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by Mark Scaramella, January 2, 2013
Back in 1997, Warner Bros applied for a permit to make a movie on the Mendocino Headlands, a state park. According to the summary of the application ultimately approved by the California Coastal Commission, Warner Bros wanted to occupy the Headlands for six months where they would erect three full sets for a film called “Practical Magic.” The construction would include a 38-foot high 2,500 square foot main house with gardens, plus a carriage house, a cottage, several stone and gravel paths, a fence, a graveled access road on which to transport production and construction equipment, and security lighting. All this would appear immediately south of Ford House on Main Street, Mendocino. When this moronic epic, as it turned out to be, was complete, the film company would tear the whole thing down and the Headlands would revert to its natural state. Allegedly.
Lots of people didn’t like the idea for lots of valid reasons, primary among them the wholesale disturbance and closure of a large area of a state park supposedly set aside for the enjoyment of the general public. It would be it unavailable to visitors and locals alike for half of a full year. (In fact, after they relocated, it ended up taking a year just to prepare the house for filming.) The stunning vista enjoyed by thousands would be blocked for six months or more while actresses-cum-witches ran around on the bluffs saying things like, “I dream of a love that even time will lie down and be still for.” And, “She knew that when you hear the sound of the deathwatch beetle the man you love is doomed to die.”
The only decent line we could find in the script was this assessment of the town of Mendocino: “Strange town. Never spent this much on shampoo before in my life.”
Mendocino County's commercial classes being generally dominated by the vulgar and the stupid, the predictable cheer went up from the Chamber of Commerce types arguing that the movie would be good for business, their businesses specifically. The split was the usual Mendo 50-50. Half the people were for it (or for it because “the hippies” were against it) and half the people were opposed. The serious opponents — lead by the late Joan Curry who did a lot to protect public access to the Headlands before she died in 2005 — were augmented by a small but dogged claque led by the fiercely relentless Beth Bosk. The latter were “the hippies” who put the Hollywood delegation on their heels. Hollywood had assumed they'd be greeted with huzzahs and hulahoops by Mendocino where films had often been made. But those films did not involve disruption of a state park, especially one synonymous with Mendo-Hip, the entire back-to-the-land cadre dominant on the Mendocino Coast since the middle 1970's.
Ultimately, after many delays caused by opponents who appealed the movie's permit approval all the way to the Coastal Commission where it was again approved, and faced with the real threat of constant demonstrations while they tried to film, Warner Bros gave up and moved their production to Washington State.
This isn't how the Board of Supervisors and the Coastal Chamber of Commerce remembered it when they talked show biz at their meeting of December 17th. To the Supervisors, the problem was that a small bunch of Hollywood-hating malcontents had drummed, or were poised to drum, Ms. Bullock and Ms. Kidman out of town to the great loss of Mendo businesses.
The subject came up when Debra DeGraw, CEO of the Coast Chamber of Commerce, and the sole member of the “Mendocino County Film Office,” updated the Supervisors on the status of the County’s film office, going into soporific detail about all the agencies that are involved at the County and state levels, and how much money is involved in getting permits for film operations, most of which lately are high-end car commercials. The theatrically chirpy Ms. DeGraw went to some length to describe how much effort she puts in trying to entice Hollywood people to spend their production money in Mendocino County.
DeGraw: “Recently, we had a location scout who traveled down the Coast from Washington and went down to Monterey and then made his way back up. He's been back since and is now with a commercial production company and he is doing a Cadillac shoot and it looks like it's going to happen in January. … They have already booked 18 rooms at the Stanford Inn. They really love the coastline.”
Who the hell doesn't? Which is why the '97 protests occurred. Once a movie company gets the green light to take over a state park for six months, Gidget Goes Mendo will want to do it, too, and there go the Headlands.
“He did go over to scout Napa,” DeGraw giggled. (She giggled a lot, except when she was talking about the hostiles, the Beast That Will Not Die — Hippus Mendocus) “So I was happy when he chose Mendocino County! He was really great! The cast and crew will be 15 people who will be renting 15 separate rooms from January 7-13. That's nice for a Cadillac shoot. And the restaurants! And they will do some shopping!”
Hey! They might even buy an AVA at Mendocino Liquor! (Warner Brothers isn't the only business to have hippie probs. The hippies at Corners of the Mouth have banned us going on 35 years.)
Ms. DeGraw burbled on. “We had a Honda commercial here in Mendocino a few years back and some off-duty Sheriff’s deputies helped with traffic,” DeGraw noted. “For some reason when you have a sheriff in uniform there, the local people assume that they must have all their permits. And so the people who usually complain didn't hassle anyone because they assumed that they had all their permits. That was great!”
