The Tomb (from Issue 4 – 2012)
Randall Emmett and Elston Howard on Solving the FILM’S Locations Puzzle
Story by W. H. Bourne • Photos courtesy of Summit Entertainment
In The Tomb, lead character Ray Breslin (played by Sylvester Stallone) notes, “A prison is a puzzle to be solved… The whole thing becomes a three-dimensional model, an architect’s schematic. And everything inside that puzzle becomes a key.” Apparently, finding the right locations for this challenging shoot was much like Breslin’s puzzle.
“We were looking for stage space and New Orleans, which is busy all the time, was beyond busy,” says producer Randall Emmett. “Second Line (Stages) was booked with Quentin’s movie (Tarantino’s Django Unchained) and so many other spaces just weren’t available.”
“In December of last year, I was trying to find adequate stage space for The Tomb,” says Louisiana native and local location scout and manager Elston Howard. “We needed to build some really big interior sets that weren’t going to be practical locations. We really liked the Big Easy Studios, which is located at the NASA assembly facility at Michoud in New Orleans East, but Ender’s Game was already taking up more than half of the facility.”
“(But) the NASA stage was the only facility that was large enough to handle some of the big sets we needed to build,” adds Emmett, “and line producer Nicolas Stern was able to make it all work.”
He continues, “In January, we decided on our stages. In addition to Big Easy, we used a coffee bean warehouse in Algiers (the Thayer stages) because there just wasn’t enough space at the Michoud facility. But it actually worked out well because at the NASA facility, we were able to use some of the practical locations there too, so it was kind of like a backlot in addition to a soundstage. We were where they manufacture the external tanks for the space shuttle. We had vertical space that went as high as 275 to 300 feet.”
“I think that this will be my most rewarding moment with The Tomb,” says Howard. “When people see it and some of the unique locations we were able to photograph at NASA, and see the enormous scale and size of some of the sets. Even with some of the original set plans, we would have never gotten the scale and size of it, if it weren’t for the preexisting structures.”
For Emmett, the reward was working with his childhood icons, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It was a high walking on set the first day and seeing the two of them,” says Emmett. “I think it was a little surreal for me. Before I went to the location, I re-watched Rocky and The Terminator. I try not to do that anymore because you can psyche yourself out. These are your partners that you’re working with, your equals, but I just had to do it…”
Admittedly, I was surprised to hear this from Emmett since he worked with Stallone on the 2008 film Rambo. But Emmett’s career itself is fascinating and diverse, ranging from indie favorites such as Wonderland to horror films such as George Romero’s Day of the Dead. In 2009, he produced a horror film also called The Tomb, which makes one wonder, “Why choose another film project with the same name?”
“I fell in love with the script,” says Emmett. “It was owned by Summit Entertainment, who I went to and partnered up with to co-finance the movie. We were lucky enough to get Sylvester Stallone on board, and from there we went to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and got him to co-star in the movie. Mikael (Håfström, the film’s director) was a creative choice that the studio, myself (and the other producers) made. We looked at different directors but thought he had the right sensitivity and the right pulse. Mikael really believed in the script and thought he could do something special with it—which he’s done.”
“This movie had a unique vision to it,” says Howard. “It was more than your traditional prison breakout movie. It had various stages of prisons—from your traditional prison to your more futuristic, high-tech prison. In the beginning stages (of my work on the film, I met) with the production designer Barry Chusid. We went through different types of images in his design book. Most designers will, with any project, put together a visual book to present to the executive (producers) and the director of how they see the production before any detailed scouting is done to make sure everyone is on the same page. Myself and Barry and another scout, Jimmy Trotter, we all sat down, countless hours, looking at that book to lay down a visual plan and see how many of these images truly existed in the close proximity of New Orleans.”
“Barry Chusid was selected by the director,” adds Emmett. “He was the first person we hired after Mikael Håfström came on board. Barry has done big Hollywood blockbusters and he’s also done some smaller budgeted films. He has worked on some really big classy films—everything from Day After Tomorrow to 2012 and Source Code. The director brought him to us because he felt Chusid would elevate the film. Mikael was really confident in him because the production design was very complicated. We had a lot of stage work and a lot of construction.”
“We started (scouting) in mid-January and went through March, maybe the beginning of April,” says Howard. “And we started principal photography in May. Most of the sets were based on a schedule designed to be built in three to four weeks. So we started building around the second week of April for shooting in May.”
“Approximately 60 percent of the production was stage work,” adds Emmett. “And we were lucky on this movie to be at our stages for long periods. You could close the doors at night, lock it, and come back in the morning and shoot. It was really nice.”
The Algiers studio, however, remained busy all the time, even at night. “One of the complications with the stage in Algiers was that it wasn’t designed as a soundstage,” says Howard, “so there were issues shooting on one of the stages while construction was going on at another stage in the same facility, to the point that construction was shifted to night time as to not cause noise problems while shooting. So in order to meet our time limits, we had a construction crew that came in from six at night to six in the morning to build our sets.”
