to one that any Hollywood production could encounter – primarily, the paucity of a skilled local crew base (though I imagine this would be a shortcoming for any location shooting outside perhaps a half-dozen major American cities). I would have loved to have had a producing partner to help with scouting; securing locations; casting; renting equipment, props, and picture vehicles; but in an area without a film school or industry, that wasn’t realistic, so I produced (and hired everyone) myself. I brought all my key personnel — DP, sound, grip, electric, AD and ACs — in from New York and Los Angeles.
Importing a crew to the Berkshires meant that I needed to lodge, feed, and transport them, in addition to feeding and transporting the locals I utilized for secondary crew positions (boom, PA work, script supervision). Fortunately, I housed my crew and catered my production for very reasonable costs on the campus of Shakespeare and Company, a major theatre in Lenox, because its dorms and catering chef weren’t in full use during our December shoot. They were happy and eager to support a film production, and we even shot a few scenes in the dorm basement (credibly doubling as a police interrogation room).
For other locations, I contacted Megan Whilden, the director of the City of Pittsfield’s Office of Cultural Development (the only city-appointed cultural czar in the state), who made countless calls on my behalf to local business owners, artists, and residents, allowing me to scout locations, conduct rehearsals and auditions, and borrow props and supplies for free.
Whilden also paved my way to the Mayor’s office, who in turn had the police department provide, for free, an officer to come by our set on the days when we were using a firearm with blanks, and staging a police raid and backyard chase in a dodgy neighborhood. No permits were required — the city was happy to support us because, as the patrol captain from the Pittsfield Police told me, "We are very clear on our direction from the Mayor’s office to be supportive of the arts."
As with all films, casting was extremely important. Except for my lead, Steven Vause, who was a SAG actor from New York, the entire cast was local, including my wife and four other actors who are all company members at Shakespeare and Company, and several others with various professional acting experience. With at least a half dozen noteworthy and sizeable local theatre companies, the breadth and depth of Berkshires acting talent cannot be overstated.
Since there is so little local film production, the press still makes a big deal about it, which for an emerging filmmaker is wonderful for both the "press" section of the website as well as the ego. Collectively over the production of my last two films, I have been profiled or featured in more than six articles, including an article about a press visit to the set of All in the Gamee during shooting, a profile a few weeks later, and a long interview for public radio. This sort of publicity for a short film shooting in New York or Los Angeles would be literally unheard of.
Perhaps obviously, I didn’t get a camera package, stock, or processing in the Berkshires. For All in the Game, I was very fortunate to have been granted the use of a Super 16 camera package through the Panavision New Filmmaker Grant program. Ric Halpern at Panavision also opened the door to Fotokem in Los Angeles, which gave me a deep discount on processing and transfer costs, and Anne Hubbell at Kodak generously donated four free reels of stock to our production. Nick Paleologos of the Massachusetts Film Office personally returned a call to me on my cell phone and walked me through the MFO website to download a tax-exempt form for Kodak, which was also a huge help.
On both All in the Game and Trigger Finger, I used three of the same incredibly talented personnel: Director of Photography Matt Workman, whom I found via NewEnglandFilm.com; Soundperson Jesse Flower-Ambroch, who handled both location recording and post-mixing and design; and Editor Ted Rodenborn. Ted edited half the film in New York and is finishing it in the Bay Area, which means an extraordinary amount of time on the phone, watching thumbnail-size Quicktime clips, waiting for FTP uploads and downloads, and hundreds of emails. While it would be nice to have had him in the Berkshires, of course, our proximity to New York City meant that I was able to get down to his studio to work with him several times before his move to California. With each of these collaborators, it makes sense that they base their careers out of New York, but the Berkshires have proven close enough that they have all come to work on multiple shoots, scout locations, and see the film at festivals here relatively easily.
Since the responsible filmmaker has to think of exhibition from the beginning, it’s worth noting that the Berkshires features the constantly growing Berkshire International Film Festival (BIFF), which as part of its mission celebrates, supports, and exhibits locally produced films. My short Trigger Finger not only debuted at the festival, but played again in a shorts showcase as part of BIFF’s monthly free screening series at the Triplex in Great Barrington, and All in the Game will have a work-in-progress screening at a Berkshire Filmmakers showcase, sponsored by the Berkshire International Film Festival, on September 7th, at 11:30 am (and will hopefully play BIFF in May 2009).
In three short years, the festival has grown to become the major regional festival, has hosted Arthur Penn and Kevin Bacon as their honorees, screened many locally produced films, and regularly programs major films to screen before their domestic release, including Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River as the 2008 closing night film. Festival director Kelley Vickery says, "Supporting and growing the local film community is a primary part of who we are."
Naturally, not everything went right on my most recent film, and low-budget film production always has a host of difficulties and snafus, but each of the many challenges I found to producing a five-day, low-budget short film with a cast and crew of 20 was counterbalanced by great local support, from free locations (apartments, a brewpub) to free bagels and coffee, all from people just happy to support a guy chasing his dream. That’s a great feeling that can’t be quantified on a budget sheet, or, perhaps, duplicated in a big city.