Filming in the Land of Gus Van Sant
"Portlandia," "Grimm" and "Leverage" are the latest Hollywood productions to set up shop in cloudy but cool Portland, Ore.
In the pilot of IFC's sketch comedy series Portlandia, Fred Armisen delivered a line to co-star Carrie Brownstein that has become the catchphrase of his homage to Oregon's biggest city: "Portland is a city where young people go to retire."
If you've visited Oregon's urban utopia -- where choosing which espresso or microbrew to consume is a local's toughest daily dilemma -- then you've experienced the city's slow-roasted vibe firsthand. Portland really is an alternate universe, and now, it's where legions of television creatives have set up shop. Along with Portlandia, which debuts its second season Jan. 6, there's NBC's horror/fairy-tale crime procedural Grimm, which premieres Oct. 28, and TNT's heist-action series Leverage, starring Timothy Hutton, also shooting full time in Portland. The biggest Emmy nomination magnet in 2011, the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, was created by Portlanders: Director Todd Haynes and co-writer Jon Raymond call the city home.
"A lot of people might not know that Portland has a big industry, with TV, commercials and independent film -- Gus Van Sant and all," says Portlandia director Jonathan Krisel of the Oscar-nominated helmer (Good Will Hunting) and longtime Portlander who put the Rose City on the production map with his 1989 breakout film Drugstore Cowboy. "There's a pool of highly trained locals. You don't have to ship in all the L.A. people."
Movies have been coming to Oregon since Buster Keaton crashed a train into a Cottage Grove river for his 1926 film The General. But TV production is a recent phenomenon. Except for UPN's little-seen 1990s drama Nowhere Man, the state had barely registered on the radar of big-time TV types.
Most of the credit for Portland's TV boom can be traced to Leverage executive producer Dean Devlin. The veteran film producer (Independence Day) moved the series' headquarters from L.A. to Portland in 2009 after an impassioned pitch from then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who touted Oregon's incentive programs and implored Devlin not to set up shop in Vancouver, British Columbia. In Oregon, he said, qualifying productions get a 20 percent cash rebate on goods and services purchased from local vendors, a 10 percent wage rebate and, for those spending more than $1 million, a 6.2 percent cash rebate on local payroll. The total effective payroll rebate is 16.2 percent. Devlin took the deal.
"We've saved about $8 million to $10 million a year by being there," he says. "Before we went to Oregon, only $6 million to $10 million was spent annually on film production; in 2010, it was $100 million. We now have 471 full-time employees, and another 417 businesses get weekly checks from us. We've spent a half-million dollars on extras. In total, we've spent over $90 million in the state."
Former Showtime executive Vince Porter, who became executive director of the Oregon Governor's Office of Film & Television in 2008, says 2011 is poised to be the biggest year to date for film and TV production in the state. "Leverage's leap of faith proved it was possible to do a television series in Oregon, and they've reaped the rewards ever since," says Porter. "We expect over $110 million this year, which is a record for us."
Plenty of states have incentive programs, but Devlin says Oregon's was refreshingly distinct. "With some states, you can't collect the incentives money for three to four years, so you have to take giant loans," he says. "And some of them have incredibly difficult tax schemes. The way Oregon has set up its program is very clean. There aren't any weird accounting tricks."
Incentives aside, Portland boasts a wealth of diverse locations and weather. "Parts of Portland look like England," says Armisen -- who, of course, just wants his show to look like Portland. But Devlin thrives on the city's mix of old and new architecture. "Leverage is meant to be based in Boston," he says. "But in one episode we're in New York, then another in Chicago, Florida and Eastern Europe. We find these locations within a few city blocks of each other. There are cobblestone streets we've used to stand in for Kiev."
The creators of Grimm caught on and decided to set their horror drama in Portland. In the pilot, there's a murder investigation stretching from hippie-dippy Reed College to a dense forest in Laurelhurst Park. "The options are great," says Grimm executive producer David Greenwalt. "Multnomah Falls, [the upscale] Pearl District. And we're shooting a cool rave scene by the waterfront downtown."
Even more important is the city's iconic -- and nearly year-round -- slate-gray cloud cover, which Greenwalt equates to "having a big silk over everything. It gives you that can't-quite-tell-the-time-of-day feeling," he says. Adds another of Grimm's exec producers, Jim Kouf: "It's misty and brooding, which is what our show needs. We love shooting in L.A., but are you going to fake Griffith Park for all these places?" Portland's hey-man neighborly vibe also has been a refreshing change. "Sometimes people bring out coffee late at night when we're shooting in their neighborhood," marvels Greenwalt.
A formidable showmaking infrastructure is springing up in Portland that has below-the-line creatives excited, too. Bent Image Lab -- which has done visual effects for Grimm, Portlandia, three Van Sant films, one Haynes movie and stop-motion animation for the Hallmark holiday special Jingle All the Way -- has grown its workforce at an annual rate of 30 percent since 2002.
"There are amazing behind-the-scenes technicians in Portland who didn't want to raise their families in L.A.," says Devlin. "We had an Oscar-winning makeup artist on our show, and my gaffer crew had done three feature films for me before. I had no idea they were living up there!"
Another unexpected boon to shooting in Oregon is native acting talent. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, based in Ashland, has spawned such actors as William Hurt (he quit the fest in 1976 when directors forced him to wear a gorilla suit in Comedy of Errors), who returned in October for his third Portland stage show in four years. The robust theater scene has proved a hot resource for showrunners. "We'd budgeted to fly up four actors per episode from L.A.," says Devlin. "We've averaged one."
The only bad news these days is that a tough economy forced Gov. John Kitzhaber, who wanted to increase the total incentives available from $15 million to $40 million every two years, to trim them to $12 million, or $6 million a year.
"I was depressed they didn't raise the cap," admits Devlin. "Falling Skies considered coming up, but there was no room for new shows under the cap. Why not get production to $1 billion? Portland is a two-hour flight from L.A., it has wonderful talent, and it hasn't been shot to death. I'm all in favor of it becoming a serious player in the industry."
Grimm's producers agree that everything just seems better in Portland -- even the rats used in a recent episode. Says Kouf, "They were very well-behaved."