Production on Ben Stiller’s Severance at Rondout in Kingston | Photo courtesy of the Hudson Valley Film Commission
Ben Stiller’s Severance, The White House Plumbers starring Woody Harrelson, and a new Brendan Fraser flick record scenes in the region.
Get ready to do some serious “star-gazing” in the Hudson Valley.
Looking back, 2020 was a massive year for the Hudson Valley Film Commission. A slew of HBO projects shot on location in the Hudson Valley premiered, including the Nicole Kidman-led The Undoing and Derek Cianfrance’s I Know This Much Is True. The latter nabbed Mark Ruffalo both Emmy and Golden Globe wins. In 2021, several new series and flicks filmed on Hudson Valley main streets, across historic bridges, and in local certified soundstages. Among them are new series from Apple TV+ and HBO.
“The [HBO crew] had a really great time working here on I Know This Much Is True. They’re almost like locals now. They’ve been here such a long time,” says Laurent Rejto, founder and director of the Hudson Valley Film Commission. “Anytime a film production comes up here, people fall in love right away because it’s beautiful. They enjoy being in the Hudson Valley. The key is keeping those productions happy, and they’ll continue to film here.”
The Hudson Valley Film Commission’s efforts are paying off in spades, as several high-profile projects set their productions in the region.
Apple TV+: Ben Stiller’s Severance
Beacon’s Main Street looked a little different in March 2021. That’s when Severance, a new mini-series directed by Ben Stiller, filmed for two days in the Dutchess County town.
The production team transformed several businesses into fictionalized 1980s counterparts. Beacon’s east end, home to eclectic shops like Beacon Bath and Bubble and Raven Rose, offered ideal facades. The Kier Chronicle, pictured below, points to a possible fictional setting. The sign hanging above a transformed Beacon storefront reads “Your trusted source for goings-on in Kier and the greater world.”
The series stars Adam Scott, most famous for portraying Ben Wyatt on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. An impressive ensemble cast includes Christopher Walken, John Turturro, and Patricia Arquette. It begins streaming on Apple TV+ on February 18, 2022.
“We tried to get Escape from Dannemora to film in the Hudson Valley, and it didn’t work out. So it’s great to have Patricia Arquette [one of its stars] working here. Stiller lives in Westchester, he’s not far at all, so getting these people to know the area and see the benefits of filming here is the most important thing,” Rejto says. Turturro also has ties to the Hudson Valley; he’s a graduate of SUNY New Paltz.
Severance is set at the fictional “Lumen Industries,” where a special severance program separates the work memories of employees from the memories of their personal lives. Arquette portrays Scott’s boss in the series, which is being produced for Apple’s streaming service Apple TV+.
The series filmed under the name “Tumwater.” In order to prevent a media frenzy from swarming around productions, projects often operate under false names. According to Rejto, the zombie-flick The Dead Don’t Die (starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and more) shot extensively in the region under the pseudonym “Kill the Head.”
Stiller and team moved upstate after filming in New York City, starting in Nyack and then making their way to Ulster County. They shot for several days at Kingston’s Rondout, the idyllic waterfront neighborhood. The Kingston-Port Ewan Suspension Bridge (also known as the Wurts Bridge) hosted Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, and the crew of The Undoing. Severance also filmed on location at the Phoenicia Diner.
HBO: The White House Plumbers
HBO returns to the Hudson Valley after completing the region’s largest production of all time, I Know This Much Is True. That shoot lasted an entire year, generating excellent revenue for local accommodations and restaurants, and cementing a relationship between HBO and local industry professionals.
The White House Plumbers tackles the tale of E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, heads of the White House Special Investigations Unit during Richard Nixon’s presidency. Nixon tasked them with preventing leaks of classified information in response to the published Pentagon Papers. The pair ended up having a major role in the Watergate Scandal.
