Film festivals remind us of the Hudson Valley’s distinctive beauty

Alfred Hitchcock’s great North By Northwest involved a narrative-setting journey up the Hudson River that featured previously shot images of the Highlands, Catskills and local cities as a scene-setter.

For me, no autumnal event can match the sheer anticipation I feel for the Woodstock Film Festival. Each year, notable actors and filmmakers bring a little bit of Hollywood into our backyard. The Woodstock Film Festival, which touts itself as being Fiercely Independent, celebrates the Hudson Valley as a desirable location for dreamers and artists throughout the film world.

In the recent past, the festival has showcased work created here, including Bruce Beresford’s Peace Love and Misunderstanding, featuring Jane Fonda, Rhymes with Banana, featuring Zosia Mamet, Growing Up Smith (formerly titled Good Ole Boy) featuring Jason Lee, among many others The festival is in close cahoots with the Hudson Valley Film Commission, an organization dedicated to bringing film and television productions to our area. This year saw several productions taking shape around us, including this summer’s Furlough, featuring Melissa Leo and Whoopi Goldberg. What brings filmmakers here, and is this a recent phenomenon?

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Especially at this time of year, the Hudson Valley is a cinematic place. The moment the leaves indicate a yellow or red hue brightening beneath their summer green color, the air takes on the sweet aroma of apple cider, pumpkin spice, and the annual festivals celebrate our harvests. There are haunted hayrides and houses, spooky old village tours, and other autumnal delights.

The Thing About My Folks, with the late Peter Falk, was one of the first of a great wave of films that have been made in the Hudson Valley and Catskills in recent decades. With a bigger tax incentive, everyone’s expecting the industry to grow in our area. (Courtesy Hudson Valley Film Commission)

I spent my senior year of high school volunteering with the Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie. That January, I had the honor of working at the Hudson Valley premiere of Nobody’s Fool, directed by Robert Benton based on the Richard Russo novel. The film starred Paul Newman, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis and most notably, to us, the City of Beacon. My job was to open limousine doors (the key principals, alas, did not attend) for the guests and industry personnel pausing on the red carpet for the local paparazzi. As a kickoff, a representative from the governor’s office took the stage and talked about a partnership emerging in the Hudson Valley.

I worked for a few short years after high school with the Hudson Valley Film and Video Office. I was a locations coordinator. A film or television location scout would contact our office asking for a specific location — for example, a pier or an office building near a water tower. I would then scour the Hudson Valley for such locations, take a few snapshots (pre-digital age: Kodak Funsavers), develop those shots at a one-hour photo kiosk, and scan the photos in. It would take some time for our phone-line modem to send the images over. I would then save the original photos in various physical files in a cabinet (a file for ‘Piers’ and a file for ‘Water Towers’) with information about the locations attached.

I left the office in 1999 for graduate school, and at that time the file cabinet was overflowing with location possibilities. Within the next two years, the office and the festival would close shop, and Meira Blaustein and Laurent Rejto would co-found both the Woodstock Film Festival and the Hudson Valley Film Commission.

Though my personal memories extend back over the better parts of three decades, filmmaking in the Hudson Valley predated me by many, many decades. Back in the silent era, DW Griffith ran his studio at Mamaroneck, New York, and shot a number of his films around Westchester County.  A number of other films look to our region as a charming escape, just upstate of the bustling big city, If you needed a getaway or to get away, our back yard was here for you. Such was the case in films such as North by Northwest and Dirty Dancing. Other films have made use of a variety of our locations to double for faraway places. From high-budget films like War of the Worlds to less memorable b-films such as The Stuff, our region has doubled for other areas outside our region, including New York City, Oklahoma, and, in Scorsese’s Kundun, the Far East.

Larry Fessenden of Olive has made a point of drawing dark, psychological
horror films up to his home Catskills for production in recent decades,
including his own classic, Wendigo. (Courtesy of Glass Eye Pix)

Some years later, I met up with Laurent Rejto for dinner. At that time, Woodstock’s film festival was in its eighth year, and I was invited to bring students to the festival to create videos covering the festival’s events. Laurent was enthusiastic about the multitude of locations in the Hudson Valley. “We have a location for anything,” he said. “Anything.”

He was right. Need an urban area? We have it. Need a suburban street? Have it. Apple orchard or farm? Yup. Shoot on the water? We can do that. Seasonal shooting? Winter, summer, spring or fall. All of it.

He had to concede on one location. “Except for deserts. We don’t really have those.” The Hudson Valley Film Commission now boasts locations on its Pinterest page, a far cry from the Kodak Fun-saver images I dealt with nearly 20 years ago.

In extolling the virtues of the Hudson Valley as a film location, not to mention the handsome tax incentives, I am left wondering. How does our region look to a film audience from outside our region now? Shooting here is one thing. But representation is something else.

Are we still the route for gangsters to bury their misdeeds, as in Goodfellas? As the hippie haven for misguided utopian ideals, as in Taking Woodstock? Or can it be something more sinister? Hudson Valley in the fall, after all, evokes Washington Irving’s tale, Sleepy Hollow. And filmmakers such as Larry Fesseden and his Glass Eye Pix productions have made use of the eerie hues — the lifeless sky and dry leaves, of a Hudson Valley November.

Perhaps the Hudson Valley is a locations chameleon. It’s likely that an audience witnessing our region might not even realize that they’re looking at our turf. Perhaps this year we will get a sense of how we’re viewed. The Woodstock Film Festival kicks off October 11 through 15, and I couldn’t help notice that several films made use of our home in their stories.

Gregory Bray is an associate professor of digital media and journalism at SUNY New Paltz. He loves movies. 

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