‘High School Musical’ films in Utah

Pic benefits from low costs and local help

If you happened to be driving through Salt Lake City a few months ago, you might have noticed a lot of hang-dog faces. The cast and crew of “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” had just packed up. “In Los Angeles, people can get exhausted by a lot of filming, but people (here) were happy to have us,” says Whitney Green, senior VP of motion picture production at Walt Disney Studios.

“Very few movies are on a stage nowadays,” she adds. “This picture didn’t have any (big) sets, just tiny little ones, so you really are beholden to local neighborhoods. I feel strongly it should be a two-way street, as far as the film company being respectful.”

Green, who was completely new to filming in Salt Lake City (sitting in for Albuquerque, N.M.), came onboard after Disney decided to make a theatrical release of the hit musical series (the first two films were made for the Disney Channel).

Since Utah was used for making the earlier films, it made sense to go back to the original locations, including Salt Lake City’s East High School and the houses used for the Montez and the Bolton residences.

“Bringing in a crew gets expensive, so my big issue was that we needed to hire a local crew,” says Green. “But could a local crew step up to do feature films? I thought, ‘Utah; who’s out there?’ and did a little digging.

Green liked what she found. “Resumes aren’t enough; you have to check people out,” she says. “We were so lucky that (the local crew) had already made two of the films.”

Green not only felt fortunate to have the same director, cast, producers and below-the-line team; she found that the location fees were reasonable, too.

“I was new to it and the feature film department was new to it; everyone did a great job. I was really impressed with what the local people pulled off. They were completely equipped to produce a feature film,” Green says.

“I’ve filmed a lot in Utah. It has great facilities, it’s a right-to-work state, not a Teamster state, and is less expensive,” says Bill Borden, “HSM3” producer (and exec producer of the two Disney Channel telepics). “And you get a 15% rebate. (Plus) Utah is easy to get to, only 90 minutes away. And it has dramatic changes in weather; just outside of Salt Lake City there can be snow in some areas, with none in the city at all.”

One big challenge, adds Borden, was filming at East High School while it was in session. Cast and crew kept a low profile during school hours, filming in the gym or theater. At 2:35 p.m. when the school let out, the production was able to spread around.

“A lot of the students were extras over the course of the three films; they were part of the ‘High School Musical’ family,” Borden. says “Zac (Efron) could walk around the school and just be part of the group.”

Another challenge was lighting. A lot more theatrical lighting equipment was used for the film than for the TV shows, and it had be imported from Las Vegas.

There were no problems with the cast, however, as there can sometimes be with a younger group of actors.

“A lot of the kids matured on set,” says Borden. “And making a dance movie is also a great equalizer; with a movie star dancing right next to a day player. So if you don’t dance as well, it shows up on film. Our actors really have to work.”

Many of those actors will get the chance to work again next summer, when the fourth installment will be shot, with a release probably in the beginning of 2010. This news gladdens the hearts of the people of Salt Lake City, where East High School has become the second-most-popular tourist attraction.

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