New Minas scene on screen, cash in local tills

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BY JENNIFER HOEGG

Kings County Advertiser

Car dealers took a beating in the economic turmoil of 2009, but one refurbished dealership was a good news story for the Valley this fall - as a TV set, not a retail outlet.

What used to be Kia Land on the New Minas strip now hosts Fitzpatrick Motors, with a retro-style sign and a lot filled with cars of all makes.

In October, the lot became home to the new Canadian television production Call Me Fitz: a 13-episode dark comedy for The Movie Network and Movie Central.

Inside, the showroom floor and mechanic bays smell authentic, thanks to their previous tenants, but are now dressed in a swank retro-style, well-suited to a television production with a Sinatra soundtrack.

Next door, extras sit in the former Wacky Wheatley’s store, killing time; two people decorate the adjacent Celtic-style Duncan Underwood Inn bar set with piñatas; bristol board signs point upstairs to hair and makeup.

Starring Canadian actor Jason Priestley as “morally bankrupt” dealer Richard “Fitz” Fitzpatrick and King of the Hill’s Ernie Grunwald as do-gooder Larry, the half-hour cable show is a co-production of Chester’s Big Motion Pictures, Amaze Film + Television and E1 Entertainment. Sheri Elwood is the series’ writer, creator and executive producer; along with executive producers Teza Lawrence and Michael Souther.

Continuing through mid-January, the production films in the New Minas set, as well as on location in the village and the Wolfville to Kentville area. Some editing is being done on site, but post-production will move to Toronto after shooting wraps this month.

Nova Scotia advantage “We’re sticking pretty local,” publicist Anne-Marie LaPointe says.

Economics brought the production to Nova Scotia, producer Souther says, thanks to the province’s “very generous tax credits.” Luck brought Call Me Fitz to New Minas, when the former Kia location was identified as the only vacant dealership in the province. “We found in New Minas the look we were going for,” he adds. “The strip of suburban feeling stores, malls, etc. and we found an empty dealership coincidentally right next door to a building we turned into a film studio.”

The set is working so well, some locals have wandered into the realistic DUI bar looking for refreshments, Souther says. Although drinks aren’t on offer, jobs have been.

Approximately 100 people may be working on the set each day, he says. “It fluctuates a bit, depending on how many actors and crew on any given day. “Our crew is predominantly Nova Scotian and our cast is almost all Canadian, with a mix from Vancouver, Los Angeles, Toronto and Nova Scotia.”

More than 1,000 people responded to a casting call in October, and the production employs 15 to 20 background actors a day over 52 days of shooting.

On set

Behind the bar and dealership façade, dozens of headset-wearing crew members swarm a warren of walls in a soundstage packed with a hospital, jail and house interior set. A few people stare at video monitors, another listens intently to audio recording and an extra wanders by in a bathrobe.

Priestley and Kathleen Munroe are doing their thing for the cameras, rehearsing and then filming a two-minute scene - dozens of times. As Fitz, Priestley strides out of the hospital room of a customer he put in a coma through the course of a test drive. He’s a stylishly dressed jerk, whose swagger and language puts the former Beverley Hills 90210 star “as far from Brandon on 90210 as he has ever done,” Souther says.

LaPointe says the show has an “intimate feel” and, because it’s a cable series, can be “a little more risqué - it pushes the envelope.”

Local audiences can see the final product on TMN during the fall 2010 season.

Local spin-off

If the cable networks feel the show is a winner, Souther says a return visit to the Valley is possible. “We’re hoping the series will have a lot of legs to run for a number of years. We’ve established a location and have a great facility and would love to come back.”

This year’s production will leave $5.5 million in Nova Scotia, with more than $2 million in the Valley.

Locally, the crew and actors are “dining out, buying stuff, we’re renting apartments... the economic impact is pretty significant.”

Government funding is important to the growing Canadian film and television industry, he told the Eastern Kings Chamber of Commerce Dec. 9.

Canada is the “second largest exporter of television after the U.S.”, Souther said, and the industry is important, economically and culturally.

Film is relatively new business investment for the Maritimes, but the “economic benefits to the communities where we shoot are huge. “We’re telling Canadian stories to ourselves and the world.”

Organizations: Duncan Underwood Inn, Big Motion Pictures, Amaze Film + Television, Eastern Kings Chamber of Commerce

Geographic location: New Minas, Nova Scotia, Toronto Kentville Vancouver Los Angeles Brandon Canada U.S.

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