Supervisor John Pinches, to our surprise, is somewhat of a film buff. “You referred back to the fiasco with the Sandra Bullock film [“Practical Magic”]. I was on this board at that time. I felt that that sent the film industry a strong message to stay away from Mendocino County, and I'm not so sure we've recovered from that since. What makes you think if we were to land the filming of a major movie, you know, something with a big star like Sandra Bullock or something like that on the coast, whether it's the Headlands or all the way up to Westport, any location along those lines. Why do you think that same group of people that you referred to, I think that group is still as strong as ever. Why do you think they wouldn't run into that same — I mean, they got their permits and everything but basically it was a few citizens who didn't want it and they were strong enough to basically run them out of town. Why do you think that won't happen again?”
DeGraw: “I wasn't here during that time [Ms. DeGraw moved to the Coast from Hayward in 2003 and set up an art gallery, then took over the Chamber of Commerce] but I've done a lot of research and I've talked to people [i.e., fellow members of the Chamber of Commerce] who were on the coast at the time. What I learned is that they didn’t act quick enough to defuse it and so I kind of have a, you know, a ‘we don't negotiate with terrorists’ attitude.”
The “terrorists” were a few drummers who apparently threatened to beat on their tom-toms during filming. Warner Bros and the Chamber of Commerce had no idea how to deal with rhythmic terror.
“So my board and a lot of business people have said they will stand behind us if that happens again,” continued DeGraw. “We don't want it to happen again in the town of Mendocino. But right away, working with the California Film Commission, law enforcement, if you have your permit, you have every right to get those people arrested. I'm sorry, but that's how it has to be. Because if they are going to sit there and beat their drums so the camera crew cannot shoot, that is not fair. They have done everything they need to do to get the permit and we, you know, without telling the industry when we're down there, what I'm saying is we are film friendly, we've got people on board, we’ve had commercials back there right in the town and we didn't have any problems so we are ready to go.”
Pinches: “I guess this board voted unanimously the other day to not allow three posts to be put on the Headlands. So there is a sentiment of not allowing much of anything on our coastline. It’s there. I'm not so sure I agree with it but it's there. I'm not so sure it's gonna change.”
Supervisor John McCowen was also all for Hollywood: “In that case of the film that didn't come here earlier, everything that they were going to do on the Headlands was going to be temporary, and there's no question it was going to be a huge economic benefit to the community and the County. So I'm confident that the board would be solidly behind any of your efforts that you are making. My personal feeling is that if you ever think you need a letter of support from the board, don't hesitate to ask.”
DeGraw: “I think with the economy, the people realized you are taking food out of people's mouths. There were people that didn't get to work then, afterwards it came out. There were a lot of people that were complacent. I talked to business people and they didn’t think that would really happen. So they didn't step up. So you only heard from this minority of really loud angry people when there were a whole bunch more that wanted the film there.”
Wrong. A great number of people, many of them not hippies of whom there are maybe three left in Albion and another ten at the Eel River end of Spy Rock Road, were opposed to letting a movie company take over a public park for half a year. Nobody cares if ad companies want to take pictures of shiny Cadillacs careening through Elk. Lots of people care if ad companies want to film Cadillacs doing wheelies on the Mendocino bluffs.
Actually, Warner Bros hired a signature gatherer to go door to door to the businesses that stood to make money from the production and they, of course, signed up, and then this rigged petition was duly waved in front of Boards and Committees as if there was only a tiny minority of opponents. In fact, the opponents were quite numerous, quite serious, had legitimate concerns and they circulated their own petition which had almost as signatures as the CofC’s. Not that any of it was statistically relevant.
Pinches: “That was really clear after the fact. But it really was not clear at the time.”
DeGraw: “Right. I'm hoping that at this point they have said they will stand behind me and they will do that when we get the film here.”
Pinches: “The real issue was that that was going to ruin the Mendocino coast. That's how it was portrayed.”
McCowen: “And the opposite was true, I think.”
DeGraw: “Exactly. Absolutely.”
Lame duck Supervisor Kendall Smith, who had set up Ms. DeGraw’s errant presentation, said: “I think it's important to note that the advocacy groups have come a long way since then and they are more organized and more vocal about the needs of that industry and also the local leadership. You are the liaison to successfully carry the messages to the industry about what are the concerns, so they can step up on environmental level. They can step up to make sure that all infrastructure costs are compensated at the local level. So I think we have a much better structure in place, there's more of an understanding from the general public that these can be made into win-win situations. I think your leadership and your advocacy organizations have done quite a bit.”
Translation: Oop bop a loo mop.
Supervisor Dan Hamburg seconded the insta-rewrite of what had actually happened, and by now everyone was on a first-name basis. “I really thank you, Debra, for all the work you're doing and I just offer my support. The chair said it well. I think the board really does support the film industry in Mendocino County. I was glad to hear that you are supporting not just the Coast but inland as well. As someone who lives on Highway 253 and travels it a lot, it is one of the most spectacular roads I've ever been on and I'm happy to share it with the rest of the world.”
Pinches: “In the mid-60s there was a movie that had Stewart Granger called ‘Gun Glory’ and it was filmed on the Gross ranch up in the Bell Springs area back where Carre’s [Supervisor Carre Brown’s] relatives live on that ranch. That was a major Western in those days. So there are a lot of inland areas and locations, I know you were talking about ranches and whatnot. All the way from Round Valley — there's lots of area out there. There are a lot of beautiful locations.”
