/ 19 February 2010

Big Easy back on celluloid map

Late August 2005. One event — Hurricane Katrina — dominated American TV news networks. And one song is played, almost on a loop, over footage of the devastation: Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927, a sad attack on the government’s handling of a flood eight decades earlier. Its mordant chorus — “The river rose all day/ The river rose all night / Some people got lost in the flood / Some people got away alright” — became an unofficial anthem of the tragedy.

Four years on and Newman cooked up a fresh batch of numbers about the Big Easy, designed to erase all association of the city with large-scale calamity — for 90 minutes, at least. Like the film they soundtrack, The Princess and the Frog, a Disney fairytale set in jazz age New Orleans, the tunes are upbeat — rowdy, bluesy and buzzing with fun. Dr John croaks out the title track: “Grab somebody, come on down / Bring your paintbrush, we’re paintin’ the town / Oh there’s some sweetness goin’ round / Catch it down in New Orleans.” It could be a tourist board slogan.

Visually, The Princess and the Frog does the same job, gloriously showcasing the city’s best assets, building a virtual itinerary for a trip to the city: lush bayous, spooky voodoo, steamboats throbbing with jazz, oaks dripping with mardi gras beads, cypresses swathed in Spanish moss, bubbling gumbo, coffee with chicory, beignet doughnuts topped with an inch of icing sugar. It looks a hell of a place — in all the right ways.

And it’s one cinemagoers are going to be seeing more of. Louisiana is the third-most popular state in which to shoot a film in the United States, thanks chiefly to huge tax incentives.

The drive to make the southern end of the Mississippi a new hub for film production actually began before Katrina, but the devastation failed to scupper plans, thanks to the dangling of even larger financial carrots, and the leverage of its starrier residents.

Time-travelling cop thriller Déjà Vu would, most likely, have been relocated but for the insistence of leading man Denzel Washington that it be shot in the city as planned. New Orleans homeowners Brad Pitt (who shot The Curious Case of Benjamin Button there), Sandra Bullock and Nicolas Cage have also done energetic lobbying.

In 2005 seven films were shot in New Orleans; nine the following year, 14 in 2007, 21 in 2008 and 23 last year. So far in 2010 15 films have been in production in the city.

The more enterprising among them harness recent history for their plots — Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is as much about the ragged, sun-blasted state of the post-Katrina landscape as that of its hero’s mental health; post-apocalyptic drama The Road found some perfect locations (more muted cheers in the tourist board for this one, you suspect).

A couple of award-winning documentaries emerged, too: Spike Lee’s superb When the Levees Broke and Oscar nominee Trouble the Water. Upcoming sports drama Hurricane Season casts Forest Whitaker as a basketball coach assembling a team of traumatised local children, and April sees the HBO debut of David Simon’s first series since The Wire, Treme, named after and shot in one of the city’s most fascinating, and most flood-damaged, districts.

Others, though, simply use it as a common-or-garden backdrop — and it’s the viability of these meat-and-potatoes projects that will really test Louisiana’s big-screen ambitions.

Whether it can hang on to that No. 3 spot actually depends on the likes of Renny Harlin’s 12 Rounds, Matthew Lillard’s pimp comedy The Pool Boy, slasher remake Night of the Demons, kiddie sci-fi Robosapien and Elisabeth Shue psychodrama Waking Madison — forthcoming hack work shot in the city on account of economics, rather than for aesthetics. Meanwhile New Orleans is unlikely to find a more swoony homage than the one in The Princess and the Frog: the Disney definition of metrophilia. Ironic, then, that it was made in Hollywood. —