“I get lots of interesting calls,” the director of the Virginia Film Office (VFO) admits. “People will say, ‘I’ve got this great idea for a movie.’ ” He laughs. “But everybody’s got an idea for a movie!”
Andy Edmunds tells them politely that he’s not a cigar-chomping studio boss, but if they turn their great idea into a script and find some money, he’ll be happy to help them make it in Virginia.
It’s easy to see how this silver-tongued bureaucrat enticed director Steven Spielberg to shoot the film Lincoln in Virginia’s capital city four years ago. He and the five-person staff at the Film Office, a wing of the Virginia Tourism Corp., work with TV and movie productions that want to film in the commonwealth, sometimes giving them special tax breaks, sometimes offering a shoulder to cry on.
“They come for locations, they come for logistical answers, how much crew is available, how much infrastructure,” Edmunds says. “Like any situation, it’s about developing relationships, and that leads to more work.”
He gives an example: Ithaca, a film recently shot in Petersburg by director Meg Ryan, came through because of a production manager who worked on Killing Lincoln, a National Geographic TV show that was shot in Richmond, and that person also worked on the AMC series Turn: Washington’s Spies. Etc. etc. To Edmunds, it’s all about “repeat business and being customer-service driven.”
According to the Film Office, Virginia’s film industry had an economic impact of $382.5 million in 2013, up from $328 million in 2012 and $221 million back in 2005. Along with 3,396 full-time jobs, film and TV activity generated $16.4 million in state and local tax revenue.
The VFO also commissioned an independent study to determine the economic impact of its subsidies on the Colonial-era espionage show Turn, which has filmed for two seasons in locations across Central Virginia.
“For every dollar incentive that was provided to them, the return was eight to one,” Edmunds says, adding that the Hollywood visitors are “basically like super tourists with a payroll. They do the same thing tourists do. They stay in the hotels, go to restaurants, spend money in our economy.”
And if the Film Office can’t help with tax breaks, Edmunds says, it can assist filmmakers with logistical help, locations, publicity and navigating red tape. The acclaimed indie thriller Blue Ruin, for example, didn’t have a high-enough budget to qualify for Virginia’s incentives, but the VFO worked with director Jeremy Saulnier to troubleshoot and secure locations in and around Charlottesville, Richmond and Petersburg.
“Andy not only has a vision for what Virginia film can be, he has the charisma to play in multiple worlds,” Richmond filmmaker and former VFO intern Lucas Krost says.
Krost got a gig in 2004 working on acclaimed director Terrence Malick’s film The New World, which filmed in Jamestown. The assignment came thanks to Edmunds, who previously served as location director under former Film Office Director Rita McClenny (now head of Virginia Tourism Corp.), and it sent Krost on his professional way as a director of films, documentaries and commercials. “Andy is as comfortable talking to an intern as he is sitting with Tom Hanks. I always felt like he had my back, every step of the way. And he’s good at what he does. He sells and you never feel like you are being sold.”
The film office’s latest catch is something Edmunds calls “the signature flagship show for PBS to replace Downton Abbey.” Shooting now in Richmond and Petersburg, the episodic program is called Mercy Street. “It’s sort of like a PBS version of ER, set during the Civil War,” he says, adding that attracting TV shows is better than luring one-time movie projects. “Those productions don’t leave. They stay and keep generating revenue, like a factory.”
Virginia’s historic locations have been paramount to enticing Hollywood. Turn, for instance, has utilized the historic Tuckahoe, Shirley and Westover plantations; Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown home; and numerous Colonial Williamsburg sites. “We treasure authenticity here,” says Edmunds. “Why not play to your strengths? We are known as the go-to period movie place. Why should we deny it? Let’s market it, sell it. That’s what you do.”
Problem is, as Edmunds admits, Virginia’s film incentives — one is called the Governor’s Motion Picture Opportunity Fund — are at poverty-row levels compared to other states. “We only have $6.5 million [a year] in tax credits available. So we have to be creative.” He notes that 40 states have film incentive programs similar to Virginia’s (Colorado’s was the first, initiated in the 1970s. Virginia’s was started in 1980 under Gov. Gerald Baliles.) Other states have more money to spend, although North Carolina is currently in a political firestorm over its credits. Texas, meanwhile, just tripled its film perks to $90 million a year.
