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Vancouver Island plays key role in making of Godzilla

Big movie and TV projects that film in our area are often referred to by code or initials before they get the official green light. It’s as though mentioning them by title could jinx the local prospects.
This train sequence from Godzilla, starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, was shot on the rail line near Nanaimo.

Big movie and TV projects that film in our area are often referred to by code or initials before they get the official green light. It’s as though mentioning them by title could jinx the local prospects.

Gracepoint was known in some circles as “the G word” before Fox confirmed its 10-episode U.S. remake of Broadchurch would shoot here.

Last year’s “G-word” was Godzilla, then code-named Nautilus, when sequences for the Warner Bros. blockbuster that stomps into multiplexes today were filmed on Vancouver Island.

And big was the operative word as director Gareth Edwards, just weeks after appearing at the Victoria Film Festival, returned to shoot “the benchmark of monster movies,” as he called it.

“Imagine for a moment the arrival of a great creature that mankind can’t even communicate with, much less control,” the British director said. “What would that be like to live through?”

READ THE REVIEW: Gareth Edwards' chilling 'Godzilla' reboot upholds franchise legacy

Hundreds of local background performers, craftspeople, suppliers, industry promoters and onlookers found out for themselves in March 2013 when Edwards, actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Savages) and a 300-person crew descended on Vancouver Island to shoot scenes for the mammoth creature feature that co-stars Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn.

While most of the week-long Island shoot focused on Nanaimo, doubling as San Francisco and other northern California locales, crews filled dozens of hotel rooms in Victoria while shooting in Shawnigan Lake and on the railway trestle near Goldstream Park.

“A big win-win for all of us,” is how locations manager Rino Pace described the experience. “Gareth was a fantastic person to work with. Any experience he lacked in the making of a big feature film was certainly offset with his vision and experience in visual effects, [which was] the key to making the movie.”

Indeed, it was Edwards’s reputation as a hot young visual effects whiz and “do-it-yourself” filmmaker after the success of Monsters that inspired organizers to invite him to the festival. His acclaimed 2010 feature debut was made for $15,000 with stunning digital effects created on his laptop.

“We were looking for a forested track with a tunnel and a trestle in close-range and we found it,” recalled Pace, adding it was the co-operation of Southern Rail in Nanaimo that sealed the deal.

“It was definitely the highlight of my career,” said Al Kutaj, the Southern Rail roadmaster who facilitated the complex railway filming.

Southern Rail’s No. 128 locomotive, which provides regular service between Parksville and Duncan, played a starring role in sequences filmed along south Nanaimo’s Old Victoria Road, with Seventh Street and Douglas Avenue doubling as a California train crossing.

Filming also took place near Ladysmith at a rail crossing at Oyster Sto’lo Road on land owned by the Stz’uminus First Nation.

The Nanaimo scenes featured dozens of extras portraying townsfolk or U.S. soldiers in scenes showcasing the chaos that ensues when a train carrying a giant missile chugs through northern California.

“We were able to give them an unlimited amount of track time,” said Kutaj, noting the sequences featured Southern Rail locomotives and other rail cars, which were barged in.

Island North Film commissioner Joan Miller confirmed it was the Island’s rail services that sold the filmmakers.

“Being able to film up and down the tracks from Nanaimo to the side of the Malahat with its tunnels and bridges, with [a digitized] Godzilla chasing the train was important to them,” she said, noting the commission looked at trains “from Victoria all the way to Woss Lake” before the filmmakers chose Nanaimo.

The production pumped a monstrous amount of money into the region during what Miller estimates was “a $275,000-a-day kind of production.”

Other locations included The Cambie pub in Nanaimo, masquerading as a makeshift military operations base.

Economic benefits included rehiring of laid-off railway employees during filming, said Kutaj, and employment for First Nations community members, some of whom went on to work on Spooksville.

Tanya Price, locations and special projects director for INFilm, was thrilled when Edwards gave the locations a thumbs up.

“He said, ‘They’re exactly what I pictured in my mind’s eye.’ ”

Staff and consumers at Clay Tree Society, the non-profit agency at 838 Old Victoria Rd. that supports individuals with developmental disabilities, also got a unique sneak preview.

“Production closed them down for a few days and they were so excited,” said Miller, noting shoots of such magnitude are more often centred in the wilderness rather than in a town setting, where first-aid, fire suppression services and security to control crowds and discourage pesky paparazzi are required.

Challenges included safety, which is always a concern with a moving train, and using specially rigged vehicles on tracks to shuttle crews from base camp to wilderness tunnels for night shoots.

Hub City Cinema Society is tentatively planning to continue the celebration of Godzilla’s impact on the community with a special screening Thursday night at Nanaimo’s Avalon Cinemas, said director Zachary Tannar.

Organizers hope Edwards might participate via Skype, with extras, crew members and Southern Rail representatives in attendance.