Movie Madness

More and more A-list movie producers are choosing the Valley as the backdrop for their big-budget films. The Hudson Valley Film Commission's Laurent Rejto works behind the scenes to make it happen.



 

 

Last summer, I read an article in a local paper that described how, in March 2005, filmmakers haddescended on a series of locales in Orange and Ulster counties and used them as stand-ins for rural Wisconsin.

These locations included the Sky Top Motel in Kingston, the Reservoir Dairy Deli in Shokan, and the Phoenicia Diner. This seemed both magical and bizarre to me. How, I wondered, could an ordinary diner, whose pancakes and sausages I was intimately familiar with, be transplanted to a Midwestern state I’ve never even visited? And why had the filmmakers picked the Valley for their sleight of hand? This demanded investigation.

A little digging revealed that something called the Hudson Valley Film Commission had helped to coax not only this movie — the 2006 Robin Williams thriller The Night Listener — to the region, but other recent productions besides. These have ranged from the monstrous (budget-wise and villain-wise) War of the Worlds to a host of small, independent pictures more intent on creating art than grossing billions. Filmmaking in the Valley is on the rise, and the commission is one reason why.

In point of fact, the commission is one man, and he runs it according to his pleasure — though obsession might be a better word. The man is Laurent Rejto, who in 2000 cofounded the Woodstock Film Festival with his wife Meira Blaustein, and his obsession is helping filmmakers get their films made. Economic development is of course a prime motive, given the millions of dollars that a big production can spend in just a few weeks. Yet for Rejto to take up your cause, you don’t have to be famous, well-financed, or well-connected. In some cases, you don’t even need to be out of college.

You just have to want to make a film in the Hudson Valley.

 

I called Rejto to arrange an interview. His phone voice is cool and melodic, but the man who opened the door to his modest Woodstock townhouse was large, wild-haired, and rumpled. As we talked he gave the impression of multiple persons inside one skin: guarded yet nakedly open, sad yet funny, self-deprecating yet intensely proud of what he and Blaustein have done to bring film to the area.

“The greatest pleasure is being able to help a filmmaker find what they want, or being able to cast people from the area into a film,” Rejto said. “And then after the film is released, being able to show it at the Woodstock Film Festival — that’s fantastic!”

Unlike other nonprofit film commissions in New York and around the country, Rejto gets no public funding (he was offered $250 by Ulster County last year, but turned it down as a pointlessly small sum). With no budget and no salary, time is Rejto’s only resource — and he spends it freely. Of the 16-hour days he works year-round planning the film festival, about 10 percent go toward commission business: phone calls, meetings, scouting trips, and (above all) broadcast e-mails. Such e-mails ripple outward, eventually reaching every industry contact in the Valley:

  civil war battlefield location needed. This location scout is for a $100 million-plus production by one of today’s premier directors. Trees should be deciduous, not pine, and they stress the rolling hills of Virginia, not mountains.

  a feature film is looking to shoot in the hudson valley but needs a Classic Style Butcher Shop for their main location — a place where they still cut slabs of meat as opposed to boxed meats.

  night of the living jews — another Hasidic zombie movie, shooting in Accord, August 16th through 20th. Casting call for Man, WASPy strong, stable father type, also able to flip and go insane.

These messages give a glimpse of Rejto’s reckless empathy for anybody with a script and a camera: The first was on behalf of a Steven Spielberg picture, Lincoln, that ultimately shot its reenactment of Manassas elsewhere; the second was for The Cake Eaters, an independent picture starring Bruce Dern and directed by Mary Stuart Masterson, which was filmed in Catskill and is due to be released this year; and the third for a zero-budget comedy short, written and directed by two ambitious 19-year-olds.

It’s Rejto’s willingness to get involved that makes him so effective, said Jerome Stoeffhaas, deputy director for the Governor’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. “He aggressively responds to every call we send. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to stay in the game — get in the car and drive around to locations, take pictures, follow up. That doesn’t happen in other places.”

 

 

In the case of War of the Worlds, Spielberg’s production company, DreamWorks, was seeking a field and a ferry landing as backdrops to alien attacks. Tipped off about the search from the governor’s film office, Rejto knew he had a shot at luring the filmmakers to the Valley — but he had to act fast. He jumped in his car to shoot photos of fields in Woodstock, Willow, and elsewhere, then called towns all along the Hudson River, looking for ferry landings. The production company liked the photos, but what they liked even more was Rejto’s suggestion that they hire a local helicopter pilot for additional scouting. And it was through the helicopter scout that DreamWorks located the perfect river cove in the town of Athens, where the famous ferry scene was eventually filmed.

“If it hadn’t been for the helicopter, none of that would have happened,” Rejto said. “It’s always some tiny thing like that. That’s why you have to go out and do everything you can, because otherwise you have no chance.”

 

The commission isn’t working in a vacuum, of course. Other factors draw filmmakers to the Valley: the proximity to studios in New York City; the increasing number of well-known players (Melissa Leo, David Strathairn, Aidan Quinn) with homes in the area; invaluable location scouts such as Michelle Baker (who in the eleventh hour found a crucial water tower for The Night Listener); and local “angels” who help small-budget filmmakers connect with financing, community donations, and other resources. It doesn’t hurt that the Valley provides a wealth of rural and small-town settings not available downstate, as well as a gorgeous river and many historic buildings. There is also no need to restrict camera angles, as sometimes happens in densely developed areas, Stoeffhaas adds.

 

 

Then there is the success of the Woodstock Film Festival, held each October, which has leveraged indie star power and smart programming to squeeze onto the A-list of national festivals. “This area has always been very creative, and people from the film world have been living and working here a long time,” says Meira Blaustein. “But by bringing so many new filmmakers here, what the festival has done — and the film commission has doubled it — is to really create a community.”

Rejto wants that community to keep growing. He wants movies to come here so that Valley residents can get work — not just actors, but scouts, assistant directors, camera operators, gaffers, grips, art designers, boom operators, wardrobes, editors. He badly wants some of the big industry names who have homes in the Valley, but who persist in shooting projects in L.A. or New York City, to start lobbying their studios to shoot here instead. Quixotically, he dreams of empty business parks in Kingston being transformed into enormous sound stages.

One last thing about Rejto: he is a filmmaker himself. He fell in love with the medium in sixth grade, when his art teacher introduced him to claymation. He won a full scholarship to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, met Blaustein there and made several small films with her. Even today he has six unsold screenplays on his shelf. For a writer, this can be a painful state of affairs. Yet — as several people pointed out to me — screenwriters and directors can rarely manage more than one film every few years, whereas in that same time Rejto and Blaustein will assist in the conception and birth of literally dozens of films.

“Laurent and Meira love cinema, and they’ll come to a set just to hang out,” said Nicole Quinn, writer and director of Racing Daylight, shot in Accord and Stone Ridge last summer with Melissa Leo and David Strathairn as time-haunted lovers. “That kind of atmosphere is what we’re all hoping for in an industry here.” 
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