“Pennsylvania has $65 million to offer,” Edmunds says with incentive envy. “Georgia handed out over $200 million in tax credits in a year, Louisiana close to $200 million.” He sighs. “That’s why everything on TV looks like bayous.”
Still, Richmond’s profile in the film world would appear to be rising, thanks not only to large-scale projects, but an active network of independent filmmakers working on a shoestring.
Many of the outside productions that come to Virginia have set up shop in and around the Richmond/Petersburg area. “Richmond is the perfect palette for filmmakers,” Edmunds says. The region has also become a burgeoning destination point for talking about and screening movies. He loves it.
“I think we can credit the creative culture around VCU and also the vibrant advertising agency community in Richmond,” he offers. “There’s just a creative vibe here and the outlet for a lot of these creative juices is film and new media … Richmond has become a film town, absolutely.”
‘We Want to Grow Our Own Content’
“In a way, our mission is accomplished,” says a smiling Michael Jones, president and co-founder of the James River Film Society. “Our goal was to raise film awareness so we could retire in the lap of luxury.”
He’s joking about the last part, of course. The scrappy, do-it-yourself film society is still kicking, delightfully eclectic and sometimes willfully obscure. Formerly the Richmond Moving Image Co-Op, the nonprofit launched the James River Film Festival 22 years ago. Before that, there was only the Biograph Theatre, a long-defunct Grace Street art house where Jones, a longtime Virginia Commonwealth University film professor, put together some of his first curated movie screenings.
Today, the film society produces an annual festival of short films, giving $2,000 a pop to deserving directors. For years, under former vice president James Parrish, it ran Flicker, a festival of works in the disappearing Super 8 format. The organization’s annual James River Film Festival has mixed high- and lowbrow cinema, and enticed an amazing array of filmmakers to town on a low ($10,000 to $15,000) budget — from avant garde pioneers such as Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage to legendary figures like stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen and, this past April, via Skype, countercultural animator Ralph Bakshi. “One reason why we seem so eclectic is that we see ourselves as a collective,” Jones says. “You got an idea for a program, we can make it happen maybe.”
Vice President Jeff Roll started the nonprofit’s James River Filmmakers Forum in 2009 to tap into the city’s film talent. The talk show with local directors started in a now-defunct yoga studio and is now held at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. “In the beginning, I was shaking the trees for filmmakers to present,” Roll recalls. “But after the first year, they started coming to me.” He sees the burgeoning film scene as a natural outgrowth of Richmond’s creative bent. “It’s not just film, it’s a multimedia of arts. We think of the arts as a center point of our culture here, everything from the music scene to the visual arts scene.”
The city now holds more than 50 regular events devoted to cinema throughout the year, including the French Film Festival (the largest of its kind outside of France), the 48 Hour Film Project (where teams plan and shoot an entire movie in a weekend), and the International Film Festival, which has swiftly grown into one of the biggest competitive movie events in the mid-Atlantic.
“I saw that Richmond didn’t have a competitive film festival,” says Heather Waters, who produces the International Film Festival, now in its fourth year. “The city had the French and the James River festivals, and they are great, but exhibition-only.” In its last installment in March, the festival screened more than 120 films at the Byrd Theatre (which serves as the host for many of Richmond’s film festivals), Movieland’s Criterion Cinemas, the Virginia Historical Society and other spaces. It’s an avalanche of film.
Waters grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, spent time in Atlanta and Los Angeles, and originally worked in music promotion. The International Film Festival started as a showplace for short films called the MIX Festival. The idea, she says, was to “attract filmmakers from around the world and then woo them back to the city to shoot their potential films. It was just seeing an opening, a void in Richmond that wasn’t filled yet.”
Waters is a multiple threat, as they say in the business. She not only runs the International Film Festival, she’s a producer (her latest is the forthcoming low-budget film Shooting the Prodigal, which begins principal photography in June in Richmond and Petersburg), and heads up the L.A.-based Creative World Awards, which helps scriptwriters sell their stories.
She’s also president of the 300-member Virginia Production Alliance, made up of regional film professionals. “We are the main go-to trade pro organization for the industry across the state. We do advocacy, mainly. We’re a political voice that can go to our lawmakers and say, ‘Film is not just the arts. It creates jobs.’ ” The alliance also works through the state’s Workforce Development Initiative, she says, “to try and train interns in order to grow our future filmmaking community.”
