NEW ORLEANS -- The Mississippi River, usually coursing with scores of ships carrying cargo and people, was nearly deserted. Coast Guard boats blockaded a half-mile stretch that runs alongside the city. But it had nothing to do with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. On this day, Hollywood needed to borrow the river - director Tony Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer were in town shooting their action movie, Deja Vu, and it was time to blow up a passenger ferry.
And blow it up they did. Rigged with an array of pyrotechnics, the ferry was enveloped in a ball of fire. As demolished cars were launched off the ship's deck into the water, flames exploded more than 200 feet into the air - about as high as the Mississippi Bridge, which was also empty, rush-hour traffic having been diverted elsewhere.
It was the kind of spectacular special effect for which longtime collaborators Scott and Bruckheimer (their shared credits include Top Gun and Crimson Tide) are famous. At the same time, though, it was an anomaly: a big-budget movie in a state where the infrastructure remains in tatters from the devastation wrought by Katrina, the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. More than seven months later, the storm was still front-page news. Even as Deja Vu filmed in and around New Orleans, police found a decomposed body inside a ruined Lower 9th Ward house.
Before Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, Louisiana was enjoying one of the nation's most remarkable booms in television and film production. Thanks to the state's aggressive tax incentives, which can shave as much as 20 percent off a film's budget, New Orleans was turning into the Hollywood of the South. In 2002, the state hosted but one feature, Evil Remains. By 2004, more than a dozen features and TV movies had been shot in Louisiana, including Because of Winn-Dixie and The Skeleton Key. More recent productions include Failure to Launch and Glory Road.
These productions pumped millions into the economy and helped build a new and much-needed job base.
But as soon as Katrina left town, so did the movie business.
Some productions relocated to other parts of the state, principally Shreveport, while a few packed their bags and returned to Los Angeles. Local actors and crew, many of whom lost their homes, left the area. New production starts vanished.
Then, as the region wobbled back on its feet, producers reconsidered. The reports came back - it's not as bad as you think it is, and they really want us to return.
"A lot of people wanted to see that everything was going to be OK," says Robert Vosbein, a New Orleans lawyer who specializes in the state's tax credits. "But union membership is actually higher than it was pre-Katrina. Our crew base is back, but it didn't happen in a day."
Even with basic service providers such as schools and hospitals still closed and blue tarps covering roofs, the pace of movie and TV production picked up. Before long, the first big studio production, Deja Vu, a time-traveling drama about an FBI agent trying to save a woman's life and avert a terrorist attack, arrived in town. Just like that, the same local, state and federal agencies that struggled to coordinate their Katrina response were successfully joining forces to shut down the Mississippi for a movie.
"The real question was whether the services were there - if there was water to drink, if hotels and restaurants were open," says Bruckheimer, who says the state's incentives will trim about $20 million from the initial budget. "We expected the worst. But it was easier than we expected. We've had very few serious problems."
But some filmmaking problems remain. Housing is still tight, and one of the few local talent agencies didn't reopen its New Orleans office. Equipment rentals are difficult, lumber is hard to come by, extras must be brought in from Atlanta, and it's nearly impossible to get production insurance for coastal shoots during hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30. Still, signs of progress abound, and these days the first-class cabin of United's nonstop from Los Angeles International Airport to New Orleans is often filled with industry types.
"I think it's symbolic, being the first studio film back," Deja Vu star Denzel Washington said a day before the ferry was detonated. "I'm glad we're here, spending money."
He has spent his downtime touring areas of Katrina's devastation. "Every little bit helps," he said.
Director Andrew Davis' The Guardian, a drama about Coast Guard rescue swimmers starring Kevin Costner, followed the filmmaking exodus from New Orleans to Shreveport after Katrina at great expense. The contents of the film's production office sustained mold and water damage, and a nearly completed tank for water filming constructed in hard-hit Camp Villere had to be scrapped and rebuilt in Shreveport at a cost of more than $1 million. Moving the production cost another $1 million.
Originally scheduled to film last October, The Guardian began photography in December (it's set for release Sept. 15). Since much of the film involves swimming, actors and stunt performers needed access to warm showers.
"But we couldn't get a mobile shower unit because [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] was drawing everything," said location manager Virginia McCollam, who couldn't locate her brother for four days after Katrina hit. The showers were finally found - in Kentucky - and her brother is fine. "It all worked out," says Guardian producer Tripp Vinson. "I am kind of shocked that it did."
Lionsgate just wrapped Pride, based on a true story about a Philadelphia swim team, in Shreveport, and has plans to film The Punisher 2 in New Orleans this year; Pride is set to premiere Dec. 22.
"The biggest issue I found there," studio production chief Michael Paseornek said, "is they don't want people to forget about them."
John Horn writes for the Los Angeles Times.