This limited series from the showrunner of HBO’s Veep cast Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux as Hunt and Liddy, respectively. The duo of actors have both succeeded with HBO projects in the past, with Harrelson starring in True Detective and Theroux in The Leftovers. HBO’s team began shooting in the Hudson Valley as early as May 2021.
“We’re already working very hard on The White House Plumbers, and getting lots of local extras employed. We’re also recommending local picture car owners — people who own cars from the 1960s and 1970s. We’ve recommended over 100 cars already,” Rejto says. Rejto also confirmed that The White House Plumbers will film extensively in Kingston, Poughkeepsie, and Newburgh.
Many of the crew members on this project are holdovers from I Know This Much Is True, including location managers and line producers. These industry professionals have become immensely familiar with Hudson Valley towns. This also helps local crew, as they’ll continue to be hired for HBO projects.
Grant Wilfley Casting handles the hiring of background extras for The White House Plumbers, and it searched for Hudson Valley denizens who would look at home in the early 1970s. Grant Wilfley also cast background actors for The Plot Against America, Billions, and Succession for shoots in the Hudson Valley, all HBO productions. Succession will soon film at local historic sites and mansions. An unnamed HBO project is also setting its sights on Saugerties for locations.
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A24: Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale
The Whale joins recent feature projects A Quiet Place Parts I & II, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and The Dead Don’t Die by setting up camp in the Hudson Valley. While John Krasinski and Emily Blunt mainly used outdoor locations, the entirety of A24’s The Whale will be filmed entirely on Umbra’s soundstages in Newburgh. Umbra offers four state-of-the-art acoustic stages.
“They basically built the entire sets, and it’s very rare that that happens, but it’s really cool,” Rejto enthuses. “That’s what’s going to put us [the Hudson Valley] into a whole other category. We’ve always relied on films coming here for locations, not necessarily for the sound stages. There’s 11 New York State certified soundstages in the region.” Among those include the Mid-Hudson Civic Center, the Studio at iPark (at the former IBM campus and current business hub), and, of course, Umbra Stages.
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Arthouse director Darren Aronofsky teams up with indie-juggernaut A24 on an adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s critically acclaimed 2012 play. The Whale centers around a depressed and reclusive English teacher suffering from severe obesity. Brendan Fraser assumes the lead role, potentially primed for a comeback — Fraser-sance, anyone?
In addition to this highly-anticipated work, Old Man starring Avatar‘s Stephen Lang just wrapped production at Umbra. I Know This Much Is True filmed at Umbra extensively, and The White House Plumbers will utilize the spaces as well.
The Future of Film in the Hudson Valley
Though the pandemic sidelined productions around the world and changed the movie industry forever, there is great hope for the Hudson Valley film industry. 2019 was a record year for film and TV projects in this region. Then 2020’s award season demonstrated the high quality of work achieved here.
“We’ve tracked over $49 million in local direct spending [in 2019]. And that’s an enormous amount of money [from] the location fees, the permit fees, and especially the local hires, cast and crew, plus local vendors. An enormous amount of film and TV industry members live in the Hudson Valley, and it’s important to keep those people employed,” Rejto emphasizes.
In 2019, 42,250 rooms were rented out over the course of 441 production days. Over 500 local crew members and more than 4,000 background extras were hired in the same year.
A major key in bringing films to the area has been the Empire State Film Production and Post-Production Credits. These production credits only qualify for below-the-line expenses. They do not subsidize actors, directors, writers, producers, or any other above-the-line expenses. According to Rejto, a five-percent decrease in the production credit in 2020 lost the Hudson Valley projects to several states. This may have cost the region up to 250 one-year industry jobs.
“Film and TV productions offer good salaries, benefits, and indirect revenue that results from productions traveling to a region. Among other things, indirect revenue includes local shopping by guests, local investments, new businesses, cultural tourism, and house sales to industry members moving to the region,” Rejto notes. “We know from our experience over the past 21 years, that without these credits, production related jobs disappear overnight.”