Can Vermont Pass the Hollywood Screen Test? | Film | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Can Vermont Pass the Hollywood Screen Test?


Published May 12, 1999 at 1:00 a.m.

It’s been 12 years since Vermont and Hollywood parted ways over a memorable “scene” with Don Johnson. Montpelier decided the Florida-based actor should pay Vermont income tax on his earnings from Sweetheart's Dance, which was shot on location in Hyde Park. Word got out among actors, producers and directors nationwide that the Green Mountain State was not “film-friendly” — a rating that did more damage to our rep than weather reports from the subzero set of Ethan Frome, shot in Peacham five years later.

Although the punitive tax has since been repealed, and the Vermont Film Commission was established three years ago to court and service studios, Vermont has not seen any major studio-funded motion-picture action for over a decade. The coincidence of two big-budget movies — Me Myself and Irene and What Lies Beneath — coming to Vermont in the next four months suggests Hollywood may be reconsidering the state as a serious setting. Certainly no one in the department of tourism is going to complain about full-page ads in The New York Times.

Vermont Film Commission Director Loranne Turgeon deserves major credit for the turnaround. Formerly of DreamWorks, she is the Madeleine Albright of moviemaking in Vermont, working tirelessly to smooth the bumpy road north. But Turgeon is the first to admit 22A is still no Sunset Boulevard. Here in Vermont, even Harrison Ford has to stop for Act 250 permits, local zoning meetings and the occasional angry citizen crying, “Not in my backyard.” What lies beneath, in this case, is a fundamental culture clash.

“What makes Vermont such a great place to live is the same thing that makes it very difficult for people in the film business,” Turgeon says. Behind those quaint general stores and beautiful countryside is a patchwork of local governments, each with its own priorities, politics and zoning laws. “I have to go out and talk to community leaders in every single town, and ask, ‘Can I show your town to film people?’” Turgeon says. After more than a year on the job as go-between, she says with some exasperation, “I can no longer assume a community wants a movie.”

No less challenging is explaining Vermont to studio execs, who wouldn’t know a selectboard from a checkerboard. Along with bottom-line costs and 24-hour service, “they are-concerned about getting the cooperation of everyone involved,” Turgeon says. DreamWorks must have been disappointed to learn it would need an Act 250 permit to build a temporary mansion at the D.A.R. State Park in Addison, which involved deconstructing an existing structure and then putting it back together again. Nor could it have been enthused when a few down-home folks positioned themselves to profit from the situation.

“It was handled in typical Vermont style. Everybody came together, including Senator Elizabeth Ready, and reached an understanding of how best to accommodate the concerns in the community,” says Rep. Matt Dunne of Hartland. He and Ready — the Democratic senator from Addison County — worked together to speed up the permit process. Ready did “a lot of legwork,” according to Dunne, to bring the two sides together.

“I had to say to these movie people, ‘Now, wait a minute. You are not going to go in there with guns blazing,”’ Ready says. “People in Vermont expect to have a say on things. That is not going to change. Don’t tell me how much money is at stake. People have a right to their opinion. It’s their town.”

In the past few weeks, 15 Vermont towns in Addison and Chittenden counties have been weighing the pros and cons of being official film “locations.” Me Myself and Irene, about a state cop with an identity problem, is negotiating with Colchester, Richmond, Milton and the Ben & Jerry’s plant in Waterbury, among other spots. What Lies Beneath is sticking close to the lake in Addison, although both movies have Middlebury shoots planned.

Some selectboard members count up the cappuccinos that will be consumed, and argue eloquently about the positive economic impact on local businesses. “A lot of money gets spent,” says Peter Letzelter-Smith, a local set dresser on the Carrey movie who also heads up the New England Film Technicians Union. “That’s the good part,” he adds. “Everything from hardware stores and hotels to bars reap the benefits. Bars do quite well.”

Others focus on the negatives — traffic jams and other inconveniences are inevitable when a big film crew takes over your town. With its dramatic weather, narrow roads and limited skilled labor pool, Vermont presents a lot of logistical challenges for a film crew of 120-plus. Peacham is still reeling from the experience of hosting Spitfire Grill, a small-budget movie that Town Clerk Phyllis Randall says was more trouble than it was worth.

