Get a Grip!

Star-struck Hollywood hopefuls fight to make the scene in Phoenix's filmland fringe.

At long last, Ralph Brekan felt like he'd entered the world of professional film production. Granted, it was just a cheesy commercial for an oil company, but after years of making home movies in his backyard, this gig was the real deal.

Brekan, then an 18-year-old film student at Scottsdale Community College, had been hired as a grip for a Unocal 76 commercial being shot at the Mogollon Rim. His assignment positively reeked of glamour. Well, more accurately, it just reeked.

For a week and a half, his midsection was strapped into a harness while he hung off the side of a mountain. With one hand, he held a shiny board, designed to provide backlighting for the commercial's temperamental stars: two Russian brown bears. With his other hand, Brekan tried to coax one of the bears to put its arm around the other bear's shoulder.

Arizona Film Commission director Linda Peterson Warren frets that Arizona is losing movie projects to Canada.
Paolo Vescia
Arizona Film Commission director Linda Peterson Warren frets that Arizona is losing movie projects to Canada.

If the Unocal gig was a rude introduction to the life of a professional grip, it was also a pretty accurate portent of what lay ahead for Brekan, now 26. In recent years, he's mixed dangerous chemicals on the Casa Grande set of the film Three Kings, been pelted with frozen pretzels by unruly alterna-kids while working on the stage crew at Woodstock '99, and has crawled across a 100-foot-long tunnel under the seats of Gammage Auditorium to install wiring for theatrical productions.

Most people who want to work in the movie industry follow the job opportunities to Hollywood. But Brekan is one of several local technicians and acting wanna-bes who prefer to let the work come to them.

Though he insists on living in Tempe, hardly the hub of film and theater production, Brekan's somehow managing to earn a living as a grip, relying solely on jobs that come to Arizona.

"It's extremely rare," says Durrie Parks, president of the Arizona Film Society -- a nonprofit organization that advocates for the local film community, and organizes the annual Saguaro Film Festival. "First of all, film crews tend to be gypsies. They go where the work is. And in this state it's particularly tough, because there is just not enough work."

For Doug Brown, a 32-year-old extra who wants to act, trying to make it in the movies from Phoenix means quitting his day job whenever a film opportunity pops up. He faithfully buys the Hollywood Reporter every week, even though he's behind on his rent and can't afford a car.

Shay Calinawan, a muscular 30-year-old club bouncer and ASU theater graduate, takes on dangerous stunt-man jobs, just to get his foot in the door as an actor.

For Arizona film workers, there are no guarantees, no security. A spate of good luck can be followed by a dry year of inactivity. They learn to jump at every crumb that Hollywood throws their direction.

"It's a very odd existence," says Ross Corsair, an independent filmmaker who worked nearly a month on Three Kings as a camera assistant. "You can never plan on that vacation in Tahiti. You never know when the next job's coming, and you end up sacrificing a lot doing that lifestyle."

Twenty-eight years ago, Arizona created a film commission, under the auspices of the state's commerce department, with the intention of aggressively marketing the state as an ideal site for filmmaking. While the effort has produced several high-profile successes, it's an erratic process, one that can be hugely affected by the whims of a single big-budget producer.

Additionally, Arizona has had to battle the trend of Hollywood's runaway productions to Canada, where the exchange rate and a host of business incentives make film work cheaper. Though Arizona continues to attract its share of feature films and commercials, television production has all but dried up here in recent years.

It's an unpredictable industry. In 1997, movie production pumped $130 million into the state's economy; that slumped to $43 million the following year, but rebounded to $99 million last year.

Still, last year's surge is linked almost entirely to the lengthy production of Three Kings in Casa Grande. A darkly comedic Gulf War saga that won critical raves, Three Kings was a watershed for Arizona because it was one of the few times in which a lavish set has been built on an Arizona location. That meant that Three Kings used Arizona for interior as well as exterior shots. So, unlike many films that come here simply for some quick shots of a desert backdrop, Three Kings based its entire shoot here.

Three Kings was also a breakthrough for locals like Brekan, Brown and Calinawan, who each spent at least three months on the movie's set -- a virtual eternity for an Arizona movie worker.

For such guppies in the film-industry food chain, every opportunity seems mammoth and every rejection seems devastating. When a film shoot comes to Arizona, they're willing to do anything that might make a positive impression.

"When the assistants are on the set explaining the scene and what they're in need of, I've found it good to volunteer for whatever," says Brown. "I may not know what I'm doing, but I raise my hand."

Linda Peterson Warren, director of the Arizona Film Commission, spent much of her adult life as an actress, but she doesn't particularly like being perceived as artsy.

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