CITY DOUBLE (June 2001)

Film production crews take advantage of Houston's amenities

On a recent dry day in Houston, between appearances by Tropical Storm Allison, actress Annabeth Gish extolled the virtues of the Lone Star State.

"I have a special affinity for Texas," said the woman who will become an X-Files regular this fall. "I shot two projects in Austin and fell in love with the state then. Through the miniseries True Women, I learned a lot about Texas and its rich history.

"I also worked on a CBS movie called Locked Away, and the wonderful thing is that some of the crew I worked with on that is here. I've found Texas people to be so warm and genuine. It's nicer than L.A. in that sense."

She is here to shoot VH1's When the Music Stops, a romantic drama that takes place within the world of salsa dancing. Her co-star is Kamar de los Reyes, whose memories of Houston are exceptionally vivid.

"I got caught in the flood," said the man who for 3 1/2 years has played Antonio Vega on ABC's One Life to Live. He is also one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People." Having completed final shooting of When the Music Stops, de los Reyes was headed back to his hotel on Braeswood when he became swept away by his surroundings.

"I was literally floating down Braeswood, with water coming through my (car) window," he said. "The water was chest-high. I couldn't even get the door open. I got thrown up against an embankment, and fortunately, then I was able to get the door open and get out."

He sloshed his way to his hotel, then from his room balcony observed the wild scene unfolding below.

"It flipped me out when I realized what I just went through," he said. Allison doesn't live here anymore, and fortunately the folks at VH1 are aware of that. Though the storm ruined a day's worth of film, all of which had to be reshot, VH1 continues to be bullish on Houston.

In addition to When the Music Stops, the cable music channel is filming the biopic MC Hammer downtown and in other area locations. Last year, VH1 came here to shoot At Any Cost, a movie about a young rock band.

"Houston has become a logical place to make movies," said Michael G. Larkin, VH1's vice president of motion pictures. "Normally a lot of movies on restricted budgets have to go to Canada. That's where we get the best deal (tax breaks, etc).

"Houston became a good place for us and Wilshire Court Productions because of the incentives we received from the local community, the good deal that was made for us to come down there," said Larkin, on the phone from Los Angeles.

Larkin explained that though tax breaks are not available, producers like Houston because there isn't a lot of filming occurring here.

"Houston's not used to a lot of film shooting in town, so you get certain locations for a lot less and certain rentals for less," he said. "You get your crew for competitive rates," and because so few films are made here, "you get the best of the best."

"The city is also a good double for other cities," Larkin said.

"Like the MC Hammer movie -- it takes place in Oakland and San Francisco, and we're able to double it pretty well, believe it or not. We recently shot at Enron Field, and we would never be able to do (something similar) in Los Angeles or New York City. It's just impossible because of the amount of requests they get and because of their policy."

And because Houstonians are a generous, less bottom-line sort, "the people there are so forthcoming and helpful," Larkin said. "At Any Cost was a good experience for us, from the response from the locals to the beautiful images we got."

For de los Reyes, Houston has already been a life-changing experience -- and not only because of that liquid plumber named Allison.

"I've always wanted to do something that showcased me as a whole, everything that I can possibly bring to the table," he said. "I honestly thought it had passed me by. Here at 33, I'm doing something that I thought I should be doing when I was 25."

When the Music Stops is a contemporary dance/love story about a couple who find each other through music. Gish plays Amie, a photographer engaged to a stockbroker more interested in portfolios than marriage. Amie's girlfriends give her salsa lessons as a wedding gift, and that's where she meets Nicholas (de los Reyes).

"I get more than I prepared for," Gish explained, "not only learning how to salsa but also awakening my person as a woman and falling in true love."

"She comes (to the dance studio) reluctantly, and it opens up a new side to her, a sexual side," de los Reyes said. "At the same time, it opens up a new side to Nicholas, because he sees someone who's ready to learn something new."

Director Ron Lagomarsino (Running Mates) shot in a variety of local places, including the Houston Metropolitan Dance Studio, the University of Houston and Lee Elementary. Producers of the film are Randy Robinson and Wilshire Court Productions.

Choreographer for the film, which wrapped last weekend, is Kenny Ortega (Dirty Dancing; To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar).

Both actors had worked for Ortega before. "He choreographed me in a movie called Shag when I was 16 years old," Gish said. "The wonderful thing about this movie is that so many circles have come around full. I worked with Ron and Randy before, and I worked with Kenny 14 years ago. So to have this evolution has been a real gift."

"Kenny was the first person I ever auditioned for, for a show in New York called Latin Quarter," de los Reyes said. "I had no experience auditioning and no idea what it took. I went out there on instinct and heart."

When the Music Stops and MC Hammer are two of the six movies VH1 produces a year, on average, a strategy that's been in place since shortly after Larkin came aboard in June 1998. So far, VH1 has made 10 movies and "they've been quite successful," Larkin said.

That sounds crazy, especially since the broadcast networks have cut back movie production severely. And, no, VH1 isn't in the video business; that's not why its movies succeed.

"VH1 is in a much better position than someone like CBS, for example," said Larkin, who previously was an independent film producer. (He produced Murder in the Heartland, which was made in Dallas and featured a rare TV turn by Tim Roth.) "CBS has a much larger audience than VH1, of course. But the problem is it tries to hit too many people at once.

"The beauty of VH1 is we have a very defined audience who turns VH1 on because they love music -- they want to see Behind the Music, a documentary, a concert special or a diva special or they want to see a movie about music. The advertisers know to come to this station to reach that audience."

In other words, movies work against networks, which must appeal to a broader audience to attract respectable ratings and please advertisers.

But they work for VH1, even if an outside production company owns the video rights, Which is why music fans will have MC Hammer to enjoy by year's end. And Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story on July 18. And When the Music Stops by the end of August.

And in development: a biopic on Stevie Ray Vaughan.

"I've read the first draft, and it's tremendous," Larkin said. "I would love to think about coming to Austin to do that. It would be perfect."
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