Gwinnett – The camera slowly pans the room, taking in a wall of heavy antique bookcases laden with rows of books, all worn, handsomely-bound classics. Two Tiffany lamps sit regally atop a hand carved desk, creating the warm, golden glow that only a Tiffany lamp can cast; tucked at a slight angle behind the desk is a beautifully upholstered, high back antique chair.
A house servant busily whisks a feather duster over a bust and a marble library table in the foyer, viewers catching a brief glimpse of her apron and shoulder before she moves busily out of the shot.
The scene is not being filmed in Hollywood or in New York. It – and hundreds more – are being filmed right here in Georgia. And the better news is that the film industry has discovered the red carpet that Gwinnett County has gladly rolled out for it. The executives and crews that produce both big-name and newborn television series have discovered Gwinnett, as well. And many in Gwinnett have discovered what the film industry brings to the area.
Left: Witts' building as it looked after it was transformed for a scene in the show Halt and Catch Fire. - photo courtesy of Tom Witts
“It’s all smoke and mirrors, an optical illusion. These people are very good at what they do,” Robinson said. For example, he shared, the house used for filming the interior home in Driving Miss Daisy is not the same house that was used for filming the exterior. “But you’d never pick up on that unless you knew it,” said Robinson.
Suffice it to say that Robinson’s business has benefitted from meeting the needs of the film industry locally; now that Hollywood has realized that Georgia is a great place to make movies and television shows, he expects to benefit even further. “They (producers and film crews) are great people to do business with,” he explained. “They pay well, and they pay on time. Whether a crew is leasing or buying furniture, lamps, books or whatever, they take great care with the items. If something should get damaged or broken, they are quick to pay for repair or replacement. And remember, they are bringing money into Georgia from outside the state, and that money stays here. It’s a win-win for all of us.”
Right: Dan Chelko’s car that was used as one of a pool of cars in a TV series the last two years. The car has since been sold.
Gwinnett’s leaders saw years ago that the film industry was looking for locations outside Hollywood, for various reasons. For that reason, they have been laying the groundwork to welcome the industry and to make doing business here in Gwinnett easy and beneficial to all. To use a famous line from the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” Gwinnett has built it – with state-of-the art studios and a dedication to grooming young professionals for the many careers that spring from the glamorous billion dollar industry. As a result, top-earning movies and televisions series are filmed right here in our own backyard. Not only is that fun and exciting; Gwinnett businesses and residents are learning that it’s also lucrative.
“When a show or movie is in the planning stages, location crews scout out areas, literally driving around through cities and countryside to find buildings, parks and neighborhoods that look like the scenes they want to set,” said Tom Witts, Snellville mayor and owner of a business warehouse located in Tucker. Witts’ building was used on the set of Halt and Catch Fire, a television series. “I got a call one day, from a gentleman on the location crew of the show. He had spotted my building and asked around to see who owned it. He reached me and asked whether I’d be interested in letting them use my building in a scene they were planning to film. They needed a building that looked like one built in the 70s or 80s, and mine fit the bill,” Witts said.
Left: Dan Chelko dresses as a Southern redneck for a movie shot.
The show’s producers and crew paid Witts $1250 for the use of his building. “They came in and spent, I’d say, about $5000 making my building look like a Planned Parenthood building from years ago. They bought five gallon shrubs and cut the root balls in half, standing them up to line the sidewalks. They found and leased cars from local owners that fit the time period, parking them out front. They took care of every detail in the transformation, from hanging a “Planned Parenthood” sign out front, to placing lettering on the front door listing the hours of operation. They used the building on St. Patrick’s Day in 2015. At noon the next day, when filming was finished, the building and front lawn looked as though they had never been altered. “They went to all that effort and expense for what ended up being about a thirty-second portion of that particular episode. It’s really incredible.”
It’s not just items and locations that the industry needs locally once a location is chosen for a film or show. “Once a location is chosen, local set builders (crews) are hired. That means that construction workers, decorators, tradesmen, you name it, are needed,” Robinson said. And while the stars are already named well before crews come to town, there is a need for extras – people who are seen in shows and films but who rarely speak.
Dan Chelko, retired assistant principal of Brookwood High School, has been a background extra in several films and TV shows. He also had an antique car that had been used in films, and that car was likely his first inroad into the world of “extras” used on shows. “A few years ago, there was an ad posted on Southeast Wheels.com. They needed a specific-looking car, and I had one. Ever since then, now that they know me, I get phone calls about being an extra on film sets.” Chelko has appeared in Halt and Catch Fire, the movies Devious Maids, Rectify, The Accountant and The Nice Guys, just to name a few.
Right: "These items all from Gryphon Antiques, were used on set in movies or television shows filmed here in Georgia." - photo courtesy of Gryphon Antiques
“The pay for being an extra on set is minimum wage, so it’s not a good career choice,” laughed Chelko. “But it’s a lot of fun, and it’s very interesting. And sometimes, some really funny stuff happens on the sets.” Often, Chelko appears as a businessman or an attorney, or some other type of professional man. But he’s also been cast as a cowboy, a cop and an inmate. “Background extras are used as filler, and by that I mean that many times, our faces are not even seen. You’d have to know most times that I was in a particular scene to even spot me, as you may just see my back, or me walking away. It’s very rare that you get camera face-time as an extra.”
Extras are typically used for a minimum of twelve hours, or even fourteen, often all in one day. “They work very long hours. The days can be extremely long ones. Period films and shows usually require more elaborate work on hair and costumes, so that adds more to the time that we might be used.”
The future is bright for filming in Gwinnett, and that means that the future is bright for the county’s residents and businesses. “Stop and think about it,” said Robinson. “If you own a business, chances are that set designers can use your services, or that your services can be used in any other aspect of the business of filming. Florists, drycleaners, painters, restaurants who deliver, even people who own houses or condos near set locations, can benefit. “Sometimes, stars want to stay in a house or condo rather than a hotel, especially if filming is expected to last for months,” according to Robinson.
The need for local people and services in Georgia is so great that there is a publication that film crews use to find them, called Oz Magazine. View the online publication and resource at www.ozmagazine.com.
To learn more about the film industry in Georgia, visit www.georgia.org/industries/entertainment/georgia-film-tv-production.