Thursday, June 4, 2009

"The Soloist"

The movie about Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downey Jr.) and homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) included a few flashbacks to Ayers's youth, parts of which were shot in Cleveland. After the jump, my story about attending the Cleveland production.

On a sunny, 70-some-degree Friday morning, there was snow on the ground near the intersection of Belvidere and 66th streets in Cleveland.

But the snow had a cottony feel and poured from a hose attached to a truck. A gas station nearby was nothing more than a battered facade, with tables and paint cans stashed out of sight behind it.

Movie magic was being made in Cleveland.

The Soloist, a film starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr., began about two days of shooting in the Cleveland neighborhood on Friday.

The result will be about 10 minutes in the finished movie. (A few interior scenes set in Cleveland were shot in a Los Angeles studio.) But those minutes have brought to Northeast Ohio an Academy Award-nominated director (Joe Wright of Atonement). Foxx, an Oscar winner for Ray, is to shoot a few scenes in Cleveland tonight.

And, while Cleveland is getting a fraction of the roughly $50 million budget for The Soloist, its presence led to the booking of some 850 hotel rooms, the hiring of 20 to 25 local extras and a few actors, work for close to 65 local craftsmen, and money spent on food and transportation.

Ivan Schwarz, executive director of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, sees it also as an opportunity to show what can be done in the area. Other movies might then spend even more time and money locally especially if the state of Ohio sees the benefit of tax incentives for filmmakers.

But, beyond the financial potential, the movie is important for spotlighting former Clevelander Nathaniel Anthony Ayers and his struggles.

Ayers came to national attention in 2005, when Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez began writing about how he had heard Ayers 54 years old then, schizophrenic and homeless making beautiful violin music on the streets of L.A.

Even with just two working strings on his violin, Ayers dazzled. In a series of columns, Lopez described him, their friendship and the life changes that still have Ayers in Los Angeles but under far better circumstances.

Lopez now has a book, The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, just arrived in stores. The movie, with Foxx as Ayers and Downey as Lopez, will premiere nationally in November.

''This is fantastic,'' Ayers' sister, Jennifer Ayers-Moore, said as she watched preparations for the movie's shooting Friday morning.

''Cleveland is our home town,'' added Ayers-Moore, a Kent State alum who now lives in Atlanta. ''It's great to see that Joe Wright, the director, saw the need to come back to Cleveland.''

''The rest of the movie is shot in Los Angeles,'' Wright said during a news conference Friday. ''And Los Angeles looks nothing like Cleveland. We've tried to make the film as authentic as possible in dealing with certain areas of Los Angeles, and it was important to be authentic in the flashbacks to Nathaniel's childhood.''

''We visually wanted to contrast the palm trees and blue sky of Los Angeles with a different environment in Cleveland,'' added Gary Foster, a producer of The Soloist, whose previous credits include Sleepless in Seattle, Tin Cup and Daredevil. And Cleveland, he said, is part of Ayers' roots.

''Not every studio would have allowed us to do this,'' he said. ''But (DreamWorks) understood the creative value of it. So there will be a visual backdrop to this film that will make it even fuller. . . . We had a certain budget to adhere to, but they never stopped us from coming here.''

The moviemakers began working with the film commission in August; physical preparations, such as creating new fronts for existing buildings, have been going on for weeks.

The area where the movie was filming is not exactly where the Ayers family grew up; the family lived on East 95th Street and other locations. And more than 40 years have passed since the flashbacks to Ayers' Cleveland childhood. (Foxx's scenes, said producer Foster, are places where the film goes into Ayers' ''emotional memory.'')

Wright said the original screenplay had included even more Cleveland material, including scenes during the Hough riots in 1966, but some of that had to be cut for financial reasons.

But Wright wanted the local feel.

Still, Ayers-Moore is excited about the film.

''The story that we're going to see is going to be a great human-interest story,'' she said. ''It's going to bring some light to mental illness, and that's what I want it to do. . . . I think it's going to open eyes.''

Ayers-Moore has set up the 2StringsConnection/Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Foundation to help gifted people with mental illness; she is hoping that premiere showings of The Soloist will be used as fundraisers for the foundation.

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