`Button' turns up nose at Md.

`Button' sneaks off to the Big Easy

January 19, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

It's the literary film equivalent of the Colts going to Indianapolis.

A $150-million adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," a classic short story set in Baltimore, is now being filmed in Louisiana. And that means Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are feasting on crawfish in New Orleans instead of crab cakes in the Inner Harbor.

Maryland lost this super-sized Hollywood movie because the Pelican State lured the producers with a production-incentive program that gives them more bang for their mega-bucks.

Pitt stars as a man who is born resembling a 70-year-old, then ages backward. The actor has taken so readily to the Big Easy that he and Jolie have bought a $3.5 million house in the French Quarter.

Fitzgerald placed his story in real Baltimore locations on Mount Vernon Place and Monroe Street.

The movie has been in and out of development for 13 years, with its varying slates of producers, designers and location managers leading the Maryland and Baltimore film offices to believe that the movie would end up here. Maryland Film Office chief Jack Gerbes says the film was promoted to him in the summer of 1994 as, "the biggest movie that's ever going to be shot in Baltimore," offering a chance to showcase the city as a production center with enough crew strength and facilities for a movie that spans one century and several continents.

Every couple of years the movie would catch fire with some A-list director, and location scouting would begin again. Gerbes says, "Things really heated up in May of 2005," when director David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) took over. Gerbes and Catherine Batavick of the Maryland Film Office and Hannah Byron, head of Baltimore City's film office, joined forces to find locations in Bolton Hill and Chestertown and show how they could turn the recreational pier at Fells Point into a bustling train station.

Maryland beat out Virginia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the Carolinas - but not Louisiana, where The Curious Case of Benjamin Button began filming in November. (It moves in March to Los Angeles for two more months of filming.)

"It was strictly a bottom-line decision," Gerbes says. Louisiana's tax incentives were richer than Maryland's wage-rebate program, currently funded at a modest $6.8 million.

"This one hurt after all the years we spent chasing it. It has the same effect on us as losing Annapolis to Philadelphia, because this was a Baltimore story," Gerbes says.

Baltimore's prestige as a movie-friendly city with top-class artisans working on HBO's The Wire and movies like Ladder 49 shouldn't blind state leadership to the urgent need to keep those crews working, Byron says. "Production companies like our wage-rebate program, but we have to fund it more."

Indeed, Baltimore's own Barry Levinson found himself unable to make his most recent movie, Man of the Year, in his native city, even though he wrote the script for the Maryland suburbs. "Toronto offered so much more in terms of tax incentives that it just became not feasible. I couldn't make Baltimore work for the dollars we had. ... I love shooting in Baltimore, and to write a movie with a Maryland backdrop and not be able to do it there, to suddenly be shooting in a place that would not have been my first choice - I was beside myself."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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