MERRIMAC — It's not every day that a major Hollywood production is filmed on the North Shore.
But with Matthew McConaughey, Michael Douglas and Mel Gibson in our midst this summer, it becomes clear those days are becoming more common.
As "Edge of Darkness," starring Mel Gibson continues shooting this week in Merrimac on River Road, the possibility of more star sightings and movie crews in local communities continues to build.
But how does a Mel Gibson decide that the Rocks Village bridge in Merrimac would be the perfect setting for his film?
It starts with a call to the Mass. Film Office.
With much of the film being shot in Northampton, the company was looking for a site that resembles the Connecticut River — which the Merrimack does.
Nick Paleologos, the executive director of the Mass. Film Office, said he's proud that Hollywood isn't just coming to the state and just staying in Boston.
"It isn't just Boston, it's everywhere, and that's the most gratifying part of this," he said, adding that the "Edge of Darkness" has also filmed in Deerfield, Taunton and Beverly, among other places. "It's everywhere, and the more, the merrier."
Seventeen major productions have shot in Massachusetts in less than three years. Several more are in production. North Shore locations have included Ipswich, North Andover, Rockport, Gloucester, Marblehead and Plum Island. "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" was filmed at the Crane Estate in Ipswich earlier this summer, starring McConaughey and Douglas. An independent film dubbed "The Jones" filmed around Newburyport.
Paleologos said his office works with producers in finding appropriate scenes and film-friendly places throughout the state.
Once a script is determined to be right for filming in Massachusetts, his office will break the script down into locations — whether it's a seacoast town, an urban city or a suburb — and choose places in that region where shooting could occur. They then send photographs of different sites to the producers.
"Where they select is wholly their decision," Paleologos said. "It's all up to the eye of the director. They've got a certain thing in mind."
To determine shooting locations, the office works with the movie's location scout.
"Eventually, they'll settle on a handful of locations, then the director will come out and spend a day or two in the state, going to those places," he said. "If they like what they see in person, that's when they make their final decision."
The competition can be tough, Paleologos said, adding that if a seacoast town is what the producers are looking for, they could be looking at 3 or 4 different states.
One big part of what is making the state more attractive to Hollywood these days, however, is its new tax credit program. Studios, major producers and filmmakers, who shoot at least half of their movie or spend at least half of their production budget in the state, are eligible for a tax credit equal to 25 percent of their total spending in Massachusetts, inclusive of any salaries over $1 million.
But they can't just pick and choose their spot. To shut down roads and impact the local environment, town officials are involved too.
Since the filming in Merrimac is being done on a river and will involve a scene where a car drives off the road and into the Merrimack River, the town's conservation office had to agree to it.
Robert Prokop, chairman of the Merrimac Conservation Commission, said the town's conservation agent was first contacted over the summer. The town has since been in discussions with the location manager, the director and the stunt coordinator, even meeting them at the scene to go over the area beforehand. They can't just tear up the local landscape.
"We set them specifications of what they could and couldn't do," Prokop said. The crew can't cut down any trees or shrubs, for instance. The car that enters the river won't have any fluids — or even an engine — inside. The car can't be pulled out along the bank and must be taken out via a crane or from a boat ramp.
"We felt that no damage was going to occur," Prokop said.
It's important for a location to be "film-friendly," Paleologos said, and that there aren't a lot of obstacles to the shooting. Once in a city or a town, the company does spend money, he said, adding that they buy supplies, visit the merchants and use the hotels.
Often, if they want to use a particular place — like a ball field— they might fix it up or make any necessary improvements, something that is welcomed by communities during tough fiscal times.
"A lot of that is going on," Paleologos said.