The president's been assassinated -- and this time, the grassy knoll is in Spokane. Instead of Abraham Zapruder, Spokane's own North by Northwest is on hand to film all the action. And "action" might just be the operative word for End Game, a new feature film being shot in and around Spokane.
End Game is a political thriller opening with a presidential assassination and following a perilous path of intrigue. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays a Secret Service agent in charge of the president's protection detail. He blames himself for his team's failure and quits his post only to become obsessed with solving the crime. A tenacious reporter (played by Angie Harmon) aids him in his quest. Together they must unravel a web of lies as they try to divine the truth behind the conspiracy among shadowy assassins, an ex-special ops commander (Burt Reynolds) and a government official with possible ulterior motives (James Woods).
Principal filming began in early February and is expected to wrap on March 24. The production team has utilized Gonzaga University, Holy Family Hospital, Upriver Dam, the Foley Federal Building, the STA Plaza and various downtown addresses as locations for the shooting. They'll be shooting a few scenes at Inlander HQ, too.
The unseasonably warm and dry weather conditions the Inland Northwest has been experiencing recently have aided the production team in a myriad of ways. Yet it's no accident, according to director Andy Cheng.
"It's all because I came to town to direct a film," he laughs. "All of this," he gestures to the blue sky and copious sunshine, "is because of me. I wanted this."
End Game marks Cheng's directorial debut, though he has many years of industry experience on both sides of the camera as a second unit director, stunt coordinator and stunt double for Jackie Chan. His film credits include Rush Hour, Shanghai Nights, Daredevil, Collateral and Cursed. Cheng thrives on the freedom that comes with being in the director's chair.
"With direction, you get to create," he says, emphatically. "That goes for the script, too."
Cheng explains that he agreed to shoot the film provided he was given the opportunity to rewrite screenwriter J.C. Pollock's original script. He says he added more tension, more twists and more action.
"In the original, you saw who the bad guys were very early on. Now there is more mystery," he says, adding that, "you know, the script is not the Bible."
Ceng and many of the project's lead actors have found Spokane to be not only an excellent place to work, but also a great place to hang out. Cheng, for instance, has been taking full advantage of the sunshine by hitting local golf courses whenever he has a break.
"The leads in this move really like Spokane," says Rich Cowan, CEO of NxNW. "They generally stay around as much as they can on their days off. But right now, it's pilot season and so some of them have been going down to L.A. for auditions. And some of them have taken a few days to visit their families."
One thing that Cowan says they all agree on is how accommodating the people in Spokane are.
"James Woods commented on how one day when he was carrying a bunch of luggage near the Davenport, someone on the street stopped and gave him a hand. He said that kind of thing rarely happens in L.A."
Managing Director of NxNW Productions Ian Kennedy is also deeply involved in the End Game shoot. He's worked for the company since 1997. "A large percentage of our business is the production of 30-second commercial spots," he says. "But features are becoming more and more a part of the mix."
Kennedy says that aside from NxNW having a state-of-the-art production facility and an experienced crew at the ready, Spokane itself is attractive to filmmakers for more economic reasons. Hollywood has discovered the benefits of shooting on location, as The X Files filmed exclusively in Vancouver, B.C., and major feature films like Van Helsing have shot in places like the Czech Republic. It's all in an effort to shave a few dollars off budgets that can routinely careen out of control.
"It's inexpensive for us to work here," Kennedy says of Spokane's chance at landing on the big screen. "The city is cooperative and the permit process is really streamlined. It might be different for a production company from LA. to come up and work in Spokane, but we're based here and they know us. They know we're not going to wreck the place."
Recent NxNW feature productions include The Basket; Hangman's Curse; Whacked; Shadow of Fear with Aidan Quinn, Peter Coyote and James Spader; and The Cutter with Chuck Norris. But End Game will pack the most star power of any production NxNW has turned in thus far and will likely give the Spokane company even more credibility within the movie industry.
"We've worked with this producer [Richard Salvatore] before," says Kennedy. "But yeah, this is a big one for us. There are probably at least a hundred people working on this thing."
As far as when we can all expect to see End Game in theaters, well, Cowan says that's up to the studio.
"We just don't know," he says. "We'll probably finish the editing and deliver the film in late summer then -- who knows? It's kind of up to the client [in this case Millennium Films] what they do with it. Our objective is to get a theatrical release, but ultimately that's not our decision. We will definitely deliver a theatrical film."
