By BEN DOBBIN
Lights, camera, action: movies come back to Illinois
Early in this century Chicago was the film capital of the world. But by the 1920s it was replaced by Hollywood with its sunny environs. Although Chicago will never regain its place as the center of the film world, recent years have witnessed a return of the cameras, crews and casts to the Windy City and to other Illinois locations. This return is largely due to the efforts of the Illinois Film Office and its most able director, Lucy Salenger. Filmmakers are beginning to sing the praises of this small, dedicated staff (a unit of the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs), and they're backing up their words by bringing their productions and their dollars and jobs back to Illinois
JUST one week after being released from a state reformatory in St. Charles, 17-year-old Kevin Springs landed a major role in a movie being filmed in Illinois. He had just served 14 months for "doing everything negative in the books," and now, suddenly, he was going to be in pictures.
Talent agents from Hollywood in search of hardy young actors for Bad Boys, a story of teenage crime and punishment in the American city, had arrived in the Midwest on a reconnaissance trip in late spring, 1982. With the help of the Illinois Film Office they discovered St. Charles to be a natural place to find the numerous street-wise kids they needed as extras. Among the select roles was 'Roberts,' the character that Springs portrays in Bad Boys.
"Roberts is an instigator who likes to start a lot of commotion," said Evanston-born Springs. "He doesn't say much, but when you see him, you know something is not right."
Unable to relate to other people, Roberts often resorts to violence as a means of gaining recognition. Kevin admits that, in some ways, he probably once resembled the brooding, fractious character in real life. But his prison term had changed him. Now, Robertts is a creation that haunts him only on stage. "I've seen people take their characters offstage and it's really frightening. . . ."
During filming from late May to mid-August his first 11 weeks on the outside Kevin earned $1,200 a week, was signed to a Hollywood agent and enrolled at a communications college in Chicago. "I'm just totally thrilled with life," he acknowledged recently. "I'm committing myself totally to acting."
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Although Springs has never even met her, Lucy Salenger, managing director of the Illinois Film Office, deserves no small credit for his good fortune and for some welcome contributions to the Illinois economy. She spends her time luring motion picture and TV film productions to Illinois, urging Hollywood to spend its millions on location here, rather than in Kentucky, Ohio or New York City. In its 12-week sojourn in northern Illinois, Bad Boys dropped nearly $3 million on everything from fledgling actors and hotel rooms, to cameras, lumber and gin-and-tonics.
"My job is economic development," said Salenger, almost sternly, from her small, partitioned, plant-filled corner in the Michigan Avenue office of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs in Chicago. "My job is to get that picture to shoot here and spend its $3 million here rather than have it shoot in Michigan. My job is to bring dollars in and create jobs."
By running what one respected Hollywood producer has called "the best film office in the United States," Salenger produces on both counts. In 1982, 19 movies were wholly or partially shot here, generating some $15 million for the state economy, or almost 70 times the office's 1982 budget. In addition, Salenger believes she has created about 40,000 jobs since her appointment in 1976, which gives her "probably the best satisfaction of all." The benefactors are not just actors. They come from all quarters, and many of them have been serving the screen industry for years.
Victor Duncan Inc., for example, has provided incoming film crews with camera, lighting and audio equipment almost exclusively over the last 12 months. "What makes this year different is that most shows have been back-to-back," says Robert Coleman, the store's general manager in Chicago. "It has dawned on producers in the last three, four years that the ideal way to save money is to use all local people . . . the state's talents, services, locations. They're trying to finish a film all in one state."
Bill Hoffmann, owner of Hoffmann Enterprises, rents animals to film makers. In the last six years, he has rented out exotics like a Brahman bull and a cinnamon ring-tailed monkey, and the demand for farm animals seems never-ending. "I think it's wonderful, and not only because I'm in it," he shouts, covering his ear to block out a backdrop of chicken squawks in his Chicago warehouse. "I'm very happy to have these film industries come and benefit our economy."
For stage building, Rubenstein Lumber Company in Chicago periodically provides the bulk of the raw materials. The company delivered truckloads of timber worth thousands of dollars to the Bad Boys set at the Naval Armory on Chicago's lakefront, where local teamsters helped build a prison cell block reminiscent of the Old State Prison in Joliet in the mid-1950s.
The order was big even by Rubenstein's standards, especially at a time when credit is tight in the construction industry. "Right now, we're happy to get any order," remarked credit manager Walter Goralczyk. "As long as it's not costing the taxpayers. . . .They [the movie company] paid 7 percent tax for it."
Earlier in the year, Bad Boys director Bob Solo would have been willing to pay even more if he could only find an interior for the film's "reform school" scenes. It was a challenge for
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Salenger's team. "We looked everywhere, 30 to 40 places," said deputy director Susan Kellett, one of Salenger's four assistants. "Abandoned buildings, old auto dealerships, warehouses, gymnasiums, armories, closed-down schools. We did a lot of work." In the end, Bad Boys settled for the soon-to-close Naval Armory, which proved a suitable interior for both sound and space. The production team was pleased. "The film office knocks itself out to give you a welcome," said Solo, producer of The Awakening Land and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Salenger was seldom seen at the Bad Boys set during the summer. She was too busy preparing the way for other movies, a process that can often take six months or more.
