It was the late 1990s and future Oscar-winning “CODA” filmmaker Siân Heder was ambling across Harvard Square, close to the home in which she grew up in Cambridge, Mass. There, near the Au Bon Pain sandwich shop on Brattle Street, Heder spotted two buddies from Cambridge Ringe and Latin School, then-unknowns Ben and Casey Affleck, shooting a scene for “Good Will Hunting,” the 1997 film that would score two Academy Awards, help usher in the era of Big Screen Boston and turn the Affleck brothers and Matt Damon, all actors in the movie and Massachusetts natives (“Massholes” in the local vernacular), into giant Hollywood stars.
“I knew Ben and Casey from high school — their mom was my teacher in third and fifth grade,” Heder says. “I think I shouted at Ben, ‘Put me in your movie!’ And so I was an extra in ‘Good Will Hunting.’”
But filming in Massachusetts in the 1990s was exorbitantly cost-prohibitive. Save for about two weeks of gathering external footage, Gus Van Sant’s drama about a math genius-cum-M.I.T. janitor was shot primarily on a Toronto soundstage. Until then, with the exception of a few projects such as the 1992 Brendan Fraser-starrer “School Ties” (shot in Concord), most Massachusetts-set films and TV series — from “Cheers” to Sidney Lumet’s courtroom classic “The Verdict” — were filmed elsewhere.
That changed in 2006 when Massachusetts instituted its film tax credit initiative. Since then, filming in the state has ballooned, feeding not only the film industry at large, but local businesses and skilled professionals. Kenneth Lonergan’s 2016 tragedy “Manchester By the Sea,” which won the Oscar for screenplay (Lonergan) and lead actor (Casey Affleck) was filmed in the eponymous seaside town, as well as in nearby Beverly, Essex, Swampscott, Lynn, Salem and Tewksbury. Bostonians — a moniker claimed by residents living anywhere from Boston proper to as far away as, say, 30 miles outside the city — are, by and large, fiercely proud people. Indeed, Casey Affleck felt a “sense of pride” for winning an Academy Award for playing a character born and raised in his home state.
“I don’t know if it means that things have changed, or that I’ve come a long way, or just that the only part that I’m really able to play convincingly is somebody from the exact place where I grew up — it’s a toss-up,” quips Affleck, whose first credited role was as a young Bobby Kennedy in the 1990 miniseries “The Kennedys of Massachusetts.”
“I’ve filmed about five or six movies in Boston and Massachusetts and, personally, it’s been a great experience for me,” Affleck continues. “I’ve done about half of those projects living with my mom, being around friends. It just makes a world of difference for me to be able to be at home and be connected to who I really am.”
Over the past decade alone, a high-profile slate of productions — “Don’t Look Up,” “Knives Out,” “American Hustle,” “The Tender Bar” — has turned Massachusetts into a New England bastion of showbiz, resulting in a financial boon impacting cities and towns from Ipswich (“Little Women” shot scenes at Crane’s Beach) to Taunton, where the Whittenton Mills Complex stood in for Dachau in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.” While filmed predominantly in Atlanta, Marvel’s “Summer Break,” the highly anticipated “Black Panther” sequel, shot scenes last summer in Worcester, Mass., and on the campus of MIT. HBO’s three-part, Emmy-winning series “Olive Kitteridge” was lensed in Massachusetts, along with Showtime’s “Dexter: New Blood.” And Hulu’s “Castle Rock,” based on myriad Stephen King stories, was shot both at New England Studios, a soundstage in Devens, a census-designated area famed for its now-shuttered military based, and in Orange, a sleepy mill town about 72 miles northwest of Boston that functions as a stand-in for the fictitious Maine burgh in which King sets many of his works.
Netflix’s “Maestro,” starring Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein, is filming in the state.
“Castle Rock” was the first episodic TV series to be shot in Massachusetts in more than 25 years.
“The first season of ‘Castle Rock’ generated 1,026 full-time jobs and $69 million in economic activity across 210 cities and towns,” says Massachusetts Rep. Marjorie Decker, citing a study conducted by Industrial Economics Inc. “It also generated $4.73 of economic activity for each $1 of tax credit issued by the state.
“Filming has created a tremendous economic impact in Massachusetts, and that’s been exciting,” she adds. “In addition to the economic impact, there’s been the cultural impact, so that’s really inspiring to the people in my state that have careers in writing, film production, the audio-visual space and all the various innovations that come out of film production.”
According to David Hartman, executive director at the Massachusetts Production Coalition, “Massachusetts has joined the top tier of the list of locations for filming, with over 30 major productions per year consistently and over $3 billion in direct spending over the life of the incentive program since 2007.
“Thousands of news jobs have been created across a broad range of sectors to support the growing industry,” he adds.
