All The Campus's A Stage: Hollywood's Love Affair With LSU

There is a huge puddle of vomit on the Swine Palace floor, and nobody is cleaning it up.

One obstacle filmmakers have to overcome is not interfering with daily life at LSU while they work.
Photo by Sian McArthur

A large crowd of people are milling about, all treating it as if it isn’t there. Occasionally someone will wander near it and delicately step over it, taking care not to put a foot in it. A group of girls are sitting in a circle nearby, not even acknowledging its existence.

Suddenly, the room goes quiet.

“Roll tape… and action.”

The conversation that ensues between the girls is fake. The mess on the floor, just five yards away, is most definitely fake.

Welcome to Hollywood… on campus.

Baton Rouge may be more than 1,500 miles from Los Angeles, but La. is looking more and more like L.A. these days.

Far from being a room on a sound stage, Swine Palace is a very real building, located on Tower Drive on the LSU campus—a campus that, since 2005, has been used as a filming location for five feature films.

Bo and Luke Duke, played by Seann William Scott and Johnny Knoxville respectively, visited the Howe-Russell Geoscience Complex during “The Dukes of Hazzard.” As Katherine Winter, Hilary Swank’s office was in Middleton Library and she lectured in the Bo Campbell Auditorium in “The Reaping.” Terrence Howard, playing real-life swim coach Jim Ellis, coached a swim team in the LSU Natatorium in “Pride.” Basketball coaches Don Haskins, played by Josh Lucas, and Adolph Rupp, played by Jon Voight, went head-to-head for the NCAA Championship in Parker Coliseum in “Glory Road.”

"Pitch Perfect" is the fifth movie to be filmed at LSU since 2005.
Photo by Sian McArthur

And during the fall of 2011 Anna Kendrick (“Up in the Air,” “50/50,” “Twilight”), Brittany Snow (“Hairspray”), Anna Camp (“True Blood,” “The Help”), and Rebel Wilson (“Bridesmaids”) followed in the footsteps of Scott, Knoxville, Swank, Howard, Lucas, and Voight, and used the LSU campus as the backdrop for another feature film, “Pitch Perfect.”

LSU first starred on the silver screen in 1988 in “Everybody’s All-American,” when Dennis Quaid’s Gavin Grey played football for LSU in Tiger Stadium. The film industry in Louisiana was almost non-existent then, but it has advanced in leaps and bounds since the state’s motion picture tax credit was enacted in 2002, making the LSU campus a star in its own right.

With “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “The Reaping,” “Pride,” “Glory Road,” and now “Pitch Perfect” all being filmed at LSU, the stately oaks and broad magnolias sung about in the alma mater are on their way to becoming as well known to movie fans as the streets of New York and Los Angeles. With a combined $236,037,245 in box office earnings to date, the films shot at LSU have returned handsome dividends, making the arrangement as good for them as it is for Louisiana.

With so many movies and TV shows being filmed at LSU, the university now has someone whose job description includes, among other things, acting as a liaison between LSU and film companies. Ashley Territo, assistant to the vice chancellor of finance and administrative services, is LSU’s point of contact for people looking to film on campus, streamlining a process that doesn’t make money for LSU, but helps Louisiana, and the university, immeasurably.

“We are being a good steward for the city and the state,” said Territo. “We recover our costs. This is not a moneymaker; there are rental fees but we charge those of any external group coming onto our campus. We’re here to assist the state in bringing great films to Louisiana.

Many locations on campus were used during filming, including the Exxon Quadrangle.
Photo by Sian McArthur

“They’re hiring local crews, so our very own students and staff are able to work on a lot of these productions and get experience. More and more are coming to Louisiana and Baton Rouge to film. We are becoming a great location, everyone we’ve worked with feels very comfortable because of the process we have in place. They've enjoyed it. You have producers and executive producers who say they want to come back and film at LSU because it was a wonderful experience. People have enjoyed their first time down here and have brought their future productions down here.”

Indeed, the positive experiences enjoyed by two members of the “Pitch Perfect” production crew—producer Paul Brooks and executive producer Scott Niemeyer—while filming “The Haunting in Georgia” in Baton Rouge in 2011 brought them back later in the year for “Pitch Perfect.”

“They knew that they could count on the community and the crew here,” said Dawson Warner, “Pitch Perfect” location manager and 2004 LSU graduate. “That’s very important: Can the people in this town, given that they’re fairly new to film, get the job done?”

The Motion Picture tax credit—a 30 percent incentive on in-state expenditures that returns $5.71 to the Louisiana economy for every $1 in tax credits issued—may have brought film crews initially, but the ability of the local workforce to get the job done keeps bringing them back.

Companies filming in Louisiana like Warner Bros. (“The Dukes of Hazzard,” “The Reaping”), HBO (“True Blood,” “Treme”), Sony (“Battle: Los Angeles”), and NBC Universal (“Battleship”) are now spending 80 percent of their film budgets in state. In 2010, in-state spending by film companies reached $800 million and only New York and California wrapped more projects. Eight thousand people were employed in Louisiana’s entertainment industry in 2010, and an estimated $1.1 billion was pumped into the state’s economy as a result of the films being shot in the Pelican State.

