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Jobs Watch: Desert celebrity watch

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Ben Jacklet
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It isn’t often that I get to write movie star gossip, so now that I finally get my big chance, forgive me if I get a bit breathless. Like, OMG! What in the world is Michelle Williams doing in Burns, Oregon?

Starring in a film about desperation in a harsh environment — what else?

Williams, who graced the screen in Dawson’s Creek, Brokeback Mountain and Deception, is working with Wendy and Lucy director Kelly Reichardt and rising star Paul Dano in a James Mangold production titled Meek’s Cutoff. It’s a pioneer Western about an ill-fated journey into Harney County in 1845. Three families hire a guide named Stephen Meek to lead them on a detour from the Oregon Trail into unmarked territory, only to get horribly lost in a brutal landscape well known to anyone who has made the mind-numbing trip from Bend to Burns.

What does this have to do with Oregon’s economy? More than you might think. The production team has been in Burns for three months, “spending a ton of money” in one local’s words, eating at the local Elk’s Lodge most nights, hiring extras and hitting up local shopkeepers and officials with all sorts of last-minute requests. When the producers asked for permission to build a bonfire at the height of the dry season, the county demanded a million-dollar insurance policy. No problem. They handled it with the same professionalism and deep pockets that they’ve handled everything else with in Burns.

I haven’t heard of any evidence that the staffers at the Governor’s Office of Film and Television had anything to do with luring such a talented team to Burns (they will neither confirm nor deny, by the way). Oregon’s been working hard to boost its presence in the world of film and TV, and for good reason. No matter how bad Oregon-based movies such as The Hunted and Twilight turn out, they generate a nice buzz and a sweet boost to the economy while they are being shot. More of that would be great, and it’s already happening, to some extent. Timothy Hutton is the latest star to come to town, stay a while, and toss a few scraps our way.

We aren’t just beggars in this scenario. Oregon’s film industry has a lot going for it, starting with Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes and the creative team at Laika. It also has nine distinct climate zones and more picturesque backdrops than all of Eastern Europe combined. You need ambience, Oregon’s got it. Need a bleak setting for the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? Try Portland in February! Probably not the best publicity in the world, but we’ll take it. Plus, Oregon is a lot closer to Hollywood than Vancouver, BC — and as much as I hate to admit it, our local currency is relatively weak in comparison to Canada’s.

And then there are the hand-outs — no state-run economic development program would be complete without incentives.

OK, so it needs to be said that you’re probably best off not getting your hopes up. For whatever reason, Oregon tends to bring out the worst in celebrities. Ever seen Benicio del Toro in The Hunted? Don’t bother. The same applies to Madonna and Willem Defoe in Body of Evidence, Diane Lane in Untraceable, Keiko in Free Willy and, yes, the entire cast of Twilight. Some productions are best forgotten.

On the other hand, there have been some absolute classics filmed in Oregon: Animal House, The Shining, The Goonies, Drugstore Cowboy, Coraline and my personal favorite, One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. What a deliciously twisted canon. Meek’s Cutoff could be the next great addition to that list. Don’t knock dark settings and weird humor. Not everyone likes that happy Hollywood garbage. Irreverence is a strength Oregon can build on.

Plus, even if the movie flops, the people of Burns will keep the money, thank you very much.

Ben Jacklet is the managing editor of Oregon Business.

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