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February 10th, 2010 NATALIE BAKER | Featured Stories
 

Portland’s Got Talent

Would-be actors gather to emote, network and kick ass for the city’s next big thing.

     
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K.O. CAMEO: Tualatin’s Shane Ballenti and his fellow students in Leverage Boot Camp’s “thug” stunt class learn the rough stuff. IMAGE: leahnash.com

While the rest of Portland was gorging on hot wings and contemplating the latest in multimillion-dollar beer commercials, a man was shot. A fellow actor-in-training pointed two extended fingers at him and yelled “BANG!” running off scene to leave Tony Bowen, the Bellingham native who’d driven six hours to be in this workshop, motionless on the floor.

“Aaaand, cut.” It was Superbowl Sunday, and Leverage Boot Camp was underway.

An eager gaggle of 200 or so people filled a conference room in the University of Oregon’s White Stag building. The workshop was billed as a “Thug Camp” to teach locals stuntwork basics, but the crowd was actually there for a larger two-day series of workshops organized by local casting director Lana Veenker to train, inform and connect PDX actors and stunt people. It also served as a window into how things go down every day on the set of Leverage, the TNT crime series that has shot in Portland for the past year. All this, in the hopes of helping make PDX the next go-to place for film and TV productions that can’t afford to (or don’t want to) shoot in Hollywood. That industry nets cities like Vancouver, B.C., more than a billion dollars a year. The camp included classes on everything from mastering dialects for supporting actors and audition techniques for teens and kids to background acting for newbie actors and potential thugs and “thugettes” (the most in-demand role on Leverage).

“You are building an industry,” announced Leverage executive producer John Rogers via videoconference from Los Angeles to Saturday’s crowd. “And when more movies are coming in, you need more talent. We need more talent.”

That was precisely what Misti Puening was hoping to hear. “I’m really trying to break into the business,” says the tattooed software developer and sole female participant in the weekend’s stunt training session. If she could play any character? “The vampire from the Amazon in the fourth Twilight [movie]…” she says. “I could play that role.”

But could a city known for its indie music scene and cyclists really be the next big TV and film town? If you aren’t at least a little bit skeptical about this idea, you probably also trust late-night infomercials. Veenker says she understands those concerns. But she and the Leverage crew say Portland is already on its way to being the next film hub. “There’s no difference between Portland right now and Vancouver [B.C.] 15 years ago,” claimed Rogers. Maybe he’s right. It seems like big names keep popping up here, with Daniel Baldwin moving to town—his nascent production company in tow—Twilight and Coraline demonstrating PDX film potential, and Harrison Ford recently shooting the not-so-bad medical drama Extraordinary Measures here.

According to Veenker, one indicator of Portland’s up-and-coming status is the training camp’s turnout. After all, more than 200 folks paid about $300 on Superbowl weekend to learn how to become more involved in the very acting scene she insists is worth investing in. On the Leverage set, background extras receive minimum-wage rates, and those “thug” types tend to get around $13 hourly, so immediate cash benefits aren’t a reason to take classes. But the TV drama did hire more than 840 extras and 120 actors locally during its last season of production. That could explain why our state’s government is getting in on the action, too. Last year Oregon passed a bill that slightly increased the state’s budget for financial incentives directed at film production. And the more financial incentives a locale offers production companies, the more tempting it is to work there. Sen. Ginny Burdick (D-Portland), Rep. Tobias Read (D-Beaverton) and House Speaker Dave Hunt (D-Clackamas County) were even spotted milling around the boot camp Saturday, checking out the proceedings.

While Veenker uses the potential increased employment as a selling point for Oregon’s legislators to be more active in landing film contracts for Portland, she points out that generating hundreds of locally employed cast and crew members is only the beginning. Film and TV production require transportation, construction, equipment, costumes, food and parking.

But last weekend, Oregon’s potential revenue generators were more focused on learning to master pretending to beat the crap out of your enemy or just be a man in the crowd.

“I just hope there’s more of this. Perhaps the city could take a look at [the benefits of film industry] in depth…and really support it,” says Mark Heimann, 59, a dignified Hulk Hogan lookalike whose physique makes him seem like a shoe-in for a Leverage thug. The third season of the TV show starts shooting around town March 1. But until he gets a call back, he’ll stick to his typical Portland day job: creating ceramic art.


REEL CENTS: If a production company spends at least $750,000 on a TV show or movie in our state, according to Vince Porter of the Oregon Film Office, Oregon will give the company back 20 percent of the money it spent on local products and 16.2 percent spent on labor.
 
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