Why LAND OF THE DEAD Went To The Great White North
By Brian Ridgway
(Contributors to this article include Dawn of the Dead and Knightriders alumnus LEONARD LIES and director GEORGE ROMERO.)
Amidst the fevered anticipation for the October 2005 release of George Romero's LAND OF THE DEAD, there continues to be some dissension among fan press regarding the film's Toronto shooting location.
On a positive note, though, is that available media reports during this super-secret film shoot (USA Today, Entertainment Weekly) remain supportive of Romero – likely the result of the goodwill he exudes as one of America’s preeminent independent filmmakers.
ZOMBIE FARM had the privilege of meeting with George Romero in Chicago in July 2004, just before shooting began for LAND OF THE DEAD. During the 45 minute interview, he voiced regret that the filming of LAND would likely all be done in Canada, despite the efforts of many to include Pennsylvania somewhere in the mix. In a July 2004 Pittsburgh Post Gazette article by Barbara Vancheri, she reported the reason for the Toronto move was simply economics: "The movie moved to Toronto where it can save $2 million in tax rebates, plus take advantage of the currency exchange."
Ultimately, Pennsylvania's own tax credit option really wasn't available long enough for LAND's production crew to fully comprehend the benefits of a stateside shoot. "The Pennsylvania administrators involved with selling the tax credit to Universal hadn't had time to integrate the information about the tax," explained two-time Romero film alumnus Leonard Lies, who also sat in on the Romero interview. "Their learning curve hadn’t been completed, leaving too many questions with a system that wasn't tested."
In order for LAND to make its mid-October 2005 release date, Universal Studios had to make a decision quickly, leaving little time to crunch Pennsylvania numbers or consider a financing alternative.
Despite the initial Toronto decision, there still seemed to be a measure of hope among Romero enthusiasts that maybe a partial Pittsburgh shoot could be arranged, even if only for a few days. Commenting in the same Pittsburgh Post Gazette article, Romero stated that if the LAND production did manage to shoot in Pittsburgh, the result would be so insignificant that it, "…will be bupkis. The biggest benefit is I can sleep in my own bed for two nights." Vancheri also reported that Romero estimates the movie might have brought $15 million into the region, despite the recent poor performance by the dollar in foreign exchange rates.
In the small window of time between the end of July (when Romero's directing services were secured by Universal) and the beginning of October (when filming actually began), Romero and his crew went into pre-production overdrive. Their primary concern was that the previously 'custom-tailored-for-Pittsburgh' script now had to be adjusted for actual Canadian locations. As the race began to find suitable Canadian substitutes, the fourth zombie epic also had to face the possibility of working in approaching inclement weather conditions.
"The original story for LAND OF THE DEAD relies on the geography of the Pittsburgh area – the 'triangle of the three rivers, which keeps the sides (of the fortress in the film) protected, so basically it's walled off" Romero said, describing what is referred to locally as 'the Point.' "So I was really disappointed and the city was really working hard on keeping the film in Pittsburgh." Romero seemed confident that location alternatives could be worked out.
Special make-up effects also needed to be finalized – reported to be unlike anything yet seen in a Romero film. Another hurdle – casting auditions had to begin immediately. One interesting comment received from someone close to the production reveals that the Canadian film industry said that only SIX American actors could be used for the major roles. All other parts needed to be cast from Canadians.
Probably most stinging of all to American and European supporters alike, however, was the decision to allow few non-union extras to fill the roles of the zombie legions. Unlike Romero's previous zombie features, LAND would be cast almost entirely with Canadian film workers. There was even speculation as to how many characters in the film would actually be real, since the option to digitize most of the secondary figures could possibly occur in post-production effects.
Leonard Lies, who caught up briefly with Romero in Chicago before the shoot, seemed positive about the prospects for the fourth film. He commented that once production on LAND began, he received e-mails from DOTD fans around the world, all hoping for a chance to appear in LAND. All seemed to exhibit the same level of pre-mortem frustration and disappointment that no stateside zombie casting was likely.
"The grim reality is that long-time Romero fans probably won’t appear in LAND – it has now sunk in – and the rest of the zombie nation should accept it as well," Lies said. He pointed out that, if production had been delayed much beyond the couple weeks of the film’s initial starting date, Universal Studios would then exercise their option to move the entire production to the next cost-saving location, Africa. The end result of such a move, Lies commented, would likely be so far removed from the Pennsylvania community that the finished product "may as well be 'Zombies on Mars'."
But despite the time crunch, LAND continued as scheduled, with only a slight two week delay, shooting through much of late October until late December. As filming progressed, casting news (mostly speculation) hit the Internet, but little else was available. Almost no direct information or media reports filtered from the Toronto set.
As the filming concluded toward the end of 2004, the only news was that it was completed on schedule, and Romero may or may not have stormed off the set in a dispute with studio micromanagers. But, historically, Romero has worked quietly. Did he manage to successfully bring this one under the radar as well?
It Isn't Always Who You Know.
Despite the close community of Romero friends and film alumni, getting on the set of LAND, either as an extra or as a reporter, seemed impossible. Between the strict Canadian film requirements and the lightening-fast production schedule maintained by Universal, the production of LAND was handled with the same level of tight security as their previous zombie feature, the 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD.
I was invited to the set of LAND by Romero himself before shooting began, but found it nearly impossible to get even production information once filming started. Other Romero contacts I spoke with talked about similar squelched plans of set visits, and even possible roles as extras fizzled into nothing. It seemed that working under the banner of Universal and the Canadian film studios did not create the same open atmosphere found in Romero’s earlier independent projects.
Pennsylvania Now Has a 20 Percent Tax Credit – But What Now?
On July 20, 2004, Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell signed into law House Bill #147, legislation providing the 20 percent film production tax credit for production expenses incurred within the state. This credit is available for feature films, television series and shows of more than 15 minutes intended for a national audience.
According to Lies, who presently runs his own Pennsylvania-based film production company, Dream Catcher Films, Inc. (www.dreamcatchersfilmsinc.com), by the mid-October LAND start, paperwork from the state's film office wasn’t even available for review. To make matters worse, online links to sites offering more information simply called up error pages.
While Romero initially was disappointed that the legislation could not benefit his film in time to take advantage of local crews and locations, he took a 'wait-and-see' attitude as to how it would affect area filmmakers. He did question the language of the rebate structure, however, and seemed confused as to the state’s source of inspiration.
"Instead of modeling the legislation after the Louisiana or New Mexico (tax incentives), they modeled it after a Puerto Rican studio," Romero said. "It's just not a very good deal. If they expect it to work, then they're going to have to change it. And that's what really happened with LAND. (As a filmmaker) you just don't have any idea if you’re going to get anything back (in terms of a tax credit.)."
As #147 states, applicants, who submit an application for a tax credit by February 15 of the calendar year following the close of the tax year in the year the expense occurred, may have to wait until the following August to see how much of their credit has been approved. And for Universal Studios, that wait seemed a bit too long.
Romero suggested a review of the legislation in six months, or maybe even a year, to see if it ultimately needed to be re-tooled. With any luck, future Pennsylvania filmmakers may benefit from the contributions of filmmakers such as George Romero and Leonard Lies in structuring legislative benefits.
(ZOMBIE FARM would like to thank KEN DAVIS for his assist in preparing this article.)
Copyright © 2005 THE ZOMBIE FARM. No part of this article is to be copied or reproduced without the expressed, written consent of NORMAN ENGLAND and BRIAN RIDGWAY.