Q&A with William Garvey
2021 LMGI Award winner William Garvey (Judas and the Black Messiah) gives Stevie Nelson a tour of his Ohio hometown of Cleveland—home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a growing destination for film production.
Stevie: ARE YOU A CLEVELAND NATIVE? HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING IN LOCATIONS? HOW DID YOU START AND WHAT DO YOU PRIMARILY WORK ON?
William Garvey: I was born and raised in New York City. My wife Carol is a native Clevelander. When we married and moved here in 2008, it was a burgeoning “Film Town” and has been a wonderful place to raise a family. I’m not the only filmmaker who has made this move. COVID brought a wave of filmmakers choosing to return home to work and live here. Ohio has a 13-year track record of motion picture tax incentives bringing high-profile projects to the state like The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Fate of the Furious and White Noise. We were able to film the most ambitious and complicated action sequences on all those films here, sequences I would never dream of attempting in many of the other states in which I’ve worked.
A career in this industry was never part of my original plans. I have a BBA in marketing from the University of Notre Dame—the movie business wasn’t on my radar until my last years in school. My major also required electives in other subjects. I’d always been a film noir buff, so I decided to take a film class in the school’s tiny 12-person film department. My diversion into film classes in the forgotten attic of the College Science Building happened to coincide with a Tri-Star Pictures movie on campus. To great delight, my film professor orchestrated a lecture by the director of the movie, David Anspaugh, who had directed Hoosiers a few years before.
I experienced an epiphany. Here was a professional movie buff—a successful director, sitting right in front of me lecturing the merits of a career in the motion picture industry. I never looked back.
One month after graduation, I walked onto my first set. It was a low-budget film noir that never found distribution. But my first location PA job a few years later was the New York portion of the Dave Chappelle movie Half Baked. I’ve now been a location manager and scout for the past 26 years.
I have worked in features (the upcoming White Noise, Judas and the Black Messiah, Hillbilly Elegy, Fast & Furious 8: The Fate of the Furious, Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Avengers, Shutter Island, Spider-Man 2, National Treasure, The Manchurian Candidate and dozens of other feature films, as well as four seasons of The Sopranos and four seasons of Law & Order.
Last year, I assumed the role of president at the Greater Cleveland Film Commission. Our mission is economic development and job creation via the motion picture industry in Northeast Ohio. We educate through PA training workshops, high school lecture series, partnerships with collegiate film schools and internships to grow a local industry workforce. We advocate for a robust motion picture tax credit that drives business to the region. We cultivate relationships with studios and producers to attract projects to film in Northeast Ohio. We guide studios through the tax incentive application and permit application processes. And we function as a central marketplace through which producers source crew, vendors and filming locations.
Stevie: WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE PRIMARY DRAW FOR FILMING IN & AROUND CLEVELAND & ITS SURROUNDING AREAS IN GENERAL? WHAT KIND OF “LOOKS” ARE THERE? WHAT ARE YOUR PERSONAL FAVORITE LOCATIONS & WHY?
WG: Cleveland is a chameleon. It can be whatever location it needs to be. It suits different architectural styles and topographies—from 19th century to modern, from flat as Kansas to the foothills of the Appalachians. Cleveland has stood in for NYC and Germany (The Avengers, Spider-Man 3, The Fate of the Furious), a small Pennsylvania steel town (The Deer Hunter), Russia and Kazakhstan (Air Force One), and Lake Erie is a more controllable stand in for an ocean, with calmer tides.
NASA Plum Brook-Sandusky, Ohio (one hour west of Cleveland), is among the most unique locations I’ve ever scouted. NASA Plum Brook was built in 1961 as a nuclear “test” reactor (the eighth largest ever built). From 1963 to 1973, NASA Plum Brook played a leading role in experimentation in the pursuit of nuclear airplane and nuclear rocket technology. The Space Power Facility, the world’s largest rocket fuselage test chamber, was constructed large enough to accommodate the international space station. It has a 100-foot diameter and stands 122 feet high. It is in this chamber that we filmed the opening sequence to The Avengers.
The gritty Westinghouse Factory—this vast Cleveland factory hasn’t roared with machinery in decades but now plays a central role in movies. It was built as a generator plant to power the Cleveland Railway Company’s trolley system in 1890. It later served various incarnations as an aircraft, auto parts and Titan ICBM guided missile system factory. When business eroded in the 1970s, the factory endured wave after wave of layoffs before completely shutting down in 1979. It has stood silent ever since. Scarlett Johansson toys with her captors in a Russian warehouse scene in The Avengers.
The Zverina Building—when we were searching for an option to match the real Black Panthers Headquarters location in Judas and the Black Messiah, Sam Lisenco, our production designer, invested a great deal of time researching as many photos of the actual location as he could find. It was a difficult assignment to tackle, especially since this location demanded weeks of prep and filming that would incorporate the interior tied to the exterior, and the exterior had to be blocks of period-correct architecture to go along with it. After weeks of searching, we came across one of the last functioning single resident occupancy hotels in Cleveland, a building that was built in the 1860s complete with original wallpaper. And the street was stuck in the same moment in time. It was one of those rare moments where you know right away you’ve got the perfect location.
