“I have always wanted to make a feature film in Sacramento,” Greta Gerwig was saying. “I wanted to make more than one feature film in Sacramento. But right now, I’m just going to try to make this one.”
The 32-year-old filmmaker and actress was on the phone a few days ago from Brooklyn, where she lives now. I’d tracked her down to ask about the coming-of-age movie that may or may not pencil out for her to shoot here, though Sacramento is a character and she wrote it especially as a kind of valentine to her hometown.
You couldn’t see her face, but if you did, you would have recognized her as the luminous indie star of such films as “Greenberg” and “Frances Ha,” part of which was shot here. Or you might remember her from Sacramento’s River Park neighborhood, where she grew up, the child of Gordon and Christine Gerwig and a graduate of Phoebe Hearst Elementary, Sutter Middle School and St. Francis Catholic High School.
Listening to her, though, you could see where she came from.
“There are specific streets and houses and places and theaters that I have very deep feelings for,” she was saying. “I love walking on the levee beside the river. I love Burr’s ice cream. I love Vic’s, too, but I love Burr’s more. I love the McKinley Park Rose Garden.
“I really love midtown, just the vibe of midtown, and the coffee shop at the Weatherstone. I love the houses in there, and the way it feels, charming but ‘city,’ it reminds me of Brooklyn, of Park Slope, but much less outrageously expensive. And the theaters that I associate time with – the New Helvetia Theatre. I loved that theater. The 24th Street Theater. The Memorial Auditorium? And the little theater off to the side of the Memorial Auditorium?”
She goes on, the list taking on a cinematic life of its own, her life. A kid at the zoo and the Railroad Museum. A Catholic schoolgirl with her pals on the sidewalk, singing show tunes from “Rent.”
“Also State Fair was a huge thing for me. I loved the livestock competitions. There was always a cow that was about to give birth and it always took sooo long, and you’d just keep checking back.”
Her voice was like her home: so earnest and down-to-earth that you just kind of wanted to do something for her. Write her a check. Give her a name. Buy her a sundae at Burr’s. Or at least Vic’s.
But clearly, charm has nothing to do with the formula by which California distributes its film incentives. Otherwise the California Film Commission would have given her the film tax credit she applied for and, perhaps unfortunately for Sacramento, didn’t get.
California’s 7-year-old film incentive program, aimed at curbing runaway production, was tripled in size last year to $330 million. So far it has worked well, luring big-ticket films and nearly a half-dozen TV series back from other states.
Still, filmmakers struggle to stay here. Even with incentive-rich states like Georgia alienating the creative community with attempts at anti-gay legislation, and the Koch brothers campaigning to dismantle show business tax credits in red states, other places are still a bargain for filmmakers compared to California.
“We’re still facing intense competition,” said Amy Lemisch, executive director of the California Film Commission. “Almost 40 states offer some form of credit or rebate. Canada has very, very good credits. The U.K. has a huge program.”
And, she said, the incentives California has are in very high demand.
Gerwig’s labor of love, a comedy called “Lady Bird” starring Saoirse Ronan, was among 174 entries in the January round of tax credit applications. After 15 projects, the money was gone.
Her project had a lot going for it, including its non-L.A. locations and lots of openings for crew and local spending. (“My dream for the catering was just to every day have Tres Hermanas,” joked Gerwig.) Drawn up with considerable input from organized labor, the mathematical formula the state now uses ranks projects according to economic impact and job creation, particularly for typically unionized, “below the line” employees.
Not to be too mystical about it, but being in a place informs what a film becomes, not to mention the light is different.
But with so many contenders, it was a long shot, even with scores of letters of support from local politicians, business people and arts leaders. Gerwig’s category, independent films, had enough incentive money for only three projects. One was a Coen brothers comedy directed by George Clooney, one was something called “Save the Cat,” said to be set to shoot somewhere in “Central California,” and one was a film called “Beautiful Boy.” Each got $2.5 million.
Knowing now that she won’t get a credit like that has left the young filmmaker crunching numbers. A certain amount of her project must be done in Sacramento: “Not to be too mystical about it, but being in a place informs what a film becomes, not to mention the light is different.”
But it’s not clear she’ll be able to afford to shoot much more than exteriors here, a disappointment not just for her, but for Sacramento. Movies are like circuses, and when they come to a town, everything they touch becomes more interesting and vivid, just for having been beheld.
She said everyone she has spoken to locally has bent over backwards to be helpful. But the local arts infrastructure is limited, in ways that are penny-wise and pound-foolish, in my opinion.
Sacramento’s film commissioner, the hardworking Lucy Steffens, is funded only half-time in the position. The mayor’s long effort to expand Sacramento’s creative workforce came to naught on the film front when it became clear that it would cost money. And the city lacks the financial incentives offered by, say, San Francisco.
Gerwig plans to start shooting in August. Her fingers are crossed that Sacramento will inform more than just the outdoor scenes in the movie. Mine are, too. A girl shouldn’t have to hire a stand-in for a hometown valentine.