Hollywood heads to Worcester

By Nancy Sheehan
Worcester Telegram & Gazette
April 25, 2008

The city has reeled in a big one — and there may be a few more on the line.

Production crews for a new Bruce Willis movie, “The Surrogates,” are set to start work in Worcester Monday and will stay through August. Following months of scouting visits to the city, the film crew has chosen two locations: the old courthouse and the former vocational high school. Other local spots may be added to the list as production begins.

Two other movie companies are also looking at Worcester, according to Erin Williams, the city’s cultural development officer. “The production teams have been very excited about the city,” said Williams, who has been driving members of “The Surrogates” crew around Worcester off and on since January. “There have been six visits from this crew alone and two others have shown strong interest.”

That interest stems from big tax incentives for motion picture and television production projects passed by the state Legislature in 2005 and strengthened a year ago. Since then, Boston has seen a wave of movie activity, which now seems to be reaching westward to Worcester.

“With the volume of interest from Hollywood,” Worcester City Manager Michael V. O’Brien foresaw “it would be only a matter of time before we landed a blockbuster. Call me a prophet, but here we are and Hollywood is coming to Worcester.”

It’s not time to start the Bruce Willis Watch, however. The build-out and preparation phase will last at least a month before any cast members from “The Surrogates” come to town. When filming does start, the sets will be closed to the public, Ernie Malik, a production company spokesman, said.

Jonathan Mostow will direct the sci-fi thriller for Disney’s Touchstone Pictures. Mostow’s previous directing credits include “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and “U 571.” In addition to Willis, major cast members are Radha Mitchell (“Melinda and Melinda,” “Pitch Black”) and Boris Kodjoe (“Madea’s Family Reunion,” “All About Alice”). The scheduled release date is Nov. 20, 2009.

“The Surrogates” is based on the 2006 Top Shelf Comix graphic novel and set in a futuristic world where humans live in isolation and interact vicariously through surrogate robots that are better looking versions of themselves. Willis and Mitchell are FBI agents investigating the murder of a surrogate possibly linked to the inventor of the robotic population.

A lot of real people are expected to benefit from the robotic presence in Worcester.

“There’s economic spinoff here beyond putting Worcester on the map,” O’Brien said. “Locally they will be buying hotel rooms over a long period of time and eating in restaurants, as well as spending on jobs.”

How much spinoff will we see?

“It’s going to be millions,” O’Brien said. “They’re going through the scheduling and reservation process now for our premier hotels here in the city to host the cast and crew.”

When the film finally comes out, we might not recognize some of the locations as our own. “The courthouse can be built into a hospital room, a school, a police office — any number of things,” Williams said. Other possible locations include Worcester bars, including Vincent’s, a local hot spot for cool music, which Williams and the film scouts scoped out.

“We went from being in some of Worcester’s most famous bars at 9 in the morning to visiting historic buildings, city parks and dynamic neighborhoods, like Main South and Grafton Hill. We were down at the lake, at Bancroft Tower, and now they have a good library of imagery that shows Worcester at its best and at its most unique,” Williams said.

In addition to Williams, those who worked hard courting the film company included Destination Worcester, the Worcester Sales Task Force (a hotel and restaurant group), the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the city manager, Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray, the DCU Center and Nick Paleologos, executive director of the Massachusetts Film Office.

“We all lined up and worked closely with the lieutenant governor and Nick Paleologos and our staff here in Worcester. The effort clearly paid off,” O’Brien said. “What the film companies found is what we knew intrinsically all along: that we have the amenities and the attributes that make for great film settings, from historic mill buildings, to unique architecture and trendy restaurants.”

Worcester has already seen some of the movie action as well as enduring a painful near-miss. There was a one-day shoot at Worcester Art Museum in December for “The Lonely Maiden,” a film about three overzealous museum guards, that brought Morgan Freeman, William H. Macy and Christopher Walken to the city.

Just days later, award-winning director Martin Scorsese’s plans to shoot the film version of Dennis Lehane’s novel “Shutter Island” at Worcester State Hospital had to be scrapped because the buildings were slated for demolition and state overseers didn’t want to keep the wrecking ball from rolling.

“It was just a case of bad timing and things didn’t work out,” Murray said. “We talked with Nick Paleologos at the film office and wanted to make sure Worcester was in the hunt for other films and that, when other ones were coming down the path, to make sure they take a look at Worcester.”

Which is just what the film office did.

“We’re thrilled,” Paleologos said of yesterday’s announcement that “The Surrogates” would be shooting many of its scenes here. “We had every confidence that if we keep sending them out to Worcester, eventually they were going to stay.”

Worcester joins a growing list of Massachusetts communities that are benefiting from the wave of moviemaking, although you could say we are on the Western frontier. Others locations have included Lowell, Woburn, Taunton, Medfield, Beverly, Burlington, Hull and Gloucester.

When film scouts do make the trip, they usually like what they see, especially “The Surrogates” crew.

“What I find most gratifying is how impressed they were,” O’Brien said. “As they toured dozens of sites, they continued to reiterate how impressed they were with all they viewed. And as the word gets out, I think there will be plenty more to come.

By Nancy Sheehan TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF April 25, 2008
Bruce Willis will film here. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Enlarge photo
Call me a prophet, but here we are and Hollywood is coming to Worcester.

Michael V. O’Brien,

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