'The Sea of Trees' brings a wave of cash to Worcester

WORCESTER TELEGRAM — "The Sea of Trees" appears to have brought a wave of cash into the city and region. And while those numbers are still being calculated, they could be as high as in the millions, according to the film's unit publicist, Gregg Brilliant.

Although he said he wouldn't be able to address specifics about finances, Mr. Brilliant said hundreds of local people were employed and millions of dollars were spent here for the production of "The Sea of Trees."

The movie stars Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey as a suicidal college physics professor who goes to the Aokigahara forest (the real-life "Sea of Trees") at the northwest base of Mount Fuji in Japan to die.

In addition to principal photography being done on "The Sea of Trees" in Japan, producer Gil Netter said the filmmakers considered locations worldwide, including several U.S. states. But when they saw Purgatory Chasm in Sutton, they knew Central Massachusetts was the spot, he said.

"We flew with (director) Gus Van Sant (of "Good Will Hunting" fame) to Massachusetts and as soon as we got off the plane, we all jumped into a van," Mr. Netter said. "The very first place the Film Commission took us to see was Purgatory Chasm. Immediately, everybody was just blown away by Purgatory. It was stunning. It was dramatic and just perfect for our story. It was at that very moment that we knew that we found one of our key locations."

In Worcester, the film's seven-week shooting schedule (which started July 28 and wrapped up on Sept. 12) included a four-day shoot at a residence at 27 Metcalf St. in the Salisbury Street section, as well as shoots in the Sackler Science Center Building at Clark University (and its campus), the Worcester Regional Airport, a Plantation Street parking garage, Green Hill Park, a stretch of Park Avenue and One Exchange Place, where film crews not only shot a restaurant scene inside The Citizen Wine Bar but used the building as the film's production office headquarters.

Outside of Worcester, a three-day shoot was done at Purgatory Chasm, as well as other shoots at Ashland Sate Park, Blackstone State Park, Douglas State Park, F. Gilbert Hills State Park in Foxboro, the Lookout Rock Trail in Uxbridge, the Roche Bros. supermarket in Westboro, the Imperial Gas Station in Mendon, Mount Wachusett in Princeton and on the Lake Quinsigamond shoreline in Shrewsbury.

Not only is this the longest shoot of any high-profile feature film project in the city, "The Sea of Trees" marks the first time a film actually had its home base in Worcester (which was at One Exchange Place).

"To actually have the home base offices, the administrative offices for the film be located here in Worcester and to have them do production work, constructing sets and production meets, here within the city as well, was huge for us," Worcester's Cultural Development Officer Erin I. Williams said. "It meant many employed people from the region, as well as from outside, who were skilled crafts people, staying and living and working and playing in Worcester."

City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said Hollywood filmmakers are coming to the Commonwealth first for the tax incentives, which includes a 25 percent production credit, a 25 percent payroll credit, and a sales tax exemption.

Any project that spends more than $50,000 in Massachusetts qualifies for the payroll credit. Spending more than 50 percent of total budget or filming at least 50 percent of the principal photography days in Massachusetts makes the project eligible for the production credit and a sales tax exemption.

And the reason filmmakers of "The Sea of Trees" are following on the heels of "American Hustle" (which earned 10 Academy Award nominations and was shot in April 2013) and coming to Worcester is because the Central Mass. city is advantageous compared to shooting in Boston and Cambridge, Mr. Augustus said.

Mr. Augustus said "The Sea of Trees" definitely brought some economic benefit to the city, which is still being calculated, but he said he thinks it has to be in the "hundreds of thousands."

"Given the fact that they were here for more than three months, more than a hundred people put up in hotels for three months, there's a lot of revenue that comes into the city, as a result of that because all those folks need to eat. They're going out having drinks and spending money in the city, as well as the actual production," Mr. Augustus said. "They were hiring different local folks. When they did the scene on the corner of (Sagamore Road and) Park Avenue, they bought out the different businesses that were going to be impacted."

On Sept. 10, Park Avenue was closed 13 hours from Salisbury to Grove streets for the film's trickiest scene, a crash between an ambulance and a dump truck. In addition to paying the Park Avenue businesses a loss of revenue, the filmmakers were charged about $11,000 by the city of Worcester to cover the cost of police officers and Department of Public Works workers who had to be called in to deal with traffic and street-related situations that might come up on the set.

"There were no costs to the taxpayers, in terms of hosting this film. They (the filmmakers) paid for whatever services that they looked for," Mr. Augustus said. "And I know people were a little frustrated that afternoon that they had to deal with some traffic. But, I think when the numbers finally come out, a little bit of a headache one day versus the economic benefit and the cachet the city gets from this movie, it's worth it."

According to a report released Wednesday by the state Department of Revenue, the commonwealth handed out $78.9 million in film tax credits in 2012, generating $304 million in new spending. 


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