Multi-million-dollar ‘Battleship’ shoot underscores maturation of Louisiana film industry

May 22, 2012

By Mike Scott, The Times-Picayune 


It's been 10 years since the Louisiana Legislature adopted the tax incentive program that -- with a few tweaks along the way -- has transformed the state into Hollywood's home away from home. But compared to New York and Los Angeles, Louisiana is still something of a new kid on the block, and it's still not above boasting the occasional first.

"Battleship" director Peter Berg, who spent two months in late 2010 shooting much of his film in Baton Rouge -- along with $67.7 million of its $200 million budget -- thinks he has one.
"We actually doubled -- I'll bet no one's done it -- we doubled Baton Rouge for Oahu," said Berg, whose film landed in theater's Friday (May 18) as Universal Pictures' opening salvo to the summer movie season. (Read "Battleship" review.) "We also did some stuff downtown for Hong Kong, too, actually."

And he would be correct. Baton Rouge has been dressed up to look like Los Angeles before (in "Battle Los Angeles"), and it's been the Pacific Northwest home of a family of vampires ("The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1").
But Oahu? Aloha, record books.

And so in addition to spinning a big-budget story about a fleet of Navy vessels repelling an alien invasion, Universal's "Battleship" also tells a story of the maturation of the local film industry over the past decade. Once upon a time, film companies came here almost exclusively to shoot movies and TV shows that were set here. Now, however, they're realizing more and more that they can turn Louisiana into anyplace they want.

Take Universal, for example. The venerable studio's connection to South Louisiana dates back decades, and includes such pictures as 1953's "Abbot and Costello Go to Mars" (set partly in New Orleans but shot almost entirely on a Hollywood sound stage) and 1982's "Cat People," which shot most notably at the pre-renovation Audubon Zoo. But both of those films used the city's for its uniqueness -- Mardi Gras and general creepiness, respectively -- as did the studio's first few films shot in New Orleans after the passage of the tax incentives, such as 2005's "Skeleton Key" and 2009's "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant."

The local portion "Battleship," however, with its extensive green-screen work, could have been shot anywhere -- at least anywhere with big enough studio facilities. Ditto for Universal's next big Louisiana-shot film, "Oblivion," a sci-fi adventure starring Tom Cruise which is currently shooting on the same Baton Rouge soundstage that hosted "Battleship" in fall 2010.

But the ever-deepening local crew base, as well as the continued growth in the local industry's physical infrastructure -- both of which grow with each successive film to set up shop here -- made Louisiana an attractive host for both productions. Every bit as important to studio execs: the structure of the state's tax incentive program, which -- unlike in other states where it's failed to take root -- has the benefit of proven stability.

All of that convinced Universal that Baton Rouge would look smashing in a grass skirt.
Almost all of "Battleship" is set in Hawaii -- or off the coast of it, aboard Navy vessels. Much of it was shot there, too. But it would be impractical -- not to mention expensive -- to shoot all of the film on the high seas.

That's why sound stages -- with their perfectly controlled temperatures and acoustics, and their ability to let productions remove walls from sets for accommodating camera crews in tight spaces -- are so key to big productions like "Battleship." In this case, that meant a two-month stay at Raleigh Studios, the 150,000 square foot jewel of the Baton Rouge film industry (and which hosted "Battleship" at the same time it was hosting "Twilight: Breaking Dawn").

"We had two-thirds of that studio or more, and 'Twilight' had a little bit of it," Berg said. "We basically built an entire destroyer in different stages all throughout, so one stage would have the bridge; one a control room; one, hallways; one, a bedroom. We used every inch of that facility. We built a huge chunk of the H1 freeway in Hawaii that we blew up in a parking lot next to it. We built the exterior of a ship. We used every inch of that studio."

These weren't small sets, either. These were massive pieces of construction that duplicated -- with a touch of artistic license, for the sake of filmmaking convenience -- the interior of the USS John Paul Jones, a Navy destroyer that plays a crucial role in the film.

The biggest interior set would be the one doubling the John Paul Jones' bridge, which was not only swathed in green screen for the addition of visual effects in post-production, but was also built on a gimbal, "so we could crank it and whip it around and stuff," Berg said. "It was big."
The crew would also venture off the Raleigh campus for a few scenes, including a panicked-crowd street set in Hong Kong but shot in downtown Baton Rouge; and a humorous, character-establishing sequence near the beginning of the film shot at a local convenience store.

And then there's the production's use of the USS Kidd, the retired Fletcher-class destroyer that has been converted into a floating museum and which is moored in Baton Rogue. Like Baton Rouge, the Kidd doesn't play itself in the film -- it doubles for the interior of the Battleship Missouri.

"We used some local veterans, some guys who served -- one guy served in World War II, was about 95 years old, and he has a scene with Rihanna on the Kidd. It's in one of the control rooms on the Kidd," Berg said. "The stuff with Rihanna at the end of the film where it looks like we're on the Missouri? It was all shot on the Kidd."

The whole experience was positive enough that, after shooting "Battleship," Universal came back to Louisiana last year for the New Orleans-shot crime thriller "Contraband," it's got "Oblivion" up and running in Baton Rouge, and it's getting ready to bring the crime thriller "Two Guns" to New Orleans.

For Berg's part, his next film -- the military action-drama "Lone Survivor," which he's already at work on -- won't shoot here, but that doesn't mean he won't be back to reacquaint himself with some of the away-from-the-set things he experienced during his "Battleship" downtime.

"When my Giants come to play the Saints, I'll come down there," he said. "I love going to Saints games."



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