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Leaders rally the troops to lure $51 million shoot

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAGERSTOWN -- Inside a once-abandoned warehouse, a movie director is imploring, "Quiet please on the set!" and actors in Civil War-period garb are taking their places in the elegantly re-created piano room of a Southern home, circa 1862.

It's the opening of a scene from Gods and Generals, which will recount the story of the war's early years and star Oscar winner Robert Duvall as the soon-to-be Confederate commander Robert E. Lee.

But another story is unfolding here, too: that of a Western Maryland community that took a calculated financial risk to land the $51 million, Ted Turner-funded epic based on a book of the same name.

Local officials are hoping that the movie -- filmed in a former Lowe's warehouse and at sites nearby -- will enable the city to cash in on the area's storied Civil War past and elevate its profile.

Washington County, which outfoxed Gettysburg, Pa., and other potential locations by lending money to the filmmakers, is already reaping dividends, economic and otherwise.

The producers estimate that they will spend as much as $4 million to $5 million in this area during filming, which began Aug. 27 and is due to wrap in early December. They've rented office space in nearby Williamsport and bought bulk quantities of concrete, lumber and furniture for the elaborate interior sets. Thousands of dollars are being spent on lodging and catering for the 157 actors with speaking roles -- not to mention the hundreds of extras, re-enactors and crew members.

'On the map'

Then there's the cachet for Hagerstown, eager to attract tourists, of having entertainment moguls such as Turner and stars such as Duvall dining at local establishments. The two were recently spotted at a Bavarian restaurant that has become a favorite for the actors and crew.

"It's putting Washington County and Hagerstown on the map," said state Del. Christopher B. Shank, who recently appeared with a fake handlebar mustache in a scene playing a state legislator -- albeit from Virginia.

The county is also angling to be a principal site for Last Full Measure, another Civil War book by author Jeff Shaara that Gods and Generals director Ronald F. Maxwell hopes to bring to the big screen.

'This is their story'

Washington County's main draw is that it was home to the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, in Sharpsburg, where 23,000 soldiers died or were wounded in the bloodiest single-day battle in U.S. military history. Many are buried in cemeteries around the county, which was also a principal staging area for other Civil War campaigns.

"This is their story here. They are invested in it, and they have a sense of ownership in the film," said Maxwell, who has rented an old farmhouse in nearby Boonsboro so his two dogs can roam.

The Hagerstown Union Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter raising money for renovations, couldn't have received a bigger publicity boost than when the production company spotted its old facade and cobblestone driveway and decided to shoot a scene there. The shelter is so old that it is still heated by shoveling coal into a basement furnace.

On an early morning a few weeks ago, the film crew arrived and turned the shelter's warehouse for donated clothes into an 1861 version of Richmond's Marshall Theater. Streets were closed as horses and several hundred Civil War re-enactors milled about. Shelter workers posed for pictures with Turner, and local residents collected autographs.

The scene featured a Shakespearean reading by Chris Conner, a young actor playing John Wilkes Booth. Booth, best known as President Abraham Lincoln's assassin, was a prominent actor.

Legislators-turned-thespians

About three-quarters of Gods and Generals is being shot in Maryland -- mostly in this area. The former Lowe's warehouse, near a cluster of a fast-food restaurants, is the site for Stonewall Jackson's death bed and another interior scene depicting wounded civilians and soldiers after the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The rest is being filmed in Virginia and West Virginia. A recent scene in Charlestown featured Shank, Del. John P. Donoghue and state Sen. Donald F. Munson, all of Washington County, playing Virginia legislators. Also appearing, with fake mutton chops, was U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican.

"I now have an appreciation of what actors do," Donoghue said. "I spent hours and hours -- I was there at 7 in the morning and left at 7 at night -- doing the same scene over and over. Robert Duvall asked me the best spot for crab cakes on the Eastern Shore, and we talked about St. Michaels."

The production crew also traveled to Southwest Baltimore Oct. 7 to shoot a scene just down the tracks from the B&O; Railroad Museum. "It's a meeting of Stonewall Jackson [played by Stephen Lang] and his wife," said Vic Heutschy, the movie's publicist. "We had it so it looked like the 1860s, but if you moved out of frame you saw the Baltimore skyline."

While Baltimore -- thanks partly to the films of Barry Levinson -- is relatively blase about being featured in movies, Hagerstown, pop. 37,000, is not.

High-profile aspirations

"The recognition we're getting is very amazing," said Charles Sekula, owner of Schmankerl Stube, a restaurant offering schnitzel, sauerkraut and other Bavarian fare. Turner, Duvall and others from the movie dined in a private room there a few weeks ago.

"Living here, we see only what's wrong with downtown. The people who come here see what's beautiful," Sekula said.

Attracting visitors and new businesses is vital to Hagerstown's strategy for continuing its transition from reliance on industry to a service economy. The city is a mix of modern "superstores" and old structures. Some -- such as the 86-year-old Maryland Theater with its gold-leafed ornamentation -- are sublime. But others are run-down, and the area still lags behind much of the rest of the state in median income.

Part of the problem is that western Maryland has practically no federal employment, a high-paying mainstay of the state's economy. But, elected officials say, the city also suffers from an image as a remote outpost -- a perception that stifles growth.

"Everybody thinks of Hagerstown as so far in Western Maryland that it's like they're going to Siberia," said City Councilman N. Linn Hendershot.

He and others believe the area must enlighten potential visitors -- the city is only about 70 miles from Baltimore -- and package its Civil War history. Gods and Generals, due for release late next year, could help considerably.

The city and county had to hustle to make sure Maxwell located here.

The movie is the prequel to 1993's Gettysburg, which Maxwell directed and whose battle scenes were shot on location in Pennsylvania. Many in that state thought Maxwell would return to film the next movie.

"There was an expectation that he would come back," said Jeff Palm, director of special projects for the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. "What this area offered was authenticity of the landscape."

'Unusual effort'

But Maryland had an advantage: Dennis E. Frye, a Civil War expert from Washington County, had met Maxwell years earlier when Frye was chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia.

After Gettysburg, Maxwell knew he wanted to make Gods and Generals but hadn't yet obtained financing from Turner.

With Frye's help, Hagerstown, Washington County and local businesses agreed to help Maxwell -- and themselves -- by offering some $350,000 in bank loan guarantees so the director could scout local sites and make a case to Turner to fund the film.

The community would have been liable for repaying the loan if the venture failed and Maxwell and his colleagues had walked away.

"It was unusual effort by the community to show good faith in Ron Maxwell," said Bruce J. Zimmerman, the city administrator. "We thought it was a reasonable move to make to basically jump-start the project."

It is rare, but not unprecedented, for a small community to extend itself financially to lure a film.

Palm said Gettysburg officials did not offer loans. "You wouldn't call it a bribe, but if you offer somebody something, they're more likely to go there," he said.

The arrangement appears to have worked out fine in Washington County, where the loan has been repaid and the Hollywood types are enjoying their time in what, to them, looks like Main Street U.S.A.

"You have a kind of family-values atmosphere here," said producer Ron Smith. He and his wife like it so much that they recently flew their children into town from Los Angeles and hired a tutor.

He said they are all enjoying watching the leaves change color, something that doesn't happen in Southern California.

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