Feel the ‘Tropic Thunder’

Kaua‘i is again ready for its close-up.

DreamWorks Pictures and Red Hour Films will bring production of the big-budget comedy “Tropic Thunder” to the Garden Isle this summer. The film, starring Hollywood heavyweights Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise will be the first major studio production shot on Kaua‘i in more than five years.

Principal photography is scheduled to begin in July, but production executives have been on the island since December. According to Kaua‘i Film Commissioner Art Umezu, filming will take place at several locations around the island, with a primary set “in the central southern area” of the island.

“What’s astounding is that all the filming will be done on Kaua‘i, with the exception of a few post and L.A. studio shots,” said Umezu. “That’s quite amazing in this day and age of digitized film technology.”

With a reported budget of more than $100 million, the film is poised to be one of the biggest productions ever brought to Kaua‘i, an island that has hosted such blockbusters as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the “Jurassic Park” series, also from DreamWorks.

“To put it simply, ‘Tropical Thunder’ is an enormous coup for Kaua‘i,” said Tim Ryan, a veteran Hawai‘i entertainment journalist and the executive editor of Hawaii Film & Video Magazine. “This will be the largest Neighbor Island filming perhaps ever.”

While the duration of previous Hollywood productions on Kaua‘i have been measured in days or weeks, “Thunder” is scheduled to make the island its home for as many as four months.

“With pre-production, set constructions and some post-production clean-ups added to the actual filming, the crew will be on Kaua‘i for more than 10 months,” said Umezu.

Angela Tillson, owner of A Whale of a Time Productions, has been assisting with logistics, scouting and local casting for the past four months.

“This is one of the longest shooting gigs I can recall,” said Tillson. “Its great to work with Ben (Stiller) and get the chance to show off our awesome island. We’re definitely excited.”

Marvin Levy, a marketing executive with DreamWorks, said the positive experiences the studio had filming the “Jurassic Park” trilogy on Kaua‘i was a contributing factor in deciding to shoot “Thunder” here.

“We’ve had so many excellent experiences in the islands,” said Levy. “We all try to take a little touch of Hawai‘i with us when we come home.”

Described as “a movie within a movie,” the film’s plot follows a group of actors who go on location to shoot “the greatest Vietnam war movie ever to be made,” when a series of freak events force the talent to become the soldiers they set out to portray.

Kaua‘i will again reprise its role as a verdant Vietnam, a part it has played in such films as “Flight of the Intruder,” “Uncommon Valor” and the 2003 independent film “Missing Brendan.”

Stiller, who owns a home on Kaua‘i and married actress Christine Taylor on the North Shore in 2000, is set to direct.

Other cast members include Justin Theroux (“Six Feet Under”), Jay Baruchel (“Million Dollar Baby”), hip-hop artist-turned-actor Mos Def and Bill Hader of “Saturday Night Live” fame.

A large number of Kaua‘i locals will end up on the silver screen as well. The studio will hold an open casting call for extras at ResortQuest Kauai Beach at Makaiwa this weekend. (See side bar.) Extras casting director DeeDee Rickets said she’ll be looking for upwards of 500 Kaua‘i residents to play Vietnamese villagers.

“I need to have as many people that fit the bill as possible,” said Ricketts, who has handled extras casting for other Hawai‘i film shoots including “The Big Bounce” and “Tears of the Sun.”

“We want to hire as many locals as we can,” he said.

The gang of “frat pack” funnymen aren’t the only Hollywood A-listers calling on Kaua‘i as of late. Oscar-winning director James Cameron made a quick, quiet visit to the island in February shooting three days of live action work for his upcoming sci-fi flick “Avatar” starring Sigourney Weaver.

The script for the big screen adaptation of local teen surfer Bethany Hamilton’s autobiography “Soul Surfer” has been given a green light, and producer Roy Hofstetter said filming could begin this summer, with as much as a third of the movie shot on Kaua‘i. The rest will likely be filmed on O‘ahu.

Other projects rumored to be considering time on Kaua‘i include the fourth installment of the “Indiana Jones” franchise (the studio has already scouted the island) and the forthcoming “Jurassic Park IV.”

Several industry insiders have suggested that “Thunder” could be the catalyst that brings major Hollywood productions back to Kaua‘i.

“I think ‘Tropic Thunder’ will give Kaua‘i much needed and long idled publicity in the production arena,” said Ryan. “It will draw a lot of attention because Stiller is hot and it’s (a) DreamWorks (project). It should put Kaua‘i back on the production consideration radar.”

Umezu agrees.

