The Commonwealth State has long held a distinctive position in the film industry. Its participation in such movies as D.W. Griffith’s America, Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie and the Oscar-winning Giant, starring Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, has been part of the draw that continually brings new and veteran moviemakers alike to join in the brotherhood that is Virginia’s moviemaking community.
It takes just a taste of that brotherhood to entice moviemakers to return to the state’s wharfs, farmlands, quaint country roads and big city life. Over the years the area has grown to attract everything from feature-length dramas to reality television programs, all the while providing its customers—and honorary community members—with continual improvements. Filming in Virginia means locales unavailable elsewhere. What other state has built an entire Colonial era backlot with interiors to match?
On January 29th, the Virginia Film Office joined with the Virginia Production Alliance to host Film Day at the state capital. Their goal? To improve the incentives offered for filming in the state. To clarify a few of the day’s events and reveal a little bit more about those things Virginia offers moviemakers, MM spoke with Mary Nelson, communications manager at the Virginia Film Office.
Mallory Potosky (MM): In January, Virginia held a Film Day rally at the state capital to generate more interest in production incentives. Was it successful in its attempt to bring awareness to this cause? What was the end result?
Mary Nelson (MN): This year’s Film Day was the most successful one we’ve ever had. Film Day has become an annual event at the Virginia General Assembly, but this year was particularly amazing because more than 150 people directly involved in the industry spent the day speaking to legislators and giving out information at the General Assembly Office Building. This year virtually every aspect of the industry was represented including crew members, union leaders, actors, indie filmmakers, production and post-production professionals, educators, students and vendors.
It was inspiring to see veteran crew members—some who have been in the business 30 years or more—walking the halls next to young filmmakers who had just finished their first independent feature, or who are working as PAs until they become more established.
Essentially, everyone who came to Film Day had the same basic message, told in their own personal ways: “We love Virginia. We want to continue to live and work and raise our families here. But, without incentives, we will be forced to move to other states.” Because the message was in the form of a personal story told by their own constituents, the legislators were almost universally responsive and positive. All said that they understood the need and the economics of the issue. Most said they would be willing to support incentives. This is by far the most positive response we’ve had in years. The end result, however, is still a question mark. However, we do know that this is an ongoing process that will require continued perseverance on the part of those who care about living and working at home.
MM: Virginia can claim to be the state that hosted the production of The Colored American Winning His Suit—the first African American-produced feature. What are some of the state’s other milestone moments in film?
MN: Lionel Barrymore, D.W Griffith., Oscar Michaeux, Walter Huston, Jane Wyman, Ronald Regan, Humphrey Bogart, June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Pryor and Charlton Heston were just a few of the luminaries of early American film who came to the state to make their movies.
Beginning in 1980, Virginia was at the forefront of a relatively new movement in film production. The Virginia Film Office was created and was one of a handful of film commissions actively recruiting the film, video and television industries to their jurisdictions.
Virginia has come a long way from the early days of film, when pioneers of the silent film era came to make those first ground-breaking motion pictures. The industry is an important part of the rich cultural and historic heritage that is Virginia—and will continue to be a valuable part of our culture, providing economic benefits to the state, and enjoyment to everyone who loves filmed entertainment.
MM: Ivan Reitman brought his crew to the state to film parts of Dave, Sinbad came for First Kid and even Tom Cruise seems to have a special affinity for the area—filming War of the Worlds, Minority Report and Mission: Impossible III there. Why do you think Virginia is especially suited to host moviemakers of every caliber and experience?
MN: We do tend to have a lot of repeat business here, and also many of our projects come to us as referrals from others who have worked here and enjoyed the experience. The obvious reasons for this are our exceptional locations and strong crew base. However, one of the overriding reasons that filmmakers enjoy working here is because Virginia’s simply a great place to be. We hear it all the time. People comment on how friendly Virginians are and how supportive government officials are to the filmmaking process. Everyone from the governor to the state and local police to the Department of Transportation have a “can do” attitude that make it easy to work here.
Virginia is also home to a new and unique opportunity for filmmakers—it’s a 16-acre Colonial era backlot complete with city architecture, a period farm, wharf and ship, which will be a major draw in the future.
One of the other things that makes Virginia attractive is our film office. Our staff is extremely experienced, not only as film commissioners, but as film professionals in locations and other areas of production. Most of us have been here 10 years or more. Having those kinds of professionals to partner with on a production is worth a great deal. The office policy is that we always try to offer the same level of service to projects with modest budgets as we do to Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise collaborations.
MM: The state lies in close proximity to the nation’s capital and has played host to so many of the country’s great historical events. Does that ever have an effect on the visiting film community in terms of the type of people or stories that are brought to film in Virginia? Do the government buildings or monuments tend to draw more interest than, say, one of its quaint country roads?
MN: Virginia has a huge variety of locations (about the only thing we don’t have is deserts), but you’re correct: One of our most popular assets is our ability to double for major east coast cities, including Washington, D.C. Many, many films have come to the Richmond area because of this ability. Hannibal, G.I. Jane, First Kid, Dave, The Contender and many, many more. Our state house doubles for the United States capital, and we have many buildings that look like everything from government buildings to Georgetown neighborhoods. Although our quaint country roads in Virginia are spectacular, they are not as unique or unusual as our governmental architecture. It doesn’t hurt that we also have a replica of the Oval Office here in Richmond!
MM: What do you see as the biggest misconception people have about filming in Virginia? Is it maybe that the state has so many of those “quaint country roads?”
MN: One of our biggest problems in conveying the essence of Virginia to other people is that we have so many diverse looks that it is impossible to categorize Virginia as being one thing or another. I often call Virginia a chameleon state because of its ability to play such a wide range of different eras and places. To some people, Virginia means winding roads, mountain views, spectacular valleys. To others it is the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean with Naval ships, military installations, watermen and fishing villages. The far southwest is home to coal mines, rugged terrain and country music; the north has rolling hills, horse farms and fox hunts; the D.C. area has spectacular 21st-century architecture; and Richmond is filled with virtually any kind of architecture you might need. So, to answer your question, no one’s view of Virginia is totally accurate, as it’s based on individual experiences.
MM: How does the Governor’s Motion Picture Opportunity Fund remain objective enough to appropriate funds to films based on their performance?
MN: The purpose of the fund is to create jobs and bring economic benefits to the state. Therefore, one of the first criteria that must be considered is how well the project fulfills that goal. Although obviously a large, high-profile project can bring a great deal of money to the state, it will also request a larger amount of funding. The idea is to keep a balance between larger and smaller projects to ensure that the maximum benefit is realized for our workers, our local film professionals and our state budget.
MM: We’ve covered the big films that have shot in Virginia—but what about the smaller ones? What does the state provide for independent moviemakers?
MN: We believe that the world of the independent filmmaker will become increasingly more prominent as technological advances make it easier to shoot and to distribute independent films. We have worked closely with the educational film programs within the state in order to identify the young filmmakers who are just starting out in their careers and we support the work of several organizations that have emerged in recent years dedicated to helping indie filmmakers create and show their work. We believe it’s important for indie filmmakers to have their work seen and therefore we support film festivals and screenings—particularly those that feature Virginia filmmakers.
Perhaps the most significant step we have taken is the creation this year of a statewide filmmakers competition. We aren’t aware of any other state that has this kind of program. We are soliciting films, shorts and documentaries shot within the state and will sponsor a juried competition that will identify finalists in each category. These will be shown to the public at a two-day festival at which a winner in each category will be selected. We hope, through this process, to showcase some of the exceptional independent filmmaking talent that we know is living and working on our doorstep. MM