'Sex' spectacle in NYC


"I said to all of the girls, 'When we go out on the streets for the first time, it will be like when the Beatles came to America,'" says Bettiann Fishman. "And it was. I said, 'We are going to go out on Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue, and thousands of people will follow us.' And they did. You can get any film star on the streets of New York -- George Clooney, Brad Pitt -- and (crowds will) come around. But in all the years I've been doing this, the chaos we had was like nothing I've ever seen."

As "Sex and the City: The Movie's" first assistant director, Fishman ought to know of what she speaks. "SATC," New Line's $60 million feature version of the HBO series that ran from 1998-2004, opens domestically on May 30. But hundreds of thousands have been watching it piecemeal since September, when the first of 57 on-location days began shooting in New York. The girls -- Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon -- started a-strutting, the paparazzi came a-shooting and fans came armed with video and digital cameras a-rolling. The only ones keeping any of them in check were a few production assistants, two policemen and the petite Fishman, who climbed aboard a 10-foot ladder and shouted through a megaphone when to keep back, keep quiet and keep out.

They didn't call her "Bullhorn Betty" for nothing.

In retrospect, it's quite funny, says writer-producer-director Michael Patrick King, who chuckles, "The very first day, word got out and people started coming. Then, the Daily News started putting our production locations in the paper. Every time I had to give a note, I had to weave my way through the crowds."

It didn't stop there, because many of those same people uploaded their shots to Flickr and YouTube (at press time, a one-minute clip called "Sex and the City Movie Live Trailer!! -- Wedding Scene!!!" had logged more than 190,000 views), while the tabloid newsmagazine shows were sharing their own footage.

"I would see a scene on 'Access Hollywood' before I saw dailies!" King says. "It literally was a three-ring circus, every day."

During its run on cable, "SATC" put a glamorous patina on a city that had reinvented itself after decades of neglect, showing off its rapidly gentrifying districts through a scrim of cosmopolitans, five-inch designer heels and independent women on the search for like-minded (or at least hot-bodied) mates. New York City has never lacked character, but the glossy hyperreality of the show made the attractive, seductive old girl actually feel approachable.

"The city is a big fan of the work we did (on the series) and the amount of attention and tourism it brought," says King, who executive produced, wrote and directed for the series (at least a dozen crew members from the HBO show returned to their positions for the film). "The amount of girls coming to New York to have a $17 cosmo -- everybody benefited in a great way by the series," King says.

The city, for its part, was happy to oblige: "If we can do our part to marry entertainment and tourism, and bring more people here to visit our great city, that's added value in terms of economic impact on New York," says Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting.

Still, when the series finally ended in 2004, buzz about a feature film died quickly and the concept went dormant until spring 2006, when Parker began talking to HBO higher-ups about getting the motor running again. It wasn't easy -- things were "completely over," according to Parker, when former HBO chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht, an early shepherd of the feature, left under a cloud last May. And while Parker absolutely wanted to keep the film in the Warner Bros. family, New Line needed some convincing about doing a film in New York.

"New Line -- having been an indie company for years -- the sheer cost of shooting in New York meant they had to look elsewhere for a lot of their films," explains producer John Melfi. "New York is about 30% more expensive than shooting elsewhere, but with the tax credit, it's become quite affordable. The tax credit calmed them down in terms of cost."

Erik Holmberg, co-president of physical production for New Line, agrees that the rebates were key: "From a physical production standpoint, there was no anxiety about shooting in New York. The rebates are significant, and go a long way toward making New York City attractive."

By the time everything was in place, however, suddenly everything had to be done yesterday. The entire shoot lasted 69 days and wrapped on Jan. 15, using Silvercup Studios for most of the interiors, just as the series had. "It was the quickest a movie has been made in my lifetime," says Melfi. "To start a movie and shoot it in the same year -- we didn't have a script until May and we were in production in June. Unheard of."

Obstacles seemed to melt away when "SATC" needed anything. When the script called for scenes shot at the Bryant Park-based Fashion Week, which is sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, Fashion Week had not yet begun. So in exchange for promotional placement, Mercedes-Benz erected and then deconstructed its branded tents for the shoot -- saving the film hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The fashion industry proved just as helpful as it had been on the series. Melfi recalls that it literally "threw open the closet doors. Between that and the tents in Bryant Park, if we hadn't had that kind of assistance, there's no way we could have gotten out of the gate."

New York City also bent over backwards for the film, recalls cinematographer John Thomas. "Working on the streets of New York is not always conducive to doing glamorous, beauty lighting," he says, so he and his staff created a moving light that could travel in a curb lane, providing flattering fill light. To accommodate such a contraption, the city removed several street signs.

"New York does not want to be, nor can it be, a backlot for films and television," says Thomas. "But I still find it amazing how many locations and streets the city helped us with -- without the help of the mayor's office and the patience of New York citizens, this film never could have gotten made."

It's almost hard to imagine that a $60 million film could have such an Andy Hardy "let's put on a show" feeling to it, but that seems to have been the case with the "SATC" shoot. The quality is hardly patchwork, yet getting everything done out in the middle of the city required a level of cooperation from a significant number of people who will never see their credits scroll by.

"We've had ridiculous obstacles," says Parker. "It's been very upsetting at times -- we've gotten so close and then fallen apart. But there's something about the experience that makes it much sweeter to have gotten to Sept. 19 of this past year, and arrive on the set and just be doing it. We wanted it so much. But I like this job, I feel I have a lot at stake. I love feeling this burdened."  

Storefronts: Two TV shows and a Disney film take a cue from Carrie and Co. to prove there's more than sex in New York City

"Lipstick Jungle" (NBC)
"Sex" Content: High. "Jungle" executive producer/writer Candace Bushnell wrote the book "Sex and the City" was based on, and served as a writer and producer on the series.
Three Shows, One City: "The odds of us shooting in the same spot are pretty small," says director/executive producer Timothy Busfield. "Though, we do use some of the same actors. Anyway, I doubt if the audience is watching both shows. How much of powerful women can you take two days in a row?"

"Cashmere Mafia" (ABC)
"Sex" Content: Medium. Darren Star was the executive producer and a writer for "Sex," and serves as executive producer for "Mafia."
Three Shows, One City: Recalls Star, who also produced the "Sex" film: "I could hear the megaphone from the 'Sex and the City' shoot on the 'Cashmere Mafia' set. We were almost running into each other on the street -- we were blocks away." Which meant that he could do double duty, running back and forth between the two projects. "It was great," he grins.

"Confessions of a Shopaholic" (Walt Disney Studios)
"Sex" Content: Low. Are you kidding? This is Disney. Still, like "Sex," it was based on a book (Sophie Kinsella's novel) and involves a journalist with a jones for shopping who loves a wealthy man ... hey, wait!
Three Shows, One City: "Our character is much younger than Carrie and the girls," explains location manager Maria Bierniak. "And we tried to avoid certain things they were going to do -- there's so much to choose from." Look for a major set piece done in conjunction with Henri Bendel's department store: For a week in April, the "Temple of Shopping" stayed up while customers passed through, and at night it transformed into the film's set.