Tacoma’s Old City Hall became a film studio Wednesday when an independent film crew went to work on a movie about an outlaw hobo.
“You Can’t Win” features Michael Pitt, one of the stars of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” and Hannah Marks of this year’s “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
The film is an adaptation of a 1926 autobiography by vagabond burglar Jack Black. Pitt plays Black in the film, which spans 1877 to 1923.
Black’s book about his life on the road influenced author William S. Burroughs and others of the Beat Generation.
Filming began Monday at Fort Nisqually and moved to Old City Hall on Tuesday. Today, the crew is headed to Seattle and later this month to Snohomish and Port Townsend. The crew will return to Tacoma next week to film a logging camp scene at Camp 6 in Point Defiance Park.
“Tacoma came into the picture because we were looking for 19th-century architecture,” said screenwriter Charles Mudede.
Pitt, dressed in dingy browns and grays, moved around the set Wednesday afternoon as dozens of black-clad crew and other actors in period costume negotiated the tight quarters in Old City Hall.
Filming was taking place in the old building’s jail cells, where earlier in the day a fight scene had been shot.
“We had a good smack-up this morning,” said stunt coordinator Alex Terzieff. Terzieff, playing a jailer, pushed Pitt into a wall and followed up with punches and kicks. And yes, Pitt did his own stunts.
In another part of the building, a dodgy looking bar had been created with peanut shells on the floor and empty bottles on the windowsills. Burlap curtains were hung on the windows.
“It’s good for us to come here and use the entire place,” said New York-based producer Matt Parker as he showed off an opium den set.
Robinson Devor is the director, and Charles Mudede, a longtime writer for The Stranger alternative newspaper in Seattle, shares screenwriting credits. Devor directed Mudede’s 2007 documentary “Zoo,” about a sexual encounter between a horse and a man in Enumclaw in 2005.
“We really tried to write a story about a person who became a thief,” Mudede said of “You Can’t Win.” “He learns how to crack safes, deal with police officers. He’s writing (the book) when the country is thinking about prison reform. (The message is) You can’t win because the game is too difficult.”
The crew is making painstaking efforts to get the details right. Los Angeles-based costume designer Angela Billows designed costumes for 100 characters, some with as many as 20 costume changes. During research, she pored over period photos, “as much as possible looking at photos of real people (not portraits).” Even though they aren’t visible, she put female actors in corsets. “Corsets help to get the posture correct.”
Prop master Schuyler Telleen has been rounding up props in antique stores up and down the Puget Sound area because he wasn’t satisfied with what he had. “They cheat a lot in Hollywood. We ordered a lot of stuff, but it wasn’t what we wanted,” he said. Just up the hill from the set, he found a vintage fishing rod in an Antique Row store.
When Pitt signed on to the film, he asked for some changes in the script. “He read (the book) through and through. It was so impressive to work with him. He was so dedicated to filling out the character as much as he could,” Mudede said.
Both Mudede and Parker said production in Washington would not have been possible without the state’s film incentive program. “We could not have done it without that,” Mudede said.
Pitt played James “Jimmy” Darmody on “Boardwalk Empire,” a critically acclaimed HBO series set in Prohibition era Atlantic City.
Pitt has also appeared in “Funny Games,” “Last Days” (loosely based on Kurt Cobain), “The Dreamers” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
Marks has had many television roles, including recurring ones on USA’s “Necessary Roughness” and Showtime’s “Weeds.” She also was in the Justin Long and Jonah Hill comedy “Accepted.”
The production company for “You Can’t Win,” Parts & Labor, has produced the films “Old Joy,” “Cold Weather” (filmed in Portland and shown two years ago at the Tacoma Film Festival) and “Beginners,” which earned star Christopher Plummer an Oscar this year.
Parker said “You Can’t Win” will premiere at a film festival sometime in 2013.Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541