Providence’s Thriving Film Scene

Local talent, diverse settings, and a bit of novelty are making PVD an important film hub

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Imagine you are making a movie. You’ve already written the script – a thriller about a Dominican hit-man. The story has shoot-outs, fist fights, chase scenes, and lots of tough-guy banter in Spanish and English. You’re a Hollywood veteran with a strong following. You have a good feeling about this one.

Just one problem: your budget is tight. You could try to film in Los Angeles, where you have actors and crew members galore, but you might easily break the bank. Or, you could film the whole thing in Providence, Rhode Island, your hometown, where friends and family are just dying to help you out.

“Shooting in Rhode Island was pretty simple for me,” says Manny Pérez, a prolific actor and veteran filmmaker. Pérez is talking about La Soga Salvation, a feature-length action movie he wrote, directed, and starred in – and was filmed almost entirely in greater Providence. “I would say 80 percent of the locations were houses of my family. Friends would loan me their places when we’d shoot.”

Pérez was born in the Dominican Republic, but he moved to South Providence when he was young. He attended Central High School and spent eight formative years in the city. Although Pérez is now based in New York and LA, he regularly visits relatives in the area. La Soga Salvation is actually a sequel to his first feature, simply called La Soga, which he filmed in the Dominican Republic. La Soga follows the exploits of its hard-nosed protagonist, a bearded killer who just wants to live a life of quiet obscurity.

The new film, which first screened locally on January 28 at the Providence Place Cinemas 16 and IMAX, is a case study in smart indie movie production: Pérez brought in only a handful of professional crew members, including a script supervisor and director of photography. Otherwise, he employed locals, most of whom had never worked on a movie before. Crewmembers often doubled as extras. Pérez easily secured permits in Pawtucket and Fall River, where local governments eagerly encouraged the project. Police cordoned off streets to ensure privacy.

“People were just so happy we were filming in their town,” says Pérez.

Shooting started on January 1, 2020. The project wrapped 15 days later. The film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival to packed crowds. This month, you can stream La Soga almost anywhere in the world.

In other words, this is what happens for filmmakers when everything goes right. If you want to make a movie in Rhode Island, Pérez’s recipe is worth following.

But it’s certainly not the only way. Rhode Island is a ripe backdrop for filmmaking, and more and more out-of-town directors are combing through the Ocean State for locations. What’s more, our homegrown talent pool gets bigger each year. The demand for film and video has never been stronger, nor has the accessibility of equipment and training. With such a dynamic landscape, Rhode Island is a boon for independent filmmakers of all levels and genres – and the local industry should only expand from here.

They Like Us! They Really Like Us!

“Rhode Island is 48 miles long and 40 miles wide, and we have very diverse locations in close proximity,” says Steven Feinberg, executive director of the Rhode Island Film & Television Office. “That means you could be filming a cityscape in the morning and by noon be in an idyllic forest and water-view setting, and before sunset, standing at the elaborate gilded doors of a beautifully preserved 1800s mansion in Newport.”

Feinberg also notes that Rhode Island was one of the first states in the US to implement a tax incentive, back in 2004. Since then, a steady stream of Hollywood movies has been filmed here in the past few decades. Some of these are classics, like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Others are beloved indie flicks, like Dan in Real Life and Moonrise Kingdom. Now and again we get a TV series, like Brotherhood and NOS4A2. And at this point, everyone and their mother knows that Hocus Pocus 2 is being filmed in the state, and HBO’s The Gilded Age, shot primarily in Newport, has become a critical darling.

Bragging rights are great, but there are practical bonuses, too: Feinberg says the Film & Television Office has “brought in about $700 million of film and television production to our Ocean State, and as a result, we have built up a few generations of professional crew and continue to provide opportunities to new and emerging filmmakers. About 75 percent are union and another 25 percent are non-union, who are gaining experience on the smaller shows and learning their craft.”

Feinberg himself worked for 22 years as a writer, director, and producer in Hollywood. When he took on the role of executive director of the Film & Television Office nearly 18 years ago, he remembered his own humble origins and the state that bred him.

“I wanted to nurture young, independent filmmakers like me,” says Feinberg, “just a kid from the Garden City area in Cranston making movies since I was eight years old with my neighborhood friends, and provide opportunities for these hungry moviemakers to grow and ultimately shine on a national and international scale.”

So You Want to Make a Movie

“Film production” is a popular major these days, but each college has its own philosophy. The University of Rhode Island, for example, casts a wide net: students can learn videography, 3D animation, and game design, all of which could lead to careers in an ever-growing industry. This is a common approach, to treat film studies as vocational training, with the latest technology and a sensitivity to commercial trends.

But not always. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Rhode Island School for Design takes more of a craftsman’s approach to film. For example, students can still learn to use 16mm film, a format that many schools have abandoned. The atmosphere at the Film/Animation/Video department is openly experimental.

“I have loved storytelling ever since I was a kid,” says Ramón Rivera-Moret, an assistant professor of live-action film production at RISD. “Students come to the department as sophomores, and by the time they come, they really have a foundation in visual thinking. The student body is amazing. They’re really thoughtful; they’re really committed to their work.”

In contrast to the fast-paced, bottom-line world of commercial film, Rivera-Moret has the temperament of an artist. Raised in Puerto Rico, he studied film at the University of Paris, where many of his instructors had been involved in the French New Wave, and art-house screenings were a typical night out. Rivera-Moret teaches remotely from his home in New York City, and he is working on his own project, La Dirección del Cielo, about humanity’s relationship with the sky. This kind of high-concept labor of love is exactly the kind of work Rivera-Moret invites his students to attempt.

“At the core,” says Rivera-Moret, “the department is not so much geared towards the industry but is really more about developing critical thinking and an analytical perspective in terms of the medium – and also developing their own sensibility towards moving images and sounds.”

