Patte Papa, Boston’s Movie Permit Czar

No Papa permits? No filming here.

By Judy Rakowsky, Globe Correspondent | June 1, 2008

On a Sunday at 6 a.m., the Massachusetts Avenue bridge is deserted, except for a lone actor on a bicycle pedaling furiously toward Cambridge. A helicopter film crew hovers above. Stationed nearby are 15 state troopers, eight police officers each from Boston and Cambridge, two fire engines, two ambulances, a Hazmat truck, and a State Police patrol boat tucked under the bridge.

It had taken dozens of local, state, and even federal permits and signoffs for filmmakers to pull off this opening scene of the movie “21,” and its success hinged on the approval of one 29-year veteran of Boston City Hall: permit maven Patte Papa.

“Patte peeled the onion,” says Mark Fitzgerald, one of Columbia Pictures’ location managers for “21.” Officials had feared the bridge closure would mean gridlock, especially if filming ran over on a night when the Red Sox were playing a home game against the Yankees.

But the film’s location managers came up with a plan, and Papa, the director of the Boston Film Office, pressed nay-saying officials. “Without Patte, we would have had to find another shot,” Fitzgerald says.

City officials now say that opening shot is more flattering than any ad Boston could buy. And the shooting schedule held, averting gridlock at the bridge.

Says Papa, “My motto is, ‘It’s Boston; we can do anything.’ ”

Patte “the permit” Papa, as some location managers call her, is listed in movie credits for films such as “Mystic River” and “21,” but she stays far from the limelight. “I don’t go to parties or premiers. . . . When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, that’s me. I like getting stuff done.”

There is a lot to do now. Papa, who just recently handed off walkathons and festivals to focus on film, stands at detail central of Boston’s movie boom. Already in 2008, seven major motion pictures have been shot in the city, compared with eight in all of 2007.

Lured to Massachusetts by state tax incentives that were sweetened in 2006 to 25 percent for productions that do at least half their filming in the Bay State, films are shooting everywhere from art galleries in Rockport to an abandoned state hospital in Medfield. And it’s the rare film that skips Boston, where classic brownstones, European architecture, and earthy three-deckers are camera magnets. That translated into 147 film-related permits handled in March alone, the total City Hall used to see in a year, Papa says.

Each big studio production comes with a base of 2,000 feet of vehicles: that’s 10 18-wheelers, six pop-out double-wide star trailers, three two-room campers, five 10-ton box trucks, six vans, seven oversize pickup trucks not to mention the trucks and trailers for cameras, props, special effects, wardrobe, hair and makeup, and the honey wagon – the restrooms and changing rooms – according to Fitzgerald. Films with special effects and car chases, like “Surrogates,” the Bruce Willis movie that’s filming now, have up to twice as many vehicles, Papa says.

And almost everything needs some kind of permit – or permits.

“Patte knows what the city can handle,” says Charlie Harrington, a Cohassett native who was a location manager on “Spenser for Hire” in the 1980s when Papa was the City Hall liaison.

For years, while Boston had no formal film liaison, Papa stockpiled knowledge as she oversaw events from the Boston Marathon to the gay pride parade. Now her experience is enabling the city to juggle multiple films at once, says Harrington, who managed such ’90s films as “Good Will Hunting,” and “Cider House Rules,” and more recent productions including “The Departed,” “21,” and the just-completed “Mall Cop.” He has been in charge of locations around the world, including locations for “Casanova,” filmed in Venice.

“I might complain about what I have to go through to get a permit in Boston, but ultimately we get what we want,” he says. “They’re getting pretty good at making movies.”

Boston is not like San Antonio, where filmmakers can have their way with an empty downtown after 5 p.m., or Jackson, Mississippi, where the mayor offered to close Main Street for a week to accommodate movie makers, Harrington says. That’s why Papa instructs location managers to keep neighborhood groups informed, and makes sure they give 48 hours notice of parking bans or street closures. She also insists on the city’s unusual requirement that films provide alternate parking to displaced locals at nearby garages.

The smart location managers listen to her. “I’ve learned that you do what Patte wants you to do, and get it right,” says “21” manager Fitzgerald, who just managed “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” for a division of Time Warner. “When you’ve got three generations living in a three-decker in Dorchester or Southie, you can’t go in there and boss them around no matter what movie star you bring,” he says.

