To Hear Brian Friedman’s interview with Susan Brennan on WWNO-FM radio, click here.
In the summer of 2005, local developer Susan Brennan was on the verge of restoring a run-down building in the Lower Garden District and turning it into condos.
Her last meeting with contractors was in mid-July.
“I was all set to go,” recalled Brennan, “and then we all know what happened.”
Brennan temporarily joined the Hurricane Katrina diaspora but returned home with a renewed sense of purpose to complete her condo project and restore some of the housing stock lost to Katrina. The construction industry she returned to, however, was different from the one she left.
“My condo project doubled in price and it was not feasible,” said Brennan, “so I kind of put it on the back burner.”
Brennan then heard of an intriguing tax credit in the local film industry that incentivized infrastructure construction – things like sound stages.
“I talked to several people and it was like, yes, this is what you should build because the films are coming but there are no soundstages — only UNO had one,” said Brennan.
A soundstage, Brennan explained, is “basically a black box” in which the film crew can build what they need to build and shoot in a tightly controlled environment, when they “want to control the light, the sound, the temperature, and they don’t want the dog barking at the neighbors house or they don’t want cars going by or they don’t want an airplane flying overhead.”
With no experience with soundstages, or with any other aspect of the film industry, Brennan set out to gain her own education.
“I got on a plane, I went to New York, and I looked at some of the soundstages in New York and Queens — Kaufman Astoria, Silvercup,” said Brennan. “Then I went out to L.A. and went to several of the soundstages out there and brought the architect and brought the sound engineer and brought the mechanical engineer and said, can we do this? And they looked at the specs and they said ‘yeah, this is not so hard to do.’”
The first Second Line Stage would open in November of 2009 with the action flick The Mechanic with Jason Statham. In 2010, Brennan opened a second, larger soundstage, built to all of Hollywood’s specifications.
“It’s 45 feet to the grid, so that’s like a four-story building and they can build something really tall in there,” said Brennan. “We just finished a movie, Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino … it’s out at this gorgeous plantation but when you walk in, once you’re inside the plantation, they’re really in my studio, but they built a huge façade, a huge plantation building in the studio.”
There are now three Second Line Stages, and, as Brennan is proud to point out, all of them are built green. In fact, they’re the first independent green studios in the United States, and they are built Gold LEED certified (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — a ratings system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council).
Second Line features bike racks (and showers to use if you bike to work), recycled carpets, paint that is low in volatile organic compounds and a highly energy efficient climate control system.
“Everything I’m building, I’m building green right now,” said Brennan. “I think that’s the wave of the future.”
Another attractive feature of Second Line is its central location.
“When you go to other cities, sometimes when you go out to a studio, you’ve got to drive thirty or forty minutes to get to some big space with a lot of land,” said Brennan. “But we did a movie called The Butler with Lee Daniels, and he had a star-studdded cast,” star-studded as in Forrest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, John Cusack and Robin Williams, among others. “And we fit perfectly because these stars, they fly in for a few days and they can stay at a downtown hotel and get to us in three to five minutes as opposed to driving out somewhere really far and spending less, because the time that the people spend, that’s worth money.”
As for the overall state of the film industry in New Orleans, “it’s tremendous,” said Brennan, “it’s growing by leaps and bounds. The cameraman’s association is growing, the hair and makeup association is growing — all these labor unions and associations are growing.”
So while Brennan’s original plans to replenish housing lost to Katrina may have been altered, Second Line Stages has still provided a pathway home for some of the folks in the growing film industry.
“A set designer told me, ‘you’re not going to believe this, but I’m from New Orleans and I went to Michigan to replicate new Orleans one time … this is allowing me to stay home and I’ve got a lot of work here and I’m able to see my son play soccer and not be off for four months building a set over there,’” recalled Brennan. “A cameraman the other day stopped me and said ‘I’ve been in L.A. for the past 14 years and I moved back here and I’m thrilled to be home and we love it back in New Orleans and I’ve got lots of business and keeping steady work, as much as I was doing in L.A.’”
To learn more about Second Line Stages, visit their website at www.secondlinestages.com.
Brian Friedman writes about Hollywood South for NolaVie, and produces monthly features for WWNO-FM, 89.9, the New Orleans NPR affiliate.