This growth, says Hartman, includes a “pipeline” of more than 4,000 students in film programs at over 20 colleges and universities state-wide, and an expanding post-production ecosystem. Per Lisa Strout, director of the Massachusetts Film Office, “the stage space in Massachusetts has doubled over the past year.” In addition to New England Studios, Red Sky Studios in Allston and Marina Studios in Quincy, a coastal suburb just south of Boston, are both in heavy demand. A second 25-acre campus of Red Sky Studios is currently under renovation in Foxboro, not far from Gillette Stadium (The second season of HBO Max’s “Julia” will shoot here). Marina Studios recently opened a satellite facility in Canton, with a third location to launch next year in Watertown, about nine miles due west of downtown Boston.
“We’re seeing dozens of new businesses opening or expanding in Massachusetts this year,” says Hartman. “Everything from stages and lighting to camera rentals and trucks and on and off-set services — you name it, it’s growing here.”
Prior to the film tax credit, Chris O’Donnell, Massachusetts-based business manager of the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts Local 481, spent nearly 20 years as a boom operator traveling out of state for work.
“I lived in Massachusetts, but I almost never worked in Massachusetts,” says O’Donnell. “I would have to go to L.A., or New York. I’d fly to Toronto for a week and then come back to Massachusetts for a week or two to shoot exteriors. That changed dramatically in 2006 when we passed the first film tax credit.
Immediately, there was an uptick in the amount of production. And then the credit improved even more in 2007, which led to even more production. When I first started out, my local [union] had 350 members. Now, there’s close to 1,300.”
While most of that growth took place between 2006-11, says O’Donnell, the tax credit program, made permanent last year, coupled with “demand in content from the streaming platforms,” has contributed to an additional spike in jobs centered around the Massachusetts film industry.
“We’re seeing more growth over the last two or three years than we did in the previous five or six years,” O’Donnell says.
The tax credit has widened the pool of local acting talent. Per Jessica Maher, executive director, New England Local SAG-AFTRA, “We have about 3,700 SAG-AFTRA members in New England, of which about 2,200 that are Massachusetts members.
“There’s definitely a collective sense of pride and importance in building up the roster of acting talent here in Massachusetts,” says Maher.
With its disparate topography — from the rolling mountains of the Berkshires to the swampy marshes and cranberry bogs of Cape Cod, not to mention its plethora of historic landmarks — Massachusetts’ aesthetic appeal is also a cinematic draw. The tax credit has enabled filmmakers to make ample use of this geographic and architectural bounty — and not just for films that take place in Massachusetts. Boston stood in for Paris in Shawn Levy’s comedy “The Pink Panther” and Revere Beach (America’s first public beach) was transformed into Miami Beach for Scott Cooper’s 2015 Whitey Bulger biopic, “Black Mass.”
“Massachusetts has an unparalleled range of locations, from contemporary urban environments to rustic landscapes and oceanic scenery, to a really vast range of architecture from really specific periods of history, from colonial to modern,” says Hartman. “Massachusetts provides a really great canvas for filmmakers and storytellers to bring their vision to life.”
When adapting “CODA” from the French motion picture “La Famille Belier,” Heder, who netted the Oscar for adapted screenplay, knew she wanted to film on location in Gloucester, a picturesque fishing town on the coast of Cape Ann where she spent many a childhood summer vacationing.
“Gloucester’s a very cinematic place — the rocky coastline, the woods leading up to those sheer cliffs and 100-feet deep quarries,” says Heder. “It’s all very vivid for me. Gloucester to me was a character in this film. And I liked the juxtaposition of this very picturesque, very beautiful New England town with this working-class, hardscrabble vibe.”
In “CODA,” which centers on Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of a Deaf family running a flailing fishing business, Heder was intent on capturing the struggles of the working class. Gloucester, an historic epicenter of the New England fishing industry, provided the ideal backdrop for telling that story.
“Going to Gloucester as a kid, I watched as the fishing industry took a big hit,” she says. “I think 20 years ago there were 700 boats out in the harbor that were actively fishing — and now there are six. And it wasn’t just the fishing industry that collapsed, but all of the businesses that cater to that industry — the coffee shops that served fishermen in the morning, the fish-processing plants. So much of the economy of the town was dependent on that. And then, of course, what also factored in [as I was writing] was the way in which Gloucester reinvented itself more as a tourist destination.”
For Affleck, the opportunity to shoot movies about Massachusetts in Massachusetts — to achieve that believability, to increase that breadth of cultural inclusivity — cannot be oversold.
“A diversity of locations means a diversity of people, diversity of ideas, diversity of life,” he says.
Perhaps most importantly, more projects filming in Massachusetts means more kids harboring dreams of working in showbiz will have a chance to do so right in their own backyards. Just as Affleck did when he was a fledgling young actor filming “Good Will Hunting” in Harvard Square.
“More movies means more trained professionals that have more to give back to kids in public school programs. I’ve seen it firsthand. Last summer, I was back in Massachusetts, and I visited this really cool program in East Cambridge that taught kids how to film, do podcasts and put together media projects. If there was no one filming in Massachusetts, they wouldn’t have these people who can spend the day with kids who otherwise don’t have access to that education.
“When you get 20 kids who have just experienced a full day with a professional director or actor — that makes a big difference. They get excited. They learn a lot. They feel like they have a pathway to a career. I’m not discounting the importance of job creation, but this other stuff that I have seen happen–that’s the most touching.”