Hollywood is eternally searching for the filmmaking Shangri-La.
In the 1990s, filmmakers often traveled to Canada. But that eventually became less fashionable, and these days the industry is migrating in a different direction — to Louisiana. "L.A. South" has become the go-to spot for shooting movies.
Even before the economic recession hit Hollywood, the state of Louisiana had been quietly gaining stature as the place to make quality movies and stretch dollars.
"We have the largest number of productions outside of Los Angeles and New York City," says Chris Stelly, director of film for Louisiana Entertainment, a division of the state office of economic development.
"Like Vancouver used to be 'Hollywood North,' Louisiana's the hot spot now," says Patrick Lussier, director of Drive Angry 3D, a supernatural road movie starring Nicolas Cage and Amber Heard, opening in February.
The consummate versatile character actor, Louisiana has also played Utah, Washington, D.C., and London. "The film industry wants to find places it can reinvent and make look like anything it needs," Lussier says. "There's a lot of opportunity do that in Louisiana."
Movies shooting in Louisiana range from mega-budget blockbusters to quirky indies. Films shot this year include testosterone-fueled action-adventure The Expendables, which opens Aug. 13, and the comic book-inspired The Green Lantern, due in 2011. The low-budget horror film The Last Exorcism opens Aug. 27, and the big-screen version of the 1960s TV show The Big Valley arrives next year.
And the films cross all sectors, from Oscar bait to tween phenomena. The much-nominated The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was shot in New Orleans in 2008, and Breaking Dawn, the fourth installment in the hugely successful Twilight series, films this year in Baton Rouge.
In 2009, 60 films and TV shows shot in Louisiana. By mid-2010, 85 productions have already signed on, Stelly says: "We're well on our way to having a record-breaking year."
New Orleans as Anytown, USA
The boom is most visible around New Orleans. In 2009, 22 movies and TV shows filmed there. Records have already been broken in 2010; by July, 24 projects had shot there.
"We're way ahead of the curve in the New Orleans region," says Katie Gunnell, interim director of the city's Office of Film and Television. "The city has seen an incredible bump in applications for 2011 as well."
Across the state, work is consistent and year-round, despite hurricane season and blazing summer temperatures. "We've maintained 20 to 25 productions at any given time during the year," Stelly says. "We've doubled for New York City, Los Angeles, the Northwest, basically Anytown, USA."
Those who have shot there point to several factors contributing to the region's appeal: diversity of scenery, financial incentives and proficient crews.
"You can get an 1800s look, you can get a Parisian look," says Todd Lewis, producer of The Chaperone. "You can get suburbs, you can get the country. It's got a little bit of everything." His movie, out next year, is one of several Louisiana-based films funded by World Wrestling Entertainment and featuring wrestling stars, in this case Paul "Triple H" Levesque.
Director Rod Lurie was looking to duplicate rural Mississippi in Straw Dogs, a remake of the 1971 classic coming out next year. He did so in and around Shreveport. "They really do have it all there," he says. "You can go anywhere from swamps to beautiful rivers to cities to football stadiums. We were able to shoot the entire film within a 10-mile radius."
Jonah Hex, the supernatural action thriller in theaters earlier this summer, used New Orleans to double for the Old West.
Though producer Andrew Lazar initially had reservations about shooting a Western in Louisiana, his concerns disappeared when he considered the obvious. "The French Quarter hasn't changed much over the years, so you don't need a lot of set dressing," Lazar says. "We just put some dirt on the road and we were back in the 1870s."
Says Lussier: "New Orleans has so many looks. You can get a European look, and it also has an unmistakable feeling of the American frontier. It's such an amazing city unto itself. Why not take advantage of it?"
Filmmakers say it's hard to go wrong with scenery like this.
"Wherever you point the camera, you have a beautiful and picturesque set design," says Daniel Stamm, director of The Last Exorcism. "And the atmosphere does something for the actors. It's so old world. We shot at a plantation, and the smell and the sounds of the floorboards did something to the atmosphere that's tangible, that you wouldn't get in L.A. on a soundstage."
Stamm's horror movie was enhanced by the surprise appearance of a toothy visitor.
"We were shooting in the Ninth Ward (an area in New Orleans hard-hit by Katrina), and you could still see the waterline in this old plantation," Stamm says. "One day, we couldn't shoot for three hours because an alligator had crawled on set. That does something to the team, something you can't fake."
Tax incentives best in USA
The hauntingly creative vibe may be palpable, but the bottom line is equally alluring.
