News & Features » Cover Story

Set Pieces

All of Virginia's historic preservation pays off with HBO's production of the "John Adams" miniseries.


Which proves that Virginia does Massachusetts better than Mass does, apparently. An East Coast turf war was settled in July, with the announcement that Playtone, a production company headed by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, would begin work in Virginia on a 10-episode miniseries based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Adams.

"It's probably one of the biggest sought-after projects of the year," says Becky Beckstoffer, marketing manager for the Virginia Film Office, the entity most responsible for earning Virginia HBO's seal of approval against competing states such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Though much of the story takes place in New England, Beckstoffer says, Hanks and HBO were wooed away from the North by Virginia's ready-made history, particularly Colonial Williamsburg. "We've been after HBO on this project for several years," she says.

Rita McClenny, vice president of industry relations and film for the film office, pitched the whole state to Playtone in 2001. Once Hanks and his team visited, they were greeted with Southern hospitality, from the governor's office down to the glassblowing re-enactor's shop. "When the whole gang came in, we did a scout of Colonial Williamsburg," Beckstoffer says. "Colonial Williamsburg was their backdrop, already built." Even the state's biggest salesman, Governor Warner, argued Virginia's merits to Hanks and company in a March meeting. Negotiations are under way for some exchange of services, such as a Hanks commercial for Williamsburg in exchange for free use of the park.

Which perhaps begs the question: What does Virginia know about the talkie business? Why would Playtone, which produced the Emmy Award-winning miniseries "Band of Brothers" for HBO in 2001, want Virginia, aside from Williamsburg's time-capsule town?

For one thing, Virginia has had a lot of cameras pointed at it in the last few years, due in large part to the efforts of the film office and its clever negotiating or appealing incentives. Steven Spielberg filmed parts of "War of the Worlds" and "Minority Report" here. Ridley Scott came to Richmond for parts of "Hannibal." And Rod Lurie has declared his love for the city by filming "The Contender" here, as well as the ABC series "Line of Fire" and parts of the upcoming Geena Davis series, "Commander in Chief."

But it's films such as "Cold Mountain," "Gods and Generals" and "The New World," the John Smith adventure starring Colin Farrell that will hit theaters in November, that highlight the state's natural suitability for period pieces. HBO knew this when it filmed the suffrage-movement film "Iron-Jawed Angels" here in 2002.

But maybe it all came down to the glassblowers after all. Whatever the case, the governor's office predicts that "John Adams" will be the largest film project ever undertaken in Virginia, set to inject $60 million into the state economy. Filming was originally to run September to April, but the three actors vying for the title role have scheduling conflicts in the fall, so the cameras will roll in February instead.

Meanwhile, production crews are getting work this season. They've spent the last three months building sets in Richmond and surrounding counties, as well as in Colonial Williamsburg, preparing for the flood of extras come February. Which brings us back to that long, hot line at Willow Lawn, and casting director Jeanne Boiseneau, the woman taking applications at the front of it.

Despite dogged conditions, Boiseneau gives everyone a few moments, a few words before accepting applications, maybe putting a staple through the glossy forehead of a teenager in an 8-by-10. "The challenge is to give the creative team exactly what they want," she says.

"We were looking for things that were going to be called for in the script," Boiseneau says about the folks in breeches and homespun dresses. The script calls for a "period look," meaning imperfect teeth, maybe some wrinkles. But also, she says, real skills: people who can run printing presses, stevedores for off-loading ships, period musicians, re-enactors for battle scenes. Anything else?

"People who aren't afraid of sheep," she says. And because of the size of the production, there will be a high demand for extras. Boiseneau says that extras won't be cast until about two weeks before shooting begins, so for some Hollywood hopefuls, it could be a long wait until February. But in the meantime, keep an eye out for HBO set designers and location scouts, who are already in town preparing for the cameras to roll.

More Fall Arts...

Letters to the editor may be sent to:

Add a comment