And how vibrant is that community? “That’s something that we’re wrestling with a little bit in Virginia,” she acknowledges. “The incentives are growing, the outside productions are coming in, but eventually we want to grow our own content.” As the president of the Virginia Production Alliance, it’s been a challenge, Waters says. “It’s hard to get people out of the mindset of just getting companies to come here, and to creating it ourselves. Right now, frankly, it’s just people waiting around.”
“There can always be more done to help the indigenous filmmakers,” Lucas Krost says. Through his company, The Branching, he offers production support and makes commercial films for The Martin Agency and other companies. He’s also had his heart broken trying to pitch feature films. The director watched his long-burning project, A Rock in the Sun, climb the Hollywood golden ladder before funding was pulled (he’s still pitching the film, which tells the story of a family affected by a Haitian earthquake).
“I would love to see more local, independent features,” he says. “But in order to do a feature, you’ve got to have access to money. And that’s where we all fumble. For a first-time, or independent filmmaker, the hurdle is that much higher.”
After exploring the terrain of New York City’s Brooklyn borough and the Mojave Desert in his previous films, Richmonder Rick Alverson plans to shoot his next project, set during the Reconstruction period, in Virginia. Alverson directed The Comedy, which had a limited theatrical release after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. His latest feature film, Entertainment, had its world premiere at Sundance this year, and was just picked up for national distribution by Magnolia Pictures.
“People in the independent film world ask me if I live in New York or L.A., and when I tell them Richmond, they say, ‘Huh?’ ” Alverson says, laughing. “Because they don’t believe that you can get things done in places like that.”
To attract more filmmakers, he says, Richmond needs to become a magnet. “Maybe as the city grows its arts scene, the industry can grow and people will recognize that it’s a place where you can stay rather than leave for one of the big epicenters.”
“I want to use Richmond as a part of the story,” says director and screenwriter Patrick Ricks, who goes by the name Praheme. “I’m tired of seeing other cities.”
Praheme made the impressive debut feature Troop 491: The Adventures of the Muddy Lions in 2013. The Richmond native, a graduate of Community High who studied film at Howard University and Florida State, self-financed the nostalgic coming-of-age story with the help of his dad, a Virginia Film Office grant and lots of credit cards. Final budget: around $350,000. He shot it over a span of 15 days in places like Church Hill, Jackson Ward and Pocahontas State Park.
“The Virginia Film Office was super supportive,” Praheme says. “I have the belief that they are trying to grow film here.” But he says it can’t compete with places like Atlanta. “They need to bring people in, but they also have to make sure they are [cultivating] homegrown filmmakers so that the industry will be here when the big films come. Sometimes there aren’t enough people to supply the demand, and these productions need skilled people who know how to do these different tasks.”
Praheme is already in the planning stages of his second and third films, which he says will be different in tone, but still set in Richmond. The release of Troop 491 has been interesting to say the least, and ongoing. It had its official premiere at the Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas, unusual for a local indie, and was profitable enough to be held over for weeks. “We grossed a good, solid amount, and we thought the chain would have it in more theaters,” he says. “They didn’t. And because we put it in the theaters and sold tickets, we became ineligible for some of the bigger film festivals.” The film is now being used as a recruiting tool for the Boy Scouts of America, which plays a big part in the plot, to show to African-American kids.
For crew, Praheme enlisted his film student buddies from Florida State. “People want Richmond to be a film town for all of the glitz and the glamour,” he says, “and there are people aspiring to make movies, but as a core of just filmmakers, grips, gaffers and lighting technicians, we don’t have that yet. And that is what Richmond is going to have to cultivate.”
Local director Drew Bolduc made the feature Science Team for $16,000, shooting across Richmond for 27 days, armed with a guerrilla-style cast and crew made up of locals and friends from New York. His first film, The Taint, was also made in Richmond, and got the “cool cinema” approval badge in 2011 by being distributed by the influential Troma Entertainment company. He and his producer, Michele Lombardi, are in the planning stages of their next film, an adventure yarn featuring kid actors. They hope to begin principal photography this summer.
“I think what people want to see is a place where the creative ideas are coming from Richmond,” Bolduc says. “To be a real film town, we would need to start the movies and finish them here, even distribute them. Without companies constantly creating work, it’s hard to keep the talent here. It’s not just about the money when an outside film comes in, it’s having long-term goals.”