Setting a fictitious green and yellow college on a very purple and gold campus meant director Jason Moore had to closely monitor the background of each shot.
Photo by Sian McArthur

But while the tax credit system and the talented local workforce are enticing to filmmakers, it doesn’t mean a thing if the right location can’t be found. Fortunately for LSU, a campus modeled after Stanford University and named one of the 20 most beautiful in America in “The Campus as a Work of Art,” filmmakers find its ubiquitous beauty appealing.

“It represents ‘Anywhere, USA,’” said Elizabeth Banks (“The Next Three Days,” “Man on a Ledge,” “Hunger Games”), who is producing “Pitch Perfect” alongside Brooks, Niemeyer, and husband Max Handleman after establishing herself among Hollywood’s elite on-screen performers. “That was very appealing to us. A lot of schools in the South are very Southern-looking, and we really didn't want the movie to be so specific.”

“[The tax credit system] brings people here from all over the country, but you still have to find locations that work,” said Handleman. “It was very important to us to be able to film on a campus that had the size and scope to be a national university.”

A number of universities in Louisiana were considered as filming locations for “Pitch Perfect,” but in the end only one offered the production team everything they were looking for.

“We looked at locations in New Orleans and Baton Rouge and felt like LSU provided the best scope,” said Handleman. “They were amenable and flexible and very supportive of the film. It’s a beautiful campus, it really is.”

And much of the campus may appear on the silver screen when “Pitch Perfect” is released in theaters, too, as filming locations included the Quad, Swine Palace, the Greek Theatre and the Pentagon.

Many LSU students got their first taste of Hollywood life when they were cast as extras in the film.
Photo by Sian McArthur

“We needed a lot of specific performance venues, and LSU has a ton of great performance venues,” said Banks. “LSU is clearly very supportive of its arts program. It’s also a big enough school that even though we took over a decent part of campus, we never felt like we were really in the way.”

Indeed, not interfering with daily life at LSU was important to the “Pitch Perfect” crew, all of whom were keenly aware that their movie set was home to close to 29,000 students.

“The LSU campus has been fantastic, very hospitable and welcoming to our production,” said Niemeyer. “LSU opened its arms and made this a very pleasant experience. We’re trying to not disrupt the scholastic life on campus. I’m hoping we’re successful at that.”

One of the parts of campus the cast and crew took over during filming, much to everyone’s surprise, was the empty swimming pool in the Huey P. Long Field House.

“There are very specific locations that are unique to this school that we love, and frankly found difficult finding anywhere else,” said Handleman. “We needed a scene in an empty pool, and LSU had one. When we walked in everyone’s eyes lit up—you couldn’t create that kind of production value.”

“All of the locations were great, but the pool was truly an incredible find for us,” echoed Banks.

Filming began in October and continued until December, meaning the film was being shot during the heart of LSU’s SEC Championship football season. Filming on a campus that sees 90,000 visitors each weekend presents an obvious logistical problem, but the school spirit displayed by LSU students created another, much less obvious, issue.

“The biggest thing with LSU is you guys have such an amazing athletic program that everyone is wearing your school colors,” said Banks. “It took a lot of negotiating around the purple and gold. The school pride is amazing and great to see and great to be a part of here. It was amazing with the football season you were having, but it was a challenge to not get so much purple and gold.”

While the producers dealt with the logistical problems created by filming on a college campus during football season, the cast members made the most of their spare time in Baton Rouge.

“We went tailgating, and that was like nothing I’d ever experienced,” said Kendrick, who grew up watching New England Patriots games on TV but had never attended a football game in person. “LSU does it really big.

“The tailgating was great. We got there and some of us had never been to a live football game before. I’d only watched it on TV. People said, ‘You’ve never seen a live football game before? Have our tickets!’ and we got amazing tickets to see the LSU game.”

“I’m definitely a Tiger fan now,” said Skylar Astin (“Hamlet 2,” “Taking Woodstock”), who made a name for himself in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Spring Awakening” and plays Kendrick’s love interest in “Pitch Perfect.” “It’s impossible not to root for them when you’re down here, they make it too easy to love them.”

During breaks in filming—when they weren’t cheering for LSU in Tiger Stadium—the cast and crew were also able to see the local wildlife on swamp tours, and enjoy Louisiana’s famed cuisine.

“I’ve heard rumors about some actors having to get some larger clothes—I hope I’m not one of them and they’re not telling me,” laughed Astin. “We’ve definitely had a great time down here.”

And as much as the cast and crew enjoyed their time at LSU, they definitely felt the love reciprocated.

“LSU’s been completely accommodating, it’s been a lovely experience all the way around,” said Banks.

“It was really fun,” added Kendrick. “Everyone was respectful and really great.”

The film wrapped in December, and the camera equipment has long since been put away. The cast and crew have moved on to other projects, and the students who either had cameo or background roles, or stood out of frame on their way to and from class, snapping photos of the film’s stars, have moved on also—midterm exams are just around the corner, after all.

But LSU’s magnolias are beginning to bloom, the towering oak trees are as majestic as ever, and the Italian Renaissance-style buildings are soaking up the spring sun.

Mr. DeMille, they’re ready for their next close-up.