In the colorful landscape of Oregon’s film industry, a place connected with such names as Gus Van Sant and Carrie Brownstein, Martin Vavra struggles for recognition. Portland-based Vavra does film and video production through his company, Galaxy Sailor Productions, which came to life after the 40-year-old lost his middle school science teaching job in 2008.
From the outside, Vavra’s new gig appears successful. His website is posted with accomplishments. He has directed, edited and shot short films, produced commercials and shot music videos. He directed Patrick’s Story, a short documentary film about one man struggling for same-sex couples’ rights that won Best Short Documentary at the 2011 Breckenridge Film Festival. In some circles, Vavra is best known for writing, directing and producing “The Last Stand,” an online post-apocalyptic zombie series knotted with suspense and oozing with blood—a project he calls, “a whim that went further than I imagined.” Still creating ripples in the small pond of Oregon’s film industry has its perks, he admits. “I’m not part of an assembly line,” he says. “I learn at my own rate.”
Even though paying projects are hard fought in a state known more for logging and salmon, the fledgling film and TV industry that began on sets graced by Ken Kesey adaptations and Jack Nicholson performances is expected to jump to a $110 million enterprise by the end of this year with hundreds of locals on its payroll.
The same week Vavra struggles for compensation and recognition also happens to be one of the busiest for Oregon’s film industry. The dry season has flooded Portland’s streets with closures, directors yelling, “Quiet on the set!” car explosions and cop chases. This is the location of three television series that are being shot in Portland simultaneously: TNT’s Boston cop drama “Leverage,” IFC’s comedy skit series “Portlandia” and the first season of NBC’s “Grimm,” a cop drama dusted with elements of thriller fantasy inspired by Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
“We’ve had an overwhelming amount of interest in filming here this year,” says Vince Porter, executive director of the Oregon Governor’s Office of Film and Television, a group of industry insiders who serve as a marketing agency to bring film and television projects to the state.
The flurry of action in Portland represents good news for Oregon’s film industry, Porter explains. In 2009, film and television work brought in $62 million. Porter says his office expects 2011 will bring in $110 million to the state. He attributes the financial boost not only to the three television series being filmed in Portland, but ongoing work for more than 300 animators at the Hillsboro animation studio Laika on a feature film called ParaNorman.
The Office of Film and Television, a semi-independent state agency funded primarily by the state lottery, works hard to raise the state’s profile with Hollywood. An influential incentive system pits state against state when it comes to garnering film projects. Out of the forty states that offer film incentives, Oregon’s incentives rank in the lower third in terms of how much money the state ultimately offers to film producers, Porter says. “Despite that, we have other advantages that, once we engage in conversation, we’re getting our fair share of work,” he says.
Of course, there’s only one location in America that gets any kind of film work without incentives—Las Vegas, Porter notes. “If you’re going to make the movie The Hangover, there’s really only one place you’ll go,” he says. While Oregon may not a have Bellagio or a Strip, it is a short flight to L.A., has a deep pool of talented creatives eager for work and has a high quality of life. These factors, combined with incentives, have lured some major studio-backed films to the state in recent years, including Twilight and Extraordinary Measures.
During this year’s legislative session—a period of significant budget cuts for many state agencies—the Film and Television Office’s annual budget was cut 20 percent to $6 million from $7.5 million. “We’ve turned away at least three feature films, and probably another television series, because we’ve maxed out our incentives,” Porter says. “The demand is far beyond our supply.”
Critics of the system aren’t lamenting the loss. They argue that Oregon’s incentives are flawed—that film projects might still materialize without financial perks. They add that the incentives don’t create longterm economic infrastructure thanks to the temporary nature of film work. Porter counters that repeated projects, in particular, television series, create living wage jobs with benefits and long-term opportunities for career advancement for everyone from grips to actors.
David Cress, the general producer for “Portlandia,” says the show’s star, Carrie Brownstein, who lives in Portland and previously shot a film and music videos here, helped steer the decision to shoot locally as opposed to creating a faux Portland in, say, Vancouver, B.C.
“Carrie’s reassurance and proof of her prior video work proved that there was a competent crew base here,” he says. “Portland’s known to have a fairly active film community. Even some cities that are bigger don’t quite have the same film base.”
While Cress can’t reveal the budget for the IFC production, he says the show employs between forty and seventy-five cast and crew members, depending on the day, during filming.
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.”
Questions for Fred Armisen – IFC’s “Portlandia”
In what way has “Portlandia” changed your life? ARMISEN It’s brought me closer to the city of Portland. Closer to my friends here. It’s helped me with writing, too.
People say Portland is a lot like New York, just a lot smaller, a lot cleaner, a lot greener and a lot different. How do you respond to that? ARMISEN I could see that. It’s like parts of Brooklyn, too.
Do you own a bike? What kind? ARMISEN I don’t.
What else in Portland would be improved with a bird? ARMISEN The traffic lights. There should be bird
silhouettes in those I think.
Can you give us some insight into the second season? Who dies? ARMISEN Nobody ever dies. There will be many births. In fact it will be all births.
Questions for Sasha Roiz – NBC’s “Grimm”
What were your impressions of shooting in Portland? ROIZ At that time, wet. Currently, perfection.
Did you have any preconceptions of what Portlanders would be like? ROIZ Hipster, granola? Although I wasn’t that far from the truth. I have met many other subcultures and wonderful people. One thing that they all share in common is that they are very gracious and hospitable.
How does shooting in Portland compare to L.A. or Toronto? ROIZ It’s refreshing to be in a city that hasn’t “been there, done that” in regards to the entertainment industry. People still get excited about us being here, and that in turn makes us excited to be here.
Do you have favorite hangouts in Portland? ROIZ Every place that serves food is my favorite place. Clearly, too many to mention. This city is disturbingly delicious.
Notable Writers in Oregon
Todd Haynes | writer/director | Far from Heaven and I’m Not There
Jon Raymond | screenwriter | Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff
Mike Rich | screenwriter | Finding Forrester and Secretariat
Gus Van Sant | director of Good Will Hunting, Milk and Elephant | Wrote My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy | Nominated for two Oscars
Todd Semmes | visual effects | creator of Spydercam, a suspended camera system used in Spiderman 1-3 and Mission Impossible 1-3.
Will Vinton | developer of Claymation and stop-motion animation | created the California Raisins and The Noid
Notable Actors in Oregon
Scott Coffey Actor/writer with appearances in Tank Girl, Mullholland Drive and Ellie Parker
Rainn Wilson Dwight Schrute on the television series “The Office,” has a house in Sisters
William Hurt Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Big Chill, Syriana, The Good Shepherd, Too Big to Fail, has a house in Central Oregon
Patrick Duffy “Man from Atlantis,” “Dallas,” lives near Eagle Point, Oregon
Ty Burrell “Modern Family,” born in Grants Pass and raised in the Applegate Valley
Kim Novak Picnic, Vertigo, The Man with the Golden Arm, lives in Eagle Point, Oregon
Ginger Rogers 42nd Street, “Gold Diggers of 1933,” “Kitty Foyle”, owned a ranch outside of Shady Cove, Oregon