The city, in turn, has learned from each film experience. For instance, there were shattered windows and broken china in homes all the way to Chelsea after the intentional explosion during the 1993 filming of “Blown Away.” As Papa says, “We don’t have much blowing up since ‘Blown Away.’ ”

Permits are the means of control, protecting residents from bright lights in their bedroom or truck backup noises at 3 a.m. And the paperwork requires studios to spell out everything they intend to use from the generators and electrical supply to which side of the trailer the actors’ doors will face.

The location managers are supposed to keep Papa in the loop lest they repeat the sins of past crews, such as when “The Departed” crew threw a dummy in the harbor near the federal courthouse to see which way it would drift. A passerby saw the floater and called 911, sending police cars racing to a possible homicide.

On a Sunday night in Charlestown last August, shots rang out and pedestrians hit the deck. It turned out a small indie film was shooting on state property near Bunker Hill Community College and did not bother to get any firearms permits – needed even for blasting caps. It was too dark to read the tiny sign: “Filming in progress. Pay no attention to the gunfire.”

The movie “Bachelor Number 2,” since retitled “My Best Friend’s Girl,” is often mentioned by city officials for its faux pas, such as when the crew left behind a portable toilet for a week last August directly under the open window of a Back Bay stalwart. The same film crew left a hydraulic lift in the middle of the Commonwealth Avenue mall for more than a week.

Sometimes infractions become more problematic. In April, “Bride Wars” ran over its permit on the first night of shooting on Newbury Street by two hours; the following night it ran even later, prompting police Sergeant Mike O’Connor, the film liaison, to shut down the film for the night. A week later, “Bride Wars” asked to shoot a second day at a location without the legally required notice to neighbors. Papa said no, and the film had to shoot another location where the permits were in order.

“Ashecliffe,” the thriller Martin Scorcese is currently directing, earlier this year failed to apply for welding sets in a Hyde Park warehouse. A building inspector and a fire chief discovered the fire code violations on a March visit to the set and ordered Paramount to hire a fire detail and comply with the city’s stringent code. But the studio balked at the fire detail, Papa says, and next she got a call from a Boston city councilor who had been asked by the studio to try to intervene on its behalf. Papa says the councilor did not press the case when he heard the details, and the city did not relent.

“I’m not about to go against public safety, and neither is the mayor,” she says. It didn’t help that the location was blocks from Menino’s house. “That’s just what I need: an explosion in the mayor’s backyard,” she says.

Spokesmen for “Ashecliffe” have declined comment.

Boston used to be known throughout the industry as a tough place to film, back when the Teamsters weren’t cooperative and City Hall was less gung-ho. And Boston residents still have a reputation from “The Brinks Job” in the 1970s, when a film scout paid a North End apartment resident $100 to remove his window air conditioner for a scene set in the 1950s. The next day, the film crew returned to find air conditioners – or cardboard facsimiles – in every window. Each resident was ready for his $100.

Studios look for permitting authorities they can work with, says Nick Paleologos, executive director of the Massachusetts Film Office. “We have not lost a movie because of any bad experiences, and it used to happen all the time,” he says. “The worst thing you can do with a film spending $350,000 a day is put them in an uncertain situation. . . . Film executives are allergic to uncertainty.”

That doesn’t happen with Papa as the point person, according to Paleologos. Studios are voting with their feet: Columbia and Disney each are filming a second movie here within a year, he says.

Boston is currently trying to streamline the movie permitting that funnels through Papa, who keeps many of the site plans, permit applications, and the who’s who of the crews all in her head. Also, the film rush is expected to abate temporarily because studios have been hurrying to complete projects in the pipeline ahead of a possible strike when the contract between the Screen Actors Guild and the major studios expires June 30.

That would give City Hall a breather. O’Connor, the police sergeant, who traveled to New York last fall to take notes on how Manhattan deals with the constant demands of film and television crews, says he plans to return this summer and refine proposals for Boston to better manage film parking and traffic.

Papa says she is adamant that no matter how busy it gets, Boston will not follow New York’s example of imposing filming blackouts in neighborhoods overrun by film crews.

“We don’t do that. We never say no,” she says. “This is Boston, we can do anything.”

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