Philadelphia Metropolis


Hollywood Takes Philadelphia

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By Jonathan Stutzman


Multiple $15,000 lights shine down onto the pavement below, bathing countless PA's, grips, sound crew, and gaffers, in enough light to mimic daytime. Five miles of street are blocked off with squad cars, caution tape, cones, and cops. Portable heaters keep crew and million-dollar stars snug and toasty against the winter's midnight chill. Amidst all the Hollywood grandeur there's me, the director, controlling the film-- and by amidst, I meant about 20 blocks away.

Unfortunately, the set I was "controlling" wasn't the set of the big-budget action/thriller Safe, starring Jason Stratham and Ben Foster, a big-budget film shot in Philly.

They had the million dollar equipment, the Hollywood A-listers, and the Kraft services. They had the traffic control, the police presence, and the portable heaters (ahh, portable heaters). Hollywood had invaded the East Coast. 

Twenty blocks away, there was us-- a dozen of us, freezing our butts off, trying to make a minimal-to-no-budget student film with our $3,000 camera and single $200 light.

It was here that a shivering group of film students, friends, and actors, waited for their beloved director, me, to take control and make cinematic gold.

We stood on the sidewalk of Rittenhouse Square, sipping hot chocolate slowly (so not to burn through our minimal budget too quickly) mourning the loss of an essential prop (a bicycle) that had just been stolen out from under our frozen noses while setting up dolly track. Besides the cold and thievery, my producer had just informed me the dolly track we'd rented was 30 feet shorter then what we had planned for, so my assistant director, cinematographer, and I were forced to re-imagine the blocking and camera movement of the scene in about 10 minutes.

My sound crew soon politely informed me that the boom was picking up the heavy frigid wind extremely well, not to mention the leviathan-sounding SEPTA buses that would pass by every five minutes. To top it off, some friendly neighborhood Philadelphians, professional and homeless alike, would wander through our shots, angrily cussing us out for taking up the sidewalk, doing their best to ruin our takes. What else could go wrong? Uh, what was that? Gun Shots?!

Movie Logo.jpgStop rolling. Let the ambulances go past.

The word control is a misnomer on an independent student film in Philadelphia.

Standing there shivering I wondered what it would be like to film in Los Angeles, that beautiful filming Utopia we hear all about in the magazines. A land of warmth and sun, and perfect 72 degree weather; no heaters needed. A land filled with hippies who already have bicycles, so there is no need to steal one.

So why, does Hollywood fly into the East Coast cold and film in Philadelphia? Perhaps it's because of their filmmaker tax-rebates (when paying $100 million for special effects to hide the lack of a script, you got to cut expenses somewhere right?). Or maybe it's because of the diverse looks the city has to offer - the colorful Chinatown, quaint Old City, gritty North Philadelphia, the lavish suburbs, and the Ivy League flair of University City. Interestingly enough, productions that shoot in Philadelphia usually mask it to look like somewhere else, whether it's New York, China, or Paris. Rarely does Hollywood shoot Philadelphia as Philadelphia.

This city has both a rich visual and emotional texture to it, one that resonates in everything about it, its cityscape, its history, its sports teams, and of course, its people.

Philadelphia is a tough city, but a beautiful one. It's a city of the underdog and the blue collar, and maybe that's why Hollywood tries to mask the city, the glitz and glam doesn't mix with Philadelphia's heart.

My short film, The Persistent Slumber of Insomniacs, is about strangers and the collision of lives. Even without a Hollywood budget, my small cast and crew and I shot at over 10 uniquely beautiful locations around Philadelphia: from the top of the Art Museum steps, to the sidewalks of Girard Avenue. This wouldn't have been possible without the help of strangers; small business owners letting us film in their diner, Hollywood-caliber actors working for free, restaurants donating food for the set, friend's donating bicycles, and even the talented crew that gave their time and energy with only the payment of hot cocoa and frostbite.

I think that's what Philadelphia has to offer the most. Something that is better than any Utopia with 72-degree weather. Good movies, like most creations, are made by people who work hard and love what they do. This is why I will keep making movies in Philadelphia. It's a place where filmmakers, actors, sound artists, and the like can come together, and make films they care about.

So even though 20 blocks away, Jason Stratham was kicking butt and taking names on a Walnut Street made to look like Asia or Europe, I was proud to be at Philadelphia's Rittenhouse square, battling hyperthermia, with little to no control of anything in my environment, with the best cast and crew a guy could ask for.


The take was almost done, I closed my eyes waiting for a SEPTA bus to come rumble through. For an ambulance to scream by. A drunken guy to walk through and curse at us. Nothing. Silence. I opened my eyes. The scene was done.



The Persistent Slumber of Insomniacs is currently in post-production and it due to be released later this spring.  You can follow its progress on its Facebook page.



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