Philly Gives Movies a New York Alternative
NEW YORK (NOT REALLY) -- On a crisp April day in 2010, Bradley Cooper could be found at the corner of 19th and Market, outside Philadelphia's Marathon Grill, making a movie. A bystander edged across the cables, through the phalanx of walkie-talkie-slinging production assistants, and approached the star.
"We were rolling film, and right as he walked by he whispered 'Fake!' -- and then he walked away," Cooper recalls with a laugh. "Only in Philly."
As it happens, the guy had a point. The street signs behind Cooper had been changed to W. 52d Street and 6th Avenue, the cabs rolling by had New York logos, and a block away the subway entrance read Rockefeller Center Station -- you could catch the B, D, F, and V.
Limitless, the thriller released in 2011, is set in New York City, but most of the shoot took place in Philadelphia -- on Center City streets, in its office towers, apartments, restaurants and bars, and on soundstages doubling for the Big Apple.
With lower production costs, cheaper per diems, and Pennsylvania state tax incentives that include breaks for "above the line" talent (actors, producers, directors), it was a no-brainer to head 90 miles down the Turnpike.
With the success of Limitless -- and its successful morphing of Philly into New York -- studios and stars have been flocking to town. Safe, the Jason Statham action pic released in April, and Dead Man Down, with Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace, set to open in 2013, likewise pitched their tents -- and caravans of trailers and mobile dressing rooms -- in Philadelphia. Walnut Street was made over to resemble a block near Union Square, 15th Street to look like the Lower East Side.
This summer, Paranoia, starring Liam Hemsworth, Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, and Amber Heard, used the Comcast Center's soaring lobby to double as a Manhattan skyscraper, and constructed Oldman's sleek offices beneath the glass-barrel vaults of the Kimmel Center. After a hiatus to accommodate Hemsworth's Hunger Games 2 shoot, Paranoia will return to Philly in December to finish up.
"I'm not going to lie," says Alexandra Milchan, the veteran Hollywood producer overseeing the Paranoia project. "The first day of scouting, we thought it was going to be problematic, because New York is New York -- it's one of the most recognizable cities in the world. And then we started discovering Philadelphia, and realized that actually not only could it look like New York, but we found perfect locations. . . . We could never have done what we are doing in New York, on every level."
There was a time, when the exchange rate between Canada and the United States was ridiculously skewed, that low- and middle-budgeted films looking for cheaper ways to shoot New York headed straight for Toronto. But those days are gone, and now Philadelphia is the low-cost, low-hassle alternative to the real thing.
According to Sharon Pinkenson, the Greater Philadelphia Film Office director, the city has "played" New York in a half-dozen films over the last four years: Paranoia, Dead Man Down, Safe, Limitless, the Bollywood thriller New York, and the Neil Patrick Harris indie comedy The Best and the Brightest.
These movies spent $93 million "on the ground in Pennsylvania," she reports. They created 1,238 local jobs, and generated an economic impact of $195 million to the region. As long as an attractive Pennsylvania film-production tax credit stays on the books, she expects that trend -- and those kinds of stats -- to continue.
Joseph Zolfo, the producer who worked on both Safe and Dead Man Down (and is back in town shooting a TV pilot for AMC), says that there's a vibe here he doesn't get on the streets of New York.
"The city and the people are extremely friendly and welcoming to film production," he notes. "New York has become so dense with television and film production. It's gotten to the point where it's more than frustrating . . .. But in Philadelphia . . . people are still excited by it. And when people are excited, it makes for a very enjoyable experience."
David Thornsberry, the L.A.-based location manager for Paranoia, commends Pinkenson's office, and the city administration. (Mayor Nutter, a confirmed film freak, was an early visitor to the Paranoia set.)
"It was very intimidating when I first got here," Thornsberry says. "I was thinking, Oh my God, it's like New York City with the parking and everything! How are we going to clear streets? But the city bends over backward. They're as accommodating as possible."
Thornsberry says that they had scheduled a daytime shoot in front of the Beasley Building at 12th and Walnut Streets -- with Oldman getting out of a car and heading into the 19th-century Gothic limestone and brick landmark -- but that the Streets Department had milled Walnut to prepare for resurfacing.
"They had Walnut Street torn up for a couple of weeks, and I knew it was of paramount importance to have it repaved, and we were calling and calling and we kept saying we're going to do it this next week, and they couldn't give us a straight answer," he says.
"And then on the night before we were scheduled to be there . . . we see the trucks lining up, and we get here the next morning and the whole stretch of Walnut that we needed was repaved. And the street guys told us: 'We did this because of you. We knew you guys were coming and we started here, in the middle of the whole run, just to make sure you guys were covered.'
"Wow, I couldn't get that anywhere else. It's indicative of how well we've been treated here."
Thornsberry was also thrilled to find a couple of architectural gems in the Philadelphia burbs.
For the lavish corporate training center run by Oldman's character, Thornsberry and his team used the Arbor Hill estate in Whitemarsh Township, designed by Rafael Vinoly and up for sale by its owner, Dennis Alter, former chief executive of Advanta.
"It's like a centerpiece for this movie, an iconic location," says Thornsberry, who also discovered a Tudor-style English manor in Wyndmoor to serve as Harrison Ford's home in the movie.
Still, there are challenges when you're shooting Philadelphia for New York that go beyond switching out the signage and street furniture, and trucking in NYPD patrol cars and MTA buses.
For instance, though the majority of their shooting days were based here, both Safe and Dead Man Down filmed in New York for seven or eight days. In some cases a sequence that began in one city ended in the other -- all of it supposed to be in the same place.
In Safe, Statham's character is involved in a blazing chase that begins when he emerges from a subway station into the thrum of Chinatown (shot in Manhattan). He fires at two crooked cops, gets in a car with the girl he's rescued from the Russian mob, and races off.
"Bullets are flying," producer Zolfo recalls. "He turns a corner in Chinatown and the chase continues. Well, once he turned that corner we were in Philadelphia, and he's being pursued by the Russians and he turns onto a large avenue into oncoming traffic. And that avenue was JFK Boulevard.
"But if you watch Safe, I think we did an amazing job of making that absolutely seamless. The audience would never imagine that the majority of that sequence was done here in Philadelphia."
Another chase sequence, in another movie -- Paranoia -- presented a different, and unexpected problem.
Director Robert Luketic had his star, the strapping Australian Hemsworth, tearing down an alley off of Rittenhouse Square pursued by corporate goons. It is meant to be a New York alley.
"It was 4 in the morning," Luketic says. "Liam's running around the corner, and as we tilt the camera up there's Liam running with a sign visible across the street. It said 'Best Philly Cheesesteak.' "
He laughs. "We're going to have to fix that in postproduction. 'Best Philly Cheesesteak' will not do."