Tag Archives: The Natural

From Buffalo Magazine: Buffalo’s film production renaissance pays off

I recently wrote a feature article on film production in WNY for Buffalo magazine. I was very pleased with how it came out — take a look.

On October 20, 2017, the most famous and culturally significant film ever shot in Buffalo came home — so to speak. Barry Levinson’s “The Natural,” the stirring baseball drama starring Robert Redford, screened before a packed house at the North Park Theatre as a presentation of Turner Classic Movies. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and director Levinson were in attendance for a pre-screening chat. Tickets were free, and so was the popcorn. But any Hertel Avenue visitor that night would have also noticed the scores of Buffalonians streaming into restaurants and bars for some pre- and post-film food and drink.

Yes, “The Natural” continues to pay off in Buffalo, more than three decades after it opened in theaters nationwide. Imagine, for a moment, if it had kicked off a filmmaking boom in the Queen City. What would a continual pat on the back from Hollywood have done to the area’s collective confidence? And what type of economic impact might this have had on Western New York?

Well…now we know. In recent years, film productions have descended on Buffalo with thrilling regularity. And the results have been extraordinary. From large-scale studio features like “The Purge: The Island” and star-driven efforts like “Marshall,” to passion projects like Cheektowaga native William Fichtner’s “Cold Brook,” there’s been a near-constant stream of new film production. For that, we can thank the Buffalo Niagara Film Office, a two-person operation — consisting of Film Commissioner Tim Clark and Director of Operations Rich Wall — funded through Erie County and the City of Buffalo.

It’s the Film Office’s job to answer a simple question: Why Buffalo? Clark says one factor is the New York State Film Tax Credit Program, which offers a variety of credits meant to encourage production in New York. But there’s more to it than that. That’s why Clark and Wall meet with interested filmmakers early in the process to learn their specific needs, and to stress the area’s offerings.

“We approach all inquiries with a regional eye to make sure filmmakers know about our location assets in Erie and Niagara counties as well as other adjacent counties,” Clark says. “Western New York has architecture from nearly every period in American history and large locations like the Central Terminal, Niagara Falls, Zoar Valley and the Lockport Cave.”

For many filmmakers, taking advantage of the area’s unique sites fits the script and the budget. Buffalo native Greg Stuhr starred in, produced and co-wrote Jennifer Ricker’s acclaimed 2016 noir drama “The American Side.” A mystery involving a detective’s search for a long-lost Nikola Tesla design, the film featured a cast of silver screen veterans like Matthew Broderick, Robert Forster and Janeane Garofalo. When preparing to shoot “The American Side,” Stuhr and Ricker sought distinctive locations and affordability. Buffalo provided both.

“Shooting in Buffalo saved us money in perceptible ways,” Stuhr says. “We couldn’t afford [to create what] a lot of the Buffalo locations offered just as they were. We didn’t have to spend extra time and money making Fera’s or the Buffalo Club look just right. They already did.”

Ricker says time and money went further in Western New York. And for a low-budget, independent project, this is essential.

“There is no way we could have shot this film with our budget and schedule anywhere else,” she says. “Had we tried this in another city, we’d be lucky to have a film in the can. We not only had a film that folks think was ten times the budget we shot with, but we came in on time and on budget. Those are words not often spoken in the film business.”

Buffalo native Kyle Mecca is the writer-director of “Dwelling,” a haunted-house horror film that was recently released on DVD as a Walmart exclusive. He had a deep desire to “bring Hollywood to Buffalo,” as he puts it.

“As I’ve grown as an indie filmmaker, Buffalo has grown into its own Hollywood at an exponential rate,” Mecca says. “So our pre- and post-production were both done in Buffalo, with only a small portion of post in Los Angeles. The producers and I wanted to pull our resources from home in every aspect of the production.”

Film Commissioner Clark has had a front-row seat as Buffalo-based production has exploded. He’s seen the positive benefit the boom has had on local businesses.

“The economic impact is huge,” he says. “The direct spend of the movie industry in the Western New York economy is expected to be upwards of $40 million this year, and we’ve seen a progressive climb in this number. ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows’ was here two years ago and there were thousands of hotel room nights on that project alone.”

The largest scale recent production in Buffalo was the fourth film in the “Purge” series, “The Purge: Island.” Clark says the hotel numbers exceeded even the impressive “Ninja Turtles” tally.

“The hotels thank us every day,” he says. “These movies can have a greater impact than most conventions and other events. One hotel recently had four different movies staying with them at the same time. And it also extends to restaurants, caterers, hardware stores, fuel suppliers, equipment rental houses, and beyond.”

