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A rising star in recovery

Katrina dealt a major blow to the Big Easy's film career. But there's always the comeback.

August 06, 2006|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

New Orleans — THE Mississippi River, usually coursing with scores of ships carrying cargo and people, was nearly deserted. Coast Guard boats blockaded a half-mile stretch that runs alongside the city. But it had nothing to do with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. On this day, Hollywood needed to borrow the river -- director Tony Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer were in town shooting their upcoming action movie, "Deja Vu," and it was time to blow up a passenger ferry.

And blow it up they did. Rigged with an array of pyrotechnics, the ferry was enveloped in a ball of fire. As demolished cars were launched off the ship's deck into the water, flames exploded more than 200 feet into the air -- about as high as the Mississippi Bridge, which was also empty, rush-hour traffic having been diverted elsewhere.

It was the kind of spectacular special effect for which longtime collaborators Scott and Bruckheimer (their shared credits include "Top Gun" and "Crimson Tide") are famous. At the same time, though, it was an anomaly: a big-budget movie in a state where the infrastructure remains in tatters from the devastation wrought by Katrina, the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. More than seven months later, the storm was still front-page news. Even as "Deja Vu" filmed in and around New Orleans, police found a decomposed body inside a ruined Lower 9th Ward house.

Before Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, Louisiana was enjoying one of the nation's most remarkable booms in television and film production. Thanks to the state's aggressive tax incentives, which can shave as much as 20% off a film's budget, New Orleans was turning into the Hollywood of the South. In 2002, the state hosted but one feature, "Evil Remains." By 2004, more than a dozen features and TV movies had been shot in Louisiana, including "Because of Winn-Dixie" and "The Skeleton Key." More recent productions include "Failure to Launch" and "Glory Road."

These productions pumped millions into an impoverished economy and helped build a new and much-needed job base.

But as soon as Katrina blew out of town, so did the movie business.

Some productions relocated to other parts of the state, principally Shreveport, while a few packed their bags and returned to Los Angeles. Local actors and crew, many of whom lost their homes, left the area. New production starts vanished.

Then, as the region wobbled back on its feet, producers reconsidered. The reports came back -- it's not as bad as you think it is, and they really want us to return.

"A lot of people wanted to see that everything was going to be OK," says Robert Vosbein, a New Orleans lawyer who specializes in the state's tax credits. "But union membership is actually higher than it was pre-Katrina. Our crew base is back, but it didn't happen in a day."

Even with basic service providers such as schools and hospitals still closed and blue tarps covering more roofs than shingles, the pace of movie and TV production picked up. Before long, the first big studio production, "Deja Vu," a time-traveling drama about an FBI agent trying to save a woman's life and avert a terrorist attack, arrived in town. Just like that, the same local, state and federal agencies that struggled to coordinate their Katrina response were successfully joining forces to shut down the Mississippi for a movie.

"The real question was whether the services were there -- if there was water to drink, if hotels and restaurants were open," says Bruckheimer, who says the state's incentives will trim about $20 million from the initial budget. "We expected the worst. But it was easier than we expected. We've had very few serious problems."

But some filmmaking problems remain. Housing is still tight, and one of the few local talent agencies didn't reopen its New Orleans office. Equipment rentals are difficult, lumber is hard to come by, extras have to be brought in from Atlanta, and it's nearly impossible to get production insurance for coastal shoots during hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30. Still, signs of progress abound, and these days the first-class cabin of United's LAX-to-New Orleans nonstop is often filled with industry types.

"I think it's symbolic, being the first studio film back," "Deja Vu" star Denzel Washington said a day before the ferry was detonated. "I'm glad we're here, spending money." He has spent his downtime touring areas of Katrina's devastation. "Every little bit helps."


A lingering surreal quality

LACOMBE is a small town of about 7,500 people on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, the massive body of water that's twice the size of New Orleans and just north of the city. During the hurricane, the churning lake surged 12 feet, wiping out dozens of homes along its shores, especially in the town of Slidell.

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