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Made in Utah

In their efforts to attract a little bit of Hollywood to the state, Utah Film Commission officials have found unexpected but welcome allies - some well-known producers and directors who have already made television and feature films here.

In fact, these wheelers-and-dealers are giving their fellow filmmakers the same advice about Utah that those youngsters used to sell their breakfast cereal: "Try it. You'll like it."Utah currently ranks as the sixth most filmed state in the union, due to its variety of locations, cheap non-union labor and low production costs. The state's burgeoning film industry continues to contribute at least $100 million per year to the state budget, and that number gets bigger each year as more feature and documentary films, television series episodes and commercials are shot locally.

While Film Commission officials are busy touting the virtues of Utah as a filming location, recent box-office successes (mega-budget movies like "Con Air" and "Independence Day") have been helped by big-name directors like Ridley Scott, who shot the bulk of his acclaimed 1991 drama "Thelma & Louise" in southern Utah.

Scott actually "discovered" the state two years earlier, when he shot part of a British Airways commercial in the Salt Lake International Airport. While flying in for the shoot, he noticed the lovely desert scenery below, and in need of arid locations for his next project, he kept Utah in mind.

"It was absolutely mesmerizing. I couldn't take my eyes off what I was seeing," he recalled during a telephone interview.

Both of Scott's experiences in Utah were so positive that he has looked for reasons to return. Though neither of the films he has since directed ("White Squall," "G.I. Jane") have brought him back to Utah, he did suggest that young writer/director David Dobkin shoot part of his movie "Clay Pigeons" there.

Scott is a producer for the upcoming comedy/drama about two best friends (Vince Vaughn, from "Swingers," and "Inventing the Abbotts' " Joaquin Phoenix), one of whom tries to implicate the other in his death.

"Clay Pigeons" is set in the fictional Mercier, Mont., a small town in which the two men become friends and eventually feud over women, and other things.

"We needed someplace that looked like a rural U.S.A., with rivers and mountains . . . a very Western-looking place. And that's exactly what we got with Utah," Scott said, noting that Dobkin is already talking up the advantages of shooting here.

Last year the state did receive some negative publicity from British actor Ewan McGregor, who spent a couple of months here filming "A Life Less Ordinary" (which was one of 1997's biggest box-office duds), but for every unsatisfied filmmaker or star, there are many more who are quite satisfied - like Dale Pollock.

The producer of such films as "Set it Off" and "Mrs. Winterbourne," Pollock came to Utah to cover the Sundance Film Festival as an entertainment reporter for the L.A. Times during the mid-'80s. He changed careers shortly after that, and while scouting locations for movie projects, he remembered Utah's glorious mountain ranges and canyons.

He has subsequently made a point of including Utah in several of his projects, including the new film "Meet the Deedles," a dark comedy about two surfer dudes sent to obedience school to clean up their acts, which was filmed primarily in Park City. (That film will hit theaters nationwide in April.)

One person who's grateful for the recruiting help is Saundra Saperstein, marketing director for the Utah Film Commission. Saperstein has been working for the film commission for nearly 20 years, encouraging filmmakers to check out what the state has to offer.

"It makes my job a lot easier when we get repeat business, obviously," she said. "And we don't even have to pay them."

As a result, some filmmakers and executives who initially seemed uninterested in Utah have come around.

Take producer Gerald Abrams, who "absolutely grilled" Saperstein when she approached him about filming a television movie-of-the-week here. "He said, `Tell me why I should shoot there.' It wasn't very encouraging."

However, Abrahams did shoot a project in Utah, and his line producer on that film, Barbara Black, has made most of her subsequent TV-movie productions in the state. She's even taken up part-time resident status in Park City.

"That's just one of the examples we can trace back to other productions that have been here," Saperstein said. "I find that very exciting."