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Pics get down to the nitty gritty

Four films reflect the recession while shooting in tax-break states

Contrary to common belief, Hollywood isn’t always obsessively fixated on beauty, youth and glamour. This year, several contenders — including “Unstoppable,” “The Fighter,” “Conviction” and “Blue Valentine” — depict the struggles of ordinary, working-class people, and are set in gritty and bleak industrial landscapes that mirror the drama and raw emotional impact of the stories themselves.

“The Fighter” is a true-life tale shot in the actual Massachusetts locations where it takes place. “It always gives you that un-fakeable sense of authenticity when you’re trying to create a very real world,” says Judy Becker, production designer on “The Fighter,” which filmed entirely in the town of Lowell, “partly for great tax breaks — crucial for a low-budget film like this — but mainly because (thesp) Mark (Wahlberg) and (helmer) David (O. Russell) really wanted to do it there.”

The old mill town, with its “distinctive architecture and intersections,” hasn’t seen a lot of gentrification, she explains. It also helped that the film’s subjects “were still alive, and that we had access to them, their memories and photographs, so setting a 20-year-old story in the places it actually happened was a no-brainer. You don’t have to make all the compromises you do when you use substitute locations.”

Ironically, some real locations — notably the shabby above-the-garage apartment of fighter Micky Ward, whom Walberg played — weren’t quite gritty enough. “It was in this suburban ranch house, which didn’t convey anything about his struggle or character,” says Becker. “So we used a totally different location with this old factory in the background, which conveyed a lot more flavor about the depressed economy and his circumstances.”

Becker notes that the production designer’s job often entails “taking advantage of what already exists, and then tweaking it as necessary to serve the story and the budget.”

That was certainly the case with “Conviction,” a true crime story that took place in another run-down, blue-collar Massachusetts town, Ayer, in the ’80s. “We went there to scout locations and do all the research, and to get a feeling for the reality and textures of this small rural town,” reports production designer Mark Ricker. “So we began with this very detailed blueprint of a real place and a checklist of local settings — the courthouse, the characters’ homes and so on, which (director) Tony Goldwyn wanted to really anchor the piece.”

Ultimately, however, economics trumped reality, and the film was largely shot in Ann Arbor and Detroit. “Michigan had these very aggressive tax breaks — this was before Massachusetts introduced theirs — and we were one of the first productions to take advantage of them,” Ricker says. “And those locations doubled pretty well for Ayer, where we did do some second-unit stuff.”

Tony Scott’s latest adrenalin rush, “Unstoppable,” also showcases rust-belt locations for “very practical” reasons, says production designer Chris Seagers. “Fox wanted tax breaks, and we needed tracks and total control for shooting the train sequences. After scouting all over the U.S., that narrowed it down to the Ohio Valley and the rust belt.”

Filming around Pittsburgh and West Virginia not only provided a powerful backdrop of shuttered factories and shuttered steel mills — “along with the bleak landscape” and evocative images of cold and steam — but gave the film a resonant emotional subtext.

“Tony had been searching for a hook to what’s essentially a pretty simple story, and when we scouted these regions and met a lot of the locals, that was it,” explains Seagers. “There was a lot of animosity and outrage about the loss of the old industries and their jobs, and how all the unions have been gutted and disbanded. All that anger gave Tony the hook he’d been looking for, and it was something real that Denzel Washington and Chris Pine could also lock into. They spent time with the local people, listening to all their frustrations, and a lot of that ended up on the screen and informed the setting and look of the whole film.”

“Blue Valentine,” the gritty marriage-on-the-rocks indie, was largely shot in blue-collar Scranton, Pa., and similarly benefited from its shabby setting and the region’s tax breaks.

“We’d originally planned to shoot in Morro Bay, Calif., right on the beach,” recalls production designer Inbal Weinberg. “But Michelle (Williams) had promised her daughter not to move from their New York home, so (director) Derek (Cianfrance) relocated the shoot, and Scranton turned out to be ideal. It used to be this big industrial hub, and now it’s very depressed, and that fit the mood and arc of the story perfectly.”

To satisfy Cianfrance’s obsessive quest for telling details and authenticity as he refined his script, Weinberg and the director “spent a lot of time discussing the characters’ backgrounds,” found an empty house that was for sale, and then proceeded to re-create a fully functioning home for Williams and Ryan Gosling. “I completely furnished it — down to the books and CDs, dishes, detergent under the sink, even a real phone line that we installed,” she says.

“Michelle and Ryan then lived there and rehearsed there every day for weeks, cooking, watching TV, sleeping — until they fully inhabited their characters. It was a very unconventional approach, but it helped anchor the film in a very specific reality.”

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