'Giving community' putting its best foot forward
PHILO — Maybe it's the makeup being applied to Victor Garber's face. Or perhaps it's the location — David and Patricia Block's beautiful thoroughbred-horse farm south of Philo off Illinois 130.
No matter, the instantly recognizable face of the actor who's appeared in countless stage productions and movies — he plays the Canadian ambassador in Ben Affleck's Oscar-winning "Argo" — looks relaxed and happy.
In fact, he's glowing.
"Look at where we are — it's heaven," Garber said after makeup artist Suzi Ostos finishes with him. "What could be better than this?"
Garber plays an executive in the indie film "Food," being shot entirely in Champaign County this month. He and Elizabeth Marvel, who plays his wife, arrived Tuesday to act in scenes shot Wednesday in the Blocks' stately brick mansion.
It's located among green horse pastures and fields of soy and corn that look resplendent at this time of year, before the long summer sun has tinged everything brown.
So you believe it when Garber, who lives in New York, tells you:
"I can say it's kind of beautiful to have this kind of open space. It's stress-free at the moment."
All the other "Food" crew members at "base camp" — the 1960s ranch-style home of the Blocks' son and daughter-in-law, Ryan and Jeana, north of the mansion — appear relaxed, too. Even though many wear walkie-talkie headsets and are bustling around.
They seem to be using the entire house, having posted yellow signs pointing to the restrooms, production office and other areas.
Jeana Block was fine with them having taken over her house for a long day — the crew is working 14-hour stretches most days.
"I just learned last night that our land or house would be involved," she said, standing near a entry to her living room. "It's exciting. It's a whole new experience."
In the living room, a wardrobe assistant at an ironing board smooths out a blue, long-sleeved man's shirt before hanging it on a steamer.
Dana Hogan, costume supervisor, methodically checks a rack of clothes, most of them casual contemporary.
Each outfit is inside a dry-cleaner's plastic bag. And each has a beige tag giving the name of the actor and of his or her character — and numbers indicating the scenes he or she will appear in.
In the dining area, the makeup and hair stylists work at a long, cloth-covered table, first doing Garber's makeup before he leaves to block a scene in the mansion. Later, a stylist brushes Marvel's long brown hair while the actress sits at the table and before she leaves to join Garber.
One of the stylists is Champaign resident Ashleigh Coartney, who works at the Rod Sickler Salon and Spa in Champaign. She's done hair on movies for four years, an average of twice a year.
Her first movie job came after she graduated from a "hair school."
"I met people on that set and it sort of snowballed from there," she said, echoing the experience of many of the crew members.
Like Garber, Coartney also feels a good vibe with "Food," which is being shot in 23 different locations in Champaign County. The work began three weeks ago and will end Thursday.
Expected to be released next year, the political thriller tells of a young Midwestern mother, played by Zoe Lister-Jones, who goes on a journey to discover the cause of her son's mysterious illness.
Coartney called it a special movie. "I think it's just the team. Shatterglass (Studios) has been fantastic to work with," she said.
Shatterglass Studios in Champaign actually is not involved with making "Food," other than lending its editing room to the Los Angeles film editor who each weekend works on the daily rushes. And more importantly lending Brett Hays. He's a producer at Shatterglass, which creates promotional films, commercials and documentaries, including of Ebertfest.
Hays is the line producer for "Food." In that role he creates and works with the budget; hires the crew; and manages the production.
"Basically I manage everything so the director can direct," Hays said.
He declined to disclose the budget but did say "Food" is on schedule and on budget. And the weather has cooperated as well.
And Champaign — when Hays says Champaign he really means Champaign County — has been generous and wonderful to everyone making the movie.
"Food" features 50 speaking roles, with some filled by the likes of Danny Glover, Anthony Edwards, Griffin Dunne and Beth Grant. More than 100 extras, all from central Illinois, have appeared in scenes as well.
So how did "Food" end up being made here?
It starts with Hays. Chicagoans who work in the film industry and who had worked with him before recommended Hays as a line producer to "Food" director Daryl Wein, who co-wrote the script with Lister-Jones, the film's lead actress.