Jim Stramel also wonders aloud, “Can we call ourselves a film town with an outside production or two coming through every year? Is it enough to support an infrastructure?”
Stramel, who writes and directs independent horror films and also assists in the production of the Saturday Midnight Frights monster movie show on WCVE TV, recently worked as a freelance gaffer for the Fox News show Legends & Lies, which shot in the region. “That production was based in Richmond. So you do have that. Other than that, what do we have? We get a film a year. Turn shot here for two seasons, a big deal, but it seems to be one thing at any given time, not exactly a beehive.”
Working freelance on a mainstream project did give him some perspective: “Production problems don’t just happen to guerrilla filmmakers. We’re all trying to make a dollar look like $20. Things don’t quite mesh all the time. But we all have the same problems, even the larger shoots. They just have a few more decimal points on their problems.”
Stramel’s latest project isn’t just a zombie movie. It’s a zombie epic. “I came up with it as a feature, but it was too big of a project to take on. So we decided to break it down to a five-episode series.” Last year’s Reviled Episode One, on a budget of a modest $4,000 (much of that crowdfunded through an Indiegogo campaign) was filmed in and around Powhatan (he’s currently tightening the script for episode two). “A friend had land and some woods, and we built a zombie pit out there. Thankfully, a lot of the stuff I’ve been interested in doing takes place in rural settings.”
Recent advances in video technology, and the ease of use of new digital cameras and editing software, have made things easier, and cheaper, for indie filmmakers. Even a 16-mm buff like Stramel has moved to shooting on a Canon DSLR digital camera. “I can’t afford film anymore,” he says. “It breaks my heart.” Praheme says he hopes to shoot a future movie on celluloid, but it depends on the budget. “Film has its own aesthetic. Plus I think it’s more challenging. You can’t just shoot something 100 times, you have to be more disciplined.”
“When I first started doing this, VHS tapes were still an accepted form of submission,” says Ellie St. John, director of Richmond’s edition of the international 48 Hour Film Project, which happens every July. “Most were given on MiniDV [tapes from a digital camcorder]. That’s how far we’ve come. Nobody’s turning them in on MiniDV anymore. Technology has come so fast, everybody’s got an iPhone that they can shoot a good picture on, so production values have really gotten a lot better because the technology has gotten better.”
Still, she says, the important things don’t change. “It all comes down to the story. You can’t make a good movie out of a bad script. So technology or no technology, the acting has to be there, the script has to be there.”
Local creators also need equipment, special effects and lighting. While making the short film Hill of the Hapersnoks, Rinny Wilson discovered a practical problem that all area low-budget filmmakers run into. “Renting equipment here is really difficult,” she says. “There are only one or two places where you can actually rent your gear. That would have to change.”
Richmond’s film hub is missing something else, too. It needs a home base. So says James Parrish, formerly with the James River Film Society, and Terry Rea, who once managed the pioneering Biograph Theatre. In recent months, the pair have been holding a series of fundraising screenings at the Byrd Theatre (A Hard Day’s Night, Finding Vivian Maier) with the goal of opening a downtown movie theater, showplace and local film archive called the Bijou Film Center.
“I think it’s been like night and day in the last 10 or 15 years,” Rea says of today’s movie mise-en-scéne. “Richmond’s become a much more sophisticated film market. Thirty years ago, that wasn’t the case.”
Parrish thinks that a project like the planned Bijou will help to bring together the scattershot film community. “Having an independent art house theater is a part of how we can become a real film town. The festivals come annually, but independent movie theaters can be a consistent anchor, like in Austin, stimulating the filmmakers and the scene in a way that festivals can’t.”
Lucas Krost also thinks that, on the filmmaking level, Richmond needs more practical, hands-on workshops and training. “If I want to improve my craft, I don’t really have an ability here to continue my education as a director. I went out to this amazing workshop in L.A., and I had to go way out there to make it happen. We need to develop a directors workshop … a filmmakers improvement workshop.”
There are still missing pieces, he says, but the city’s “innovator spirit” will flesh them out.
“I believe Richmond is the kind of place that, if it doesn’t have something, it creates it. If it sees a need, it builds it,” Krost says. “There are a lot of people here who absolutely love film, and they’re going to make it happen. We are going to be a film town, no matter if Hollywood gives us the nod or not.”
