Made in Oregon

Oregon’s southeastern desert is the backdrop for the upcoming pioneer drama “Meek’s Cutoff.”


Must-know contacts for an Oregon shoot
Recent Beaver State productions

Say what you want about Oregon's gloomy slate-gray skies, but producer Dean Devlin says they are crucial to setting the mood for his TNT series "Leverage," which films on location in Portland.

"We shoot the show digitally and that cloud cover is almost like hanging a beautiful silk above our lights," he says of the action-drama, which stars Timothy Hutton as the leader of a gang of high-tech crooks who steal from the wealthy and corrupt. "It really gives us rich and beautiful colors."

Atmospheric skies are just some of the advantages of shooting in the Beaver State that "Leverage's" producers have discovered since the show relocated there from Los Angeles last year to take advantage of Oregon's production incentives.

The state also offers a wide variety of geographic looks. Portland doubles frequently for Boston, where the show takes place, and various locales have stood in for Washington, Nebraska and even Kiev, Russia. The state has also proved a rich source for acting talent, thanks in part to the presence of the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

"When we got up there we were expecting to fly in three or four cast members an episode, but we average about one or two," co-creator/executive producer John Rogers says. "Some of the (local) actors have been so good, we've made them recurring characters on the show."

Oregon has hosted a number of notable productions over the years, from studio films like "Animal House" (1978) and "The Goonies" (1985) to numerous works by Portland-based director Gus Van Sant. But it wasn't until the state upped its total labor incentive in 2005 to 16.2% that it became a regular destination for Hollywood films such as "Twilight" (2008) and "Extraordinary Measures" (2010). Last year, Oregon enjoyed its biggest year ever, attracting more than $62 million in film, television and commercial production.

At first glance, the state's incentive isn't overwhelming when compared with those offered by states like Michigan, which boasts a 42% tax credit. But looks can be deceiving.

Writer-director Henry Selick (left) and LAIKA CEO Travis Knight on the set of "Coraline"

"When I ran the numbers, based on the amount of local crew that was available, Oregon was very competitive," says Nan Morales, producer of "Extraordinary Measures" and the Jennifer Aniston-starrer "Management" (2008), which also shot in Oregon.

The majority of crew are in the Portland area, and there are others in Bend and elsewhere who come in and work as locals, which saves money on lodging and per diems, says Morales. "There are also people in Seattle who can come down and work as nearby hires, which is really inexpensive. The hourly rates for the IA crews and Teamsters are also lower than places like Detroit or Boston," she says.

Traditionally, Oregon's crew base has been supported by TV commercial shoots, many generated by the Portland ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, whose clients include Beaverton-based Nike.

The state is also a popular destination for car commercials, drawn by Oregon's concentration of diverse terrain, from rocky coastline and rain forests in the west, to arid high deserts in the east, with the snow-capped Cascade Mountains in between.

So if the Beaver State is this great, why hasn't it snatched up a larger portion of the production pie from places like Louisiana, New Mexico and Vancouver? The answer: The incentive's annual $7.5 million cap can easily be tapped out by a single film whose budget is in the $40 million range.

"We currently have half of that incentive money still available for the rest of the year," says Vince Porter, executive director of the Oregon Film and Video Office and a former vp production at Showtime. "But when we have 'Leverage' and then another big project like 'Extraordinary Measures' (in the same year), there's just not the incentive available left over for other major productions. We compete very well with features in the $5 million-$20 million range and basic cable shows that don't do 22-episode orders." ("Leverage" has 16-episode seasons.)

If the incentive is too small for the state to be co-opted by the entertainment industry and turned into a Hollywood North -- or even a Vancouver South -- that's probably OK with most Oregonians.

"The Oregon psychology -- it's largely an indie mentality," says Travis Knight, son of Nike founder-owner Phil Knight and the CEO of LAIKA, the Portland-based stop-motion animation studio responsible for the Oscar-nominated "Coraline" (2009) and commercials for clients ranging from Apple to Arby's. "We're strange people. We do have this progressive urban center, but you go outside of Port land and it's clod-hoppin' hillbilly territory. Anytime you have that kind of push and pull, you have the opportunity for a really great creative tension and fertile ground for artistry and innovation."

Actor Bruce Campbell agrees. "In Oregon, there are no rules about how you make a movie," the recent Oregon transplant says. He shot the 2008 horror spoof "My Name Is Bruce" on the property surrounding his home in hills of Jackson County and at Land Mind Studios, a converted pear-packing facility in downtown Medford.


"Half the lumber for my backlot came from one rancher who had a sign out in front of his property that just said 'stuff for sale' and his number," Campbell says. "This guy had ridiculous supplies of sheet metal and 1-by-12 barn wood. In L.A., I would have paid top dollar for fresh lumber and then had somebody make it look old." Campbell got a good deal and in return pumped an estimated $250,000 into the local economy.

That's peanuts compared with a weekly series like "Leverage," which pays its crew per diems in rarely circulated $2 bills to demonstrate its economic impact to the locals. Not to say, of course, that anyone is asking the show to justify its presence.

"From top to bottom, it's a very friendly state without an agenda," "Leverage's" Rogers says. "On a Los Angeles location, people start honking their horns and turning up the music in their house, hoping to get some kind of pay-off. You show up at a location in Oregon and people come out of their houses with trays of cookies and milk."