"Meeting in fifteen minutes, people," shouted the newspaper editor before slamming the door of his office. "That means everybody."
The water-cooler conversation started gushing. Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon. So the rumors were true: The paper was being sold. Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon.
The paper being sold was not Westword, but the Denver Defender, a concept that had grown out of director/screenwriter John Sayles's imagination into an actual daily newspaper -- at least for a few hours last Saturday, when the conservative Defender occupied the Westword offices. A discerning eye could quickly tell the difference between the two publications. The piles of stuff in the Defender's headquarters were much more artistically arranged. The Defender's staffers had a much better wardrobe, even if it was a tad monochromatic. The Defender's editor did not use one word of profanity. But the Defender was offering the same special on Body Rub ads.
The transformation had begun at seven that morning, when set designers arrived and began redecorating parts of the office, covering Westword logos with those of the Denver Defender (hence the Body Rub deal), moving stacks of papers here, switching employees of the week there, removing the inflatable banana waaaay over there and replacing it with a red, white, and blue "United We Stand" umbrella handed out as a Denver Newspaper Agency premium.
The extras -- the water-cooler kibbitzers -- arrived at noon. The crew, fresh from another shoot near South High School, started coming in an hour later, bringing the lights, cameras and action along with them.
"Meeting in fifteen minutes, people," shouted newspaper exec Michael Shaloub, a local actor and sometime waiter whose brother is Tony Shaloub of Monk fame. "That means everybody."
And everybody really meant Maria Bello (The Cooler, Coyote Ugly, Payback), the ranking star of this day's show, playing the most glamorous reporter to hit Denver in years. Two days earlier, she'd sat amid a crowd of extras (and one sweating editor with precisely one line to not blow) playing the best-dressed, best-behaved media group in Colorado history, questioning gubernatorial candidate Chris Cooper (an Academy Award winner for Adaptation who'll deserve another nomination for his portrayal of the elegantly garbed but completely inarticulate politician). And now here she was, chasing Shaloub down the stairs and the hallway, trying to beg her way out of an assignment and then running into the water-cooler crew. Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon.
"Meeting in fifteen minutes, people. That means everybody."
Another take, then, finally, "That's a camera wrap on Maria Bello," said Sayles. One star down, but others like Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss and Daryl Hannah still to go.
For the past few weeks, Denver has gotten to look at itself through fresh eyes. Through the eyes of Sayles and producer/partner Maggie Renzi, who chose to make Silver City in Denver precisely because the city isn't seen much in the movies -- and what moviegoers haven't been seeing is a town that has a distinct sense of place. As Sayles points out, there isn't a Starbucks on every corner here. Not yet.
Through the eyes of Haskell Wexler, the legendary cinematographer who is making a golden Colorado autumn look even more gilded.
Through the eyes of crew members from across the country who came here for the chance to work with Sayles, the legendary independent director who's made such films as Return of the Secaucus Seven, The Brother From Another Planet, The Secret of Roan Inish, Passion Fish, Lone Star and the just-released Casa de los Babys. Came here for the chance to work with Sayles, but discovered that Denver is an incredibly easy town with great shops (love the vintage stores), gorgeous scenery and sightlines, and very friendly natives.
Through the eyes of local additions to the crew, actors and designers and makeup artists and prop people who are finally getting a chance to use their talents on a film project in their own town.
Through the eyes of eager extras who discover there's a lot of waiting involved in moviemaking -- and then quickly forget the wait once Sayles stands before them and explains their role in the scene ahead. "You're cynical, battle-weary reporters," he reminds the press-conference crowd. "You're worried about losing your jobs," he tells the water-cooler gossips. Watermelon, watermelon.
Through the wide eyes of people who stumble across a Silver City shoot -- anywhere from the El Rio bar to the Oxford to Wash Park to the Cherokee Ranch to the Denver City and County Building -- and find magic being made.
