Quiet on the Set!

They're making a Hollywood movie in our little town. Or hadn't you noticed?

"It's been OK," he reports. "I'm losing my mind today. I'm still having fun, but I was here nineteen and a half hours yesterday. And I've become a smoker. Just that set culture, you know?"

Because he works so closely with the extras, who specialize in sitting around and waiting, there's a lot of downtime for Block. So far today, he says, he has read 100 pages of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything is Illuminated. But as with Krattiger the gaffer and Bossen the dialogue coach, the sitting-and-waiting is punctuated by frenetic bursts of activity.

"The mornings and evenings are crazy," Block says. "All of yesterday was hard. Some days I stay on my feet all day."

Jennifer Silverberg
Extras stay sharp between takes on the football field at Soldan High.
Jennifer Silverberg
Extras stay sharp between takes on the football field at Soldan High.

Just then, as if to prove the point, he's interrupted by a (real) voice on his headset. Shooting is about to start on the football field, and the extras for the scene need to be there.

"Copy that," he says. And then to me: "I have a job to do. It'll be about one minute long."

He disappears around the corner to corral his extras.

In St. Louis there's a sentimental attachment to The Game of Their Lives, owing to the fact that its story, based on a 1996 book of the same name by Geoffrey Douglas, revolves around the lives of a handful of local players from the 1950 national team that upset England 1-0 in a World Cup match, for perhaps the most dramatic win in U.S. soccer history.

But nostalgia has little to do with the selection of St. Louis as the site for filming. Last fall Crusader Entertainment contacted the Missouri Film Commission to scout locations, particularly on the Hill, where four of the five local players hailed from. When director Anspaugh came to town with a location crew, he liked what he saw and made a tentative agreement with the commission to film the bulk of the movie here. (The climactic game scenes will be shot in Brazil, in the stadium where the actual tilt took place.)

Jerry Jones, director of the film commission, estimates The Game of Their Lives could mean a $67 million boost to the local economy, based on what he says is an industry-standard formula of multiplying production costs by two or two and a half. (Last fall, when the movie had a projected budget of $40 million, the commission announced that the economic impact could be as big as $100 million.) Jones also hopes this production will lead to more movies being shot in Missouri. But the producers picked St. Louis over cheaper locations in Canada (which has siphoned much of the U.S. movie production business in recent years, thanks to generous tax incentives and a concerted effort by local governments) for one simple reason: its look.

At Marquette Park, a few 1940s cars, the majority donated by local classic-car aficionados in return for parts as extras, are parked around the block (many strategically placed to block modern conveniences such as garbage dumpsters and satellite dishes). Bleachers appropriate to the era were constructed, a retro scoreboard installed. At Soldan, with Union Avenue Christian Church looming in the background, the only major alteration is a period scoreboard. Aside from that, the producers are satisfied that t he St. Louis cityscape that'll be visible in the background looks just like it would have a half-century ago.

"They came to the conclusion that St. Louis was the only place that looks like St. Louis in the 1950s," says Bryan Schmidt, a St. Louis resident working as a location assistant on Game. "Some of the houses had storm windows, so they covered them with paint or tape, and the city repainted the fire hydrants black because that's the color they were in the 1950s. That's basically all they had to do."

Of course, that's something of a backhanded compliment, but it's one that has followed St. Louis filmmaking for years. In the early 1980s, the city was picked to stand in for a nuclear war-ravaged New York in John Carpenter's Escape from New York. And while the heartwarming family scenes of the 1987 Steve Martin/John Candy vehicle Planes, Trains, and Automobiles were filmed in Chicago, grim, far-from-home-during-the-holidays scenes were shot at Lambert International Airport, the old bus station downtown and on Interstate 70. Dogtown was the setting for the working-class romance White Palace in 1992. The Depression-era film King of the Hill, directed by Steven Soderbergh, was filmed here, too, in 1993; like The Game of Their Lives, King of the Hill is set in St. Louis, and like Game the city was chosen because not-so-benign neglect has kept so much of the place looking just as it used to.

The opening shot for National Lampoon's Vacation is a depressing overhead view of the Eads Bridge. Gary Gonder, who was director of the Missouri Film Commission from 1984 to 1992, admits that the Vacation shot isn't one of his proudest moments: "I never include that in my list of credits."

Anspaugh's work on Hoosiers and Rudy give the current movie some pedigree. But despite its high profile here, The Game of Their Lives is by no means a major motion picture. The cast is made up almost entirely of up-and-coming actors (with John Harkes, a veteran of the U.S. national soccer team, and Gavin Rossdale of the British rock band Bush, making their debuts). Alongside Home Improvement vet Bryan as Harry Keough, Gerard Butler, whose biggest credit is the post-apocalyptic dragon epic Reign of Fire, plays Frank Borghi, while fellow St. Louisans Charlie Columbo and Gino Pariani are played by brothers Costas and Louis Mandylor, respectively. The film's sole big-name star is longtime character actor John Rhys-Davies, who recently portrayed Gimli the dwarf in the Lord of the Rings films; here he has a small role as a coach.

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