Advice and stories from film-set veterans
In days past, movie extras received the general description of “atmosphere.” They are also referred to, says Richmond-based casting director Anne Chapman, as “background.” When the director calls, “And … background, action!” that sets the extras in motion. Pay for an extra ranges from $80 to $150 a day, which can be 10 hours or more, in all kinds of weather.
Casting by: Anne Chapman
Anne Chapman started casting extras for such films as Uncle Buck and When Harry Met Sally, and moved on to principal casting of speaking and featured performers. She recently worked on Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap and this spring, cast the David Powers film Shooting the Prodigal.
She advises prospective extras to have a recent photograph (these days, a cell phone image is suitable) and know their clothing sizes. They should be good at returning messages, since extras often receive little advance notice of when to appear. It’s also important to be able to find their way to the set, which is often in an obscure location, and show up on time. Period pieces often need specialty extras, that is, those who know how to handle a musket or a spinning wheel.
Chapman counsels that extra work is not a way to break into the film business. “If you are jazzed by watching the process and being on set, it’s great fun. … Actors on film don’t have rehearsal the way theater people do. You’re watching all the sausage get made.”
MultIplicity: John Witt
He’s been Abraham Lincoln’s minister, a Manhattan Project scientist, a judge deciding a case involving Butch Cassidy and an 18th-century townsperson. He’s not a time traveler, but John Witt, a career journalist who retired from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, is a working extra who so far has logged four feature films, five television shows, two radio plays and an audio book.
In Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, he was used in several scenes, including congressional debates. But he also had a physical resemblance to the minister attending to the mortally wounded Lincoln. He stood by the bedside as Daniel Day-Lewis played dead, “I never saw him breathe or his eyes twitch for the hours of this particular shoot,” Witt recalls.
Meanwhile, Sally Field, playing Mary Todd Lincoln, wept. “She cried for hours. She’d kiss [her husband’s] hand and they’d drag her out, again and again.” Witt sent in his headshot and stats for AMC’s Revolutionary War espionage drama Turn to the production office, but didn’t hear from them until he noted he was willing to shave. He appeared in five episodes of the first season. In one, he was a prisoner about to be hanged. “The first guy that they strung up had a harness,” Witt says. “I didn’t. So I was a little worried for a minute.”
That Certain Woman: Vivian Thompson
Vivan Thompson came to Richmond in 2011 to work in mortgage finance, but her life changed last spring when she took part in a short independent film by Adrienne Schurte titled Defanging the Snake. “I got to ride a motorcycle, I was in a fight scene and I was really involved in the project,” she recalls. “I thought then: I love this so much, I want to do this as much as possible.”
While pulling 50 hours a week as an information technology recruiter, she moonlighted in a film called Vampires in Virginia, due for release next year. “I’d be on a shoot until 6 in the morning and have to be at work by 8.” Eventually, she quit her day job and took restaurant server shifts, giving her the freedom to pursue work as an extra in the Sleepy Hollow series in North Carolina and to commute to West Virginia for National Geographic Channel’s American Genius series and AMC’s mini-series Making of the Mob. In National Geographic’s FBI Takedown show, she got a speaking role: “A crazy, screaming person fighting with a cop,” she says. She snagged some camera time in the locally filmed Fox News Legends & Lies series, too. By the time you read this, Thompson will be in Los Angeles, where she’s moving to be closer to the business. “It’s probably the craziest, stupidest thing I’ve ever thought about doing,” she says. Keep watching the credits.
One of the works shown is a science commercial, made for a middle school class
Project Resolution offers filmmakers a venue for feedback and fellowship
It’s a rainy Sunday on West Marshall Street, and a dozen or so people are sitting in Gallery5 watching a movie called Tuber Dance, directed by Rosel Myer.
The three-minute music video, set to a techno beat, shows a bewigged man in a frankfurter bikini dancing inside a small glass box filled with potatoes. In the final moments, he smears himself with mustard and ketchup and folds himself into the box.
It’s an irreverent, dada-esque conclusion to another Project Resolution — part mini-festival, part support group. It’s mostly designed for the city’s indigenous filmmakers, but it’s free and open to all. Creators share new work here in an unfiltered, first-come, first-served basis every third Sunday. Donations are welcome and, it should be said, highly necessary. On this night, the projector appears to be on its last flickers, rendering a somewhat dark hue to the short films.
