Showbiz. Shenanigans. Sizzle. Sin City has long played home to high-octane cinematic productions.
More often than not, the blinding neon lights of the strip provide the perfect backdrop for slick crime, heightened antics and colossal destruction, à la Ocean’s Eleven, The Hangover or this winter’s Jamie Foxx-starrer Sleepless.
True to its reputation, Vegas continues to attract some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Two years ago, the strip was shut down in its entirety for a chase scene involving around 200 cars, including an armored SWAT van, in last year’s Jason Bourne. No small feat for the Nevada Film Office to coordinate, the whole shebang required a slew of private and public organizations to cooperate at both the city and county levels.
You probably don’t have the $120 million budget of a Bourne film, of course, so you may wonder: What does Nevada have to offer productions decidedly more indie in scope and scale? Robert Putka, whose feature debut, Mad, premiered at Slamdance in 2016, set his sights on the suburbs of Las Vegas for his second feature, shooting there this summer. “It’s a talky dramedy about a young couple having difficulty reconnecting after three years away from each other,” says Putka.
Like so many other storytellers, Putka was charmed by Vegas’ evocative cultural significance. “The city serves an integral purpose in symbolically mirroring the relationship between the main characters in the film,” he says. “Las Vegas is so patently unique; it’s this pulsing, passionate oasis of a city in the middle of an arid, unforgiving landscape. I felt that’s a potent, if cynical, metaphor for what love and the memory of it can ultimately evolve into.”
It’s not just the premise of the film, currently titled We Used To Know Each Other, that sets it apart from its casino-centric cousins; Putka’s production is operating on a microbudget, “a good amount under $100,000.” In fact, the writer-director chose Vegas precisely because costs would be low. “They make it incredibly easy to make a movie of any budget there,” he says.
Eric Preiss, director of the Nevada Film Office, would agree. He emphasizes that the state’s film-ready environment makes the process smooth. “Permits are free in most areas and don’t exceed $45 in other areas, including the famous Las Vegas Boulevard,” says Preiss, and adds that proximity makes travel especially cost-effective for L.A.-based operations.
For indies productions topping $500,000, Nevada’s tax incentives—restored this spring by state officials after a three-year absence—aren’t too shabby, either, and become even more competitive when you take into account certain extras. “The tax credit begins at 15 percent, with additional bonuses of five percent for hiring local crew and five percent for filming in rural areas for a potential 25 percent total credit,” says Preiss. “The transferable nature of the credit makes redemption very simple and cost-effective for productions looking to maximize its value.” To qualify, at least 60 percent of the budget must be incurred in Nevada (unless all post-production takes place outside the state, in which case post expenditures can be dropped from that 60 percent). The state has a $10 million annual film budget.
Don’t forget, too, that there’s more to Nevada than its gleaming cultural capital, as Preiss also points out. Ghost towns and sprawling desert landscape would make for the perfect Western, but grassy valleys and the crystal-blue Lake Tahoe provide options for less obvious settings. “Nevada has it all,” says Preiss. The 46,000-acre Valley of Fire State Park, 58 miles north of the strip, “could even double for a moonscape in a sci-fi film,” he thinks. (Just bring sunscreen.)
Filming in Las Vegas is not without its unique challenges. Preiss mentions that due to the popularity of the strip as a location, casinos and other businesses can afford to be very picky about which titles they work with. “While many productions want to work with an existing casino brand, those brands may not see a fit with the production’s content, or may not feel that the impact of business interruption will be offset by the potential exposure from being in a film,” he explains.
Even so, indie moviemakers like Putka seem committed to Nevada. “It’s hard not to be romantic when talking about the quiet, contemplative side of Vegas I finally got to experience, a side that people don’t realize exists,” he says. “Not only do I think I’d make another film there, I was so taken with the energy and natural beauty of the place that I’ve since thought about moving there and making it my own little indie film playground. It’s a secret I’d rather keep.”
Sorry, Bobby—looks like the secret’s out. MM
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2017 issue. Top photograph courtesy of the Nevada Film Office.