By Clarence Fanto
December 20, 2009
LENOX – Hollywood on the Housatonic; lights, camera, action! For more than 30 years, Berkshire County has been a favored location for an impressive list of big-screen movies. Our Gilded Age mansions and bucolic scenery are likely to be even more attractive now that the state dangles tax-credit carrots and other incentives.
I recall a summer evening in 1969 when I saw “Pretty Poison” on the big screen at the 600-car Coury’s Drive-In in North Adams (demolished in 1994).
Starring a frightening Anthony Perkins and a cunning Tuesday Weld, this medium-budget melodrama was filmed here in 1967, primarily in Great Barrington where Routes 23 and 41 intersect, with some additional scenes in North Adams.
Much better-known is “Alice’s Restaurant,” released just after the Woodstock festival in August 1969. The film version of Arlo Guthrie’s classic song depicted his run-in with Stockbridge Police Chief William Obanhein (“Officer Obie”) after Guthrie dumped trash into a ravine because the town dump was closed on Thanksgiving Day. Obanhein played himself, local resident Arthur Penn directed, and trivia buffs still remember how the Thanksgiving scenes included colorful fall foliage. Oops! Turns out the filming took place in early October.
At least a dozen feature films have been shot here, including “The Cider House Rules” (1999) at Ventfort Hall; “Before and After” (1996), starring Meryl Streep, in Lee and other towns; as well as “A Change of Seasons” (1980) and “The Human Stain” (2003), both with Anthony Hopkins and filmed partially in Williamstown. The Berkshires have long attracted special-effects artists like Doug Trumbull and high-tech production houses, including the Trumbull Company, Mass Illusion, Kleiser-Walczak and VFX.
There’s plenty of cinematic history and movie-making know-how in these hills, and the newly formed, nonprofit Berkshire Film and Media Commission (BFMC) aims to end a recent lull in feature-film production here while also attracting TV shows, commercials, shorter-form videos and digital media pro-jects. All these qualify for generous Massachusetts tax breaks; there has been plenty of on-location shooting in the Boston area, chosen in recent years by directors Clint Eastwood for “Mystic River” and Martin Scorsese for “The Departed.” Since 2006, 14 feature films have been shot in this state, generating at least $360 million in revenue.
Now under the leadership of VFX visual-effects producer Diane Pearlman, BFMC is exploring a relationship with Shakespeare & Company, which sports a production facility — including costume, prop and set-building shops, rehearsal rooms, warehouse space, even a potential sound stage — in its spacious, renovated, 25,000-square-foot complex that includes the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.
“It’s a tremendous resource,” Pearlman enthused in an interview. “We’re in the very early phases of how we could collaborate and utilize the energies of the two organizations to be an economic initiative for the area.” Pearlman and her team have developed the commission’s Web site (www.berkshirefilm.com) as a one-stop marketing tool.
“People are finding us,” she said, citing referrals from the Massachusetts Film Office, the clearing-house in Boston for production activity statewide. The commission’s board chairman, William Beautyman, owns Limelight Productions in Lee and is the area representative for Local 481, the union that supplies electrical and lighting crews.
“There are irons in the fire,” Pearlman acknowledged, “but until a contract is signed, you can’t count on anything.” One Hollywood director may be interested in shooting an animated feature film here and has toured Shakespeare & Company and Searles Castle in Great Barrington. HBO is considering a miniseries on the life and times of Shakespeare that would be a natural for the Lenox production center.
Local screenwriter-director Carl Sprague hopes to mount an independent-film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s “Summer” here and is seeking $5 million to $10 million in financing.
All this potential activity is music to the ears of Tony Simotes, the artistic director of the financially-challenged Shakespeare & Company. “It seems as though it’s a symbiotic relationship serving both the commission and ourselves as we become a conduit for possible work here in the area,” he explained in an interview. “I’m just waiting for the Klieg lights to come on.
“This isn’t just for us. If a film shoots in this area, everybody wins.”
Next Sunday: How the Berkshires can attract filmmakers.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.