Hollywood on the Charles

Why the movie industry is crazy for Boston.

Hollywood on the Charles

Illustration by Jesse Lenz. Photographs by Miramax Films/Courtesy of Neal Peters Collection (Casey Affleck); Warner Bros./Courtesy of Neal Peters Collection (Mark Wahlberg); Getty Images (Matt Damon, Boston skyline); Michele Laurita/Corbis Outline (Ben Affleck)

There’s a priceless moment in Gone Baby Gone when a little boy on a bike cuts in front of a car and, when the driver tells him to move, yells back, “Go fuck ya mothah.” It’s pure Boston-style unpleasantness — bad traffic skills, bad manners, nastiness to strangers, refusing to pronounce the r in “mother” — and it’s exactly like a shot of a yak herder or a snake charmer in a movie set in Mongolia or India: a moment that’s there for the pleasure of tasting an exotic locality that moviegoers can be counted on to recognize.

Such Boston-area movie moments have become frequent and even conventional in recent years. Gone Baby Gone is full of them (“Make me a fuckin’ mahtini, you fat fuckin’ retahd”). Then there’s Ben Affleck’s dress-up fantasy as a series of regular-guy icons (EMT, cop, MBTA bus driver, neighborhood hockey god) in The Town, and Fenway Park’s Death Star–like cameo in Moneyball. And you can no doubt picture the showstoppers to come in the inevitable Whitey Bulger biopic. We’re so used to such moments by now, so used to Hollywood on the Charles, that it requires an intellectual effort to step back and appreciate how strange it is that this city has become a magnet for movie stars and auteurs.

Let’s not forget that Boston was for much of the 20th century strictly the sticks, a parochial dump in decline. In the 21st century, not only do homegrown notables like Affleck, Matt Damon, and Mark Wahlberg make Boston movies, but celebrated mythmakers from elsewhere — Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Mel Gibson — also feel the urge to get in on the action.

[sidebar]If the film production boom feels by now familiar, the reasons for it are still worth examining. Boston has a long history as a cultural capital, but so does Philadelphia. Our city offers a ripe postindustrial array of scenery ranging from hard-used streets to stately campuses, but so do Baltimore and Cleveland. And yet it’s Boston that keeps showing up, time and again, on the silver screen, a batty old Norma Desmond of a city ready for one close-up after another. Why does Hollywood keep coming here, of all places — and will it continue to come?


The short answer: Follow the money. Movies and TV productions shot in Massachusetts receive tax credits equal to 25 cents on every dollar of new spending they bring to the state. Budget-conscious movie studios — and they’re all budget-conscious — will go wherever they can turn out an acceptable product as cheaply as possible. Some movies were made around here before the state’s film tax-credit program reached mature strength in 2007, but the sustained boom in production has not happened just because Boston’s so damn fascinating and photogenic. As soon as it’s more efficient to go somewhere else, the boom will end. A simple public discussion in early 2010 of possibly limiting the tax credit (critics argued that there were more cost-effective ways to attract more-reliable jobs) was enough to drive away productions for the rest of that year, and business picked up again only when the studios felt sure that the policy wouldn’t change anytime soon.

But the short answer won’t suffice, not all by itself. For one thing, Louisiana, Connecticut, New Mexico, and other states have film tax credits, and some have offered more generous rates — like Michigan’s 42 percent credit. That Massachusetts has been consistently successful in the competition to draw and retain Hollywood’s interest means that we need a longer answer.

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.


As time and space are measured by Hollywood, Boston and the other Massachusetts cities are strange, ancient places with distinctive physical forms, curious folkways, and alien languages, like Jerusalem or the cities of the Silk Road. Their quality of familiar exoticism only intensifies as New England’s industrial era recedes into history, joining Paul Revere’s ride and the transcendentalists. This is the bigger story, about the changing form and function of Rust Belt cities, moving behind the formula plots of the crime stories, comedies, and family dramas shot here. The state’s efforts to woo film and TV production by establishing a film office (founded in 1979, and now part of the travel and tourism office) and a tax credit are classic postindustrial economic development strategies. The decline of manufacturing opens up a gap that can be filled, in part, by other sorts of enterprise as the New England mill city becomes a backwater in the industrial economy and acquires a new role in the postindustrial economy. Becoming a backwater enabled and demanded the policy moves that put Massachusetts back in the center of the cultural action as a hotbed of film production, and it added a crucial layer to the local aura of history and character.

Old manufacturing capitals that don’t make things anymore have turned to providing services, information, images, history, experiences. You can see the process in action in the repurposing of factory buildings to house museums, arts spaces, loft housing, convention centers, and places to eat, drink, and shop — and make movies. And you can see the process onscreen in scenes like the long shot in The Fighter of Charlene knocking on the door of Micky’s apartment with dark mill buildings looming in the background. Whatever’s going on in the plot, scenes like this one are also about the possibilities for cheap production and resonant storytelling that opened up when the factories closed.

Consider New York City, which led the way in this kind of reinvention. In the late 1960s, it was known for documentaries and art films, but not for feature or TV production. But then John Lindsay, a mayor looking for ways to attract new business to a city that was losing industrial jobs and restore glamour to a civic reputation damaged by the urban crisis, declared that he would “throw open the city to producers from Hollywood.” He made a high-profile recruiting visit to Los Angeles, founded a City Hall office to help with permits and police assistance, and otherwise made it attractive to shoot in New York. A lot of feature films and TV shows took advantage of the new policies, among them a stylistically distinct subset that did all they could to give themselves a timely street feel. Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, Superfly, and other New York movies pioneered an influential new style, enlivening traditional Hollywood storytelling with elements borrowed from the documentaries and art films that had previously dominated the city’s filmmaking scene.

Boston is in an analogous situation now. Like New York, it matches a reputation for high-cultural sophistication and wealth with a gallery of stock street and neighborhood characters infused with local color. But the Boston boom is narrower, not only less stylistically innovative but also less inclusive. The New York movies of the late ’60s and ’70s offered a range of representative characters. Even among standard action heroes, there were white-ethnic regular guys like Popeye Doyle and the Corleones, black Caesars like Shaft and Priest, and migrants from the western played by Eastwood and Charles Bronson. But, so far, the Boston stories have been dominated by just two types: brilliant, fast-talking savants affiliated with Harvard or MIT (as in The Social Network) and white-ethnic working-class heroes, usually Irish. Good Will Hunting remains the template for Boston movies because it finesses the high-low split by making its hero both types at once.

The Massachusetts boom may not be as significant as New York’s, but it’s happening in an era when the continuing expansion of Hollywood’s international reach ensures greater circulation. One side effect has been to create an odd wrinkle in the globalization of popular culture. The subset of Boston-area movies that try to achieve an authentic-feeling local quality form an exception to the general rule that Hollywood has tended to remove specialized regional American content from its movies as it has sold more and more to a world audience. The fetish for Bostonness has returned regional content to American movies with a vengeance, so that those moviegoers in Jakarta can now exclaim, “You can’t say that in a bar on Dot Ave.! Somebody’s gonna get tuned up!” It may be that audiences in a self-consciously globalizing age are hungry for any kind of local feel at all. Even, weirdly, ours.