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Stars turn out for latest shoot in hills

By Mike Adamick
February 24, 2004

Though the outside of Piedmont High School looked about the same last week -- save for a host of trailers and trucks lining the street -- inside, a whole new world thrived. Banners hung on the stage of the school's theater, announcing the start of the "Greater Sacramento Delta Regional Spelling Bee." Similar posters adorned the walls. And in the wooden audience seats, big time actors Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche casually waited for their close ups.Gere's latest movie -- "Bee Season" -- rolled into Piedmont for a two-day shoot at the high school, stirring excitement in the school and the surrounding streets. Some people waited for hours Friday for Gere to emerge from his trailer, only to scream, "We love you, Richard" as he briefly crossed the street and waved.

While the movie production starred as the talk of the town last week, "Bee Season" has created a quite a buzz throughout the East Bay -- with shoots taking place in Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley and now Piedmont. The movie has held shoots near Lake Merritt, as well as in the hills by the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension.
And with the buzz comes a lot of business, Oakland film boosters said.
The boosters are working to lure more movies to town, with tax incentives, business proposals and attractive locations that have long been featured in Hollywood blockbusters.

"Oakland has quite a broad range of diversity in kinds of locations -- we have so many architectural styles," said Ami Zins, film coordinator for the Oakland Film Office.

In 1995, film companies injected an average $42,000 a day into the local economy, a figure that has surely jumped in recent years, Zins said. That money goes to pay for local film crews, food at local restaurants, stays in local hotels and purchases of equipment from local shops, Zins said. But there's another impact often felt after the cameras stop rolling and the stars leave town. In the Clint Eastwood movie "True Crime" -- shot in Oakland in the late 1990s -- a new building was donated to the department of parks and recreation, Zins said.

When the hit trilogy "The Matrix" finished shooting its final two episodes in Alameda, a massive movie set was torn down and the wood was shipped to Mexico to be used for low-income housing.
There's also the visual impact a movie can leave with audiences throughout the world -- an impact that can lure tourists and their money.

"The Bay Area is so identifiable -- with the Bay, the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge," said "Bee Season" publicist Michael Umble.
Movies can romanticize those images and draw more people to an area, he said. "Bee Season" may well do for the East Bay what classics like "Vertigo," "Bullitt" and a host of other classics and modern movies have done for San Francisco.

Though Myla Goldberg's "Bee Season" takes place in Philadelphia, the location for the movie was switched to the East Bay partly to keep the production closer to Los Angeles and partly because the movie's two directors are from Berkeley, Umble said. The co-directors are Scott McGehee and David Siegel.

The book tells the tale of a father -- Gere -- who devotes attention to his spelling-bee winning daughter, while the rest of the family deteriorates around him. Piedmont's role in the movie is as a stand-in for the state capital. The daughter in the movie heads to a regional spelling bee in Sacramento, hence the Piedmont school's theater was adorned with Sacramento posters last week.

Hundreds of extras were bused in for the two-day shoot, Umble said. Though the school was out on ski-week break, another school within a school was created so young actors could keep up with their studies -- in accordance with child labor laws, Umble said. The streets around the school were packed with wardrobe trucks, catering vans and trailers for the actors -- which wouldn't have been possible if the school had been open. Umble said the movie is expected to take 45 days to shoot, with most shooting already finished.

There is no firm timeline for when the Fox Searchlight Films production is set to hit theaters, he said.

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