To Stuhr, there is no doubt that a Buffalo production greatly impacts the local economy. But he sees a greater impact than just dollars and cents.

“We put a number of local artists, actors, and technicians to work,” he says. “We booked hotels, rented cars, rented equipment, rented locations, paid fees, hired caterers, patronized restaurants.

But there’s another element I think is worth noting: a film shooting around the city can be a great source of civic pride, especially when Buffalo is playing itself — as in ‘The American Side’ — and when its character is being shown off in such a beautiful way.”

“Dwelling” director Mecca is thrilled to see that “film and television production isn’t relegated to two or three cities anymore. Places like Atlanta, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh have thriving film and TV industries. There’s no reason Buffalo shouldn’t be counted among them going forward.”

With so many satisfied producers and directors, Clark says the future of film production in Buffalo is bright: “We are working on some very large and exciting projects for 2018 and beyond. Rest assured that there will be no slowdown anytime soon of movie trucks, crews and stars in Western New York.”

PHOTO: The vacant Dillon Courthouse in Niagara Square downtown was the backdrop for many of the scenes fillmed for “Marshall,” the Supreme Court justice thriller released nationwide in fall 2017. (Buffalo Niagara Film Office)

WNY’s All-Time Greatest Movie: “Buffalo 66” v. “The Natural”

redfird gallo

Last September, for Buffalo Spree’s “all-time greatest” issue, I pondered two great films shot here in the Queen City: “Buffalo 66” and “The Natural.” In light of the WNY Heritage article I discussed earlier this week, let’s take a look.

There is a scene in Vincent Gallo’s dark masterpiece “Buffalo 66” that captures the ennui of low-scale small-city life as well as any film ever made.

Billy Brown (Gallo), a fresh out of prison deadbeat, has forced tap dancer Layla to pretend to be his wife in order to impress his sour parents in dreary, cold Buffalo. After a family dinner from hell and a jaunt to the bowling alley, Billy drags Layla to Denny’s. It’s an old-style Denny’s, and it’s grim. (The last few Denny’s I’ve been in were completely redone, so don’t take offense, Denny’s of America.)

He orders a water, she orders a hot chocolate. Typically, he knows the woman who walks in the front door—it’s his old crush. In fact, Wendy Balsam (Rosanna Arquette) sits directly across the aisle. “Weren’t you in my third-grade class?” she asks. “Yes,” he mutters, head down.

It may seem a throwaway scene; in fact, it might be. But it captures a certain piece of Western New York that is not often captured on celluloid. It’s the lower-class, late-night, where-else-can-we-go?, what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life?, world come to life. In a real movie. One that takes place—and was shot—in Buffalo. I can remember spending pre-legal-drinking-age mornings—2, 3 a.m.—in a Denny’s just like this one, drinking coffee with my motley friends and hoping that the Wendy Balsams of my past would not be wandering in. If you grew up here, there’s a good chance you watched this scene play out often, and you were the star.

The Denny’s sequence accounts for four or five minutes of “Buffalo 66”, but it is the moment that seals the deal: Gallo’s sad, flawed character study is the greatest Buffalo-set film ever made. (Note the word “set.”)

It’s also uncomfortably homophobic, often wildly pretentious, and downright cruel. Its vision of Buffalo occasionally feels like a kick to the groin for those who love this city. And it requires that one can tolerate Gallo, the provocateur as known for receiving onscreen oral sex (in his directorial follow-up, “The Brown Bunny”) and wishing cancer upon a film critic (Roger Ebert) as he is for being a truly strong director and actor. (See Francis Coppola’s underrated “Tetro.”) It also means sitting through lots of Yes on the soundtrack, or as I like to call them, “No.” But the level of insight makes the flaws worth it.

Consider the feel-bad “Buffalo 66” the antithesis of “The Natural”, which is the more obvious “greatest Buffalo film” pick. Of course, “The Natural” was simply filmed here—it does not take place in the Queen City. But it’s the Buffalo of our sepia-toned dreams, featuring a Central Terminal packed with travelers, a gussied-up Parkside Candy on Main Street, and the Rockpile, in all its glory. Let’s call it the greatest Buffalo-shot film ever made, then.