“It’ll be a shot in the arm for Hawai‘i’s film industry. Good news travels fast in Hollywood circles. It’s possible ‘Thunder’ may help bring ‘big’ productions back to Hawai‘i, and hopefully to Kaua‘i, again.”

Hollywood’s love affair with Kaua‘i goes back almost 75 years. In 1933, one of Hollywood’s first female directors, Lois Weber, filmed “Cane Fire,” later titled “White Heat,” in Waimea.

Since then, more than 55 feature films have been produced on Kaua‘i, including such iconic movies as “South Pacific,” “Blue Hawaii,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and all three Jurassic Park installments.

The island’s cinematic accomplishments have even spawned a popular book, “The Kaua‘i Movie Book,” and a tour company that visits former sets.

But after a flurry of activity on the island in 1990s — “Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Outbreak,” “6 Days/7 Nights,” “Jurassic Park” — major film production waned.

The last major motion picture filmed on Kaua‘i was 2002’s “Dragonfly” starring Kevin Costner.

Umezu is quick to point out that the island has continued to host a steady stream of smaller projects, including television shows, commercials, videos, documentaries and still photo projects in recent years, but admits few projects generate attention and revenue like a major motion picture.

Hollywood’s renewed interest in Hawai‘i may have less to do with the island’s breathtaking backdrops than its new-found financial friendliness.

Locales within the United States and abroad have recently been wooing filmmakers with lucrative tax breaks and rebate programs.

In an effort to stay competitive, Gov. Linda Lingle signed Act 88 in June, which grants a 20-percent tax break to movies shot on the Neighbor Islands and a 15-percent tax break to O‘ahu productions whose film-related expenditures total more than $200,000.

While still more modest than what some locales offer, the package is vastly more appealing than the minimal hotel tax rebate and production cost kickback offered prior.

“This definitely gives us an edge,” said Tillson, who has been a part of Kaua‘i’s film industry for 18 years. “We have huge competition throughout the world. This puts us on the same page so we can play with the big boys.”

Kaua‘i was originally scouted for “Thunder” in 2004, a film Stiller has wanted to make since going on location for Steven Spielberg’s 1987 release “Empire of the Sun.” Last year, the studio was reported to have been leaning toward filming in Mexico when it returned to scout Kaua‘i again in December, less than six months after Act 88 became law.

“I think Ben Stiller considered Kaua‘i as location from the outset, but Act 88 wasn’t in place then,” said Umezu. “I truly believe that a 20 percent film incentive for Hawai‘i’s Neighbor Islands was one of the main reasons he returned to scout, and eventually film, on Kaua‘i.”

In addition to the money the project will directly pump into the local economy, Sue Kanoho, Executive Director of the Kaua‘i Visitors Bureau, said the buzz generated by the movie will likely have a positive impact on the island’s tourism industry as well.

“We are very much aware of what a movie can do for a destination,” said Kanoho. “Ask New Zealand what ‘Lord of the Rings’ did for them.”

After Stiller’s most recent release “Night At The Museum” hit theaters in December, museums across the nation reported significant spikes in attendance.

Umezu said while Act 88 has been important in renewing interest in the island, he believes that Kaua‘i possesses an inherent “je ne sais quoi” that will continue to lure cinema visionaries.

And even if “Thunder” doesn’t kick-start a film renaissance on Kaua‘i, it will undoubtedly become another feather in the island’s royal cap.

“Steven Spielberg and other top filmmakers who have worked here already know Kaua‘i’s beautiful and unique locations, and its special people,” said Umezu. “When a script that fits our island comes around, they’ll be back.”

“Tropic Thunder” is tentatively set for release July 11, 2008.

CASTING CALL: Tropic Thunder

What: Casting for DreamWorks’ film “Tropic Thunder,” shooting on Kaua‘i in July and August.

Who: Seeking men, women and children ages eight through 80 to portray thin Vietnamese villagers.

Where: ResortQuest Kauai Beach at Makaiwa.

When: Saturday, May 5 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday, May 6 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (*Screen Actors Guild members only from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Sunday.)

No acting experience necessary. Character faces (missing teeth, etc.) are welcome. Dress should be in a plain, neutral-colored T-shirt or tank top. Cast positions will be paid. Interested talent unavailable to make the call can e-mail their name, phone number, age, availability, union status and a photo to thundercasting@gmail.com.

For more information call the casting hotline at (310)364-3661.

• Todd A. Vines is the associate editor of Essential Kaua‘i, Kauai Publishing Company’s visitor publication. He can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 256) or tvines@kauaipubco.com.

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