DeGraw: “We’ll find the film-friendly folks and we will get them on our list!”
Carre Brown: “It’s probably too late, but I did a national commercial for Chevrolet out in Potter Valley and we did not get any permits!” Ms. Brown laughed uproariously at her admission of guilt and threw up her hands.
DeGraw: “You must have been on private property.”
Pinches: “Was your pick-up even licensed?”
DeGraw: “That's great! How long ago was that?
Brown: “1995. 1996.”
McCowen: “Supervisor Brown was actually the originator of the don't ask, don't tell idea.”
DeGraw: “If the cast and crew is here and they’re filming on private property we won't even know they're here. There's no need for them to contact us unless they need some kind of resources.”
Pig Hunt was filmed in Boonville, a union shoot all the way. Official Mendocino County was not a factor. Lots of local business benefitted. A television series based on two guys growing dope in Ukiah is about to begin filming. The point is that if Warner Bros had simply picked an area that wasn’t a state park to do their thing, there probably would have been no opposition, no drummers, no terrorists. Instead, Warner Bros insisted on being allowed to wreck the Mendocino Headlands, a public park, and when there was a large opposition to the Bros doing that, the Chamber clowns blamed “hippies.”
Local financial gadfly John Sakowicz couldn’t resist adding to the free-association: “In the mid-1980s I lived at a hotel on Atlantic Road off the bass rocks in Gloucester, Massachusetts, The Term Light Manor. Part of ‘Home Alone’ was filmed there. With zero environmental impact. So it can be done. To those who would oppose the film industry here. But I just want to go on record as saying that I hope Debra works not just with location managers, but with screenplay writers as well. Mendocino County has a lot of great stories to tell. Be it Redwood Summer. A great story. The bombing of Judi Bari would be a great story. The Pomo uprising in Lake County and the massacre at Bloody Island would be a great story. I think retired Lt. Phil Pintane from the Sheriff's office has one of the greatest law enforcement stories ever to be told. And that was his perseverance through three mistrials over 22 years to get a conviction of the Hells Angels who executed, summarily executed, a family of three including a seven-year-old girl in Fort Bragg. I think it’s one of the greatest law enforcement stories yet to be told. So I hope, Debra, you work with screenplay writers as well.”
Pinches: “John, the book, ‘Mendocino Outlaws,’ that would make a great movie.”
Sakowicz: “You bet.”
(Mendocino Outlaws is a true story from the 1880s about a manhunt for two murderers in the outback country between Fort Bragg and Willits during harsh winter conditions.)
* * *
‘Practical Magic,’ the movie that was later filmed in Washington State turned out to be an awful movie. Most of the critics panned it while a few said it was “fun.”
Most of the comments by film critics (assembled from the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes) were pointedly negative: “A saga that lacks the courage of its own odd convictions. … The trio of credited writers exhibits a complete failure of imagination! … Innocuous, sugarcoated Hollywood fluff. … A witch comedy so slapdash, plodding, and muddled it seems to have had a hex put on it. … Has something to annoy just about everyone: feminists of either gender, Wiccans, or just people expecting a good movie. … A big mess! … A promising but muddled comedy about sibling witches with, perhaps inevitably, some unthreatening feminism thrown into the mix. … The film creaked to a halt like a 1956 Buick running on fumes! … Practically magic, but not quite. … A muddled melange of genres that fails to come up with a distinct identity. … So misguided in so many ways that it makes you wonder how such talented and high-profile actors would even get involved in such embarrassing clap-trap. … A disappointing brew of slick commercial moviemaking and old-fashioned romantic fantasy! … A flat, unappealing potion! … Hocus pocus without focus. … An absolute waste of time.”
And Roger Ebert: “The movie doesn't seem sure what tone to adopt, veering uncertainly from horror to laughs to romance.”
If the opponents of the project hadn’t drummed Warner Bros outtahere, the Coastal Headlands Park would have been wrecked for one of the worst movies in Hollywood history.
* * *
Postscript. Writing from Washington State near where Practical Magic was filmed, Lauren Housley commented on the AVA website: “Ah Practical Magic. If you ask the locals about their experience with that movie they squirm with morning-after regret. Sure they had stars in their eyes, I guess that’s where the term starstruck comes from — ooh, rubbing elbows with the beautiful people. But guess what? Those beautiful people were gone as soon as they got what they wanted and left the local yokels to clean up the mess. That pretty little coastal town [in Washington State] with so much character with its quaint brightly colored shops lined up along the edge of the scenic ocean was talked into whitewashing every building a stark white. I’m not sure why they had to suck the character out of the buildings by coating every surface with white paint but they did, and they left it that way and the local shopkeepers were stuck with it or had to restore their shops to the original colors on their own dime. The piles of gold that were promised never lined anyone’s pocket.” ¥¥