The state offers the most competitive economic and tax incentives of any in the country. A system of financial perks was enacted after Hurricane Katrina destroyed $81 billion in property and killed 1,836 people in 2005.
"We approached it like a business, and it keeps (filmmakers) coming back, based on our reliability and stability," Stelly says. "For every dollar you spend in the state, we'll give you 30% back (in rebates). And we give you an additional 5% for hiring Louisiana residents on productions."
Tax incentives can be sold as credits or used to offset personal or corporate income tax, he says.
"As things get more expensive, you have to go wherever you get the budget relief," Lussier notes. "You can no longer use Mulholland Drive for your backwoods road movie."
There is also the sense among filmmakers that they are helping an area that sorely needs a hand in bouncing back from one of the worst natural disasters in history.
"Louisiana has been through so much, and I'm glad to be able to make a film there," says Nicole Kidman, who is shooting the 2011 film Trespass in Shreveport this summer with Nicolas Cage.
"The economy desperately needs the film business," Lurie says. "And it's fantastic watching people get employed. We hired a thousand people to be extras and put a couple of hundred bucks in their pockets, and that's helpful to the economy. The film commission is among the most proactive I've ever seen."
Between that obliging spirit and the financial incentives, Lurie says, "It doesn't pay to make movies in Los Angeles anymore. You can save too much money by going out of town."
Crews with skill, enthusiasm
Shooting movies outside Hollywood is certainly not new. But the more common scenario is to shoot segments in distant cities and use Hollywood studios as a base. As more films are shot in Louisiana, the ancillary businesses and infrastructure associated with the industry — post-production centers and soundstages — are also increasingly cropping up.
Every Hollywood-based filmmaker interviewed spoke glowingly of the local production personnel and regional actors.
"Because of all that's being shot there, local crews get better and better," says Ken Zunder, cinematographer for The Chaperone. "You get a lot of crews that are very savvy here. It's not like going to, say, Detroit."
The combination of skill and energy is something particularly appreciated by those coming from Hollywood.
"In L.A., everyone is exhausted by the film business, with all the noise and shooting at night," Stamm says. "Down there, everyone is not jaded. There is still an enthusiasm about the whole thing."
So much enthusiasm, in fact, that some Los Angeles residents have moved south with the jobs.
Producer Joshua Throne made several films in the state, the latest being The Expendables. He has homes in both Louisiana and Los Angeles. Throne's next project is The Technician, co-starring Kevin Bacon and Kurt Russell, which will shoot in Louisiana in January.
"There's such a zest for life here," he says. "There's lots of good food, good people, wonderful history, and it still has the Southern charm."
Lewis and his wife also have made the move to New Orleans. "I love L.A., I really do," he says. "And I'm sorry that productions are running away from L.A., but this is a really easy and cost-efficient place to make movies."
Ed Borasch Jr., a property master, moved from Southern California. "I have to go where the work is," he says. "It's just so much nicer and quieter here, and the traffic's not as crazy, and the people are super friendly. You feel like you're welcomed here. I lived in Los Angeles for 15 years, and that was a great run for me, but the work dried up, and now my time is here." Meanwhile, he's gotten married, had a baby and laid down roots.
'A sexy city'
Some stars have bought homes in New Orleans in recent years, including Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock and Cage, who has shot several movies there.
Actress Annabeth Gish shot two films in New Orleans this summer. The first was The Fields, co-starring Sam Worthington and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and the second was The Chaperone.
"So much is happening in New Orleans," says Gish, who's married to stunt coordinator Wade Allen. "It's been a long time since I or my husband shot in Los Angeles. You'd think with Arnold (Schwarzenegger) as our governor, we'd be bringing movies back to L.A.
"But one of the great things about coming here on location is you feel like you're paying back the debt the country owes by being here and feeding the economy. And it's a character in its own right, so saturated with culture and flavor. It's a sexy city with so much history — a little hot, though."
Hollywood types are never shy about complaining, but except for occasional remarks about the searing summer heat, no one has a negative thing to say about the southward migration. "The love affair is on," Lussier says. "When filming starts going to a place, there's a real excitement. You can feel that, and it can be very productive for both sides."
Ties between Canada and Hollywood grew frayed as resentment mounted over film crews taking up so much space in cities like Vancouver and Toronto. Will Hollywood and Louisiana maintain a lasting romance?
"It'll be interesting to see if seven or eight years down the road, people get tired of road closures and the novelty of having movies come to their town," says Lussier. "For now, it's great. Hopefully, it will last a while."