Wein and his colleagues initially wanted to shoot in the Chicago area — even though the script sets the story in Iowa. The state of Iowa, though, does not give tax breaks to filmmakers who shoot in the state. Illinois does.
After Hays read the script, he thought Champaign County, with its farmland and the University of Illinois — a university figures in "Food," too — would be a much better place to shoot the indie film than Chicagoland.
"I knew the resources I could pull in Champaign," he said. "I knew Champaign was ready for this. I knew it was definitely doable and I'm able to prove it, that big films can be made here."
Champaign County met all the criteria to host, Hays said.
Food to feed the cast and crew: Prairie Fruits Farm in rural Champaign and Hendrick House in Urbana are catering.
Housing: Rowland Realty provided apartments to crew members; the actors are staying in hotels.
Vehicles: Sullivan-Parkhill Imports Inc. is loaning everything from a Cadillac to a Silverado.
"There was one time I called and said I needed an Impala in an hour," Hays said. "They said yes and we went and picked it up."
A university: The UI has allowed scenes to be shot on campus.
Streets: The village of St. Joseph opened some for "Food." The city of Champaign allowed an area of Prospect and Charles to be closed for a hour.
Houses: Individuals including the Block family, Hays and a Rantoul resident have loaned theirs.
"In other cities it's hard to get these things — filming in houses and on the streets and at a university," Hays said. "We were able to work on the relationships we have and shoot in certain places and for the city to let us open up places and close roads.
"Champaign-Urbana is such a giving community," Hays continued. "It's a community about building bridges. You need good relationships in order to get films made."
Alex Hughes, a freelance location scout who lives in Chicago, said everyone, for the most part, has been accommodating and helpful.
"Sure, there are people who turn you down. But on to the next one," he said during a brief break at base camp on Wednesday. "Some want you to pay. If we can, we can. If we can't, we can't. Other times we find other things to do. One time I painted a person's house."
The Blocks "very kindly" loaned their impressive property, Hughes said. Champaign resident Scott Reichard, a business owner and volunteer driver for "Food," had recommended the Block spread to Hughes for the mansion scenes with Garber and Marvel.
The Block farm is a convenient movie location, with asphalt paths along the pastures, making it easier for production assistants to drive club cars to and fro while transporting people, props and equipment.
Most of the 50 crew members, hired by Hays, live in Chicago. Most appear to be in their 20s and 30s.
"Champaign doesn't have a full-time film community," he said. "Most people who make films here have jobs. To call them and say, 'For one month we need your undivided attention' — it's hard."
However, 10 UI students and recent graduates are gaining valuable experience working as interns or paid production assistants on "Food."
"Some have really proven themselves quite well with the crew," Hays said. "Some could be hired in Chicago.
"That's one reason more films being made in Champaign is good. It gives students that experience. When they go out into the world they have it on their resumes. If you do a good job, people remember you and recommend you for other jobs."
And Hays is stoked for another reason: the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in Champaign County by "Food" cast and crew on props, hotel rooms, electronics, food and going out to eat.
Director Wein said he's been pleasantly surprised by Champaign County's amenities; he mentioned the Market at the Square farmers' market and Common Ground Food Co-op, both in Urbana, and the Art Theater Co-op and Bacaro wine-bar and restaurant, both in Champaign.
"I'm very happy to be shooting here," Wein, 30, said before filming a scene inside the Block mansion. Before that could happen, a production assistant had to return to base camp to find wedding rings for Garber and Marvel to wear.
"Everybody is so nice and generous and hospitable," Wein said. "I'm used to making movies in New York or L.A.. You don't get as many people with open arms welcoming you into their homes and letting you shoot at locations you almost get for free because they want to be part of the movie.
"It's very exciting."
Lights, camera, action!
Some of the 23 Champaign County locations for "Food":
— Mack's Twin City Recycling, Urbana
— Prairie Fruits Farm, rural Champaign
— Parkland College Wellness Center, Champaign
— Memorial Stadium
— UI Natural History Building
— UI Architecture Building
— Streets of St. Joseph
— Brett Hays home, Champaign
— Home of David and Patricia Block, rural Philo
— Prospect and Charles, Champaign
— A house in Rantoul