While the End Game cast list contains its share of marquee names, there are a number of intriguing character actors involved in the project as well. David Selby, for example, got his start in television in 1968 as a member of the accursed Collins family on ABC TV's insanely popular horror soap opera, Dark Shadows. Though his role of Quentin Collins effectively launched his acting career, he is probably best known to TV viewers as Richard Channing in the long-running '80s drama, Falcon Crest. Over the years, Selby has found steady work, if not major stardom, doing supporting roles in a number of films, most recently in Shadow of Fear, Larva (currently seen on the Sci-Fi Channel) and the 2004 holiday comedy Surviving Christmas.
In End Game, he plays a homeless man (named "Shakey") who witnesses the president's assassination and is soon embroiled in the conspiracy -- with serious consequences.
"Shakey has had a difficult past," he laughs. "But he has more of an old hippie flavor about him."
The filmmakers are also utilizing a number of local extras for everything from shocked bystanders and formally attired party guests to stand-ins for the lead actors. The well-known local actor Patrick Treadway, who has worked with North by Northwest before, plays the assassin.
When the call for extras went out a couple of months ago, Lonny Waddle (a local filmmaker) was also there to sign up. He got a call back and ended up with some time in front of the camera in place of Burt Reynolds.
"I was Burt's photo double for one scene, wearing his general uniform," he says. "Turns out we wear the same size clothes, although I'm a couple of inches taller."
Waddle says that later on in the day he also did a stand-in for Woods and for Gooding's Secret Service partner.
"It was a pretty cool experience, but a long day," he says. "Hopefully I'll be able to get into a scene as myself before they finish."
It's another perfectly beautiful, cloudless March afternoon in Spokane as the film's production crew sets up along Post Street just south of Riverside to shoot a scene involving three speeding vehicles that will eventually collide in the intersection. The scene will also involve the End Game leads, Gooding and Harmon, along with a host of extras. This is a reshoot. The first time they attempted the scene, a wheel unexpectedly flew off the black SUV during the collision, bringing the chase scene to a premature -- and rather abrupt -- end. Photographer Amy Sinisterra and I have been invited by Ian Kennedy to observe, although it's pretty clear that our main job will be to stay the hell out of the way.
Spokane's finest have two blocks in all directions, leading from the intersection of Riverside and Post, barricaded with their police cruisers. On every side -- and on the building tops above the street -- curious onlookers take in the spectacle. The sound technician settles in. Camera operators test their equipment. One is positioned on the corner, one is stationed on Post, one is loaded up with a Steadicam, and one is on a crane over the intersection. Extra care is being taken to get this right. Everyone involved knows it's a one-shot deal.
"Well, it's actually a two-shot deal," notes Kennedy, acknowledging the expensive, scrubbed first attempt.
Meanwhile, Gooding and Harmon are having their makeup retouched (Gooding has stage blood applied to his bandaged left hand). They're also getting some last-minute direction from Cheng, who is always easy to spot, pacing up and down the street in his bright yellow Shanghai Nights jacket.
Then it's time for the actors to hit their marks. Harmon takes her place on the corner. Gooding is standing in the middle of Post Street, warming up with a little shadow boxing. Gawkers are waved away from the windows above, lest they appear in the final shot, and an old man who has somehow wandered into the scene is escorted off the set. Finally, from behind the video monitor, Cheng turns with a smile on his face and shouts to a member of the crew, "Don't f*** this up. I'll kill you."
After several trial runs, with the vehicles accelerating to the impact point only to swerve away or brake at the last moment, a safety meeting is called by the line producer and the stunt coordinator. This involves just about everyone on the shoot: stunt drivers, camera operators, sound technicians, makeup, actors (Gooding and Harmon included), producers and paramedics.
After the meeting, everyone with the exception of essential crew are moved back well behind barricades, while everyone involved hunkers down for the real thing. Fire extinguishers are at the ready. Then it happens. Most of the non-essential personnel (that's us) don't even hear the word, "action." But the crew does, and within an instant, vehicles howl and screech; steel collapses and glass goes flying. It all happens too fast for my camera finger to catch, but as the scene ends and the director yells "cut," it's obvious by the reaction of the cast and crew that everything went according to plan. This time, they got it.
And as smoke and dust rise from the lump of twisted metal that only seconds earlier was a functioning mini-van, the actors and crew move off a short distance to share a moment of congratulations. All those hours of preparation have produced several very exciting seconds of film. These people deserve a hand. And they get one, as the streets of downtown Spokane erupt in applause.
Filmmaking is a fusion of art and technical skill. With an excellent production crew like this one at the ready, variables are minimized so that the actors can act and the director can seamlessly translate his vision to film. Still, there are always surprises. For filmmakers, that's part of the magic.
"Every day, it's something new," agrees Chang. "That's the best part -- the unpredictability. If you always know what's going to happen, that's no fun."