RISD claims some big-name alumni, like Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and Oscar-winning auteur Gus Van Sant. The school attracts students from all over the world, and many of them venture to bigger cities to seek their fortunes. But Rivera-Moret says that some of his students have remained in Providence after graduation and collaborate on original works.

“I know two of them who graduated two years ago,” says Rivera-Moret. “They were telling me that they were working on screenplays together with other recent RISD graduates, and they are producing their short films.”

Which begs the question: should 22-year-old filmmakers, diploma newly in hand, stay in Rhode Island? Or should they first give Hollywood a go?

A Great Place to End Up

For Raz Cunningham, the answer is to travel far, make a name for yourself, and come back.

Cunningham spent 10 years in the film industry, working on a dizzying range of projects, from feature films and TV pilots to reality series and documentaries. He traveled widely, following his clients to wherever they were filming. But when his career trajectory took him back to New England, he came home to Rhode Island.

“The reason I live here is because I can,” says Cunningham, who is co-founder of Providence-based LittleFire Media. “I did the work outside of Rhode Island, so the larger projects, companies, and agencies I work with know to find me here – and that’s not something exclusive to me. That can work for anyone, but you do have to put in the time and the work.”

For Cunningham, this is the recipe for success: make your name in the media hubs, move to Rhode Island, and make yourself mobile. COVID notwithstanding, Cunningham can still travel anywhere to work on a set. Meanwhile, many of his clients are local; LittleFire has created content for Roger Williams Zoo, PVDonuts, and the Providence Public Library. Cunningham even produced an exclusive NOS4A2 digital short for AMC. To develop these projects, he can rely on a network of Rhode Island-based professionals.

“For creative talent, we have an actual embarrassment of riches,” says Cunningham. “Within Rhode Island, you can find incredible directors of photography that can cross over between film and corporate video. There are videographers that can color grade on par with some of the best Super Bowl spots you see. The art department in Rhode Island is fantastic. You can crew up a feature here, indie or theatrical.”

“And the community at large is usually open to the idea of being part of a project,” he adds, “whether that’s providing a location, set dressing, logistical resources, whatever – you can find a welcoming community. If you’re good to them, they’ll be good to you.”

Digital filmmaking is now accessible to almost anyone, of course; any teenager with iMovie and a decent phone could make a short film and distribute it globally. But professional resources have also ballooned in the past decade, such as Kay Studios, a 6,700-square-foot soundstage in East Providence. Anyone could rent this warehouse-sized space, film actors against Kay Studios’ sheer green walls, and edit them into whatever location, from the Wild West to the surface of Mars. Such resources empower indie filmmakers and reduce the need for Hollywood infrastructure.

No one knows the technical possibilities better than Andre Correa, a filmmaker born in Brazil who grew up in Pawtucket. When he was young, Correa became passionate about acting and eventually moved to Los Angeles. He studied acting and auditioned widely, building a community of fellow performers.

But as Correa grew interested in cinematography, he started to produce his own projects. He directed and starred in a short drama, Help Wanted, about a veteran with PTSD. He became involved in documentaries, and he even started a YouTube series about camera equipment and filmmaking techniques. Correa returned to Rhode Island in 2019, and the change of scenery refreshed him.

“People who live in Rhode Island – who never left – don’t realize how cinematic it is,” says Correa. “There is a charm here. People have been more open to me here than in Los Angeles. In LA, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re a filmmaker? I’m a filmmaker. That guy’s a screenwriter.’ Like, everybody is doing it, so they don’t really care. Here it’s more of a novelty. Doors open, because it’s new to people.”

Correa is working on a long-form documentary, which has required travel across the country, and he hopes to produce a narrative feature film, which he intends to make in Rhode Island.

Having worked on both coasts, does he portend a bright future for the local film industry?

Correa smiles. “I’m betting on it.”

Show Us What You Got

The purpose of a movie is to be seen, of course. To reach audiences, thousands of filmmakers first turn to film festivals, which are held in every corner of the globe. Most of us have heard of Sundance and Cannes, but our state is also home to several prominent series: The Providence Children’s Film Festival, the Block Island Film Festival, and Brown University’s Ivy Film Festival, which claims to be the largest student-run festival in the world. The best known of all is Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF), which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in August.

Like filmmaking itself, screening is easier and more versatile than ever before. Auteurs can easily submit digital files to festivals. When COVID permits, they can present their work in local venues, like bars and auditoriums.

One of the region’s more active promoters is Briana Gonsalves, who has hosted several screening series in Providence and is founder of the Dead of Autumn Horror Festival. Gonsalves is a prolific actress herself, and she has collaborated with a vast web of underground filmmakers. The vast majority of movies she has screened were made in Southern New England.

“In my experience with Rhode Island filmmakers, I have noticed that submissions to my showcases are usually either comedies or stories that highlight social issues,” says Gonsalves. “I’ve had many short films in monthly showcases that touch upon homelessness, abuse, suicide, LGBTQA+ struggles, artists’ struggles, lower-middle class struggles, and national tragedies such as 9/11. On the other side of the spectrum, [there are] comedies that help you laugh while trying to get through these crazy times.”

Gonsalves notes that the pandemic has had deleterious effects on cinema at all levels. Movie theaters shuttered during lockdown; screening schedules were staggered; and her own film festival has gone dormant. But many filmmakers have rolled with the punches: virtual screenings still manage to attract audiences, regardless of where they’re watching. Indie film productions persist, using various safety measures to keep their talent safe.

“The finished product on the projects I’ve seen thus far that have been filmed during the pandemic have either been just as good or better than those I’ve seen prior to COVID-19,” says Gonsalves. “People are being extra creative and working extra hard in their endeavors. And it shows.” 

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