Billy Crystal is sitting on a rock in Moab, talking with a network television reporter. In response to her astonishment at this colorful desert region of southern Utah, Crystal sums it up succinctly:
"It changes color all day, when the sun moves around. It's wild. You know, it's sort of like Zsa Zsa's eyeliner. Is it blue? Is it pink? Is it green?"Crystal's observation occurred during the six-week Moab shoot of "City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold," just one of several films that came through the state in the past year.
Currently, the Mel Gibson hit "Maverick" is raking in huge box office bucks, having garnered $42 million in two weeks. "Lightning Jack," a comedy-Western with Paul Hogan (" `Crocodile' Dundee"), began its run in April and is still playing in a couple of local theaters. "City Slickers II" will open Friday, June 10.
Other films with scenes that were shot locally include "Forrest Gump," starring Tom Hanks, which will open July 6, and "Pontiac Moon," with Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, scheduled for release in October. ("Rockwell," which marks Karl Malone's film debut, will finally be available after a long wait on the shelf, when it goes straight to video on July 6.)
A pair of local films shot last year will also be released soon: Craig Clyde's "Walking Thunder," starring John Denver, from Majestic Entertainment, and "WindRunner," with Russell Means and Margot Kidder, from Leucadia Film Corp.
Beginning in the late 1930s, Utah gained a reputation as the place to shoot Westerns, thanks largely to John Ford's love of the Monument Valley area. But over the past couple of decades, Utah fell out of grace with Hollywood as Westerns fell out of grace with the general moviegoing public.
During the past decade, however, the state has gradually regained its status as a moviemaking mecca by demonstrating it can stand in for urban, suburban and rural locations, as well as the Old West. A variety of films - from "Fletch" to "Thelma & Louise" to "The Sandlot" to the TV miniseries "The Stand" - along with hard-working, efficient technical crews, and the fact that Utah is only 90 minutes from Los Angeles by plane, have helped cement that notion.
Now, with the resurgence of Westerns over the past few years, business is really booming again. And with "Maverick" an early summer hit and "City Slickers II" poised for success, it can only get better.
As Leigh von der Esch, head of the Utah Film Commission, points out, the more popular the films, the better it is for the state. And not just because it brings Utah to the attention of moviemakers, but also because it bolsters tourism. "People are always asking us where `Thelma & Louise' was shot," von der Esch says, "especially women who are traveling through the state."
For that reason, von der Esch was particularly gratified to see Utah receive an on-screen credit at the end of "Maverick." The first portion of that film, with scenes set in an old Western town by the side of a "river," was filmed on the Utah side of Lake Powell. But the press materials and video documentaries about the making of the movie refer to Lake Powell, Arizona!
"It's really interesting," von der Esch says, "that we get 90 percent of the credit when a film is shot in Monument Valley, though 90 percent of the area is probably in Arizona. And Arizona gets 90 percent of the credit when a movie is shot at Lake Powell, though most of it is really Utah."
During press interviews for "Maverick" in New York a few weeks ago, stars Mel Gibson and James Garner, as well as director Richard Donner, commented on shooting part of the film in Utah.
"It was nice and peaceful and relaxing," Gibson said, "and we'd hop in this boat and go across this lake and there was all this natural beauty."
Garner has made several films in Utah over the years and remembered Lake Powell. "We were working (on `Maverick') in the same area where I was when I did `Duel at Diablo' (in 1966). Gosh, the area's gorgeous - a wonderful place to shoot."
Donner said he initially wanted to shoot in the Four Corners area, but it wasn't available in the necessary time frame. His location scouts suggested going elsewhere, but Donner wanted to stay in the area. "I sent the location people down, and I said, `You're in God's country - find someplace else that's as beautiful.' " They couldn't.
As for the shoot itself, Donner said it was one of his most pleasant. "The speed boats were piled up and everybody rode the boats and water-skied back and forth to work every day. It was a day at the beach."
Because of the early success of "Maverick," von der Esch says she expects to see a steady stream of out-of-staters heading for Lake Powell this summer.
Meanwhile, "City Slickers II" was shot in Moab and the Goblin Valley area, while "Pontiac Moon," a contemporary comedy, filmed in Mexican Hat, near Blanding and Monument Valley. Utah will play only a small part in "Forrest Gump," which shot for less than a week on the Utah-Arizona border.
"Lightning Jack" filmed for two weeks in Moab, before moving on to New Mexico and Colorado, while "Rockwell" was shot in and along the Wasatch Front, primarily at Pioneer Trail State Park.
And the recent Stephen King TV miniseries "The Stand" was largely filmed in Utah - all over the state - though the setting is largely Colorado.
At the moment, Jim Carrey ("Ace Ventura, Pet Detective," the upcoming "The Mask") and Jeff Daniels ("Gettysburg," "The Purple Rose of Cairo") are in town shooting "Dumb and Dumber." Also currently filming locally is another Leucadia production, "Sight Unseen."
Upcoming is "Avenging Angel," a basic cable TNT miniseries with Tom Berenger that will begin shooting next month, and several other film companies are scouting the area and may begin shooting here before the year is out.