On Saturday afternoon, I found magic in the Westword women's room, the only convenient spot to put the video monitors. And there John Sayles sat in a director's chair, yelling "Action" (the only time he yells, apparently), then listening to the audio and watching the video feed from the cameras rolling just outside the bathroom door. Ah, glamour.
"Fifteen minutes, people."
Denver's fifteen minutes are almost up. But it was fun -- it was film -- while it lasted.
It's a Jungle Out There
Next Tuesday, the Downtown Denver Residents Organization will host the unfortunately titled "Downtown Denver: A Great Place to Live, Work and Visit, or Dangerous Urban Jungle?"
"What HAS happened to the quality of life in downtown Denver?" asks the flier hyping the forum. "Out of control panhandling & professional bums...blatant drug dealing...shootings...stabbings...NOISE."
As if downtown was so much better two decades ago, when the bums who lived on the streets of what would become LoDo were rank amateurs. And noise! It used to be that you could shoot a cannon off at midnight on the 16th Street Mall without hitting a soul. Now you'd severely cut into the corporate profits of both Express and Abercrombie & Fitch.
That's what happens when a downtown goes from eight to 8,000 residential units...and close to as many sports-bar stools. Success has its price -- and many other cities would pay dearly to experience Denver's problems.
Today, no one would write a song titled "Things to Do in Denver When It's Dead."
Adding insult to injury, the forum, hosted by state representative Joel Judd, will be held at the Wynkoop Brewing Co., the brewpub founded fifteen years ago by now-Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who's removed from day-to-day business operations by a trust -- but continues to live just a block away from his flagship restaurant, in the heart of the urban jungle.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Next Tuesday, Westword's partner paper in Phoenix will host a forum featuring Richard Florida, this generation's Megatrend-y eco-devo guru, author of The Rise of the Creative Class (now in its twelfth hardback printing), to discuss what, if anything, can save a downtown as bleak as the desert under a blazing hot sun -- which, in fact, Phoenix is. A downtown where one out-of-control panhandler would double the residential population.
"I think many times local political leadership is the biggest obstacle," Florida told Phoenix New Times. "They really believe that this two-stadiums-and-a-convention-center formula works. But no one cares! Look at Austin or the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. They succeeded without any of those."
Like Phoenix, Denver has followed the two-stadiums-and-a-convention-center formula. Unlike Phoenix, though, Denver had a downtown that hadn't sacrificed all of its wonderful old buildings to parking lots, as well as a group of creative types ready to join the artists and entrepreneurs who were already calling downtown home.
Where Phoenix flatlines, Denver ranks high on Florida's Creativity Index. "The Denver region combines the university and lifestyle assets of Boulder with abundant skiing and the urban character of its LoDo district," he notes in his book. In person, he has more to say about this city. The election of John Hickenlooper was a ray of hope politically -- not just for Denver, but for the entire country. It represented the triumph of the creative class, a group of people who share a "common ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference and merit" -- a common love of the city they live in.
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As for the "dangerous urban jungle" characterization, Hickenlooper responds: "In the current economic downturn, we've seen more panhandling and neighborhood violence throughout the city. The way to approach that is for neighborhoods to work with the city, not to inflame the public with hysterical headlines."
"What Phoenix can do is become more of itself," Florida told our Phoenix colleague. "There's an attempt to make it generic. But you have this amazing desert and an amazing range of architecture. You're much better off focusing on the small, everyday things like restaurants and places to walk your dog. Things you can do 365 days a year."
Things like walk along Cherry Creek to Confluence Park; or browse at the Tattered Cover; or try on a vintage shirt at Rockmount Ranchwear; or sip a latte at Common Grounds, a martini in the Cruise Room, a microbrew at the Wynkoop; or stop by the Soiled Dove for some local rock; or drop into El Chapultec to listen to a visiting jazz star; or buy a sidewalk burrito at 2 a.m. when the clubs let out, and make some NOISE.
A lively downtown may not always be postcard-pretty, but it sure beats the alternative.