On The Set
Oregon's film and television industry contemplates a post-Kesey breakout
October 1 2011By Lucy Burningham
A Brief History of Oregon Film
Well before then-Governor Ted Kulongoski initiated the state’s film incentive program in 2005, Oregon had been playing host to filmmakers for nearly a century. The state’s first film, The Fisherman’s Bride, was shot in 1908 in Astoria, a town with a winning combination of salt, grit, historic buildings and easy access to seascapes. As one of the most prominent filming locations in Oregon, Astoria has received plenty of monetary infusions from the film industry, a fact that’s celebrated at the town’s new Oregon Film Museum.
The museum opened last year, just in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the filming of The Goonies. The event drew about 5,000 visitors to a town with a population of 10,000. “A number of local businesses talked about how they paid their rent in one day,” says Mac Burns, executive director of Clatsop County Historical Society, which operates the film museum.
The 1985 film about some kids’ adventure inspired by a pirate treasure map made ripples well beyond last year’s weekend-long celebration.“Goonies has had a long-term impact unlike any other Oregon film,” says Porter. “They don’t have an Animal House convention in Eugene.”
The Goonies isn’t the only quintessential Oregon film, says Katherine Wilson, a sixth-generation Oregonian who got her start in the film industry in the late '60s in Eugene. Wilson started modeling and acting locally, which led her to Hollywood director Mark Rydell. Rydell introduced her to other Hollywood directors and producers in need of talent. “Back then, talent agencies in L.A. had beautiful, exotic people,” she says. “Mine were everyday people off the street.” Soon after successfully casting a few films, she found herself scouting Oregon locations for an Evel Knievel film.
The production manager of that film, Peter McGregor-Scott, called her six months later in search of a location for the movie Animal House. “I said, ‘Boy, did you come to the right place. This is the home of the Merry Pranksters,’” Wilson recalls, invoking the band of LSD marauders led by Eugene's Ken Kesey. “Before I knew it, we were trying to find twenty-seven locations in four hours and ship a reel to L.A.” During her singular living experiment in L.A., in the summer of 1973, Wilson attempted to cash in on a scholarship to study film at the University of Southern California but says she quickly realized she did not possess many “urban coping skills.” She soon returned to Oregon. That one summer in Hollywood, though, produced an idea. “Filmmakers wanted to go on location,” she recalls. “They didn’t want to make films in Hollywood. I decided we could make Oregon Hollywood’s back lot.”
Eventually she worked as the governor’s liaison to the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was filmed in Salem and Depoe Bay, and ten years later, as the location scout and casting director for Stand by Me. Since 1969, she and her husband, Philip Krysl, have worked on a combined fifty films in Oregon.
“It’s not been an easy career until recently,” she says. “You never knew when your next film would break in Oregon.” But she says she senses a new momentum this year. “I feel that the film industry has finally arrived. People don’t think you’re crazy anymore if you think Oregon can have a film industry.”
In addition to her work in scouting and casting, Wilson writes screenplays. She’s currently shopping a finished screenplay about Chief Joseph’s nephew, Jackson Sundown. She passed on two offers for financing, which would have taken the film to either Michigan or Canada. “I’m holding out,” she says. “I know my film will get made in Oregon and will pay living wages to everybody involved.”
Those living wages could provide work to a healthy population of Portland’s film industry—largely independent filmmakers willing to move to more mainstream projects. These filmmakers, a subset of the city’s creative class, have largely helped define Oregon’s reputation as a filming destination.
For many, including Portland-based writer Jon Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplays for Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, the film industry came to them.
As a fiction writer, Raymond says he never planned to go into the film industry. But he met director Todd Haynes when he moved to Portland, which led him to Kelly Reichardt, the director of Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. “My opportunities in Oregon have boiled down to those two people,” he explains. Raymond’s latest collaboration with Haynes—an HBO series starring Kate Winslet called “Mildred Pierce”—will air this fall.
Raymond calls himself a “Portland booster” and doesn’t plan to live anywhere else despite the challenges. “The state has a patron relationship with the larger world economy," he says, "which is partly what makes it a pleasant place to live.”
By living outside of New York and L.A., Raymond says he’s able to work on personally meaningful projects and averts what he calls the patchwork approach of being “sucked into the garbage economy.” “To do something here, you have to be more self-directed,” Raymond says. “There’s less temptation to do things you don’t care about.”
That attitude could help define Oregon as a different kind of filming destination. In the meantime, says Vavra, “It’s a lot of competition for scraps. But that is how you cut your teeth and make it. If you want it bad enough, you stick with it long enough and do it right.”