"Everything But the Sahara Desert" appeared in the May 1987 issue as a sidebar to Professor Paul H. Stacy's article "Connecticut in the Movies." Where Professor Stacy explores the ways that Connecticut has been portrayed Hollywood films, this sidebar takes a look at Connecticut's spotty track record as a movie-making destination, and its potential advantages to try and draw in more of the business.
This article is being posted to the web in April 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
Everything But the Sahara Desert
By Mike Lambeck
It all started in 1920, when D.W. Griffith sent Lillian Gish (once a Greenwich resident) down the river—the Farmington River—on an ice raft in Way Down East. “Mr. Griffith intended to shoot all the exterior scenes outdoors, including the blizzard. He wouldn’t be satisfied with the fake fury of a studio storm,” wrote Gish in her autobiography, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. Griffith later went on to shoot key scenes in several of his westerns along the Post Road and at Laddin’s Rock in Stamford.
In 1947, Elia Kazan took a giant step toward breaking free of studio reins when he shot his courtroom drama, Boomerang, entirely on location in Stamford. “In the '30s and '40s, films were controlled by the studio; they were churned out of their movie factory. After the war there was more freedom to go on location,” explains Michael Kerbel, chairman of the Department of Cinema and TV at the University of Bridgeport. Kazan was among the first directors to shoot entirely on location. Some years later, after he'd fallen out of favor in Hollywood due to a string of box-office bombs, Kazan produced his own low-budget (less than $200,000) thriller, The Visitors, shot mostly on his own property in Newtown.
What Griffith, Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train, Rope), Delmer Davies (Parrish), Bryan Forbes (The Stepford Wives), Milos Forman (Ragtime) and a string of other Hollywood directors and producers discovered was that Connecticut offered a good mix of visual images: Lush green farmlands, rushing rivers, bucolic villages and vast estates could be contrasted with industrial towns and corporate cities all in one place. “We have practically every type of background or setting—with the possible exception of the Sahara Desert,” says Barnett Laschever, director of tourism and an advisor to the Connecticut Slate Film Commission.
But it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the state decided to do something about attracting studio magnates (and money) to our locales. That's when Katharine Hepburn encouraged producers to scout her home state to shoot lake scenes for her upcoming film.
“We went out to Lake Waramaug in New Preston,” says Laschever, “and the production guys thought it was perfect until they heard a motorboat on the lake. They said we’d have to keep boats off the lake for the entire month of July while they were shooting ... and that’s how we lost On Golden Pond."
The producers chose a lake in New Hampshire instead, and that state reportedly netted $2 million worth of revenue from the venture. The event—or non-event—prompted the creation of the CSFC in November 1983 (by an act of the Legislature, no less) to woo producers and directors to Connecticut, to help them find a location once they decide to film here, and to act as a liaison between state officials and show-biz types. “We do a little bit of everything,” says Mark Dixon, the commission’s director. “We help them find convenient and affordable lodging, catering if that’s necessary. We help them obtain special permits once they’ve begun shooting—sometimes traffic might have to be stopped on a neighborhood street or a power line removed; the commission tries to get the local authorities to cooperate.”
The CSFC also publishes a directory of local artists and tradesmen whose talents and skills can help make a movie a hit. Carpenters, florists, animal trainers —they’re all included. With so many resources right here in Connecticut, moviemakers can save time and money by not having to go to New York for such services.
What’s more, "Filmmakers who shoot in New York or LA. have to pay for the privilege. You don’t need a permit to shoot in Connecticut,” says Dixon. What the state doesn't have, however, is studio capability, something that is offered by its principal competitors—New York and Massachusetts. “We’ve undoubtedly lost out to them because of it," says Dixon.
To date, about 10 feature-length films have been shot in Connecticut due to the CSFC’s efforts, including the upcoming thriller Hit and Run, directed by Canadian Robin Spry and starring Sol Rubinek, Colleen Dewhurst and Alan Thicke. The film concerns a Connecticut businessman (played by Rubinek) who accidentally kills a young man in a hit-and-run collision. He is pursued by the victim’s mother, who follows him to the train station and contemplates shoving him in front of a train. While several exterior scenes were shot in a suburb of Montreal (posing as Connecticut), the Canadian film crew used the Riverside station in Greenwich for the pivotal train-station sequence. [Ed. note, April 2021: Hit & Run was ultimately released in 1988 as a TV movie under the title Hitting Home.]
New Havenites are already excited about Woman Wanted, scheduled for shooting this August. Scripted by Guilford playwright Joanna Glass, based on her novel, the film will star Mia Farrow and calls for scenes in the Grove Street Cemetery, Yale's Beinecke Library and Fitzwilly’s restaurant. [Ed. note, April 2021: It appears that this film never came to be, although a version of Woman Wanted directed by and starring Kiefer Sutherland was eventually released in 1999; filming took place in Winnipeg, Manitoba.]
Beyond feature-length flicks, “hundreds of television commercials, small movies and videos have been filmed in Connecticut,” says Dixon. "We have a good track record in those areas."
Although the movie moguls pay nothing to use the state as a backdrop, they spend liberally while they’re here, so Connecticut profits from the movie trade. Besides, adds Dixon, the state gets something even more valuable: publicity. “When people see Connecticut in the movies, it leaves them feeling good about our state.”
Stories about Connecticut and the movies from the Connecticut Magazine archives:
Utopia Studios promised bring a piece of Hollywood to Preston, but it turned out to be a paper moon. ("A Giant Plan," September 2006)
Go to Redding for a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of The Stepford Wives. ("Stepford's Mechanical Wives," November 1974)
Meet some independent filmmakers who preferred working in Connecticut over New York or California ("Connecticut Filmmakers," June 1983), like Friday the 13th producer and Westport resident Sean Cunningham. ("Fade to Black," March 1981)
A professor of cinema takes a critical look at the (not always flattering) ways Hollywood sees us ("Connecticut in the Movies") and a quick overview of Connecticut's history as a filmmaking location. ("Everything But the Sahara," May 1987)
Take a stroll through a timeline of notable movies either filmed or set in Connecticut. ("Lights, Camera, Connecticut!," February 2017)