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She helps making movies in Oakland

By Barry Caine
Oakland Tribune (April 14, 2003)

Ami Zins remembers the nights her phone rang in the wee hours with some harried member of a film-production company calling to tell her the no-parking signs posted for an overnight shoot had been torn down.
Or, due to a mix-up, a police officer scheduled to meet the movie crew was at one location, but the crew was at another.

Being on call 24 hours goes with the territory, and for Zins, the Oakland Film Coordinator, that covers a lot of neighborhoods.

``We offer a great variety of environments to film in, including our downtown, which has an old feel to it, as well as areas that have ultramodern steel-and-glass high-rises,'' says Zins, who has been on the job five years, the last four full-time. ``We also have redwood forests in the hills, and the full range of economic communities.''

Zins, 42, describes her job as matchmaking. ``I hear what people's needs and desires are regarding a film project and then try to figure out how best to fulfill those needs, or find the person or agency or business that can,'' she says during an interview in her office in Frank Ogawa Plaza.

Movies shot in Oakland during her tenure include Clint Eastwood's ``True Crime,'' Robin Williams' ``What Dreams May Come,'' Josh Kornbluth's ``Haiku Tunnel,'' the two ``Matrix'' sequels and parts of Finn Taylor's ``Cherish.''

Although the lineup radiates glamour, the reality comes with little glitz. Zins, who lives in Berkeley, works more closely with location scouts rather than stars, although she has met her share. Among them: Sharon Stone, James Woods, Delroy Lindo, Santana, Lawrence Fishbourne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Sean Penn, Williams and Eastwood.

Zins does more than coordinate movie shoots, however. She also makes arrangements for commercials, TV series, still photography and music videos.

One of her favorite moments happened while Santana and Everlast filmed the ``Put Your Lights On'' video at the East Bay Dragons Club. That night, they played music nonstop for about six hours, she recalls.

``When the cameras were not rolling, Santana's fingers did not stop playing,'' Zins says. ``But he switched automatically from the song for the video they were making, and the entire band followed his lead. And they played a lot of Bob Marley and Jewish folk music. And at one point, the 75-plus extras, who were all multipierced, multitattooed and scantily clad, all started dancing the hora (a traditional Israeli and Romanian round dance). That was incredible.''

Most recently, Zins' office did the phone and leg work for Danny Glover's ``The Law and Mr. Lee'' TV pilot. Locations included the Port of Oakland, Broadway and Telegraph Avenue between 14th and 17th streets and several West Oakland locations. Glover plays a detective who used to work for the Oakland Police Department. Filming ended April 6.

If everything works as planned, CBS will televise the pilot in the fall 2003 season, Zins says, adding that the network is expected to announce on May 15 if it will pick up the show. If that happens, more episodes will be shot in the city.

The Glover project sparked a typical late-night call. The production people knew they wanted to do something with pyrotechnics, the Berkeley resident says, ``but they didn't know till late Friday night what and where that would be. On Saturday, I got hold of a fire inspector to put them in touch with, so they could get on with the filming.''

Arranging for pyrotechnics and police security - the latter paid for by production companies at an overtime rate - are among the nuts and bolts of her job.

``But really the hardest part, and it sounds like a very small issue, is with the parking,'' Zins says. ``It does impact people's lives. And in a residential neighborhood, for filming to happen in a single home can require six blocks of parking for their trailers, dressing rooms and such.''

Part of ``The Matrix,'' for instance, was shot under Interstate 880 and took up several blocks. That necessitated meetings with Caltrans, the Oakland and Alameda police departments, the California Highway Patrol, AC Transit and numerous public-works representatives.

Then they also had to make arrangements to move and find alternate parking for about 800 cars from downtown monthly parking lots, says Zins, who admits she sometimes brings home her work dilemmas. ``My husband (theater actor and director Lew Levinson) had to make a rule; he did not want to hear anymore about parking.''

At the urging of Zins and her staff - which consists of an assistant and volunteer interns - production companies send letters to entire neighborhoods, explaining the situation before a shoot begins and thanking them in advance.

``In general, I find that the people whose neighborhoods are being filmed in, or whose houses or businesses are being filmed at, find it exciting,''she says. ``It's something fresh and new for them. It's also often a great opportunity for the schools, parks, libraries and other nonprofits to bring in a nice little chunk of money quickly, in exchange for the inconvenience of having a film crew at their location.''

One of the most satisfying parts of her work is meeting with people who are not pleased that filming is scheduled to take place in their neighborhood. ``I hear what their concerns are, address those issues, solve any problems, and end up with their being happy with it and looking forward to it,'' says Zins, who was born in San Francisco and graduated from Laney College and San Francisco State University.

She has a master's in theater arts and has taught acting and directing at Laney, Contra Costa College in San Pablo and Holy Names High School in Oakland.

She got into film after auditioning and getting a couple of commercials (including one for Poligrip). While starting an internship program at Laney's media-communications department, she heard there was a part-time job open at the Oakland film office and applied for it.

Zins says she's proud to play a part in bringing production companies to the city to generate jobs and income, ``and broaden people's view of Oakland to the full spectrum of the diversity of cultures and environments we have.''

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