It was proving to be a good year, possibly the best yet for the film office. The 1982 movies, most of them shot in Chicago, included: Dr. Detroit, with Dan Ackroyd; Cheech & Chong's Things are Tough All Over, Change of Heart, a TV film starring Kate Jackson; All the Sad Young Men, directed by Armyan Bernstein; Wild Oats, a romantic love story starring Cliff Robertson and Jacqueline Bisset; and The Apprentice, a small, independent movie being made at the old Shimer College in Mount Carroll.
In 1982, as in other years, Salenger began her year with a couple of trips to Los Angeles. "I knock on doors like a Fuller Brush salesman, seeing producers and directors and production managers anybody in the industry who has a script that might possibly be shot in Illinois."
Back at headquarters, she consults with her staff, breaking down the scripts for possible locations. Photographs are taken and mailed out and, in many cases, a Hollywood director gets his first view of Nauvoo, Pinckneyville or even Joliet. If he likes a particular setting, he sends a scouting team for a closer look.
"The worst thing you can do is get these people here on a false basis," said Salenger. "It's not going to do us any good if a director says he's looking for country that looks like Colorado and I say, 'Well, we've got some pretty high hills in southern Illinois.'"
Nevertheless, the state's landscape is varied enough to create small-scale illusions. When In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier, was made in the mid-1960s, the film's producers balked at taking the black actor into the Carolinas (the novel's original setting) for fear of a civil disturbance. A Chicago cameraman persuaded the film crew to shoot the scenes in Sparta "a little town in the southern part of Illinois which has a look of the deep South," said Salenger, who could moonlight as a state cartographer.
Similarly, while Conrad Richter's Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy, The Awakening Land, was a story of a pioneer family building a town in the Ohio River Valley, it was actually filmed in the Springfield area. The region, Salenger explained, "is surrounded by all these towns that have this typical Midwestern look."
Even Joliet could be made to look like somewhere else. "Joliet's got a lot of texture," according to Salenger. "I'm not talking about the new Joliet, the new mall. They can find a mall anyplace in the country, right? But you can't find buildings that are two- and three-story, built in the early 1900s, and have those big standing bridges behind them, and that canal that runs all the way. That all adds to the look of a picture." The Hunter, the late Steve McQueen's final movie, was partially filmed in Joliet in 1979.
Galena, with its New England-style houses dating from the 1840s and 1850s, is another favorite of Salenger's. A portion of Pennies from Heaven was shot there, but filming, unfortunately, was kept to a minimum when the production team's budget was cut.
Chicago, with its varieties of looks and services, is the "major draw," while downstate Illinois is "a harder sell because people don't know about its beauty," said Salenger. However, the film office makes a special effort to whisk procrastinating producers downstate, often going to the trouble of hiring state helicopters for their convenience. Film location scouts, ploughing through the Midwest in search of a Midwestern setting, do not sit in airport hotel rooms chewing cigars and waiting for either a connecting flight to Peoria office's panoramic slide show. "They're scouting four or five states and they're doing it very quickly," Salenger said.
While Salenger's major job is to accommodate filmmakers, she is not afraid to voice her opinions or vent her feelings. Although she works unusual hours, she does not enjoy getting emergency late-night calls from De Kalb police "because a film crew hasn't let us know they want to close off a stretch of road somewhere in the county. They're under enormous pressure, I understand that," she admitted. "They're working with millions of dollars and a lot of creative egos are involved. They may get demanding and short-tempered. I understand that, but I'll only take it for so long and then I'll have to say something. I am not averse about giving my opinion quite freely, not about the script, but a scene that might work for them, whatever. I think they appreciate that."
Salenger's reputation hinges on slavish attention to detail. It can mean having to book hotel rooms in Chicago during a convention week, getting permits for a scene in a city's downtown during rush hour, allowing a film crew into "someone's beautiful old building," amassing files on casting services, around-the-clock doctors, tutors and an endless list of imponderables. "People think, you know, it's the most glamorous job in the world," she said. And then smiled.
The 41-year-old Salenger was born in St. Louis and lived her first 30 years in southern California. After receiving a degree in political science at UCLA, she tried modeling and acting and later made her way up to field producer with CBS-TV's 60 Minutes. In 1972, she came to Chicago to get married and worked a number of years for Channel 7, producing weekly documentaries. When the film office was created in 1975 at the suggestion of Tom Alderman, Gov. Dan Walker's director of communications, Salenger applied. A 24-year-old political appointee got the
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job but lasted only four months before Salenger took over.
