With $29 million in spending, the local film industry shows no signs of slowing down.
Larry Fessenden made Wendigo, his first Hudson Valley-filmed movie, during a change in his life. In 1998, the art-horror auteur, fresh off his vampirism-as-addiction allegory Habit, and his wife were looking to move out of New York City, eventually settling in a house in West Shokan.
He shot the 2001 film, a mix of familial drama and Native American folk horror, throughout the area, including in his own house and backyard. During the shoot, the crew stayed in the old Phoenicia Hotel, and Fessenden lived and cut the film in an old barn on his property. “It was a very intimate, small production,” he says.
Since then, Fessenden has filmed and produced more than 10 other movies under his production shingle Glass Eye Pix in the Hudson Valley, for the most part highly independent, microbudget productions like Bitter Feast and Stake Land, which shot all throughout Pine Hill. As a producer, Fessenden actively attempts to steer productions toward the region. “I always want to film here,” he says, “I love the crews and the atmosphere.” Though small, his productions hire local crews, rent equipment from local companies, and stay in local hotels, all of which funnel money directly into the region.
Fessenden has worked extensively with the Hudson Valley Film Commission (HVFC), a non-profit founded by Laurent Rejto in 2000 with the express purpose of promoting and expanding film production in the region. “We do everything in our power to make sure they hire locally,” says Rejto, providing productions with lists of skilled crew members, scouting locations, even searching out local experts.
They maintain an extensive online database of skilled film production workers, as well as a directory of local actors and a massive collection of custom galleries from all throughout the region, covering every possible location, from schools to nursing homes to tax-delinquent buildings, all depending on what each individual production requires. This is all very necessary, as members of many New York City-based workers’ unions, guilds, and organization chapters do not work outside of a 25-30-mile radius of the City, known in industry parlance as “the zone.”
HVFC fills in these gaps. It has shepherded productions of all sizes, from indies like Down to the Bone, the Vera Farmiga-starring debut of indie master Debra Granik, to The War of the Worlds, American Gangster, and, more recently, A Quiet Place, the John Krasinski-directed, Emily Blunt-starring horror megahit which filmed extensively in Beacon, Pawling, and New Paltz.
The Hudson Valley’s film industry has changed quite a lot since Wendigo and the HVFC’s founding, thanks in part to the 30 percent tax credit on film’s made in New York State, and an additional, conditional 10 percent credit on below-the-line expenses for productions made throughout the state. This has been a tremendous boom for the region’s economy: according to the Commission’s estimate, more than $200 million in development since 2000. In 2018 alone, film production resulted in $29 million in direct regional spending, the hiring of 453 local crew members and close to 3,200 extras, and the renting of 22,500 rooms. Much of this business comes from small productions like Diane, a Martin Scorsese-produced, Kent Jones-directed indie that spent the majority of its million-dollar-plus budget in the region.
But, increasingly, larger productions have come to dominate the field. Poughkeepsie and Fishkill residents are likely familiar with I Know This Much is True, a six-episode HBO miniseries that spent over a year filming all throughout the Hudson Valley. Adapted from a Wally Lamb novel of the same name, the television show, starring Kathryn Hahn, Juliette Lewis, and Mark Ruffalo, used 71 locations throughout the region to depict its expansive timeline, with contemporary settings standing-in for seven different decades, from the 1920s to the late 1990s. Between October 2018 and November 2019, the production rented 27,300 rooms, spent $2 million on location fees, and employed local crew members, leading to what Rejto describes as the best year yet for regional film production.
“If you have a production going on every day…that’s sustainability.”
— Laurent Rejto, Hudson Valley Film Commission
Some of these crew members were trained expressly for the production, in a partnership between HBO and the Kingston non-profit Stockade Works. Founded by actors and filmmakers Mary Stuart Masterson and Beth Davenport in 2016, Stockade Works trains locals of all backgrounds in many aspects of below-the-line film production — precisely the area covered by NYS’s 40 percent tax credit — with the explicit goal of generating sustainable employment in the region’s growing film industry.
“We want people who live and work in the region to benefit from those increased opportunities,” says executive director Marie Nachsin. To generate what Nachsin characterizes as “careers in film and TV production,” Stockade Works hosts a number of different kinds of programs, including workshops, apprenticeships, and more.
For I Know This Much is True, Masterson spoke with MPAA companies, including HBO’s heads of physical production, about what sorts of positions they would need filled throughout the course of filming. They partnered on a Stockade Works Crew Boot Camp, where, says Masterson, “trainees learned the fundamentals of crew training, from how to read scripts, script continuity, who’s who of a call sheet, preparing for a day’s work, chain of command, and other basic production assistant roles,” as well as more complex tasks like boom operation, video village setup, and more.
By the end of the three-and-a-half-day training session, which included a mock shoot, 24 participants had been trained by industry professionals in a wide variety of production roles, “ready,” says Masterson, “to be placed directly on a production.” Nine of them were employed directly on I Know This Much is True in casting assistant, wardrobe, costuming, and art department roles, that developed throughout the course of filming. Some of these graduates, Masterson notes, have since been hired on other HBO productions, including the Nicole Kidman-starring The Undoing, filmed throughout the region during summer 2019.
In addition to other productions, Stockade Works has partnered with other regional film non-profits and organizations, from the Film Commission to Catskill’s Lumberyard, a qualified 7,000-plus-sq-ft soundstage and production facility which opened in September 2018. The Lumberyard is fully modifiable, so that every part of the building can be used for film production, and since opening has served as a filming and organizing space for productions like HBO’s Philip Roth adaptation, The Plot Against America. “We’re perfect for filming interiors,” says artistic and executive director Adrienne Willis. “But we also serve as a convenient production hub if you want to shoot locations.” Plot, for instance, utilized more than half the theater for wardrobe alone. They also maintain a database of film production professionals who reside in the area.
As indicated by many of the above names, the region’s clout is growing within the film industry, and Rejto hopes that 2020 will continue the trend. “If you can have a production going on every day,” he says, “with no gaps in the calendar: that’s sustainability.” But, as he notes, not only the Hudson Valley, but the film industry itself is changing. “It is very difficult for independent filmmakers to find distribution,” he explains. “In 2019, we’ve seen fewer $1 million productions than ever before. On the flip side, we’ve seen more that are in the $15-20 million range, so the good news is that more money than ever is being spent, but we’re seeing less of the lower-budgeted films.”
But don’t count the micro-budget auteurs out, not yet. “I make smaller films,” declares Fessenden. “And I still feel like a part of this community.”