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Updated 8:00 AM March 9, 2009

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U-M students star as extras in new film

The entourage is in place.

Fifteen trailer trucks park along Bonisteel Boulevard outside Pierpont Commons on a brisk wintry day, far from sweltering southern beaches where many students on break are playing in the sun.
Students working as extras for the film "Betty Anne Waters" take a break from production at the Duderstadt Center. (Photo by Photos By Lin Jones, U-M Photo Services)
Sarah Waldbott, a political science major from Oak Park, studies in between takes while working as an extra for a Hollywood movie filmed on campus.
The movie "Betty Anne Waters" stars Hilary Swank, who portrays the true story of a woman who earns a law degree to prove the innocence of her brother.

Inside, Melissa Bradac, who expects to be at her post for 12-14 hours a day, serves as gatekeeper at the edge of the set, where the mid-afternoon sunlight filters onto a scene from "Betty Anne Waters," being filmed on campus this week.

"Rolling, quiet please," says Bradac, one of the 80-member crew assembled from Ann Arbor to Chicago to LA.

On cue, more than 120-student extras on the film stroll through the halls connecting the commons with Duderstadt Center. The flow of students serves as a law school backdrop for a scene featuring the film's main character, played by Hilary Swank.

Over the next two hours, the scene and on-cue walk by the extras is repeated nearly a dozen times.

If the final edit favors them, several students could share on-screen time with the film's two big-time Hollywood stars — Swank, a two-time Academy Award winner ("Boys Don't Cry," "Million Dollar Baby"), and Minnie Driver, nominated for an Academy Award in 1997's "Good Will Hunting."

"It's kind of neat to stand alongside people you've seen in movies," says Brian Nadeau, a cellular biology senior from Ida, who aims to attend medical school in the fall. "I just want to find out what goes into the making of a film."

Many students share Nadeau's curiosity and patience.

By late afternoon, he and other extras wait to be called for the next scene on the film based on the true story of how Betty Anne Waters, an unemployed mother of two, earns a law degree to prove the innocence of her brother, who is serving a life sentence for murder.

While waiting, students study, chat, play Euchre and snack on their modest payment for services, an $8 lunch-in-a-bag.

"It's great to get students involved, especially those with an interest in the film and entertainment industry," says David Lampe, vice president of communications. "This is also a way the University can play a role in helping to develop the state economy."

In May 2008 the state passed an incentive package offering filmmakers a 40-percent refundable tax credit for film-related expenses spent in Michigan; it rises to 42 percent when filming in Ann Arbor. Those incentives, along with the filming of "Betty Anne Waters," the recent "Grand Torino," directed by Clint Eastwood, and "Whip It," directed by and starring Drew Barrymore, are raising the profile of Michigan as a cost-effective place to make films.

Last fall during negotiations with the producers of "Betty Anne Waters," U-M established a film liaison post to assist prospective filmmakers interested in shooting on campus. Overall, the liaison is charged with trouble-shooting and making the on-location shoot happen, if the film's subject is appropriate for campus.

The bottom-line, says Cathy Thomas, location manager for "Betty Anne Waters," is for a state and location to be affordable, and assist in the many technical and logistical issues that go into making a film. The fee for filming at U-M includes the current rental rate for rooms, and costs incurred specific to filming, such as electrical or construction alterations to the building and site.

"We recognize U-M as a film-friendly place," Thomas says. "The producers wanted to shoot here, and the University simply made it happen. And, nothing spreads faster than a good reputation."

While extras coordinators expected about 300 students to show up for a scene at Angell Hall, about 530 turned out. The real Waters also was on hand as an advisor.

After completing shooting at Angell Hall and Pierpont Commons this week, the film crew will return to Ann Arbor in mid-March to shoot scenes off campus at a site serving as the Betty Anne Waters house in the film.

"We have built a bridge between the academic world and the business of filmmaking," Lampe says. "It's our way of joining hands with the state for a common objective — economic development."

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