Lights, Camera, Action
I'm waiting for the phone to ring.
Shooting starts next week on Silver City, the political potboiler that renowned writer/director John Sayles has set in Colorado, giving the local film industry a much-needed boost and, come next summer, offering filmgoers what's certain to be an eye-popping look at our state. But right now, my phone is silent.
Last week I stopped by the Silver City headquarters -- located in a building on Platte Street where Westword officed in the boom-and-bust '80s -- to try out for the part of a newsroom gossip. How hard could that be? Our endless idle chitchat must still echo off those walls. And then, as an added bonus, I read the lines of a reporter questioning a less-than-bright gubernatorial candidate. Hey, in Colorado, that's not even acting.
But plenty of real actors have already snagged parts in Silver City -- as evidenced by their photographs on the office walls. Former Westword staffer John Ashton, now the impresario behind the 17th Avenue Theatre, will play a campaign manager; Denis Berckefeldt, spokesman for City Auditor Dennis Gallagher, will be Reverend Billy Tubbs. Other locals have gotten juicy speaking roles, and dozens of extras -- some of whom sent in pictures showing them with their dogs, with their dads, with a dozen roses -- will get face time with a stellar cast that includes recent Oscar winner Chris Cooper, Kris Kristofferson, Daryl Hannah and Danny Huston. When it's a Sayles movie -- a distinguished, solidly independent lineup that includes The Brother From Another Planet, Eight Men Out, Lone Star, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish, Sunshine State and Casa de Los Babys, which will be released in Denver next month -- the cast is always stellar. Even Mayor John Hickenlooper, who made his official acting debut (political campaigning doesn't count) with a line in a movie by his cousin George Hickenlooper, has read for a part.
But I'm still waiting for the phone to ring.
Colorado's been waiting for its own wake-up call for a long time. Although the Colorado Film Commission, founded in 1969, was the first state film commission in the country, that may be our most notable cinematic credit.
Not that there haven't been other shining moments. At the turn of the last century, Colorado's film community was hotter than a hooker in a frontier town on Saturday night. In 1902, Harold Buckwalter, a commercial photographer, made Denver Firemen's Race for Life, a film that captured city firemen as they raced a couple of blocks up 16th Street -- a scene staged simply to promote the city. He followed that with Denver in Winter in January 1905, another boosterish short featuring shirtsleeved citizens enjoying the balmy weather. (The ad agency that's committed $500,000 of Colorado's tourism money to an out-of-state company making a one-hour TV show allegedly hyping the state should take a page from Buckwalter's script.) Buckwalter also did his share of "bronco-busting pictures," and an anonymous writer in the Denver Times described one of his early Westerns as "the most perfect one of its kind ever made...so clear and distinct that all the riders in the arena can be easily recognized. Local talents and judges appear. The audiences go wild with excitement."
Cañon City enjoyed two years as a booming film town -- with stars including Tom Mix, fresh from a stint bartending in Lamar -- but when the Selig-Polyscope Company moved on to Hollywood in 1913, it took most of Colorado's cinematic dreams along with it. In the decades to come, movie companies would occasionally pass through Colorado to film a scene or two, sometimes entire Westerns -- The Naked Spur, The Maverick Queen, Cat Ballou -- but all too often, Hollywood passed us by in favor of states standing in for Colorado. (In The Hallelujah Trail, Lee Remick played a temperance leader trying to stop shipments of whiskey from reaching Denver miners. She could have saved herself a lot of trouble, since the movie was shot in New Mexico.)
Colorado almost single-handedly killed the Western with the abysmal The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, a 1976 film set in Central City (which also doubled as the Barbary Coast and Salt Lake City) that some residents of that mountain town still remember quite fondly -- possibly because it represented their last paycheck. "It was a lot of fun for the town," says extra Lew Cady. "They put dirt on the streets. It was also one of the worst movies ever made." When they weren't filming scenes in the bars, stars Goldie Hawn and George Segal frequented those establishments. Segal even drank Coors -- a brew then rarely seen outside of Colorado, but one that would earn a national reputation the next year when it starred as the object of Burt Reynolds' affection in Smokey and the Bandit. But the greatest performance by an inanimate object in Colorado -- not including Charles Bronson in 1973's Mr. Majestyk -- may well have been given by Charles Deaton's Sculpted House, which starred as a futuristic home in Woody Allen's 1973 Sleeper, in which Allen battled a giant strawberry.
Colorado's collected other memorable film clips. Every Which Way But Loose, the 1978 Clint Eastwood classic in which Dirty Harry partnered with an orangutan (and two Westword extras, barely visible in the back of a fight scene shot just off Colfax Avenue); City Slickers, the 1990 movie in which Billy Crystal says he "found my smile in Colorado"; Rodney Dangerfield in 1991's Ladybugs, which was enough to make you lose your lunch. And while Raymond Burr was a big fan of filming in our town, eventually we lost the Perry Mason TV movies to Vancouver, where much of the film industry has fled. (Peacekeepers, the new USA TV series supposedly set in the 1880s Colorado town of, yes, Silver City, is shot there.)
In 1995, Hickenlooper's restaurant got a role in Under Siege 2, with Steven Seagal playing a Navy Seal turned chef at the Wynkoop Brewing Co. That same year, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead died at the box office. In 2001, though, Jack Nicholson did his best to liven things back up with a brief scene shot here for About Schmidt.
Fast-forward to this spring, when Sayles and Maggie Renzi, his partner and producer, decided that Colorado might work as the setting for the mystery they had in mind. They arrived in town just two months after the Colorado Legislature had hacked the 3.5-person Colorado Film Commission down to one person, now reassigned to the Colorado Office of Tourism. But Sayles and Renzi knew what they wanted without a bureaucratic dog-and-pony show. They wanted a place with "character," Sayles said at a August 4 press conference where he announced he'd be making his next feature here. "One I haven't seen in movies a million times."
And it didn't hurt that Denver has plenty of talented people eager to help out on the film -- in the office, on the set, with props, with parts. Or that, as he says, "Denver is a cool place to be."
It's going to look cool on film, too.
"We're putting a spotlight on something people don't know," says Renzi, who's been in Denver two months now, pulling the deal together. "We're going to help people discover Denver."
And that includes the people who live here. The Silver City crew will be filming in Leadville (which stars as the not-too-fictional Carbonville), in Idaho Springs and in dozens of spots around Denver, including the Millennium Bridge, the El Rio bar up by the chicken-processing plants, the Temple Events Center, the Equitable Building -- an "incredible lobby," says Renzi -- and the Cherokee Ranch, where the two-day shoot will serve as a fundraiser for the trust to which Tweet Kimball left her amazing castle outside Sedalia.
Shooting begins next Tuesday in the basement of 1770 Sherman Street, which will do duty as the office of an alternative Web site run by Tim Roth, with an assist from Thora Birch. By the time the crew wraps, around Halloween, Silver City will have captured more than fifty locations -- including the current Westword office, which apparently does a much more convincing job of playing at newspapering than I do.
My phone may not have rung, but Denver's finally going to get some long-anticipated action.
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