Backlot: Made in Utah

 Chuck Zlotnick

In September, after enduring months of rejections from Hollywood studios obsessed with high-concept blockbusters, director Lawrence Kasdan had finally secured $5 million from Minneapolis-based independent finance company Werc Werk Works to shoot Darling Companion, an intimate dramedy about a pair of empty nesters (Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline) whose lives are thrown into turmoil when the husband loses his wife’s beloved rescue dog in the mountains.

The cast and crew had agreed to “work for nothing,” Kasdan says, but that wasn’t enough. For the miniscule budget to be feasible, he needed to find a location that offered a generous incentive, and he needed to do it quickly so he could shoot in October before the snows came.

Kasdan and his wife/co-writer Meg Kasdan had envisioned shooting their script in Colorado, where, like the film’s protagonists, they have a vacation home (in Telluride), but that state had only a 10 percent cash rebate. He had shot his previous film, 2003’s Dreamcatcher, in Vancouver, which had the appropriate mountain topography, but the increasing value of the Canadian dollar in recent years has diminished the location’s fiscal allure. So he did a scout of Utah, which offered a 20 percent cash rebate or tax credit.

“Utah turned out to be a perfect stand-in,” Kasdan says. “I had driven through Utah a lot on my way to Colorado, but I had not seen the full range of landscapes available there, and it is magnificent. The crew base is quite deep in Salt Lake City, and Park City (where the bulk of the film was shot) is within commuting distance of Salt Lake, so you can have crew go home at night and still be back in a very remote location the next morning. That had a big impact on us because it meant that we weren’t going to have to bring in a lot of people, and that’s an enormous savings on per diems.”

Darling Companion is part of a wave of productions — along with Fox Searchlight’s 127 Hours, Disney’s big-budget John Carter of Mars (due in 2012) and smaller independent features like Guns, Girls and Gambling, starring Christian Slater and Gary Oldman — that have flooded into Utah since the incentive was upped to 20 percent in July 2009.

It’s unlikely John Carter would have been filmed there if the incentive’s $500,000-per-project cap hadn’t been removed by the state Legislature when it upped the incentive, enabling the production to get a full 20 percent back on the estimated $27.7 million spent in Utah during its 120-day shoot during the spring.

“The cap was the killer,” says Marshall Moore, director of the Utah Film Commission. “As soon as you mentioned the word ‘cap,’ people looked elsewhere.”

Even with its improved incentive, Utah still faces stiff competition from states including neighboring New Mexico, which offers a 25 percent rebate with no cap, and Michigan, where filmmakers can get as much as 42 percent of their budget back in tax credits.

But what Utah lacks in incentives it makes up for in spectacular, unique locations, such as the gravity-defying rock formations of Arches National Park, seen in Thelma & Louise; Monument Valley, famously used by director John Ford in such Westerns as Stagecoach and The Searchers; and the Bonneville Salt Flats, which have been featured prominently in Independence Day, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and The World’s Fastest Indian, as well as countless car commercials.

These iconic locations are part of the more than 70 percent of Utah that is owned by the state or federal government, and to shoot there, filmmakers must wade through a maze of applications and restrictions.

“It’s very strict, and rightly so,” says Danny Boyle, who spent three weeks in the mountains and canyons of southeastern Utah in March to shoot the exteriors for 127 Hours. “The Bureau of Land Management sends people along a couple of days after you’ve left to see if you have left any trace, and if you have, they’ll withdraw their support.”

More than anything, the production community needs the support of the Utah Legislature, which will vote on a bill by Rep. Greg Hughes to raise the rebate to 30 percent and extend the incentive for five years past its sunset date of June 30, 2011.

Moore says the short time limit on the current incentive kept Utah from landing a TV series, because, given the potential for a multiseason run, “no network or studio wants to greenlight a series for a state with an incentive that cuts off after two years.”

It’s important to Utah’s viability as a production center, because the state’s long history of TV production — from the Osmond siblings’ Donny & Marie (1976-79), which shot its final season on a family-owned studio complex in Orem (now a drug rehab facility), to Touched by an Angel (1994-2003) — is what has built and maintained its strong crew base, Moore says.

Utah hasn’t hosted a TV series since Everwood ended its four-season run in 2006, but it has managed to hold on to most of the show’s crew, according to its star Treat Williams, who lives in Park City. He knows of some crew who have moved to states with richer incentives like Louisiana (which offers a 30 percent tax credit), but he was happy to encounter some of his former co-workers when he shot a small part as James Franco’s father in 127 Hours.

“Both of the hairdressers and my makeup artists were there, along with eight or nine guys on the crew,” Williams says. Later, when he dropped by the Darling Companion set to visit old friend Kevin Kline, he saw one of his hairdressers again, “and I got a haircut,” he says with a laugh.

INCENTIVES AT A GLANCE

  • 20% cash rebate or tax credit on in-state spend with a minimum budget of $1 million.
  • Sales- and use-tax exemption for machinery and equipment.
  • Transient room tax exemption on stays 30 consecutive days or longer.
  • Low-budget program, offering 15% cash rebate on in-state spend. Must have minimum budget of $500,000, with $200,000 spent in Utah and 90% of the crew Utah residents or attending school in the state. Cap is $30,000 per project.
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