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Hollywood's Version of Alaska Is Shot Anywhere but Here

'Northern Exposure' Effect

By Yereth RosenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 7, 1997



ANCHORAGE, ALASKA

Cameras rolled as David Hasselhoff and Gena Lee Nolin, stars of the hit television show "Baywatch," dashed through the driving rain to the shelter of an Alaska Railroad car.

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The scene is perhaps a bit confusing. Is Alaska anyplace for a show that is synonymous with sunny southern California - better known for bikinis and bare skin than parkas and mukluks?

The "Baywatch" cast and crew thought so, and they recently made the trek north to film a special two-part episode here. But they remain something of a rarity.

While many producers agree that Alaska is a chic setting for films, television shows, and advertisements, more and more of them are staying away from the Last Frontier. Call it the "Northern Exposure" effect. The long-running CBS show about life in fictional Cicely, Alaska, was actually shot in a small town near Seattle.

Faced with seasonal labor shortages, sometimes-uncooperative weather, and transportation systems that seem primitive by Lower 48 standards, producers often pass up the real Great White North in favor of a more palatable substitute. And while Washington and Wisconsin have become suitable stand-ins for Alaska, the stiffest competition is now coming from across the border in Canada.

"I think the continuing challenge of trying to compete with Canada on these projects, especially feature films, is getting harder and harder," says Mary Pignalberi, director of the Alaska Film Office and the state official in charge of attracting films.

Canadian competition

The state has a small home-grown film industry, in marked contrast to Vancouver, British Columbia - a city often dubbed "Hollywood North."

Cities such as Vancouver and Toronto are buttressed by the cheap Canadian dollar and a "tremendous infrastructure" for the film industry, spawned by years of success. And they are causing problems for film industries in states across the US - not just in Alaska. "New York loses a lot more than we do," Ms. Pignalberi says.

In fact, leaders of several state film offices are considering possible federal measures to help them compete with Vancouver and Toronto, she adds.

The most recent defector to Canada's allures was "The Edge," a psychological thriller that opened Sept. 26. The film, a feature about two men stranded in the Alaska wilderness, was shot in the Canadian province of Alberta.

"I was [upset] about this movie," says Pignalberi. "We really had no ammunition to pull out."

Um, there are no wild horses here

As a result of this trend to reproduce Alaska abroad, some of the films and television shows supposedly set here have featured some basic blunders that showcase the geographical confusion.

"Northern Exposure" had so many errors that one Anchorage radio station ran a weekly "spot-the-mistakes" contest.

By actually coming to Alaska, however, "Baywatch" managed to avoid some similar mistakes. According to executive producer Douglas Schwartz, the original script involved the return of a domesticated horse to its wild Alaska herd. The writers changed the plot upon learning that Alaska has no wild horses.

Other Alaska problems were avoided by staging the operation almost entirely from a huge cruise ship. Producers literally shipped all their equipment and most of their workers from California en masse.

Even the fierce September storm that struck near the end of filming and obscured scenic views was no problem: Producers used stock footage for background shots of Mount McKinley.

Contrary to Hollywood warnings, the Alaska experience was happy and likely to result in something of a two-hour Alaska travel promotion, Mr. Schwartz says.

"Everybody told us that we'd be rained out, that we wouldn't see anything, that it would be foggy all the time, that it's miserable. There were doubting Thomases."