“Anybody can show anything,” says Drew Bolduc, who is running tech tonight. He began volunteering with Project Resolution a year after it was initiated in 2001. The event has stopped and started a few times — it used to be managed by a company called Yellowhouse, with screenings at the Firehouse Theatre. Now Bolduc, a local director with two acclaimed low-budget features to his credit, helps organize the screenings with his producing partner, Michele Lombardi. “We haven’t tried to turn Project Res into something else,” he says. “People still come, and they make it whatever they want.”
Tonight’s program of short films is an inspired collage of different film styles and sensibilities. Besides the wacky Tuber Dance, we are treated to a strikingly shot live music video featuring singer Nelly Kate that was directed by a group called Good Day RVA; also a retro-cool “Science Today!” commercial made for a middle school class. There’s a fashion documentary that turns into a commentary on fashion documentaries (a runway sequence in a Martin’s supermarket aisle is particularly inspired) and even an attention-grabbing trailer for an upcoming Byrd Theatre screening of VCU student films. After each film, the creator explains the work to the crowd and fields questions and comments, mostly positive and production-based: “You have a great sense of composition.” ... “I love the way you edited to the music.” ... “Did you intersperse Super 8 footage into that?”
“I would take stuff here that I was working on and get feedback,” Bolduc says. His dark sci-fi feature Science Team was released last year, partially funded through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. “There’s something about showing your work to a non-biased audience,” he says. “And the crowd is diverse in a way that film school isn’t. There, you only make what your teachers want you to make. But with Project Res, you have all these different kinds of movies … art movies, comedies, sometimes commercial work.”
The standout of tonight’s Project Resolution is Rinny Wilson’s Hill of the Hapersnoks, a beautifully detailed, 11-minute fantasy film that was shot at Richmond’s Pump House. It took Wilson and her assistant director Andrea Stefl two years to finish the short, which merges live action with whimsical animation. This was only its second public screening.
“For so many years, people didn’t think film could be done here in Richmond, but now everything seems to be happening all at once,” says Wilson, who received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in kinetic imaging from VCU. “A lot of this comes from the Film Office doing such a good job, and having so many small production companies here, and VCU also contributes. As a film town, Atlanta has grown really quickly, too. Richmond could become another Atlanta, I think.” —Don Harrison
They shoot movies, don’t they?
There’s credit, but usually no screen time, for the crews of film and television shows
Movies are collaborative undertakings requiring the talents and skills of many people who don’t appear on the screen. Those are the names that scroll by when the end music plays. Here are a few of the people who’ve made a career in movies while based in Richmond. By Harry Kollatz Jr.
Courtesy Max Fischer
Max Fischer (left) on the move in Varina while filming Ithaca
Man with a Movie Camera: Max Fischer
Max Fischer decided on his career path while still a teen — a bit differently than the protagonist with the same name in the film Rushmore. Growing up in Philadelphia, he attended the William Penn Charter High School and took a film class taught by Randy Granger, a retired U.S. Navy photographer. Granger brought in several old 16-mm cameras for students to run 100-foot rolls of film, about three minutes’ worth, and then physically cut and splice movies together. “This is the coolest thing in the world,” Fischer says, recalling his teenage awe. “I never had any interest in directing or producing. I like working with my hands.”
While living in Washington, D.C., he joined documentary film crews for PBS, Discovery and National Geographic that sent him to Kazakhstan, Nigeria and throughout Europe. “These weren’t vacations, but we got to see places the average tourist doesn’t,” he recalls. Fischer came to Richmond in 1999 for a one-day commercial shoot that turned into a camera assistant job on the feature film The Contender. “I was tired of the D.C. traffic and expense; and I looked around and said, ‘This city is awesome!’ and I packed up the Lincoln and moved here.”
Fischer turned entrepreneur as Virginia’s film incentives attracted more projects and started Gearhead Camera to rent equipment. He’s still filming, though, in large part due to The Martin Agency’s production house. He was also recently a Steadicam operator for Meg Ryan’s Ithaca. “She showed her appreciation every day; she knew everybody’s name, and the producers wouldn’t leave the set without saying goodbye. This doesn’t happen elsewhere. Even Tom Hanks came around and introduced himself: ‘Hi, my name’s Tom.’ ” Fischer chuckles. “That was great.”
