Film Buff

The naked truth about why Houston isnít the third coast

Another movie had an alligator character written into the script. The gator was brought in from Florida, already trained and ready for the shot. There were no problems -- until a maid walked into the gator wrangler's hotel room and surprised a full-grown reptile splashing around in the bathtub.

That concern was compounded when investigators discovered this wasn't just another stock alligator; this one was on the endangered species list. "That, in and of itself, was quite a violation," Ferguson says. "It was never supposed to have been taken from Florida, period."

Ferguson explains that there was "a lot of maneuvering to take care of what should have been done in the first place." They got the permits and the exemptions. And the hotel lost a lavatory-loving guest.

Houston stuntman David "Stutter" Sanders
Photos courtesy of David Sanders
Houston stuntman David "Stutter" Sanders

No, the director insists, he's not going to get into the child actor stories. Once Ferguson starts on his own story, though, he can't help but summon up images of Cinema Paradiso, the 1988 French saga of a Sicilian youngster captivated by the village movie house.

Ferguson's hometown of La Marque didn't have a movie theater during his childhood. Ferguson's parents -- his father was a teacher/coach, his mother a school administrator -- introduced him to films when he was barely out of infancy. Martin Milner roared in on his 'Vette to shoot a segment of Route 66 in Bolivar and Galveston, and the Fergusons were among the crowds cheering him on. He was one of the excited kids following Patty Duke around for My Sweet Charlie. "It was awesome," he says.

Summers were best. The family drove north of Dallas to Denison to visit his grandparents -- where they ran the projector, concession stand and ticket booth at the tiny Rialto movie house. So Ferguson worked there and lived out his fantasies on the big screen, devouring movies with Junior Mints and popcorn.

"I did it every summer of my life," he grins. "I'll never forget seeing Advance to the Rear and Cat Ballou -- two times a day, every day for six weeks."

He never quite shook the silver screen. Years later, as a student at Rice University, Ferguson knew he was hooked when he heard a presentation by Terrence Malick, the Waco-born director of Badlands and Days of Heaven. After stints as a location scout for Houston commercials and related work, Ferguson landed a job with the film commission in 1987.

Thirteen years have taught him the inside tricks on turning the seemingly ordinary into movie magic.

Dixie Woods, a featureless subdivision near Pearland, became suburban Washington, D.C., for Arlington Road. Rough Riders, in the TNT special, didn't splash across Guantánamo Bay into an inland invasion of Cuba -- that was Cypress Creek near Conroe. The miniseries Woman of Independent Means turned a Museum District home into a Paris mansion (credit the Eiffel Tower in the background to special effects).

In the Italian Occhio Pinocchio -- a bizarre movie directed by comedian Francesco Nuti -- a specially constructed warehouse set on Lake Conroe was smashed up by Pinocchio's speedboat. No lie.

Powder turned the Sugar Land state prison into the exterior of a boys' school, while the Wharton County Courthouse stood in as the high school in that film.

Suspense, for the commission, has meant more than a plotline in an action thriller. Evening Star opens at Carnegie Hall in the Lincoln Center. It wasn't that hard to use Houston's Jones Hall for the scene, but the weather was another factor for this northeast winter setting. "They put down snow and icicles -- the whole nine yards," Ferguson says. "And that was in August!"

And Houston weather wouldn't cooperate with RoboCop II, which was filmed in downtown locations one year during October and November. "Everything was ready to go," Ferguson remembers. "We were doing just fine. Then, on the second day of shooting, it snowed -- it snowed earlier than it had ever snowed in the recorded history of Houston."

Long after those flakes had faded, the city began facing a meltdown of its own with the movie industry.

Hollywood first coined the phrase "runaway film production" to describe the flight of movies out of California and into other states such as Texas. Now the term has taken on a new twist: globalization, just like the loss of manufacturing business to other countries.

The economic erosion led to a Department of Commerce study, released last year, that found potentially "devastating effects on local communities in many states." Nationally, the losses over the last decade were estimated at up to $10 billion as the number of foreign-produced, U.S.-backed films jumped from 14 percent to 27 percent. Ironically, it comes at a time of peak production brought on by the demand from cable television channels. (The study pointed out that more than half of the 23 films made by the USA Network were not made by the United States.) Nationally, the industry generates more than $20 billion in economic activity, with about 270,000 workers directly involved in the movie business.

Those who aren't in front of a camera or behind one may not necessarily mourn the absence of movie business, but spending by filmmakers actually goes far beyond sets and soundstages. The commerce report noted that Kevin Costner's Tin Cup, during a ten-week shoot in Houston and Kingwood, spent nearly a half-million dollars just on location fees to residents or businesses. Dry cleaners took in $22,000 from the movie crews, who also spent $121,000 on hardware and lumber.

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