The region’s golden light and natural beauty first attracted the Hudson River School — Thomas Cole, Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt — whose luminous paintings captured the local landscape. While the region has long attracted filmmakers, Hollywood on the Hudson has never quite arrived. Until now. As Manhattanites throng the area approximately 90 miles north of the city, there’s hard data to show there’s never been more production upstate, from Beacon to Troy, and Fleischmanns to Amenia.
According to the Hudson Valley Film Commission (HVFC), the area hosted no fewer than 15 film and television projects in the second quarter of 2021, including “The White House Plumbers,” “The Sex Lives of College Girls” and “Life & Beth.” The three-month period was the most active production in the commission’s 21-year history, with direct spending estimates amounting to $25 million.
“The good news is that those productions spend enormous amounts of money,” HVFC director Laurent Rejto says. “But, sometimes, they rely too much on outside crews. That continues to improve, but it’s not where I wish it was. There’s still those that think people in the Hudson Valley are missing a lot of their teeth from chewing too much tobacco.… Given our list of films and TV shows that have taken place, that’s absurd.”
Past productions include “I Know This Much Is True,” “A Quiet Place,” “Racing Daylight,” “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” “Frances Ha,” “War of the Worlds,” “The Gilded Age” and “Down to the Bone.” With that back catalog and New York’s production incentives, Rejto’s mission is to make the area more production friendly.
“Laurent really knows everything up there,” says Jeffrey A. Brown, a DGA location manager for 11 years. “He’s always the first call.”
Brown scouted upstate locations for the 2019 zombie comedy “The Dead Don’t Die.” Director Jim Jarmusch wanted a town that looked out of time. The Catskills village of Fleischmanns clicked, plus it had its own government, which came on board and cut red tape. “We were free to figure out how to make it up as we went along. The volunteer fire department helped us control the streets and they ate with the crew.
“That’s the environment you want: friendly contacts, fair in terms of payment and personnel,” continues Brown. “The crews are migrating north and, in the last 10 years, industry people are gravitating much more toward the Hudson Valley.”
The tipping point might have been HBO’s Emmy-winning
“I Know This Much Is True,” which starred area residents Mark Ruffalo and Melissa Leo, and recognized the beauty and rust in the punchline riverside town of Poughkeepsie.
Location manager Steve Grivno scouted locations for that HBO series in New York state because of the tax incentive. Its future all comes down to the new governor, Democrat Kathy Hochul. “I pray she’s a fan of the film tax credit,” says Rejto. “If it disappears, the films and TV shows will leave overnight. … Producers are spreadsheet junkies. They’re always looking at the bottom line. Tax credits equal jobs and investments. Without them, projects go elsewhere.”
One crucial location for Grivno was the heroes’ family home. “We scouted over 100 houses. It amounted to 20 days of filming out of 110. We cast a wide net, scouring from Beacon to Red Hook to Troy. Funnily enough, it’s like Goldilocks, too hot, or too cold, and then you find what’s just right.”
Grivno found his house while driving through Poughkeepsie’s Little Italy on Delafield Street: a nondescript two-story corner house near the Mid-Hudson Bridge. “We made a deal with the owners and shot there for the next 10 months.”
According to Grivno, Poughkeepsie spoke to director Derek Cianfrance in photographs.
He was seeking an everyman town, not too poor, not too rich, blue collar.
“After one day of scouting, we drove around for two hours and Derek said, ‘I want to shoot my show here.’… He wanted small, real locations that were rough around the edges, capturing the essence of the real people associated with them.”
While Grivno praises the variety of locations, returning to shoot HBO’s “The White House Plumbers,” he also acknowledges the pandemic’s impact.
“During our hiatus, I speculated that we wanted to get out of city due to its population size and the potential for the virus to spread. We decided to relocate to the Hudson Valley and, miraculously, between Westchester and Albany, we found the whole show.”
Challenges remain, particularly in local studio space, but that’s changing rapidly. In July, iPark 84 announced plans to build state-of-the-art facilities with 40-foot ceilings in East Fishkill, freeway-close to NYC. Newburgh’s Umbra already has a smaller soundstage of 16,000 square-feet.
Meanwhile, over at female-owned Upriver Studios in Saugerties, there’s “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” fever. While Instagram pops with shots of the prequel production hopping from the Basilica Hudson to the former Ockawamick School in Claverack, home base is the newly opened state-of-the-art studio. With actress-director-producer Mary Stuart Masterson at the helm, the facility boasts 101,000 square-feet of “climate-forward production facility.” The one-stop shop with up to 85,285 square-feet of stage and production space includes hair and make-up studios, a commissary, office space, and abundant parking along with loading docks and high-speed Wi-Fi.
After the COVID hiatus, the HBO Max production is breaking in virgin space. “With a show of this size, they’re real pioneers,” says Masterson. “Having an actual series sit down and road test everything — it’s thrilling. It will help build the capacity for crew and resources up here and Upriver will be expanding to meet the demand as it grows. That’s what I foresee.”
Overall, the increased production venues have the potential to be a game-changer. Masterson, who also co-founded the Kingston-based nonprofit Stockade Works to train local workers in hands-on production skills, anticipates “it will be great for New York state if upstate has a thriving TV business. It really is the thing that transforms the economy, rather than itinerant seasonal swells of films. It will help stabilize the film economy, community and industry. And then we can all make our art films in the summer. That’s the hope. TV projects can help build the capacity to make a standing crew available. Three crews deep: that would be the goal.”
As TV productions eclipse film, and new COVID rules bust independent budgets, local concerns remain. For Rejto, who co-founded the Woodstock Film Festival in 2000 with current director Meira Blaustein under the banner “fiercely independent,” change presents challenges. “Until 2018-19, we mostly worked with indies. Now we mostly work with HBO and Hulu.”
Urging big companies to tap local talent, Hudson Valley casting director Heidi Ecklund says: “We’ll save you money and deliver amazing actors. A production hub is fantastic, just don’t mow us over. If you take our beauty away, and leave us with nothing, that doesn’t help. Please don’t push out the community that’s worked so hard since the early 2000s to build the region and make it what it is.”