Look, too, for Fischer in the camera credits of the PBS Civil War medical drama Mercy Street.
Rita Rutherford (right) and 11th-grader Abigail Wingo read Macbeth during an after-school lesson in Midlothian.
Educating Rita: Rita Rutherford
President Abraham Lincoln sent notes and small gifts to his youngest son while Tad was under the tutelage of Rita Rutherford — Lincoln being the in-character Daniel Day-Lewis, and Tad played by Gulliver McGrath, a pupil in Rutherford’s classroom of 30 kids on the set of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. To handle that many students, “I brought two more teachers with me,” she says.
Rutherford came to Virginia 25 years ago after leading sponsored field trips for schoolchildren from Alabama and Texas. “I moved here because of the power of history,” she says. Since then, she’s taught in public, private and even psychiatric institutions. A few years after moving, she started Educational Consultants Ltd., a tutoring company that also supports home-schooled students. Her introduction to teaching on movie sets came in 2000 with the Anthony Hopkins feature Hearts in Atlantis. With the tutoring company, she’s able to make room in her schedule to become Teacher Rita to young actors like McGrath. “One thing about the movie business; I’m on it like a tick on a dog. If there’s a historical movie filming here, I’m on it.”
She’s variously called an on-set tutor, studio teacher or a welfare worker. Rutherford’s concern is the safety and well-being of child actors. She accompanies parents who are often coming onto a set for the first time with their child actors. “So I prepare them and I help them. I really enjoy that. They are oftentimes kind of lost. I’m like a mother hen with her chicks.”
Rutherford emphasizes that moviemaking for those who keep the machine moving is a work of heart. It can be long hours in less than optimal conditions, and a dedicated team of professionals gets the job done. “You become friends with the families,” Rutherford says. She’s still in contact with people she taught years ago. “I want them to enjoy this experience. It’s educational on so many levels and the chance of a lifetime.”
A Master Builder: Richard Blankenship
His father, Robert Blankenship, built sets for Swift Creek Mill Theatre, and beginning in the fourth grade, young Richard assisted. But he wanted to act, too. He moved to New York City, but even there he was hired to create a set in the Lincoln Center Theater. “I was 20 years old, and I’m thinking, ‘How did this happen?’ ”
After five years of touring as an actor, he returned to Richmond, where he worked on films notorious and famous, both at the then-dormant Jefferson Hotel in the early 1980s. First, there was Louis Malle’s My Dinner With André. The Jefferson’s ballroom became a dining room using set pieces from New York that Blankenship installed. “I’d sit on the main stairs there with Louis Malle and have these long conversations,” he says. “It was incredible.” Then came Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel. “I was paid for a two-week holiday bonus,” he says, “and then the production disappeared,” and entered local lore.
Between prestige projects like the television miniseries The Murder of Mary Phagan and HBO film Iron Jawed Angels, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and the AMC series Turn, he builds sets for theater and opera productions from his workshop near West Broad Street and North Boulevard. His Nixon in China set, built for the Vancouver Opera, has been transported to stages in San Francisco and Stockholm. Not dissimilar to the undertaking of turning the Jefferson’s ballroom into a hotel restaurant, he oversaw the conversion of spaces
inside the Laburnum House on Richmond’s North Side and adjacent facilities into a Civil War-era hospital for the PBS drama Mercy Street, which began shooting in April.
The Driver: Bob Foster
Actor William Petersen had his dialogue coach for The Contender on the phone in the back of the car Bob Foster was driving. “You’re not going to believe this,” Petersen told the coach.
In the 2000 film, Petersen played a Virginia governor favored to become vice president. Foster, a Chester native who had served 19 years as a Chesterfield County police officer, was ferrying Petersen to the Millennium Studios set in Petersburg when Petersen asked him to pull over. “I want to ask you a few questions,” he said. Foster agreed, although they’d just met, and Petersen asked about Foster’s hobbies, such as fishing and fiddling with old cars. Petersen then pulled a cassette tape from his bag for Foster to slide into the player, and Foster’s voice came out of the speakers. Foster hadn’t thought much about his sliding Central Virginia diphthong until that moment. “So, William Petersen was using my voice to get his inflections down.”
