News Column

Studio tour guides offer up glimpse of film production world

July 27, 2014

By Hunter Ingram, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.

July 27--When the crews and the stars are away, the EUE/Screen Gems Studios tour guides are, in many ways, the keepers of the kingdom.

Film aficionados well in tune with the local industry, the youthful group of guides act as conduits for movie and TV fans who arrive from near and far looking to get a peek behind the proverbial curtain.

But just because the guides know their way around the studio lot and can recite its storied history doesn't mean they don't find themselves a little starstruck now and then.

Just the other Saturday, Jill Kaszubski, one of the studio's 12 tour guides, was leading a group through the lot's labyrinth of 10 sound stages when they approached Stage 8, where CBS' "Under the Dome" houses several sets. In the middle of her spiel about the stage's contents, Dean Norris, who plays Big Jim Rennie on the summer series, emerged from a nearby building, taking a break from an uncharacteristic Saturday shoot. The actor didn't stop to speak, but he did wave to the crowd, inciting an uproar of joy from the group, including the guides themselves.

"Even for us tour guides, seeing stars like that is just as exciting," Kaszubski said.

Working alongside the lot's famous faces and crew members is just one of the duties the tour guides execute on a weekly basis.

Each Saturday and Sunday, the program, which was resurrected after a three-year absence in April, conducts three tours for up to 100 people. The tour traditionally begins in the screening room, where three to four guides introduce a sizzle reel of famous North Carolina productions, before moving the action to the lot. Through the hour-long tour, the guides take turns setting the scene for the group, telling stories of all the productions that have spent time on the lot and pointing out little things that make the facility unlike anything else in the country.

For many of them, the responsibility of being the groups' entrance into the world of the studio begins and ends with how they can educate each group that steps up to take the tour.

"I think it is fun to teach people things. Even the little things that we know," said Ryan McCluney, an aspiring filmmaker who previously led tours before they were disbanded in 2011. "They leave with these little fun facts they can share with others."

Michaela Hughes, who now works as a fill-in guide after landing the locations coordinator position for ABC's locally filmed "Secrets and Lies," added that speaking with the groups also can be about managing expectations.

"I think we hope to de-mystify (film production) a little bit. It can sometimes be a little disappointing to just see on the other side of the curtain," Hughes said. "Some could see nothing behind the curtain or they can see hundreds of crew members working. It is all about how they view it."

The majority of the guides were plucked straight from film studies and communication programs at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Cape Fear Community College.

Building on what they learned -- and in some cases, continue to learn -- in those programs, the guides beef up their knowledge of the many mechanisms at work at the studio, its many productions and its role on the local industry.

"I was surprised about how much came back to me from my studies, like different equipment and different titles and specific jobs," said Trey Mosteller, who graduated from UNCW in May.

May Rogers is just happy that she had her film classes as a basis for her film knowledge.

"I'm so thankful I was a film student because I, at least, had some background of film," Rogers said. "Every day you are learning something new, but by having that little bit of film background, by hearing it in class or other ways, it helps prepare you."

But as she and her fellow guides will admit, no two tours are alike, even if they all work from the same script.

"There is a lot that we pick up every week, like stuff that I remembered when I worked the 'One Tree Hill' tours," McCluney said. "Also from stories we hear from security guards or people working in lighting or even from different customers on the lot. Sometimes they know more than we do and they share that with us so that we are able to then share it with the tours."

The guides also learn from each other. Bruno Rose, a rising senior at UNCW and intern at the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, recalls working a tour with fellow guide Zach Davenport and being impressed with the way he described the difference between a gaffer and a grip. Rose has since adopted the phrasing into his own tours.

"Now, I would explain the gaffer as the head electrician in charge of the lighting equipment and the lighting in a scene," Rose said. "And the grips as the people who assist either the lighting or camera department by setting up and rigging equipment to manipulate the lighting or camera movement."

Guides also have to be prepared for the questions that arise from the tours themselves, which vary from where the stars live and hang out, to the ways in which certain aspects of the studios operate.

"When you're on set, you never know what is going to come up or what someone is going to ask you and if you are going to know the answer," Rogers said. "You just hope that you have the background to come up with something close to the answer."

The ever-present issue of the state's film incentive program, currently up for renewal in the General Assembly, is something that has kept the group on its toes. Recognizing a trend of questions on most of the tours, many of the guides have made a brief overview of the incentive part of their routine.

"We kind of have made it a part of the spiel we do when we are in the screening room," McCluney said. "We talk about the incentive to give people an idea of the current issue and educate them because I'm sure they have seen the bumper stickers and heard about it in passing."

Rogers said she is sometimes nervous that she will relay incorrect information about the issue because the specifics are constantly changing. But that doesn't stop her from answering as many questions as she can.

"We try to stick to the basics, but we do have people come up to us afterwards and ask who they can contact and how they can get involved," Rogers said.

It's that flexibility and approachable nature that makes the current crop of guides the "best the studio has ever had," according to executive vice president Bill Vassar.

And for the aspiring group of filmmakers, film crew and film enthusiasts, being a tour guide is a step in the right direction to having a permanent place in the industry.

"It is a great opportunity to get an inside look at the studio and the industry," Kaszubski said. "I'm thrilled to be part of the Screen Gems family."

Hunter Ingram: 910-343-2327

On Twitter: @WilmonFilm

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(c)2014 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)

Visit the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.) at www.starnewsonline.com

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Source: Star-News (Wilmington, NC)


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