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Feature article published in Point of View magazine

Claude’s in town

J.J. Films has brought Claude to Providence. J.J. Films is a New York-based film production company, and Claude is their project --a feature film starring Irene Jacob and Mark Evan Jacobs. They jointly arrived in town the week of May 7th in the shape of Producer Diana Phillips and her advance party of production colleagues. Shooting is due to start July 9 and will continue for five weeks.

Phillips and her staff are currently working out of a makeshift production office in an Old mill building at 389 Charles Street which, in addition to its already dingy appearance, had suffered a flood a day before I met with her. Despite the discomfort Phillips said that so far all was going smoothly and she was very happy. She did add, however, that “the definition of film production is to anticipate the problems and solve them, and if you don’t anticipate them solve them anyway.”

The Story

“Claude, in his intense and frantic search for himself, accidentally burned down his own house.”

According to Phillips “Claude is a romantic comedy -- the story of a young man trying to get through life and find himself.” Featured alongside Claude are a compellingly attractive French woman, Beatrice Le Clezio and Seap Sok, a five--year-old Cambodian girl who lives with her. Claude, in his intense and frantic search for himself, accidentally burns down his own house leaving Beatrice and Seap, who live in the downstairs apartment, out on the street. Wracked with guilt Claude invites them to come and stay with his parents who turn out to be every bit as offbeat as Claude himself. Ultimately Claude’s attraction to Beatrice and his compassion for Seap combine to bring about revolutionary changes in his life.

Why shoot in Providence?

“Phillips looked at Minneapolis and Toronto before choosing Providence.”

Phillips looked at Minneapolis and Toronto before choosing Providence. When she saw Providence she knew almost immediately that this was where she wanted to film. “We chose Providence,” she said, specifically, for it’s look, it’s aesthetic qualities,” and added, “it’s got architectural interest and beauty. It’s such a mixed up big city -- big village, mini- city -- it’s an urban environment with some very interesting old architecture, and the area has not been over-filmed. “

There has in fact been very little feature film use of Providence and as Phillips wanted to find something near to New York Providence seemed to fit the bill. It was also important, she said, “to find a big old victorian home on water -- not a river, and not ocean.” She also emphasized that her choice of Providence was heavily swayed by the fact that there are lots of “feature film crew types” here.

A parallel factor that solidified the decision to come to Providence, said Phillips, “was the Trinity Rep and the fact that there was a group of talented and experienced actors here, and in and around Boston as well.”

“’s not a community that’s used to filmmaking...”

Phillips was also energetic in her praise of Amy Shapiro, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Film Commission, with whom she consulted prior to deciding on Rhode Island. “Amy,” she said, ”is incredible. She’s one of the better leaders of any kind of film commission I’ve ever worked with. She does her job, and defines her job well beyond the scope of most film Commissions.” (Sadly for Rhode Island, a few days before this interview took place, Shapiro resigned her position with the Film Commission to pursue other interests involving a relocation to Washington, DC.)

Has Providence lived up to expectations?

When asked if her experience with Providence had been good so far Phillips was enthusiastic: “We’re extremely happy with the locations. It’s everything that the director wanted, visually. The community in general has been very cooperative. They’ve been fun to get to know The real estate agents have been helpful directing us to parts of the area that have the architecture we’re looking for. The harder things are that it’s not a community that’s used to filmmaking. We seem to be bringing up questions for which they don’t have an answer, bureaucratically.” She recently started the process of hiring a minor only to find out that nobody in Providence knew how to set this in motion. “In most states,” said Phillips, “you go to the Labor Board to get a permit to hire them. Then the child goes to the Labor Board and gets a permit to work for you. So far we must have talked to about 800 bureaucrats and nobody can tell us how to do this, or who can issue such a permit. People have been very pleasant, they just can’t tell us how to do it.” Even so she was high in her praise of almost everyone she has encountered: “Everybody from people in the local congresswoman Claudine Schneider’s office, to the Mayor’s office, to the Police Department, have all been very helpful. It’s just a matter of people getting used to what a movie demands, and what kind of impact it has on the environment. We come in and we start buying a lot of things and needing a lot of things which maybe the community doesn’t have.”

“I think one of the nice things we’ve found in Providence are the service industries.”

One incident, however, which has become a major stumbling block to production, is the refusal of the Fire Department to allow the effected burning of a building. As this is a “pivotal scene”in the story had Phillips known ahead of time that this was going to be a problem she would not, she states, have come to Providence to shoot. Said Shapiro as she was leaving her position with the Film Commission, “I wish this had happened after I’d left. Things were going so well. The Fire Chief had agreed to it, which is one reason Diana brought the production to the city. But when it came right down to a final decision he was unavailable and the Acting Chief, Gilbert McLaughlin, categorically refused to have anything to do with burning a building in the city.” Phillips is clearly frustrated. She has gone to great lengths to illustrate the methods they would use to simulate the burning of a building and to fully explain to McLaughlin that “this is the movies, it’s not reality. “We’re not actually going to burn a building.” Of a recent meeting with the Fire Department Shapiro said: “There were all these “Fire people” wearing lots of medals and McLaughlin was downright patronizing. He didn’t even listen.” In a final effort Phillips has appealed directly to the Mayor in the hopes that he will step in. If he fails to do so Phillips has two options open to her: to build a facade that duplicates the building they are using and burn that, or to find a building with the same exterior in New York and shoot there. Neither option is appealing. “I even have a signed contract with the people who own the condemned building we were planning to use,” said Phillips. The situation has taken some of the shine off the company’s experience with Providence.

“There’s a lot to be said for having local people in the production office.”

On a less depressing note, however, Phillips said: “I think one of the nice things that we’ve found in Providence are the service industries. When a production comes to town they need to immediately make a working office -- we have to have telephones, copy machines, office supplies, print stationary with our name and address, and understand where to get people’s lunches every day -- suddenly 40 people land on this town and eat in restaurants, rent videos, do everything that they do at home, get cable TV -- we’re here so long. We rent a million cars and trucks -- the service people have just been wonderful.”

The Writer/Director

Cindy Lou Johnson is the Writer/Director of Claude. Ms. Johnson recently wrote two pieces for HBO’s critically acclaimed “Vietnam War Stories,” -- “The Promise,” and “R&R” for which she won an ACE award for the best writing in a dramatic series. She also wrote the film “Sometimes I wonder” starring Colleen Dewhurst, which also aired on HBO and Showtime. Ms. Johnson’s most recent play, “Brilliant Traces,” completed a sold out run at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City. It was produced by the Circle Repertory Company and starred Joan Cusack and Kevin Anderson. The play was also selected by Circle Rep to be the NBC “New Voices” production of the 1988/89 season. A graduate of Cornell University, Ms. Johnson is currently a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Crew

About the crew Phillips said: “A lot of the crew members are from Rhode Island, or Massachusetts close to Rhode Island. We’ve been hiring mostly Providence residents to work in the production office. There’s a lot to be said for having local people in the production office -- people who know where to run and get xeoxing late at night, know where lunch can be picked up, and who can tell us about interesting things to do at the weekends.”

Most of the department heads and technical heads, are from Los Angeles. The Writer/Director, the costume designer, and Phillips herself are all from New York. Much of the cast is from New York but some are from Boston/Providence. Post production will be done in New York.

Parting Shot

“Again, the definition of filmmaking,” smiled Phillips, “is solving problems and compromising. You have the script, and then you have reality. The trick is to make it work. I just hope we can.”