“We tried to set up boundaries which the studio had to adhere to, but they didn’t always,” she says, remembering the night shoot that got especially irritating. Without a film commissioner to run interference between the village elders and the studio, various mishaps occurred and the “town had no clue,” Randall admits. “They brought their own caterers, their own equipment, their own this and that — what they did pay around here was minimal.” She finds it hard to picture two major movies in downtown Middlebury. “They don’t even like big trucks coming through town,” Randall says.

But Middlebury gave Carrey’s crew the green light last week to transform a pedestrian footbridge over Otter Creek into an abandoned railroad trestle. Twentieth Century Fox agreed to pay the town $2000 for every day the bridge is unusable, and an extra $1000 for every day of shooting. The selectboard gave the contract unanimous approval, according to reports in the Addison Independent, although one member suggested shooting a “before” video of the area to assure the studio makes good on its promise to return everything the way it was. Several weeks after the Jim Carrey film wraps, Harrison Ford moves in for a scene in almost exactly the same spot.

“It will be a learning experience for everybody,” predicts Middlebury Business Association director Gail Freiden, recalling “all the weird stuff they wanted us to do” when Wizard of Loneliness was shot in Bristol in 1987. Clunky as the process may be, she believes Middlebury will strike a deal that pleases more people than it pisses off. “If they were doing this on private property, it would be up to one person to represent their interests to the movie company,” Freiden notes. “The town will have a more public interest in mind.”

Fifteen minutes from Middlebury in Addison, DreamWorks got an altogether different reception. After the state got involved in the Act 250 process, one of the selectmen — Tom Rood — opposed the project because his property abuts the south end of the park. “If one person on the selectboard doesn’t want the film there, what do you do?” asks Turgeon. “Hope the others are positive about it? Talk to them about the benefits to their community? You hope that person will change their mind, or be voted down. Government systems that are set up in places like California or Texas are not so hands-on.”

Sen. Ready says Rood, who was originally from Lincoln, was concerned the film project would compromise his privacy. He struck a private deal with the studio — some say a five-figure settlement — that he declined to discuss. “Our concerns have been addressed and resolved. That’s all I am going to say,” he says.

The volatile combination of big money, impending deadlines, favorable geography and a fresh permit “brings out the worst in some people,” says Letzelter-Smith, noting he witnessed a similar “stick-up” working on the movie Meet Joe Black. “Usually 90 percent of the people in the neighborhood think it’s a ball. You almost always have one or two who are a pain. It’s just human nature,” he says.

Turgeon suggests such acts of individual opportunism are likely to send the movie industry right back where it came from. “They don’t have to be here. They can go anywhere else,” she says. “The studios are looking at the big picture. The landowners are looking at their bottom line. They see it as ‘the ship has come in.’ All that does is hurt the state.”

Local filmmakers, too, will be affected by the incoming movies. Until now, they have had virtually free access to locations in Vermont. When Carrey and Ford are through with them, will set-sawy towns expect cash from anyone with a camera? “Certainly we hope that when we shoot another movie, people don’t assume we’re Universal Pictures,” says Bess O’Brien at Kingdom County Pictures, noting she and Jay Craven plan to keep their cameras in the Northeast Kingdom. The couple didn’t pay for a single location while shooting Where the Rivers Flow North.

“The difference between a company coming in from Hollywood is, they can leave. They are never going to see Mr. Smith again,” O’Brien says. “If they leave a bad taste in everybody’s mouth, we are going to hear about it.”

Everyone involved, including film-friendly lawmakers, see this summer and fall as a test in the eyes of Hollywood. “If all goes well, it may become a regular thing” — the thrill of casting calls, the long-term benefits promoting the state,” says Rep. Dunne, who is already talking about “tweaking” the Act 250 process to make it more flexible for film projects. “If it does not go well, and that includes financially, they will choose someplace else and call it Vermont.”

It was Dunne who sponsored the bill that abolished the out-of-state actor tax. The 29-year-old lawmaker was also the major legislative force in founding the film commission, which received an additional $150,000 appropriation this year to buy Turgeon some help. Clearly, the state is all for Hollywood investing in Vermont. But ultimately, local communities will have to decide whether they share that vision. The sequels, in other words, will be up to us.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Lights, Camera... Compromise?"