Stevie: WHAT CHALLENGES DO YOU FACE IN YOUR JOB?
WG: The biggest challenge in Ohio is convincing producers who have never filmed here, they can be successful in this state. It’s much easier for producers to go back to the places they’ve always worked, even despite architectural, logistical and cost advantages here.
Stevie: WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE OR MOST MEMORABLE FILMING EXPERIENCES?
WG: I explored dozens of abandoned insane asylums in Massachusetts for Shutter Island. I spelunked through miles of tunnels in an abandoned mine in Pennsylvania for The Avengers, and I stood on almost every clearable skyscraper rooftop in Manhattan for Spider-Man 2.
Stevie: DOES CLEVELAND OR OHIO OFFER ANY INCENTIVES TO HOLLYWOOD FILMMAKERS?
WG: The state of Ohio offers a 30% rebate, including above and below the line and all in state spending. The annual cap is $40 million. There is no restriction as to how much of the production must film in Ohio in order to qualify for the incentive except the minimum spend must be greater than $300,000.
Stevie: WHAT ARE YOUR TOOLS OF THE TRADE?
WG: I use a Canon 70D and a Sony A6000 mirrorless digital camera.
Stevie: WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT THE JOB?
WG: I’m a history buff, so turning over every rock to uncover the buried past of a city on a period piece is a thrill. I love examining the architecture and historical relationships between neighborhoods and buildings, and why a city developed the way it did. I love the sleuthing. I love driving down every dead end to see what’s there. I love the challenge of putting the puzzle together.
Stevie: WHAT ONE PIECE OF ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOUR YOUNGER SELF OR SOMEONE JUST STARTING OUT IN THIS PROFESSION?
WG: Take advice from those who have walked the path before you. There were good people looking out for me along the way and had wise insight to offer. I was smart enough to take their advice.
Stevie: WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO JOIN THE LMGI & HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A MEMBER?
WG: The Guild spotlights the important work and role location managers and scouts play in the creative process. The LMGI is a guild of incredibly talented and experienced managers and scouts with whom I love to collaborate with. I wanted to contribute to the conversation and build a stronger bond between so many professionals with whom I’ve worked for decades.
Bill’s Private Tour
The Union Trust Bank, the second-largest bank in the world, and the largest in North America. It spans one square block in the atrium and is three stories tall. It reminds us of the opulence and wealth that built Cleveland into the prominent industrial city it became. I filmed Captain America: Winter Soldier here.
Old School Architectural: a warehouse of reclaimed architectural relics and antiques. They go into buildings right before demolition to pull out any salvageable architecture. It’s as giant as the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it’s filled with history.
The Marble Room—Built in 1893, it’s a celebration of Cleveland’s past. In 2017, the opulent old National City Bank at 623 Euclid Avenue was restored and transformed into the one-of-a-kind Marble Room Steaks and Raw Bar. Great food, great ambiance!
PLACE TO SEE BY NIGHT:
Public Square (Cleveland’s central town square) at Christmas, with hundreds of trees lit up around the ice skating rink.
Best Day trip:
Malabar Farms—The former gentleman’s farm of Louis Bromfield, the screenwriter best friend of Humphrey Bogart. (Humphrey married Lauren Bacall at Malabar Farm and the famous picture of their wedding day was taken there.) Bromfield was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his heroism working as an ambulance driver for the US Army in France during World War 1. Bromfield also invented various techniques still used in organic farming. It is now a museum known as Malabar Farm State Park. Malabar Farms is also where The Shawshank Redemption tree scene was filmed. Sadly, the tree was struck by lightning a few years ago and is no longer there. Finish up the day by heading 15 minutes away to Mansfield Reformatory Museum, the prison at which The Shawshank Redemption and Judas and the Black Messiah were filmed.
Tremont is an arts and food neighborhood with picturesque restored Victorian homes that borders the Flats, one minute west of downtown Cleveland. Local landmarks include the striking Slavic-style church, St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral featured in the 1978 Oscar best picture winner The Deer Hunter, and the exterior of the Parkers’ house from the iconic 1983 holiday classic A Christmas Story. The house is now a popular museum dedicated to the film.
The Velvet Tango Room/Lounge, high-end craft cocktail and small-plate bar in Duck Island, one minute west of downtown Cleveland also featuring live jazz.
Best Place to Hear Music:
Vosh Lakewood—a jazz club in Lakewood —the historical “streetcar” suburb of Cleveland. Set in a former warehouse, it is embellished with rich oak and mirrors. From live jazz, Motown to blues, the acts are entertaining and includes the best in the industry. The bar has an impressive list of beers, and you can nosh on delicious small plates at this concert venue, nightclub and bar all under one roof.
Best Vantage Point/Scenic View:
Nautica, the west bank of the Flats, Cleveland, Ohio. You can take in the entire city skyline from the western bank of the Cuyahoga River from the boardwalk that runs next to the Nautica Powerhouse.