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Thursday, 21 June 2012 08:47

U.S. Virgin Islands: A Filmmaker’s Paradise

Written by  James Thompson
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The United States Virgin Islands (USVI) has a long history serving as a film and television location hotspot. However, after experiencing a dip in production, there’s a movement by the USVI Department of Tourism, industry crafts people and local service providers to bring production levels up to what was seen in the ’90s, making the USVI, once again, a preferred filming destination. “The industry needs to come back to the USVI,” says Steve Bornn, development manager at the USVI Film Office. “We’re still here. We still have the same crews that they’re use to. Our experience is just deeper. A luxury we offer besides our convenience [is that] our [crews] work the entire Caribbean. We’re a good hub. Producers should start here because we offer a lot of knowledge.”

pre_usvi_img_0053Location Manager Todd Hecht sees producing in the USVI as an easy task. For 28 years, he has worked in the Virgin Islands for many notable productions, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn and The Shawshank Redemption. “The culture hasn’t changed a whole lot,” says Hecht. “We have more aircraft coming in, which is a big benefit to production.” He notes that a big part of his responsibility now includes shipping, and since the USVI understands the value film production brings to the community, it waives custom duties and excise taxes to make it easy to bring in equipment. Plus, as a part of the United States, the Virgin Islands use U.S. currency. “We fly the American flag,” says Bornn. “So if you want that quintessential Caribbean look, you can shoot here without leaving home.”

USVI native Edward LaBorde, Jr. owns Grip Flicks, Inc., a full-service grip and lighting company that services the Caribbean. Currently producing a low-budget feature film, LaBorde maintains that a big advantage of shooting in the USVI is that producers can now find local crews and talent. Additionally, the new DSLR technology sweeping the country has found its way to the USVI and many locals are joining forces to make local films. “Underrepresented folks in cinema need not be underrepresented anymore because of DSLR,” says LaBorde. “The technology has made it where I can tell my story. I can take my camera and find people who are of like mind and I can make it happen. I think people would really be surprised to see what’s going on here.” Grip Flicks has two five-ton trucks and a pool of six grips, four gaffers, four generator operators and many electricians to call on.

Johanna Bermudez-Ruiz is a USVI native and award-winning documentary filmmaker with Cane Bay Films, LLC, which has set up shop on St. Cruz to pull together talent and crew for an independent film. “What’s involved is we have a new set of energy,” says Bermudez-Ruiz. “We want to roll up our sleeves and work to create.” Director/Cinematographer Eric Zucker also has experience shooting in the USVI, and notes that the locals are learning to work in production. “We are trying to be an extremely service market,” says Zucker, who mainly does commercials but recently produced a segment of “The Real Housewives of New York City.” “We would bring people in from New York and have them work with locals in small parts and eventually move them up into more prominent roles.” Zucker adds that a major reason to shoot in the USVI is the impressive quality of light. “There really is nothing like it,” he says. “This place is magical. It’s just fertile ground for storytelling.”pre_usvi_img_0262

Another of the USVI’s major attractions is the pristine, clear-blue water. Captain David Pearsall is the brilliant go-to guy when productions wish to film anywhere on the Virgin Islands’ beautiful waters. Pearsall learned his family trade while growing up in the USVI — his father worked on many productions over the years and taught Pearsall Marine coordinating in production. His craft includes finding and organizing crew boats and marine crew; running dive boats and camera boats; transporting crew; and facilitating the anchoring of sets and barges.

The USVI consists of the main islands of Saint Croix, Saint John and Saint Thomas, along with the smaller Water Island and many other surrounding islands, all offering productions an amazing history and a variety of looks. Formerly the Danish West Indies, the islands were sold to the United States from Denmark in 1916. They are classified by the U.N. as a Non-Self-Governing Territory and are currently an unincorporated organized territory of the United States.

The total land area of the USVI is 133.73 square miles, and all three main islands offer unique vistas and filming opportunities. St. Thomas is known for its beaches, colorfully disparate locales and a fine natural harbor that features cruise-ship sightings and many luxury yachts. Its historic city has a European look that has been featured in films like The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (which shot on Magens Bay), Weekend at Bernie’s II (Sandy Bay and Botany Bay) and Pirates: 3D (Perseverance Bay) and is currently the location of MTV’s “The Real World,” produced by Bunim/Murray Productions. At the west end of St. Thomas is the Preserve at Botany Bay, a private 397-acre enclave that includes luxurious mansions (which are available for filming) and sugar-cane plantation ruins amid a tropical forest that runs along the shoreline. St. Thomas also supports many hotels and private resorts that accommodate filming, including the Sugar Bay Resort & Spa which is situated on 31 lush acres and boasts an ornate lobby and picturesque grounds. And adjacent to St. Thomas, Water Island was used in the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which shot on Honeymoon Beach.)

St. John, which is located about four miles east of St. Thomas, boasts an array of beautiful beaches (each with its own look) and a tropical forest. It’s also home to the Virgin Islands National Park with its many visual attractions, such as Trunk Bay, which sports a white-sand beach and underwater snorkeling trail, and Francis Bay and Francis Bay Pond, which offers a unique habitat and areas that could stand in as swamp or jungle locales. Because there are no airports on St. John, the only access to the island is by boat. A ferry service runs hourly from St. Thomas and large barges are available to transport equipment trucks.

pre_usvi_img_0148St. Croix, the largest and flattest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, has an actual highway, marinas, quaint small towns and a variety of beaches. A highlight is the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge and Beach, a stunning, vacant sandy beach with crystal-clear waters that was used in The Shawshank Redemption. The island’s town of Frederiksted is located on the west end of St. Croix and is home to the historic Fort Frederik. As a tourist destination, St. Croix boasts many exceptional hotels and resorts. The Buccaneer is a distinctive, family-run resort that is open for filming and offers perfectly private accommodations for principles and talent. Over the years, the resort has hosted many commercials and the feature film Trading Places.

Recent news that will effect USVI filming includes the passing of legislation that will allow licensed residences to be eligible for major tax incentives. This could benefit studio and long-term productions that are willing to set up shop in the USVI to benefit from the STARS Act, which will give a 100-percent exemption on gross receipts tax, 90-percent exemption on corporate taxes, and 90-percent exemption on personal income tax. Luana Wheatley, assistant director of communications at the USVI Department of Tourism, encourages filmmakers in preproduction or with story ideas to contact her office or Steve Bornn at the Film Office to find out how the USVI can help to accommodate upcoming projects. “We encourage filming and are happy to help in any way we can,” says Wheatley.


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