Contagious Cannibalism

By Daniel Bortz

Syracuse film scene grows — one zombie at a time

Sunny Sawhney shuffles down the street and halts when a body stirs within a pile of zombies lying in the middle of the road. A trapped cop wrestles himself out of the gruesome heap, escaping the bloodthirsty undead. The zombies try to rip chunks from his fresh skin. Their burning eyes follow the officer as he walks down the block. Heads start exploding a few minutes later and Sawhney prepares himself to mop up the mess of blood and grey matter.

John Craddock, local filmmaker and film professor at Syracuse University, hired Sawhney as a cinematography assistant on his latest project, Germ, a zombie film reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series. Craddock's crew descended on Central New York this summer with a respectable $500,000 to shoot the film. This cinematic zombie plague and other recent Syracuse-based projects have helped to revive the local film community after decades of stagnation.

Sitting in his corner office in the Shaffer Art Building a month after wrapping Germ’s production, Craddock discussed the prospects of filming in Syracuse. “People used to go to L.A. and New York because if you didn’t go there, you didn’t have what you needed to make a film. And now you can get that stuff and pack it into a moving truck,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to do the next Da Vinci Code movie with that kind of gear, but you can definitely get [a strong product] with a relatively small crew.”

Craddock said he wanted Germ to depart from tired zombie fare. A standard Hollywood set couldn’t match his vision. He chose the film’s location while driving through the suburb of Tully one day on his way back to Syracuse. Tully’s dense woods caught Craddock’s eye as an ideal backdrop for Germ’s strange plot — a military satellite crashes into a small town for unknown reasons. Anyone who contacts it immediately loses control over basic brain functions. As the zombie virus runs its course, it causes victims to physically deteriorate until, due to intense swelling, their craniums split apart. “The art department definitely had its hands full with that one,” said Craddock. “There was one day where I think we had 35 dead bodies just lying in the street. We always cleaned everything up, but there were some days where the set was just a complete mess.”

Other filmmakers are also ditching Hollywood for Central New York’s cost-effective alternatives, according to Dennis Brogan, director of the Syracuse Film Office. New York’s landscape, filled with expansive mountains, rivers, lakes, and distinctive architecture provides filmmakers the elusive allure of true naturalism they struggle to re-create in big cities.

Craddock’s CNY extras even saved him money while filming in Tully and the village of Jordan. Local residents’ wide-eyed eagerness contrasted with jaded actors in conventional film productions, he said.

“If you’re in L.A. or New York, they’re sick of seeing people shoot stuff on their street and they want a lot of money from you,” Craddock said. “Up here, most people are so interested in just having something exciting and cool being filmed in their neighborhood that they’re willing to help you.” Brogan also said CNY has an often unrecognized, and mostly unknown, influence on film history. “The original film industry was based from New York City to Buffalo, with a large part of it centered in the Ithaca area because of the topography and geography of the region,” Brogan said.

Though Brogan cited these benefits as catalysts for the Syracuse film industry’s new growth, he emphasized the capability of the Syracuse International Film Festival to attract attention and unite the city with diverse cinema.

The festival, which Owen Shapiro and his wife, Christine, established in 2004, started small but now hosts a 10-day showcase of varied projects. The 2009 festival held in April and May included entries from the U.S., Korea, the Czech Republic, Senegal, Afghanistan, Uruguay, and 20 other countries. “It’s a whole collaborative effort between the film festival, these other countries, and independent filmmakers,” Shapiro said.

Proving the possibility of expanded film interest around the Salt City, Syracuse-born comedian Bobcat Goldthwait wrote and directed the premier American film titled, World’s Greatest Dad, starring Robin Williams.

The festival’s success justified the development of the Syracuse Film Office, which focuses on bringing foreign filmmakers to Syracuse to use the city as both a setting and inspiration. New York State's 2007 move to increase tax credits for filmmakers eased the office’s job. The state now offers a 30 percent “below-the-line” tax credit, meaning the state will subsidize everything except a film’s main actors, director, writer, and producer.

Brogan said the trend of states offering increased tax credits changed the creative plans of local and foreign filmmakers.

“Up until this point, there was no work here for filmmakers,” he said. “Now we’re seeing a real exodus from L.A. to other parts of the country, and a large part of that is related to tax credits that states offer.” Production on four feature films, including Germ and a major project with a $1 million budget, will be completed in Syracuse by the end of this year.

For any arts scene to grow, it needs not only creative talent, but also venues for artists to show their work. When Natalia Mount, director of the Red House Arts Center in Armory Square, moved to Syracuse in 2006 from New York City, she realized the city needed help developing performance spaces. She took over one of the last independent theaters in the city and immediately committed herself to improving it.

“When I joined the organization, it had a turbulent past. My job was to turn it around and transform it from this declining arts house into a thriving arts center,” Mount explained. “It’s dangerous to clog your theater with films from one extreme. If we showed all independent and experimental films here, that wouldn’t be fair. And at the same time, we can’t put out every mainstream film on the market.” Brogan and Shapiro said a lack of space to show independent films holds back Syracuse’s artistic ambitions. With the exception of Red House and The Palace Theater, city cinemas that screen independent films are rare.

Mount, however, believes Syracuse can become an active, vibrant film hub. “The city itself is growing, and the film industry here is growing as a result,” she said. “I’m a New Yorker at heart, so it’s been great to see almost as much going on here in Syracuse as there is in a big city.”

Illustration by Casey Landerkin