In addition to stages, The Tomb used a variety of other locations, including several in the French Quarter.
“The French Quarter always presents some unique and interesting challenges… it’s the number one tourist spot in the state… but we needed the Pontalba and Cabildo around Jackson Square to stand in for older-looking buildings, like in Europe,” says Howard, who also had to deal with some challenging weather during the French Quarter shoot.
He continues, “Prior to tax credits, everything that came into Louisiana to shoot was scripted as ‘the South’ or ‘the French Quarter.’ Since then, they’re shooting New Orleans for everything from Colorado to Europe. Essentially, now they’re coming here to shoot locations that aren’t scripted for here. It means you have to be more creative locations-wise, ‘cause a lot of the scripts you get are not (geographically) for New Orleans.”
Emmett concurs. “The economy forces us to be fiscally innovative,” he explains. “With the economic downturn, you have to use tax incentives. When you’re raising independent money, investors probably wouldn’t be comfortable if you didn’t. I think I was the second movie to film here after the tax incentives were created with (A Love Song for) Bobby Long. Since then I’ve shot movies all over Louisiana throughout the years, in New Orleans, Shreveport and Baton Rouge. I know that at one point, we were in Michigan looking at it for the long-term, and a new governor came in and whittled the incentives away to nothing. We had to leave and were lucky that Louisiana took us in. If you look around, there’s really not much incentives left in the U.S., so we decided to set up shop here.”
“I just did a film in Alaska,” continues Emmett. “They have incentives there, and we had a great experience, but we had to fly in almost everyone except for, like, 20 people. But you go to Louisiana and you can find 75 to 80 percent of your crew there. That in itself is a really big incentive when you can save on travel and expenses from bringing people in because there’s such a big local crew base in Louisiana.”
He adds, “You can still run into shortages in certain departments. At times you have up to 12 movies shooting at once (in New Orleans). Everybody struggles a little bit. But I’m blown away at how deep the crews are in New Orleans right now. We’ve been really lucky that we were able to crew up on every single movie. We’ve done enough movies in New Orleans now where people know us. I’ve been able to create a relationship with certain crews. Our focus is to continue working the crews that have been loyal to us, as well as expanding those relationships with people we don’t know… and to do this over the next couple of years.”
With productions clamoring to shoot in New Orleans, it has been a boon to local crewmembers like Howard.
“Before the tax incentives, there were maybe five or six movies a year (in the entire state),” he says. “Now there’s at least five to six (in New Orleans) every quarter of a year. Now you can (choose your projects and) take a project that favors your skills more.”
“Louisiana is really a (film) fixture in the U.S.,” says Emmett. “To me, it’s the best one of the tax incentive programs that exists. It’s what brought us here. On top of that, there’s incredible crews and support and production facilities that just makes things even easier. We’re really happy with Louisiana and the way they’ve built up the industry, and we hope they stand behind what they’ve done. I know tourism is a big industry, but the film industry has really started to flourish. I’m happy for the state and especially the city. After (Hurricane) Katrina, they deserve it more than anybody, and I’m glad to be able to contribute a financial infusion to the state.”
Recently, Emmett and production partner George Furla signed a 10-picture deal with Lionsgate/Summit. Additionally, they just added $275 million to their film fund that they established with Envision Entertainment. The fund was founded last September to help finance “high-end, star-driven, commercial features” in collaboration with prominent partners like Lionsgate and Summit. For films like The Tomb, with a budget of over $70 million, that translates to big in-state spends, which means a lot to both the city and the state.
“While The Tomb is one of the largest films I’ve ever produced, I’m currently doing 2 Guns (starring Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington and James Marsden), which is my largest-budgeted film so far at around $88 million,” says Emmett. “All the Lionsgate movies we’ve done so far, except one, was shot in New Orleans. And the next one we’ve got scheduled for a November/December start will be shooting in Baton Rouge. And we are putting together a couple of big movies to shoot in February and March in New Orleans.”
Obviously, Randall Emmett is a very busy man.
“I have a place in New Orleans and I’m back and forth,” says Emmett. “This past year, I’ve been in New Orleans more than in Los Angeles, which is really shocking to me. I like the South and I really like it in New Orleans. I grew up in Southern Florida, so it’s very similar temperature-wise. I actually like the heat and the humidity. And the food is great and the people are great.”
He continues, “If I didn’t like Louisiana, there are other states with incentives where I can go. But we secured long-term office space here for our production and corporate offices. We always have at least one movie shooting here, if not two or three…” LFV
For more information on post production, marketing, and distribution of ESCAPE PLAN, check out pg. 25 of our latest issue HERE.