From urban decay to movie magic

2011-11-18 09:25

In an abandoned church at the centre of what was once a thriving industrial town, a bit of movie magic is happening.

A set designer pins white lace curtains up over the windowless frames of an old classroom, then kneels in the rubble-strewn floor to melt the tops of some candles with a blowtorch.

Crew members beat a path through the dirt on a rusty stairwell as pigeons flutter through gaping holes in the roof to their roosts.

It is the perfect setting for a spooky thriller about a serial killer, says “Altered” director Kely McClung.

“One of my rules for making low-budget films look rich and expensive is rust, dust and dirt. It films beautifully and it helps tell our story as well.”

Gary, Indiana has rust, dust and dirt to spare.

Founded by the US Steel Corporation on the shores of Lake Michigan just across the state line from Chicago in 1906, the story of Gary’s meteoric rise and fall is one shared by industrial towns across the nation.

The steel boom brought tens of thousands of good jobs and a can-do spirit that was serenaded in the 1957 musical The Music Man, with the feel-good tune Gary, Indiana.

But life got bad in a hurry when the steel industry suffered a sudden collapse in the 70s, exacerbating white flight to the suburbs.

Countless civic efforts have failed to stop the downward spiral. Gary’s population has fallen from a peak of 178 000 in 1960 to just 80 000 today. It is riddled with poverty, violence and crime.

A Hollywood film crew couldn’t design a more convincing set for urban decay if they tried.

The main drag is a ghost of Gary’s former glory, with nearly every shop boarded up except the usurious payday loan office.

Someone tried to add a little cheer by painting a smiling usher on the boards covering up the ticket booth of the movie theatre.

He is amazingly free of graffiti, perhaps because the few remaining neighbourhood kids have so many more enticing ways to make trouble.

Tourists searching for King of Pop Michael Jackson’s birthplace on 2300 Jackson Street turn west off Broadway and drive past empty streets lined with crumbling homes marred by fire, wind, and neglect.

Dilapidated factories stripped long ago by scavengers squat behind rusted fences a few blocks away.

On the lakefront, smoke billows out of the stacks at US Steel and gas flares light up the night sky.

With its shrunken tax base, Gary cannot afford to demolish its thousands of abandoned buildings.

Ben Clement – a former TV show host who moved home from Ohio to try to revitalise Gary and ended up as the head of its economic development office – decided it was time the city got some use out of them.

He founded the Gary Office of Film and Television in 1997 and has brought hundreds of crews to town.

“Since these buildings are here anyway and since they have a certain esoteric or aesthetic quality to them that is very attractive to filmmakers, why not take these lemons and in essence make lemonade,” Clement says.

The gothic City Methodist Church which has been abandoned for about 30 years has been used in at least 75 projects, including Transformers 3, Nightmare on Elm Street and a gospel music video.

McClung, who camped out in the church to guard his equipment during early shoots and has since rented an apartment a few blocks away, says the city has bent over backwards to help him.

He’s already planning other projects here.

“There are a lot of stories that could be told in these buildings,” he says.

“It’s not just this church. There’s train stations and hospitals and auditoriums and factories and houses and it just goes on and on.”

The economic impact of film projects in Gary is unclear. Some locals have been hired as extras and a handful even managed to get coveted union cards after landing acting roles and crew jobs.

But without nearby restaurants, shops and hotels most of the money movie crews bring gets spent in neighbouring towns.

Gary keeps the fee structure quite “user friendly” – $500 (just over R4 100) a day per location for feature films, $250 a day for independent shorts and $50 per day for student films – so the impact on city revenues is modest, Clement says.

There’s more to it, though, than just dollars and cents.

Gary now has a burgeoning local arts scene and hosted its first film festival in February.

And then there’s the emotional boost for a town where good news is often hard to come by.

“We had literally thousands of people behind a rope watching Transformers being filmed,” Clement says.

“Who knows what spark was created in those children’s imagination?”

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