“The Natural”’s ending is the finest sport-gasm ever filmed, with Roy Hobbs’s scoreboard-smashing home run set to Randy Newman’s swelling score. It is gorgeous, and heartwarming, and beautiful, and despite betraying the dark ending of Bernard Malamud’s book in every way, it remains the favorite movie of just about every dad in WNY, and carries an air of nostalgia for the time Redford and Hollywood came, saw, and loved our city. (The website forgottenbuffalo.com features a breakdown of all the film’s Buffalo locations.)

I’d hate to see a breakdown of the depressing locations in Gallo’s film. But the ugliness is part of the plan. And there is a nice inversion of this thematic unattractiveness in a subplot I’ve yet to mention.

Billy was imprisoned after placing a $10,000 bet on the Buffalo Bills, who, of course, lost the Super Bowl when kicker “Scotty Wood” missed the game-winning kick. (He took the blame for a crime he did not commit in lieu of paying his debt, or seeing “bad things happen.”) In essence, then, the entire film is predicated on the lingering effects of this moment, one played out endlessly in the minds of many (if not most) Buffalonians for the past twenty years. Watching the film again for the first time in several years, I was stunned by the equanimity of its ending, in which Billy decides not to kill Wood—yes, he was going to kill him—and instead recalls, “He kicked good that season … He missed one measly field goal.” So at heart, “Buffalo 66” is an ode to moving on, and that’s something Buffalonians have been forced to do with regularity.

Let’s end on the wisdom of Mickey Rourke’s bookie: “If Buffalo ever makes it back to the Super Bowl … bet against them.”

Image from Buffalo Spree; Redford photo courtesy of Buffalo History Museum

Edison, Bond, and Roy Hobbs: WNY Heritage Explores the History of Buffalo and the Silver Screen

natural lobby card

I suppose it’s no surprise that Buffalo has a fascinating film history, and not just the movies that were shot here — “The Natural,” “Buffalo 66,” “Henry’s Crime,” “Hide in Plain Sight.” There were gorgeous theaters, distribution companies for major studios, and more.

For all of these details, and other fascinating bits if cinematic minutiae, the summer issue of Western New York Heritage magazine is a must-buy. Matthew Biddle, a great writer and good friend (he interned for me at Buffalo Spree, and has been a dedicated contributor to Spree and Forever Young ever since), has written a wonderful piece about Buffalo’s “long and colorful history with the movie business” that is detailed, interesting, and wonderfully incisive.

Matthew starts with the movie that is perhaps most indelibly linked to the Queen City – in the minds of Buffalonians, at least: “The Natural.” Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s novel is, despite its still controversial happy ending, a modern classic to just about every Western New Yorker. It is the story of Roy Hobbs, played by Robert Redford, the “35-year old rookie” ball player, and for the film, Buffalo became 1930s New York, happily.

“With shooting nearly complete [in September 1983],” he writes, “a crowd of over 12,000 converged on the Old Rockpile, the rusted 45,000-seat stadium and site of the most filming. Wearing a baseball jacket for Hobbs’ team, the New York Knights, Redford thanked the crowd for the warm reception the cast and crew had received.”

(I interviewed Bisons owner Bob Rich for Spree back in July 2011, and he discussed the filming a bit, and Forgotten Buffalo has a nice tour of the shooting locations.)

Locals still talk about that magical time, but as Matthew’s article explains, it was one if many brushes with Hollywood. Consider:

  • “[In 1896] Mitchell H. Mark opened in Buffalo what’s purported to be one of the nation’s first purpose-built movie theaters.”
  • “Several Edison videographers created at least 20 films at the Pan-American Exposition [of 1901].”
  • Buffalo was home to “film exchanges” for major studios like MGM, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount. As Matthew writes. In 1941, the Courier-Express noted that “[f]ew people realize how important a movie center Buffalo is.”
  • “In late 1917, the first Buffalo-based production company, the appropriately names Buffalo Motion Picture Company, announced its premier film, a ‘drama of motherly love’ called ‘The Brink of Eternity.’”
  • The Roger Moore-era James Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun” “featured a stunt digitally designed by Cornell Aeronautical Labs in Buffalo,” and the car still sits in a building in Hamburg.

Interesting, no? There is plenty more in the article, including Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Buffalo years, the city’s role as a testing lab for Todd-AO, and even the recent filming of “The Best Man’s Holiday” at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The latter, coupled with the news of a Matthew Broderick movie currently being shot in WNY, make clear that even on a small scale, Buffalo remains involved with filmdom. We need more ambassadors like Robert Redford, who, Matthew says, recalled “the ease with which the people and the place made this experience … I really like this city.”

Photo is a lobby card for the film; that is Parkside Candy in the background