Hollywood on the Charles

By Carlo Rotella | Boston Magazine |

To start, we have a nice balance here between visual distinctiveness and versatility. Modern Boston certainly has its own iconic features — Fenway, Harvard Yard, the triple-decker block — but its age and multilayered architecture also allow it to easily stand in for a wide range of other places and periods: Rust Belt, Sun Belt, and Old World cities; Colonial or Civil War–era America; visions of the near future or alternate realities; Paris, Tokyo, New York, Mars. Furthermore, the compactness of New England geography means that no more than an hour’s driving can take you from mountains to ocean, from all kinds of cityscapes to all kinds of suburbia, farmland, or woodlands. Also, when it comes to that subset of Boston-area productions that go for local color, the city’s reputation for unreconstructed Irish ethnicity — outmoded though that reputation may be in some ways — attracts actors eager to play white tough guys and gals from the Old Neighborhood. And then there’s the quirkiness of our cow-path-based street net, which actually does make the city uniquely photogenic.

“It feels like Universal Studios’ backlot here,” says James Lin, supervising location manager for the action movie R.I.P.D., the biggest local production to date, which was shooting all over town in the fall. “There are so many obtuse angles and perpendicular dead ends and curves, you don’t get that endless chasm of the avenue extending away behind the scene that you get in L.A., New York, or Chicago, which are all on a grid.” Instead, Boston’s dense, nodal layout offers picturesque backdrops. “If you’re, like, on Charles Street with the Red Line T structure on the side and three or four lanes of traffic coming together,” says Lin, “or Post Office Square, with everything converging on the intersection, you get a kind of forced perspective. It looks great.”

The film tax credit has made it possible for Hollywood to get excited and stay excited about Boston’s Bostonness — a combination of weathered elegance, dinge, compactness, and perspective-rich geography that adds up to an ineffable quality movie people like to call “authentic.” What they really mean is: “It looks like a place where people have lived for a few centuries and that’s not exactly like everywhere else and actually has four seasons, but we can still get it to look like whatever we want it to look like.”

Charlie Harrington, a veteran location scout, says, “When I was a location manager in L.A., we had to work incredibly hard to find places that looked like the East Coast. But here, the director will get off the plane at Logan and ride into town through one of the old tunnels and he’ll say, ‘This tunnel is fantastic! I want to shoot in here!’”

HARRINGTON, WHO HAS worked all over the world but who’s from Cohasset and has returned to the area to live, represents one more crucial supporting factor in understanding the staying power of Hollywood on the Charles: the local talent pool. The filmmaking boom has encouraged the growth of a corps of experienced, locally based crew and other craft professionals, enough to mount two or three midsize productions at the same time. This matters a great deal to studios, which save money when they don’t have to fly crew in from Los Angeles.

When it comes time to make that Whitey Bulger movie, for instance, it will have to be shot here, and the director will be able to draw on the expertise of location scouts like Harrington, who intimately know the lay of the land; makeup artists like Trish Seeney, who gave Amy Ryan her Dorchester party-girl up-all-night look for Gone Baby Gone; construction coordinators like Kurt Smith, who says, “they want the local flavor, but it’s not reality,” which means that he spends a lot of time removing storm windows from houses because directors don’t like the way they look; casting consultants like Angela Peri (“They wanted a Cambodian crack whore, so I went to Lowell and found some girls who could play a Cambodian crack whore”); and, of course, dialect coaches, whose work with actors playing neighborhood types attends to nuances of class and ethnic difference that would otherwise matter to only a handful of locals, but now circulate around the world.

At this point, there are probably attentive moviegoers in Jakarta or Kiev who sit there in the dark thinking, “This guy’s supposed to be from Somerville? Come on, that’s more of an Eastie inflection!” The accents get most of the attention from the authenticity police, but “Dialect is often a stand-in for a general judgment of authenticity in a movie, which has as much to do with the script or the setting or something else,” says Rebekah Maggor, a dialect coach who has worked on Boston-area productions.

Almost everyone associated with the film business here agrees that the next step is to build a sound stage or two to allow for year-round shooting and attract more TV production. There’s a scheme afoot to convert the South Weymouth Naval Air Station, but others argue that transforming a warehouse or some other piece of industrial-era infrastructure in Southie or Charlestown would be more convenient to Logan. And anyway, directors are going to want to return to Los Angeles to brag about their authentic production done in Southie, not South Weymouth.


  • Sean

    The truth of the matter is that the film industry was stunted and is now on the rebound after Deval and a few other short sighted cronies decided to “explore” rolling back the tax credit and/or capp

  • Robert

    Carlo Rotella is ill-informed and biased in his discussion of Massachusetts’ film tax credit. The Mass Department of Revenue has shown in its state-of-the-art studies that the film incentive has cost the Commonwealth hundreds of thousands of dollars just to create one full-time equivalent job. Moreover, Mr Rotella gets his facts wrong. New Mexico has capped its film tax credit and has never been more generous than Massachusetts’. Michigan’s credit is no longer 42 percent. It repealed its credit in favor of a much smaller direct grant. Finally, Rotella contradicts himself. If film producers allegedly deserted the state because of talk of curbing the credit, how can other factors attract the film industry? How can there be a “longer” answer? Massachusetts’ film “boom” has required a huge public subsidy, putting taxpayers on the hook. With respect to the film tax credit, Rotella is long on pro-film ideology and short on facts and careful policy analysis.