I spent a couple of hours this morning on the set of “Bill,” a movie that’s being shot here in St. Louis this summer, starring Aaron Eckhart, a very good actor who has been in “Thank You For Smoking,” “In The Company of Men,” “Erin Brockovich,” and more.
During a break between scenes, I talked with Eckhart for a few minutes about what it’s like to make a movie here, how changing the leading lady from Lindsay Lohan to Jessica Alba affected the movie, and whether our notorious summer heat and humidity were getting in the way of his performance.
On the latter question, he said it wasn’t easy working outside today because of what he was wearing — not just a business suit (his character is a banker), but also a fat suit to make him even larger than the 20 pounds he had gained to play the role. That’s when I looked him over and realized he was still thinner than me. I wanted to tell him that I had my fat suit on, too.
Being on and around a movie set isn’t nearly as exciting as it sounds. The novelty wears off quickly as you realize that there’s an enormous amount of down time between shots. You start to notice that only the stars and directors have chairs (everyone else from crew members to onlookers spends the entire day on their feet); that the eighth take of that scene they’re doing halfway down the block and out of earshot doesn’t look any different than the previous seven from your vantage point; and that no matter how many times passers-by ask, they’re not going to see Jessica Alba, because she wasn’t even in town today.
By the way, these movie makers are smart enough not to put her in a fat suit. I still don’t understand why she was hired to play The Invisible Woman in “Fantastic Four.” If Jessica Alba is in your movie, the audience wants to get a good look at her, not see her disappear.
Producer Matthew Rowland told me that the reason they’re shooting “Bill” here is because of the tax credits they got from the Missouri Film Commission. Another insider later informed me that the state set aside $1.5 million in tax credits for film production this year, and that it was all used up by June. That means that, after this, there are no tax incentives for other projects, including one that this same production company was considering doing in St. Louis (with a budget more than double the $5 million that “Bill” will cost). Shortsightedness in Jefferson City cost the state a big deal, which went to Austin instead, and would have meant a lot more work for the local film professionals, who make up 70-80% of the crew on this movie.
Rowland also told me that, while they have found a lot of wonderful locations in the St. Louis area to use, they still haven’t found the right place for the climactic scene, which will be shot next Tuesday. They want something idyllic, perhaps with a cliff and a majestic view. I suggested he get in a car and drive about 20 minutes north on the Great River Road to Grafton, where the cliffs overlook the Mississippi River (and bald eagles make their nests every winter). We’ll see whether they scout that out and decide to use it, although there’s one thing I know about movie editing — if that location is chosen, Eckhart’s character will get there by driving down a road that’s completely across town (e.g. Ladue Road), yet he’ll make one right turn and magically appear there nonetheless.
You notice odd moments like that sometimes in a movie shot in your hometown. When I lived in DC and saw “No Way Out,” I couldn’t help but laugh when Kevin Costner was being chased and ran into the Georgetown Metro station to get away from the bad guys. My amusement came from the fact that there had never been a Metro station in Georgetown until the movie makers put one there.
I asked another “Bill” crew member whether they’d had problems at any of the shooting locations in the St. Louis area. He said everything had gone smoothly, except when they did mall interiors. In the movie, Jessica Alba works in a lingerie shop, and the set department had built one in an unused storefront in The Galleria. Unfortunately, that meant that in some shots where you could see passers-by outside the store window, they used extras, and had to stop regular mall customers from walking through the shot. After a couple of hours of this, the manager of the real Bath & Bodyworks store next door came by to complain that this was hurting her business. When I asked if someone went over there with a handful of $100 bills to smooth out the situation, the crew member smiled and said, “No comment.”
“Bill” will be shooting here for another week or so before the film is taken back to Los Angeles for editing and post-production. Then the producers and directors will try to show it at a film festival or two, sell it to a distributor, and hope to get it into theaters sometime next year. I asked Rowland if he’d like to avoid going up against a big-budget picture like “Pirates of the Caribbean 3,” and he said no, that’s exactly the kind of movie they’d like to open against, because it would give audiences a real alternative, as opposed to some other indie movie with some buzz.
I have no idea whether “Bill” will be worth your entertainment dollars or not, but it would be nice to have more movies made here in St. Louis!