It’s Hard Out Here for a Westchester Director

No doubt you can rattle off a list of big-budget films that have been shot here: Big, Unfaithful, The Stepford Wives. (Okay, let’s all try to forget that last one.) Or perhaps you’ve come across a film shoot while driving around—both An Invisible Sign of My Own and The Rebound crews were spotted within county borders recently. But unless Catherine Zeta-Jones or Jessica Alba are on board, a budding filmmaker might find the labyrinthine process of getting a film made in Westchester impossible.

Meet two Westchester filmmakers: brothers Devin and Matthew Landin. After attending Rye Country Day School, Matt studied film at Washington University in St. Louis while Devin stayed local and did theater at Manhattanville. After college graduation, when a project of Matt’s fell through, he decided it was time to write and direct his own movie. “I did what everyone says to do, which is write what you know,” he says. “I wrote a film based on my life after freshmen year, when I got dumped right before finals and I had a summer to blow off all that steam.” He called Devin to come on board and help coax performances out of his actors, and the two set about filming a movie titled The Best Laid Plans.

To get the film made, “We called in just about every favor that we had,” Devin says. They raised “a couple hundred thousand dollars,” from friends, family, and friends-of-friends, who also lent their houses as locations. (“It helped that we went to Rye Country Day,” Devin says.) They tapped into the local acting scenes at NYU and Manhattanville for their cast.

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Here comes the problem: Even though the story of the film—as well as the filmmakers, inspiration for the characters, financiers, and location-owners—has its roots in Westchester, the Landins say they had a devil of a time actually getting to film here. “Originally, we scheduled a lot of shooting in Westchester,” says Devin. “We wound up having to move a lot of the shooting to Connecticut—to mostly Stamford and Norwalk—just because Westchester was making it more difficult and Connecticut was making it easier.”

Things got off to a bad start, with Devin noting that at first he wasn’t able to even track down a copy of the guidelines for shooting in Westchester, despite repeated requests. In fact, the pair complains that a general lack of response from those in charge dogged them through the whole process. “It took three e-mails to get one returned,” Matt says.

“Look, we know it is possible for a movie to disturb a neighborhood if it’s done poorly,” Devin says. “We wanted to follow the rules, but the people we had to deal with made that hard.”

Take, for instance, the saga of trying to nail down a location for the end of the film. Matt knew that is first choice of location, Playland, would be a stretch. Matt says that after sending in his scene and going through the whole not-answering-phone-calls-and-emails rigmarole—he had to stop by in person to get acknowledged—he was given the first of many restrictions. Since Playland is a family-friendly place, they were told, there was to be no foul language in the scene. Fair enough, the Landins thought, and went about talking through and setting up the shots they needed with the people who worked in the park.

“It’s worth noting that we really like Playland,” says Devin. “It wasn’t that we wanted to shoot at Playland because we wanted an amusement park. It was written into the script that they were at Playland. They enjoyed Playland. We mentioned the Dragon Coaster. The point of the scene was that it was fun to be at Playland.”

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Then came the time to sign the contracts for the shoot. When Matt went to pick up his contract, he says a new clause had been added in last-minute. “It said if we choose to shoot at Playland, we cannot mention or show anything that represents Playland or Westchester in general—in the entire film,” Matt says. “They decided that, after only reading once scene, our movie would cast a bad shadow on Westchester and Playland.”

Unwilling to take every single reference to the county out of his film—since it was crucial to the plot, after all—Matt left the meeting dejected. He went home, thought some more, and came up with ideas for a work-around, but was told that the fee for filming at Playland was upped “from three thousand dollars to five thousand dollars for all the trouble we caused and the time we wasted,” he says, and that they lost their original shooting date even though nothing had been scheduled in its place. At that point, they moved the shoot to Veteran’s Park in Norwalk, Connecticut and just called it Rye Beach.

They ran up against other stumbling blocks trying to film in various Westchester towns. Though each municipality varied—Harrison was very good to them, they say—they kept coming across strange restrictions. In some places, they couldn’t film past 8 pm, even on a private residence, which was difficult because they were shooting in the summer and the sun didn’t set around then. (Ever seen a movie with no nighttime shots?)

Connecticut, they found, was not only was more responsive, but just allowed for an easier shoot overall. Here’s how the Landins say filming in the two locations stacked up for the their production:

Connecticut

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• No general permit required for filming.
• $100/day fee required if filming on public property. No fee required if filming on a private residence.
• Police officers provided at a “decent rate,” and they did helpful things like closing down a road for one scene.
• The film office checked up on them and asked if they needed anything without being prompted to do so.
• Connecticut gives a 30 percent tax break for all expenses incurred while filming there.

Westchester

• A general permit is required for filming.
• $400/day to $800/day fee required if filming on a private residence. More money required for filming on public property.
• Police officers provided at $80/hour, with a minimum of 12 hours, despite the fact that restrictions on time (no filming after 8 pm) meant that 12 hours of filming was not likely.
• Calls and e-mails often went unreturned.

No wonder a lot of film crews have been packing it up and moving across the border.

“It just comes down to the fact that they don’t need it,” Devin says. “Even with our little movie, which in movie terms is nothing, we spent a couple hundred thousand dollars in and around Fairfield County. A lot of that money we wanted to spend in Westchester, but Westchester didn’t want it.”

To me, the loss of revenue isn’t the only shame in this situation. We have great filmmaking resources here—like the Jacob Burns, and other outstanding programs for student filmmakers—but making it so hard for professional (but low-budget) filmmakers here means that a local film scene won’t develop, the way that it has in places like Brooklyn and Portland. We’ll keep getting movies about the New York suburbs that are written in L.A. and shot in Toronto—which means more films about how the ‘burbs are full of nothing but miserable, middle-aged adulterers. I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of those.

Things aren’t so bleak yet. The Landins were able to complete their film over the summer, and Matt’s been editing it ever since. The two sent a rough cut down to the Tribeca film festival—cross your fingers it gets in.

In the meantime, if you want to see a rough trailer for The Best Laid Plans, one is available on YouTube. There are three things to note:

• The trailer is unrated, so kiddies ask your parents’ permission before watching.
• It looks better if you click on the “watch in HD” link just under the video.
• If you look closely, you might be able to spot former Westchester Magazine staff writer W. Dyer Halpern.

 

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