John Ur pahks his cahr in Massachusetts for this week's Cinematic Road Trip column.
Ask any Massachusetts resident where they live and the answer will almost always be measured by their proximity to Boston. Like its rival to the west (New York), Massachusetts has a tough time establishing its identity outside of its largest city. And, being about 1/5th the size of New York by total area (and in the throes of a major baseball rivalry) it's hard not to occasionally think of the state as having a bit of a Napoleon complex.
But this is not to denigrate the rest of the state. In the west are the Berkshires, one of the state’s largest tourist attractions any time of the year. Thousands come to the area to stay in the rustic B&Bs in the highland hills, where rivers slice through the many valleys. And just try to make it out onto Cape Cod's classic beaches (locally referred to just as “The Cape”) during a summer weekend and you’re likely to be backed up in traffic for a few hours with about 100,000 of your closest friends. Like the Hamptons, or the Jersey shore, you do whatcha gotta do to get to the beach.
But there are few cities in the country that have as strong a cultural identity as Boston. You don’t need me to tell you that Boston has a storied history. Founded by Puritan colonists in 1630, the city has come a long way from its conservative beginnings – as any of my Irish brethren who’ve celebrated St. Paddy’s Day there will tell you. Though its population is only 560,000 compared to New York’s 8 million, Boston imparts on you a sense that it is just as big and just as important as the next guy.
How to best see Boston on screen? There is the obvious answer: Good Will Hunting. The Academy Award winning story of janitor/genuis Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is spliced with classic shots of Boston and Cambridge: Will and his counselor, Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) have a heart-to-heart in the Public Garden. Will rides the Red Line T train through the city to MIT, where he mops floors and solves math problems on the side. Will drinks and jokes and horses around with his buddies (played by Ben and Casey Affleck) at Woody's L Street Tavern in Southie, then heads up to Harvard's Dunster House to hang with his girlfriend (played by Minnie Driver). But beware casual viewer! Those shots that you don’t seem to recognize from Boston may very well not be; several scenes, including those in the lecture hall and the college bar, were shot in Toronto.
This wasn’t the last major movie to snub Boston in favor of another city where they could be shot on the cheap. Martin Scorsese, the top-notch director closely associated with New York City, caught his first big Oscar win for best director in 2006 with The Departed. The film is an extremely violent and profane story of a Boston Irish crime family and the police unit that try to shut them down. Though some Boston filming was unavoidable (you can’t exactly substitute the New York skyline for Boston), Scorsese and his production team shot a large portion of the film in New York City because it offered a 15% tax credit (10% from the state of New York, 5% from the city itself).
The crew did film a few location shoots in Charlestown and Chinatown in Boston as well as Lynn and Quincy, Massachusetts. I thought one of the most interesting things about the New York/Boston sleight-of-hand was Matt Damon’s apartment in the movie, which seems to look out to the golden dome of the Massachusetts State House. Only thing is, there are no apartment buildings in that area. The shot was a digital effect – superimposing the State House (shot from the roof of Suffolk University) onto the window area of an apartment. Tricky, tricky, these filmmaker types.
For those unaware of tax credits, let me take a moment to explain:
Many states offer incentive packages to draw film productions to their
states (and those that do make writing this column significantly
easier). Meaning that for every dollar that Warner Bros. Pictures spent
on New York locations, employees, props and other expenses for The Departed, they received 15 cents back on their state taxes. (And now that credit has jumped up to 35%
offering filmmakers even more bang for their buck.) For a large
production spending millions of dollars, these incentives can be hefty
and convincing. Massachusetts suffers from Washington Syndrome
here. They have a great place to film, but their incentives were not
good enough to draw the production in. Since that time, Massachusetts
has instituted a 25% tax credit.
Twenty years before tax credits made much of a difference in filming locations, one of the greatest thriller movies in history shot on Martha’s Vineyard. The production crew of Jaws chose to shoot out on the island because of its relatively shallow waters up to 12 miles off of the coast. The island has not changed much since the production, so many sites might still be recognizable: The American Legion Memorial Bridge and Sengekontacket Pond – aka the “safe” inlet where Brody’s son tries to escape the shark; Menemsha Harbor where Captain Quint’s workshop was constructed (and later dismantled because of strict building regulations on the island); and of course all of the beach scenes when tourists scatter out of the water to avoid the large man-eating fish.
With Massachusetts' new tax credits and unique locations, it won’t
be long before film production becomes more prevalent in the state. I’m
sure the people will be excited to balance out the metropolitan style
of the east with the natural beauty of the west and the Cape. Maybe
that Napoleon complex isn’t for nothing. Massachusetts is the little
state that could.
Also recommended: Boondock Saints, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Photos: Steve Dunwell for National Geographic Traveler's Places of a Lifetime: Boston