This film commissioner works to bring moviemakers to Sacramento
By Peter Anderson
By some magical quirk of karma, the very day this interview with Lucy Steffens was scheduled in her modest Midtown office near 16th and I streets was the same day that Clint Eastwood’s prestigious film company, Malpaso Productions, announced plans to film “The 15:17 to Paris.” The movie is about a trio of good buddies from Sacramento who achieved global acclaim by disarming a heavily armed terrorist aboard a train bound to Paris in August 2015.
Sweetening the news came word that Eastwood—in a trademark display of “Dirty Harry” wild risk—shocked the casting world by having the three Sacramento pals play themselves, a highly unconventional leap of faith and a huge gamble for a high-budget enterprise.
But Eastwood didn’t win a fistful of Oscars and Golden Globes by playing his cards close to the vest.
The first question for Steffens, who is Sacramento’s film commissioner, was an obvious fastball right down the middle: “How awesome will this be for Sacramento?”
Then the phone rang. An associate was calling with urgent news that the movie starring three Sacramento homeboys—Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone—would be filmed in Georgia, of all places.
Smiling wryly and exhaling deeply, Steffens replaced the phone in its cradle, sighed and said, “Such is the glamorous life of a big-city film commissioner.”
Sacramento has had a history of not quite being able to close the deal. The city has suffered for decades as San Francisco’s ugly little sister. It has taken years of hard work to help create the current resurgence of a bustling, reinvigorated town whose heartbeat is the pulsating new Golden 1 Center.
The German-born Steffens was already thinking aloud about ways to convince the filmmakers to shoot background scenery, establishing shots and historical sites in River City.
“Sacramento may have lost the leading role,” she explained, “but we can salvage some important elements that will ensure its footprint in the movie.”
That’s the kind of commissioner Sacramento has had in Steffens for the past 25 years: realistic, forward thinking and unbowed. In other words, stay calm, take what you can get and never give up.
Steffens has been on hand for some glittering success stories shot in Sacramento, including “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “American Beauty” and “Almost Famous.” While Sacramento can’t boast the spectacular cityscapes of San Francisco’s breathtaking skyline, it does have an Everytown USA quality.
Steffens laughs at the misconceptions people have of her work. “People tell me how they envy my opportunities to mix with the Hollywood A-crowd and how they, too, would love to be a catalyst displaying Sacramento’s film appeal. The truth is, their eyes would glaze over with boredom if they knew the details of my work.”
These days, she said, moviemaking is all about incentives and tax breaks. San Francisco sweetens the pot by waiving most permit fees. Sacramento, like most other California cities, can offer 20 to 25 percent in tax credits for productions with $1 million-plus budgets. “Obviously, the state of Georgia can do better,” she said, clearly still smarting from the Eastwood news.
Local trivia buffs can rattle off a list of celebrities with Sacramento roots, connections or work history: Jessica Chastain, Tom Hanks, Timothy Busfield, John Travolta, Kevin Spacey and an Austrian-born former governor with box-office appeal. Steffens has a special place in her heart for a rising star from River Park, Greta Gerwig.
“Greta,” said Steffens, “is not only a savvy, charming young woman, but as an actress and director and writer, she really gets what local filming is all about.” Gerwig filmed parts of her well-received 2012 comedy, “Frances Ha,” in Sacramento.
“What I like about her is not only her gracious manner but how she fully understands all the intricacies of a home-based production,” said Steffens. “She is not a one-and-done thinker. Her ultimate dream is to help make Sacramento a thriving, self-sustaining center of moviemaking.”
Gerwig’s most recent film, “Lady Bird,” which she wrote and directed, opened last year to rave reviews. The story of a young woman living in Sacramento, it received five Oscar nominations, including nominations for best picture, director and original screenplay.
Gerwig shot parts of the film locally, but because she didn’t fully qualify for incentives, she used other locales as well. “We take what we can get,” said Steffens.
Peter Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.