By Hollywood standards it was a simple request: two camels riding in the back of a Datsun pickup truck through an Arabian desert.
Could Virginia's Mike Wallace, whose government job is luring movie and TV business to the state, find the camels and the desert in less than 48 hours, the New York producer asked.
No problem, assured Wallace, who had no idea where to find either. After a few hours on the phone, Wallace, 31, found the camels in Maryland. He hopped in his car, drove 100 miles to Virginia Beach and located a deserted stretch of white sand. Not quite right, said the New York producer, who'd neglected to mention he wanted sepia-colored, not white, sand. Several more frenetic hours later Wallace had bulldozers contouring the yellowish sand of a gravel pit just outside Richmond into the windblown ripples of an Arabian desert.
Brilliant! declared the producer. So brilliant, in fact, that the producer duplicated the effect in Maryland to save the cost of shipping to Richmond the camels Wallace had located.
"Now I know where to find a desert," says Wallace philosophically.
Since 1980 when the Virginia Film Office was established it has been Wallace's job to field similarly arcane requests and convince Hollywood that the Old Dominion is a perfect place to make movies, TV shows, documentaries and commercials. In the last 18 months, movies and commercials have pumped about $6 million into the state.
Portions of "Four Seasons," "Coal Miner's Daughter," "My Dinner With Andre," "The President's Mistress" and "Blind Ambition" were shot there. And for the past three weeks "Best Friends," a romantic comedy starring Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn, has been filming in Georgetown and Northern Virginia. The Washington area will be about $1 million richer because of it.
Virginia--like nearly every state and many major American cities--has created a film office for one reason: money. The average full-length Hollywood movie has a budget of $10 million, the average television series between $1 and $3 million. Crews filming on location create jobs and can leave as much as half their budget behind. They pay hefty location fees, hire extras and technicians, rent cars, hotel rooms and equipment.
Wallace competes ferociously to attract movies such as "Best Friends," enticing producers with promises to cut red tape, reduce film costs--Virginia is a low-wage, nonunion state--and provide an authentic look hard to duplicate on a studio back lot.
"We've got the mountains, beaches, the world's largest Naval base, rolling farmland, flat farmland, swamps, deserts, and we're midway between New York and Atlanta, so we're very accessible," says Wallace, whose rapid-fire Southern drawl seems an amalgam of his Richmond heritage and long hours with high-strung, fast-talking New York and Hollywood producers.
Wallace is essentially the taxpayers' advance man, a location scout and master of trivia, detail and organization. He knows camera angles, as well as where to find 50 trained ducks or 150 French provincial chairs, how to make a farm near Lynchburg look like a Texas rodeo and how to cajole the state Highway Department to dump tons of dirt and gravel on paved streets in order to replicate a 19th century street scene.
The job requires of Wallace prodigious energy, patience, diplomacy and the chameleon-like ability to speak the technical jargon of Hollywood cameramen one minute and the folksy homilies of, say, a Virginia state trooper the next.
"To be absolutely honest," said BBC producer Tony Virgo, who filmed part of the upcoming Masterpiece Theater series, "Lady Astor," in Virginia, "we got a very good service for nothing. We were additionally lucky because Virginia is a nonunion state and if we'd gone to Pennsylvania or California we'd have had to hire on an American crew as well. This way we just used our own crew from the UK."
For a man whose business is film, Wallace is hardly Hollywood. The only gold jewelry he wears is a wedding band. He is properly pallid for someone who wintered in Richmond. His hair is shaggy, not layer cut and carefully blow-dried. He wears conservative clothes, not perfectly faded jeans with razor-sharp creases. He does not fly to the coast to "take a meeting," lunch with the stars at Ma Maison or work out of a spacious office decorated in tasteful earth tones.
A former TV cameraman and advertising executive, Wallace earns $20,000 a year and oversees a budget of $70,000. He and his secretary work out of two cramped, seedy rooms in a dingy office building that looks like the set from "Naked City," complete with scuffed beige walls, crooked venetian blinds and even a window screen that flaps in the breeze.
One recent spring day Wallace, dressed like a bureaucrat in white monogrammed shirt and gray pinstriped suit, was scouting a location for a movie that takes place in a nursing home.
The location had to meet certain exact specifications. Wallace had already scouted two places in Staunton, but they weren't exactly right so he flipped through one of two overstuffed Rolodexes on his desk, picked up his green telephone and punched the number of Donald M. Beagle, a public relations officer with the state Health Department. The two had met years ago when Wallace was a cameraman and Beagle was "Dandy Don," host of a children's TV show in Richmond.
"I'm looking for a nursing home," Wallace says, squinting as he lights one of the endless string of low-tar cigarettes he smokes and leaning back in his burnt-orange upholstered chair. "It should be located outside a city, have about 200 beds, look sort of Georgian or Jeffersonian. You know, with arches--nothing Gothic--have a nice park-like drive going up to the facility, a duck pond, your 1930s or 1940s street lights and maybe some of the old people setting out on the veranda. It should be a place where someone with some money would go."
The script, Wallace continues, giving a speech he would repeat six times that day to state officials and nursing home operators, is "a very warm story, not anything controversial. It's a comedy about a group of elderly people who do funny things like order pizzas for everyone and drive the staff absolutely bananas. But it's also a human story because some of the old people are dying off."
