Virginia Savors Trickle-down Effect from Movie Filming

October 31, 2011

Richmond wears its past like an old sweater. It's outgrown and ugly and unraveled in some spots, but it's ours and we're not letting it go.

While some criticize the former capital of the Confederacy for clinging a little too tightly to its history, sometimes we can't help ourselves.

And just sometimes, when someone such as Steven Spielberg needs a historic setting for a movie about one of our nation's most influential leaders, the city has a way of cashing in on that past — with potentially millions of dollars.

Directing icon Spielberg and his cast and crew have made the Richmond area home while filming his movie about Abraham Lincoln.

The city and its surroundings are rife with relics of the Civil War era preserved like virtual time capsules. And if you haven't noticed filming by now, you might soon.

The movie's footprint spans the metro area, from Hanover County to Petersburg, and filming is expected to run through December.

On Thursday, parts of Ninth Street were blocked for filming and abuzz with activity.

The movie, whose working title in numerous casting calls was "Office Seekers," is about the last four months of Lincoln's life and is based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."

Spielberg said in a statement this year that the "remarkable period architecture found in Richmond and Petersburg make central Virginia the ideal location for this production."

The estimated $35 million in direct spending that the film is expected to bring in has started to trickle down.

From sandwiches for movie stars to salvaged doors from the turn of the century for production sets, local Businesses are feeling the presence of Hollywood.

Even landlords are cashing in, renting homes to crew and sites for filming.

Ben Kastelberg, general manager of Caravati's Inc., an architectural salvage shop in South Richmond, said members of the production team visited and bought materials that'll be used to make sets for the movie's indoor scenes.

Items purchased included five-panel doors that dated to the turn of the 20th century and hardware for the doors, window shutters, and stair balusters and railings.

Kastelberg said he heard that Spielberg prefers to use recycled materials rather than building his own.

Do you want a Ham-iel Day-Lewis sandwich, a grilled creation of ham, pineapple, provolone cheese, barbecue sauce and honey?

The staffers at Lift Coffee Shop & Cafe are hoping that Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Lincoln, does. It's one of the lunch specials the coffee shop featured last week with the hopes of enticing cast members and crew into the shop at 218 W. Broad St.

Lift owner and manager Stephanie Garnett said movie traffic so far has been good. Sally Field, who's playing Mary Todd Lincoln, stopped by on a recent Sunday for tuna on sourdough and pasta salad. David Strathairn, cast as Secretary of State William Seward, has been in several times, she said, and sits at the bar or at a table often reading over his script.

Spielberg has been seen in the vicinity of the building along West Broad Street.

The staff held "Babe Lincoln Day" on Friday, where they dressed in beards, tiny black top hats, black blazers — and fishnet stockings.

"Exactly the way Lincoln would've done it," Garnett said.

Several Richmond spots could make cameos in the flick, including the Empire Theatre and Laburnum House.

A Mechanicsville warehouse serves as the film's production facility, and it's hard to miss the changes around the state Capitol.

Scaffolding started rising last week outside the Capitol, and small cranes parked on its front lawn. The state arranged for an engineering study, including soil testing, to determine if the walkways around the square could support the equipment without cracking.

Inside, cords snake around the second floor, where sconces and historically inaccurate features have been removed from the House of Delegates chamber.

Capitol guides have stopped accepting any new tour groups through Nov. 9 but are still honoring prior appointments with the understanding that the appearance of most rooms on the second floor will change and some artwork has been removed, according to officials there.

Crews filmed inside the 17,000-square-foot Laburnum House in north Richmond last week. Jay B. Lafler, who manages the property built in the early 1900s, said the Virginia Film Office put the house on the movie crew's radar.

"It didn't fit the time period for Lincoln per se — the 1860s — but some of the rooms were ideal for what they could make them to be," Lafler said.

So the crew rented the space and got to work painting rooms and dressing the set. They brought in air conditioning, catering — the whole shebang.

"It's a huge production, obviously, in doing a film," he said, with "trailers galore."

The house is for sale and a little star power could help.

"We were thrilled to have somebody like Steven Spielberg recognize the class and the quality of the facility and want to use it," he said.

A few miles away, workers have also spent weeks transforming the inside of the Empire Theatre on Broad Street. They laid a new stage floor, removed a few rows of seats in the orchestra section and made other cosmetic changes to the theater, which opened on Christmas night of 1911.

Staff members there believe the theater will be used to recreate Grover's Theater, where Tad Lincoln was watching a play the night his father was assassinated.

"We love having the building used in this way," said Judi Crenshaw, publicist for Barksdale Theatre/Theatre IV. "It's been really interesting to see the technical people and the behind-the-scenes work and all the preparation that's gone into it."

"They've gone out of their way to protect our theater," she said.

And aspiring extras who haven't gotten the call, there's hope yet.

"Anyone who went to the casting call should not shave their beard, they should not cut their hair, they should be patient," said Rita McClenny, the state's film commissioner, because the film could have rolling callbacks.

The state offered an incentive package to lure the film, including $2.5 million from the Virginia Motion Picture Tax Credit program, $1 million from the Governor's Motion Picture Opportunity Fund and $1.1 million in in-kind contributions, such as waiving permitting fees and location fees on state property.

At its conclusion, the movie will submit to the state film office its expenditures and Virginia hires for a calculation of the economic impact.

"A Steven Spielberg picture is big no matter what the measurement one might want to assess to it because he is the most noted director, in my opinion, in the world," McClenny said. "It's a Steven Spielberg picture, it's big."

McClenny said she's never seen this kind of response to a film here since she's been on the job. "And also beyond just the people, it's, 'Wow, this is such a great opportunity for the region."


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