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Tyro talent treks north

First Takes series nurtures filmmakers

GIJON — Imagine Switzerland-by-the-Sea, add cider, a hale-and-hearty townfolk, drizzle, green valleys and dainty whitewalled farmsteads, and you have some idea of Asturias, a mountain-backed strip on Spain’s northern coast.

What you won’t find in any snapshot is a booming film industry. Until now.

Last summer, Asturias hosted Berlin sales star “The Orphanage,” and in late July, Woody Allen’s untitled Spanish shoot, starring Scarlett Johansson, moves to its capital, Oviedo.

Oscar-winning director Jose Luis Garci (“Volver a empezar”) shot his latest film, “Luz de domingo,” there. Asturias’ government is backing Primera Tomas (First Takes), a new director slate. “Pudor,” which won prizes and critical plaudits at March’s Malaga Fest, rolled in the Asturian port of Gijon.

This mini-boom rolls off larger economic forces as well as the fact that younger Spaniards are rediscovering rural Spain.

“Hosting shoots, Asturias will boost tourist visits,” culture and tourist minister Ana Rosa Migoya said when she presented Gonzalo Suarez’s “Oviedo Express” in Oviedo.

Asturias co-led Spain’s industrial revolution, but its mines and metallurgical plants are closing: Industry repped just 25% of Asturias’ GDP by 2004. It needs to forge an advanced service economy, and film/TV — a contents creation industry — is one way forward.

Other regions are already pursuing this goal: Led by Catalonia and Galicia, Spanish state regional spending reached some E25 million ($33.6 million) in 2006. More than half the 140 films made in Spain last year received regional coin, and those figures will only grow.

Lacking a large film industry, the Asturian government’s policy focuses on the nurturing of new talent.

“Primeras Tomas creates new opportunities for young professionals,” said Asturian president Vicente Alvarez-Areces at its presentation in 2005.

The First Takes series, produced by Juan Gona at Gona Cine y TV, kicked off with Victor Garcia Leon’s “Vete de mi,” an acidly chronicled father-son relationship drama, which won Juan Diego best actor at San Sebastian.

But First Take’s mandate, says Gona, is “to make films with Asturians about Asturias and incorporate women into crews.”

That policy bears fruit in the feature debuts of Teresa Marcos, “Tesoro mio,” an Oviedo-set heist romp that rolls in June; and Lucinda Torres’ “Alegria,” a three-part drama that follows a girl in Asturias’ 1934 miners’ revolution, through her Civil War-era youth to a 1960s-70s epilogue.

” ‘Tesoro’s’ actors are Asturians. For the first time, an Asturian woman will direct a film where all the heads of department are Asturian,” Gona says.

Pics, budgeted at $3.2 million each, each draw down a $402,700 subsidy from the Asturian government; town halls offer logistical support such as arranging shooting permits; and local pubcaster RTPA offers production facilities free of charge.

Cajastur, an Asturian savings bank, gives a mix of grant and loan money totaling anywhere between $130,000-$260,000 to every Gona production. Dramedy “Oviedo Express,” from vet Asturian auteur Gonzalo Suarez, will pull down $2 million from Oviedo’s town government, Gona says.

But money isn’t everything. Asturias also catches the Spanish film industry on the rebound.

Once distinct cities, Madrid and Barcelona are morphing into clogged megalopoli, so producers are increasingly open to shoot alternatives.

But most producers trek to Asturias as much for artistic or personal reasons as cash. Asturian pubcaster RTPA, which fully launched in December, doesn’t as yet acquire films: There’s no incentive to shoot in Asturias to snag regional pubcaster coin.

“Pudor,” a sober choral coming-of-ager, was shot in Gijon, a seaport, “because of the city’s look, its shaded light, urban landscape, size and sea,” says producer Jose Antonio Felez.

In Gijon, a midsize city, “people aren’t strangers like in Madrid and Barcelona, which renders their solitude in the film all the more marked,” Felez adds.

And, say its first-time directors Tristan and David Ulloa, the sea “adds a sense of escape, of openness,” contrasting with characters’ tortuous self-obsessions.

Asturias’ landscape can affirm a film’s genre credentials, sometimes unexpectedly. The region’s banked-up cumulus clouds approximated “The Orphanage” to British gothic horror, says producer Mar Targarona.

It allows its native filmmakers to explore and draw on their roots. Rural coming-of-age drama “La torre de Suso” (Suso’s Tower) shot in Asturias simply because Asturian first-time director-screenwriter Tom Fernandez set it there, says producer Javier Mendez at Mediapro, which also co-produces Woody Allen’s summer 2007 Spain shoot.

And Asturias offers a fresh film canvas.

“Suso” lensed in Mieres, an old mining town. For Mendez, “Mieres was a marvelous and — for Spanish film — novel background.”

Gijon’s Sociedad Mixta de Turismo ponied up a modest five-figure amount for “Pudor.” The Asturian government gave a small subsidy to “Suso”; Mieres municipal authorities fell over themselves to help, building the lookout tower of the title from old mine beams.

Neither sums offset the cost of importing key cast and key crew from outside Asturias, producers say, however.

Shooting the $3.2 million “Suso” in Madrid would have been 30% cheaper, Mendez says. But local subsidies prevent Asturian shoots from seeming overly expensive.

Asturias is beginning to buzz. The next phase, says Gona, is to create infrastructures.

One may soon be announced. Teaming with the Asturian government, Gona aims to create an Asturias Plato film technicians school.

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