Five minutes later Beagle calls with several names. Wallace makes arrangements to visit several nursing homes the next day while he is in Northern Virginia visiting the "Best Friends" set. Until the crew leaves Virginia he will act as the picture's troubleshooter.
"Everything is possible, anything can be done," says Wallace. This is a man who wakes up regularly in the middle of the night to whisper reminders to himself into the portable tape recorder he keeps beside his bed. "It's just a question of how hard you're willing to work for it and how much you're willing to pay for it."
"If you've got a controversial film, I find it's best to deal with it straight up," said Wallace. "Generally, a company will pay more in location fees. I just tell people 'Hey, it's only a movie.' "
That, Wallace concedes, does not always work. One famous Virginia military school, whose identity he will not disclose, rejected a $200,000 location fee from the producer of "The Lords Of Discipline." The movie is based on Pat Conroy's unflattering novel about his experiences at the Citadel, one of the nation's oldest military colleges located in Charleston, S.C. Because the Citadel also rejected the location fee, "Lords" is scheduled to be filmed at a British boarding school.
"Personally, I'm very conservative," says Wallace, who sees several movies a week. "I liked 'On Golden Pond' and 'Four Seasons,' movies about human interaction. I hate violence, period. And I hate to see women exploited. But you'll find that sex and violence are still the big box office draws."
The next morning Wallace, who in the vernacular of Hollywood is "going on the shoot" to the "Best Friends" set, has shed his pin stripes for white ski sweater, beige corduroy pants and a tweed jacket. En route he will scout two nursing homes.
As he gulps black coffee out of a Styrofoam cup the phone rings. It is a "Best Friends" crew member with an urgent request. Burt Reynolds' navy blue custom bus will be leaving the Georgetown Park shopping center, where the crew has been filming for four days, and going to Tysons Corner. The driver needs clearance to travel on the George Washington Parkway. Wallace gets the license plate number, calls the National Park Service and makes the arrangements.
"It's like moving a circus around every day," says Wallace. He pops two antacid tablets in his mouth. "The most important thing in this business is word of mouth. When you're making a movie that costs $100,000 to shoot, you just don't have room to make a big mistake. If you do, you're finished in this business. Hollywood is a very small town."
Three hours after Wallace gets clearance for Reynolds' bus, he pulls up in front of a nursing home in Northern Virginia, jumps out of the state car he is driving. He leaves the motor running and rapidly clicks off 10 shots from different angles. The red-brick institution lacks a graceful winding drive, duck pond and much in the way of landscaping charm, but it does have white columns.
"I don't think this will do," he says, jumping into the car. "But you can never be sure what they're looking for."
Fifteen minutes later Wallace pulls into another nursing home that bears absolutely no resemblance to the cheery-looking institution he described over the phone. In fact the low-rise building looks more like the motel in "Psycho."
"Forget it," Wallace says, wheeling out of the parking lot and heading for the movie set, that day a Holiday Inn on Interstate 66 in Manassas.
"I just hope everything goes okay," he says, thinking of the 80 hours he spent making arrangements for the picture, one of the most important he has landed for the state. On the seat beside him in his chocolate-brown briefcase is the ubiquitous tape recorder, the movie script and a three-inch-thick file containing letters, contracts, notes and information on where to find any possible piece of equipment the crew might need.
As Wallace pulls off I-66 he sees that the Holiday Inn marquee reads, "Welcome Scranton Jaycees," just as it is supposed to since the scene is set in Pennsylvania. Controlled hysteria prevails on the set, which is cordoned off and patrolled by Virginia state troopers and Prince William County police.
Crew members, who wear green-and-white "Best Friends" buttons or T-shirts and jackets to distinguish them from the rapidly swelling crowd of on-lookers, scurry around setting up lights and unloading gigantic pieces of equipment. Hawn and Reynolds are secluded in their respective trailer and bus. Director Norman Jewison, sporting a baseball cap dotted with buttons and a black satin jacket that says "Norman," huddles with pensive assistants who periodically snap out orders to their assistants or rush over to Wallace to check last minute details.
Despite the tension, the arrangements Wallace has made are working. The highway department water trucks that have been hired to wet down I-66 and simulate rain are in place. So are the state police who will control crowds and keep traffic on I-66 moving and away from the set.
"Oh, super! It's working," says Wallace, sounding amazed.
Inside his bus Reynolds, who has made six movies in his native Georgia and helped make it one of the nation's largest film-producing states, sips unfiltered apple juice and talks about filming on location. "Traditionally, people think, 'Oh, here they come with their fake sunsets and moonbeams, and they'll screw everything up and then leave.' "We're a non-polluting industry and we're only there a short time and we leave lots of money behind. I try to convince people that we're not coming in to wreak havoc on the state and then leave. I don't want to leave the grass burning or anyone pregnant or running down the street screaming."
Wallace has been standing around the set trying to appear unobtrusive. When his job is done properly he has made himself superfluous, which is finally the case. Though the movie crew will stay until after 3 a.m., Wallace's work is done. He's about ready to head back to Richmond, where his first task will be to find that nursing home.
"You spend hours in meetings with the boys from the highway department or the state police, looking at maps, tracing routes, measuring distances, planning for everything that you can think of that could possibly go wrong," he says. "And then you all get up and push your chairs back and it's 3 a.m. and the room is full of smoke and you think, 'Well, we've done everything we can, just let her rip.' But, you know, it's always real nice when things go just the way you plan."