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Archive for Friday, April 16, 1999

LAWRENCE ALWAYS EAGER TO GO TO THE MOVIES

April 16, 1999

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Lawrence's connection to Hollywood began with the filming of "The Day After," and the city and its residents have had an occasional presence on the screen since then.

When a film company or television network is interested in doing an on-location shoot in the Lawrence area, Judy Billings is the one who takes the call.

Part of her job as director of the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau is to help find suitable locales, office space and hotel rooms for those in the movie industry interested in bringing their projects to Lawrence and the surrounding area.

"My job's taken me to the roof of city hall, the top of grain elevators, into missile silos and into the tower of Dyche Hall. I've been in places I would never have been," she says with a laugh.

Leading the way

Billings and the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce got their first taste of Hollywood in 1982 when "The Day After" was filmed in Lawrence. At that time, there was no state film commission.

"The production company called the state tourism office and then they called other tourism offices," Billings said. "The state film commission was created during 'The Day After.' " In the meantime, I was thrown into this without having a clue. The production company was so good and I learned by working with them. " I learned very quickly that I wanted to protect our local interests and at the same time cut the red tape for the production company."

Jack Wright, a Kansas University professor of theater and film, said he worked as location casting director for "The Day After" and was responsible for coordinating at least 2,000 extras, many of whom were KU students.

"They were here several months shooting during the summer," he recalled.

The production company had its headquarters at the Lawrence Holidome.

Each morning at 5:30, Wright would meet with other principals to go over the day's schedule. He would then report at 8:30 a.m. to KU where he would teach all day. He would return to the movie set at 6 p.m. and work there until about midnight.

"It was like having two jobs," he said.

Wright said "The Day After" provided the city with an economic boost. Lawrence, like many U.S. cities in 1982, was suffering the effects of a recession, so the estimated $1 million that "The Day After" -- which was set in Lawrence -- pumped into the local economy was very important.

In addition, the made-for-TV movie turned out to be a publicity horse for the city. The world premiere of the movie -- which was the most-watched TV show of that time and continues to be shown occasionally on TV -- was held in Lawrence and attracted media from around the world.

"It put Lawrence, Kansas, on the scene," Billings said. " " Ten to 15 years later, people still remembered it."

Getting the name out

In contrast, Billings said, other movies that have been shot in Lawrence didn't bring much attention to the city because the on-screen action was not identified as taking place in Lawrence.

For example, "Cross of Fire" was shot in Lawrence but the story was set in Noblesville, Ind.

"Lawrence never got any publicity," she said.

"'Dances with Wolves' mentioned Fort Hays and they are still reaping the benefits. We scouted for (the movie) in the state but (the company) found in South Dakota everything that they needed. Anytime you're mentioned it helps. When 'Ride With the Devil' comes out, we'll get calls."

"Ride With the Devil," a feature film directed by Ang Lee about the border skirmishes between Kansas and Missouri in the Civil War era, will feature William Quantrill's raid on Lawrence.

"With 'Ride With the Devil,' Lawrence received no financial benefit in production, but we will after the film comes out. It will leave a lasting mark on those who see the film because they have an interest in history," she said. "The challenge is to fulfill the expectations of the people who come here (to experience that history). Right now, we're not filling those expectations, and we probably won't be ready."

Billings said the city, at this

See movies, page 31A

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point, has a walking tour of historical sites, the "Free State Fortress" film at the Lawrence Visitor Center in North Lawrence and some items on display at Watkins Community Museum of History relating to the Civil War and the role Lawrence played in it.

Securing the deal

Two other made-for-TV movies that have had an impact on the local economy are "Monday After the Miracle," the CBS project about Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan that was shot in Baldwin, Topeka, Leavenworth and Eudora last summer, and "Where Pigeons Go to Die," a film that starred and was written and produced by Michael Landon.

"Monday After the Miracle" was headquartered in Lawrence. That meant the production company rented office space, purchased office furnishings, installed computers and phone lines, hired local people to work on crews and as extras, bought materials for set construction and wardrobe, stayed in hotel rooms, ate at restaurants, bought gasoline and paid location fees.

"'Monday After the Miracle' was shot mostly on location away from here, but the office was hubbed in Lawrence so they spent more money in Lawrence than in the other places," she said.

Luck played a part in bringing "Monday After the Miracle" to Lawrence. Producer Vanessa Greene contacted Billings in fall 1997 about the project. At that time, Billings was having trouble locating enough office space for the project, and Greene had decided to look elsewhere. Then the CBS movie was pushed back to a summertime film schedule, and in the interim Billings was able to secure the needed office space.

"You don't have much time to get the package together," she said. "When Vanessa came in the fall, she was ready to go. " They are very demanding, and they want things now. If it's an appealing project or seems like it's good for us, then I drop everything and go."

That's what happened with the Michael Landon project. When Billings got the call from the state film commission saying that Landon was interested in shooting his movie in Kansas, she immediately hopped in her car and started taking photographs of locations in the area that might fit the project.

"I did a folder and overnighted it to him," she said. "They narrowed it down to Northern California, Boston and Kansas."

Representatives of the project came to Lawrence and Billings drove them to all the locations. But they weren't satisfied with any of them.

"I took them on every road in Douglas County. They'd get out of the car and stand," she said. "They were looking for a 'feeling.'"

Eureka!

Acting on a tip from City Manager Mike Wildgen, Billings drove them to a spot north of Lawrence.

"They all looked at each other and said it was perfect," she said. "They took their own videos and stills and took them back to Michael Landon."

Landon then came to Lawrence to check out the sites, and Billings had the pleasure of escorting him around.

"He stayed for two or three days. He was wonderful to work with," she said.

Billings said she is not courting any specific film projects at this time.

"There's nothing in the works right now," she said.

"I looked for a couple of locations this winter. But when the producer comes in -- I'm there."

-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is jbiles@ljworld.com.

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