Those early years were lean. The film office, working with a $60,000 budget, lost The Domino Principle because the warden at Statesville penitentiary wouldn't allow filming inside the prison. And Silver Streak, a Gene Wilder comedy set on a train between Los Angeles and Chicago, went elsewhere because the railroads wouldn't cooperate.
But with her exactitude and perseverance, Salenger was to bring some well-publicized movie productions to Illinois in the late 1970s. They included Robert Altman's A Wedding, shot at Lake Bluff and Oak Park; Damien Omen II, with William Holden and Lee Grant; The Fury, filmed partly at Chicago's Graceland Cemetary; and Ordinary People, directed by Robert Redford.
The Blues Brothers (1980), a $6 million production, signaled a break-through for Chicago as a center for urban films alongside New York City and Los Angeles. When producer Robert K. Weiss returned to the city in 1982 to film Dr. Detroit, he noticed a transformation.
"The whole industry in Chicago has risen to a larger and higher level, mostly due to Blues Brothers," he said, leaving modesty aside. "The film office now has technical people, local stuntmen, actors, the whole set-up. Without the film office, there would not be any central source, any organization that would stimulate the interest."
Robert Solo brought the Bad Boys operation to Illinois because of the reputation of Salenger's office. "They're noted for being extremely aggressive, tremendously energetic and progressive and encouraging."
Tony Bill, who directed My Bodyguard and produced part of The Sting in Chicago, is even more enthusiastic. "They're the best film office in the United States. That's just my experience. The most helpful, the most aggressive, the most well-equipped. Every movie has its demands. I had more cooperation there than I did anyplace." Bill, a talented actor who also produced Steelyard Blues, found unions in Illinois to be saviors compared to their Boston and New York City counterparts.
"It's my feeling," Salenger surmised, "that we haven't had this kind of work for so many years that when we finally were able to start bringing it in, the unions wanted to keep the work rolling and have been extremely flexible in making their deals. The reputation for our teamsters around the country is terrific. That's an important facet of working here."
Solo and Weiss are agreed that the absence of a large, modern soundstage is a major drawback in attracting filmmakers to Illinois. When the Ordinary People team
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came to Lake Forest in 1979, Salenger covered 40 miles before finding a suitable facility an abandoned laundry at the Fort Sheridan Army Base.
Nonetheless, Bill has only praise. "This office is responsible for more business than any [film] office in the country that I can think of. The [Illinois] state government should pay a lot of attention to it."
In the 1980s, the film office's annual budget has crept over the $200,000 mark, which still places it in "the middle or lower end" on a national scale, said Salenger. The Florida and Texas film commissions both received more than $350,000 in 1982, she noted.
The office faces stiff competition for $111 million in general revenue funds from a half-dozen other programs, said Mike Woelffer, deputy director for economic development in the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs. The programs include advertising campaigns to attract international business, assistance for minority-owned businesses and a broad category covering commercial and economic development. "Every one of the programs generates tremendous return," Woelffer said. And Salenger is reluctant to complain. "The difficulty is that we're competing with all the other agencies that need dollars, for Children and Family Services, for prisons. I mean, you can't compare the two the film office and the dollars a prison needs. You know what I mean?"
While Woelffer acknowledged that the film office "compares favorably" with other investment programs, he also said that it cannot be singled out for funds. All the investments are reviewed by the Illinois legislature as one unit, Economic Development. "They usually don't look at one little piece," he explained. "They can't look at it that way. It's hard to compare the money a movie company comes in and spends. They may spend $1 million, but it's a short-term gain. It's nice, but it's spent only once in the state. In international business, we might spend $5 million to do a trade show," he said, noting returns like new factories and permanent jobs. "I think the priority has to be on creating long-term employment for the state of Illinois."
On the other hand, Woelffer acknowledged that movies help promote the state in indirect ways, providing "a tremendous amount of visibility for the state, promoting it without having to pay for it."
Salenger has found Gov. James Thompson and legislators to be "extremely supportive" of the film office. She knows only too well that it cannot be singled out for special attention. "There's never a line that says 'Illinois Film Office' that a legislator can vote on. That's been a real difficulty."
But Salenger is optimistic. "I think we are moving toward making this a center for production, and the word in the industry in L.A. about shooting here is real good." And if the views of Robert Solo and Tony Bill are anything to go by, Salenger is putting it much too mildly.
There was a time, in the early years of the century, when Chicago was the film capital of the world. Hollywood's milder climate provided better natural light, and the industry migrated west, where it has become part of the culture and the landscape.
Chicago will, of course, never regain the primacy it acquired in the 1920s. But if Lucy Salenger has her way, Chicago could help lead the way in diversifying the film industry, with Illinois becoming the cinematic production center of the Midwest.□
Ben Dobbin, 25, a native of Dublin, Rep. of Ireland, came to the U.S. in August 1980 to study journalism. He is currently a reporter for City News Bureau of Chicago.
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