Foster’s career in film transportation started in 1990 when a friend who hauled animals for movies suggested he come to Wilson, North Carolina, for the filming of Love Field. Foster became the personal driver for Michelle Pfeiffer. She and Foster got along so well that she asked for him to be her permanent driver when on location. He went on to other locales, films and passengers, including Fred Gwynne in My Cousin Vinny, which shot around Atlanta. Gwynne, known to most as Herman Munster, was “a big, great and very funny guy,” Foster says.
Also during filming of The Contender, a producer asked Foster to procure a Jeep for actor Sam Elliott. When he called to find out what kind, he expected to reach an assistant. Instead, Foster heard Elliott’s unmistakable growl. He didn’t care about a Jeep. “That’s some agent [claptrap]. Bob, tell you what you do. You go get me the oldest, dilapidated truck you can find.” Foster found a truck that was about to be rotated off a rental company’s lot — “and that’s what Sam Elliott got and he couldn’t have been happier.”
Doug Sloan with Zack, who has appeared in the TV shows Sleepy Hollow and Turn: Washington’s Spies
All Creatures Great and Small: Doug Sloan
Doug Sloan started shepherding critters for films in 1981 when, as a Civil War Confederate cavalry reenactor in Kansas City, Missouri, he joined the television series The Blue and the Gray. He made the fortuitous acquaintance of the program’s technical advisor, Ray Herbeck Jr.
Sloan, with his horses and wagons, rode into the Sam Houston biopic Gone to Texas, starring Sam Elliott, and later the film Glory, the Civil War story about an African-American infantry regiment, featuring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington. TNT almost went to Charleston, South Carolina, to film Ironclads, under the assumption that Virginia wasn’t a right-to-work state. Herbeck was an advisor for that film, too, and Sloan told him about the state’s status. Ironclads shot here.
The practical aspects of introducing animals onto sets sometimes conflict with filmmakers’ expectations. For example, regulations forbid the use of indigenous species such as foxes and raccoons and, due to their disease-carrier potential, deer. Rats and mice, when used in films, must have clear paths to prevent their injury. “People look at you like you’re crazy,” Sloan says. During John Adams, a director wanted to place some chickens in a pan in front of a wind machine to blow feathers. Sloan couldn’t allow that. The frustrated director argued that he could take the same chicken home, kill and prepare the bird. “Yes, you could,” Sloan told him. “You just can’t do it on this set.” And during John Adams, too, Sloan stepped in for Paul Giamatti as his double for scenes on horseback.
When we spoke, Sloan was prepping for the PBS Civil War medical drama Mercy Street, and planning to travel to Savannah, Georgia, for The Birth of A Nation about the slave uprising led by Nat Turner in Virginia’s Southampton County.
Afrikana Independent Film Festival
This new ongoing series, with screenings held in various locations, spotlights independent films by and about people of color from around the world.
French Film Festival
827-3456 or frenchfilmfestival.us.
Held in March at the Byrd Theatre in Carytown, this festival features appearances by directors and actors and North American premieres of French films.
Israeli Film Festival
285-6500 or weinsteinjcc.org.
Scheduled for Jan. 7, 9 and 10 in 2016, this event at the Weinstein JCC fosters understanding of Israeli culture and access to Israel’s young film industry through newly released, critically acclaimed films.
James River Film Festival
355-6537 or jamesriverfilm.org.
Held in April at various venues, this is “Virginia’s festival for the independent minded,” featuring short films that embody the art of film.
Reelabilities Film Festival
285-6500 or weinsteinjcc.org.
Organized by the Weinstein JCC and set for March 3, 5 and 6 in 2016, Reelabilities presents award-winning films, accompanied by discussions and other programs that bring together the community to explore, discuss and celebrate the diversity of our shared human experience.
Richmond Diversity Film Festival
This festival highlights stories about people of varying ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, religions, disabilities and socioeconomic status. After a debut this past April at Movieland’s Criterion Cinemas, organizers hope to bring it back in the fall of 2016.
Richmond International Film Festival
More than 100 international films, industry panels, Q&A sessions, live musical performances, red carpet awards, and more make up this event, which returns in March 2016.
RVA Environmental Film Festival
Held in February at multiple venues, this festival showcases local and national films raising awareness of environmental issues.