Dwayne Johnson's character Davis Okoye with gorilla George in New Line Cinema's action adventure 'Rampage,' which was partially filmed on the Brenau University campus. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Brenau photo illustration.)

Lights, Camera, Bamboo, Action!

Almost 100 years ago, a Japanese garden was planted in a secluded spot on the Brenau Gainesville campus. In the summer of 2017, that grove was no longer a forgotten remnant of the university’s history – it found its way into the Hollywood spotlight.

Scores of trailers, film equipment and crew members set up camp in the Trustee Library parking lot, piquing the curiosity of Gainesville locals. Even though the project was to remain confidential during filming, eventually Brenau students and community members caught glimpse of a “Rock” star, as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was on set to film a scene for his latest movie, Rampage, released in April 2018. The movie, based on the 1980s arcade game in which giant animal mutants cause havoc, is Johnson’s third production filmed in Georgia. The wrestler-turned-actor took photos and talked with his fans on campus once filming was completed.

It was no easy task for Rampage location manager John Latenser to find a bamboo forest in Georgia for the movie’s opening scenes, let alone one that accommodated the production company’s rigid time constraints.

Brenau University nursing students Alexis Love, left, Martis Ferguson and Ken Freeman, right, take a photo with actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as he filmed on the Brenau campus.

“During our research and during our scouts, we noticed that bamboo was a common theme to zoos,” says Latenser, who has worked in the movie and television industry for over 30 years. “Since we would have limited time to film at a real zoo, we scouted locations for scenes that could be filmed elsewhere then edited to appear to be part of the same zoo. I actually learned about Brenau’s bamboo forest when I came across an online story about the Japanese landscapist who had first planted it. After cross referencing a few leads, I determined that it existed somewhere on the Brenau campus.”

Photos from the Bamboo Forest on Brenau University’s Gainesville campus.

Landscape architect Shogo Joseph Myaida planted the bamboo in the 1920s as part of a home garden for Brenau President H.J. Pearce behind the Brenau tennis courts near Wallis Field. One might worry about the damage a film crew could do in a dense garden, but the Hollywood crew cleaned it up and even filled it out with some more bamboo to look more like a zoo enclosure.

“Production companies are great about making the scene look how they want it and then putting it back, which is pretty incredible,” says Danielle Miller, event services director at Brenau. “They come in with their crews and their teams, and they build and rip apart and then put it all back the way it was. The Rampage crew used sustainable products to clean, cover and protect the integrity of the area. They left it better than it was before.”

Getting down to business

Miller is the primary contact when a production company wants to film at the Gainesville campus. She says making sure all parties are well informed and organized is crucial, but one of the biggest obstacles when working with a film shoot is time.

“Film productions are on a very tight timeline,” Miller says. “They may have one shoot here and then another on the other side of the world. There’s not much room for a time lapse. The best time to do these things is in the summer when we don’t have classes in session or large numbers of residential students on campus.”

“Our main mission is to serve the students,” says David Morrison, communications and publications vice president for the university. “If we would have to shut down operations of the school so a crew can shoot, that’s something we most likely would not do. But Time Warner knew what they were looking for and came prepared to address all of our concerns and compensate us for using our facilities.”

Brenau involvement with the project began in January 2017 when one of Latenser’s scouts reached out to Morrison about the bamboo forest. Typically, when a film company wants to work with the university, Morrison has responsibility to review the project for compatibility with the Brenau brand, and CFO David Barnett oversees all the contractual and legal matters, which are usually extensive.

This image released by Sony Pictures shows Joe Alwyn, portraying Billy Lynn, on a screen in a scene from the film, "Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk," in theaters on November 11. (Mary Cybulski/Sony-TriStar Pictures) © 2016 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
Brenau’s competitive cheerleading team appeared in the 2016 film ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.’

Morrison says that he has received about 20 different requests for crews to film on the Gainesville campus during his 11 years at Brenau. One of the first programs filmed at the university a segment of the 1970s television series In Search Of… that featured the university’s Dare Stones. In an off-campus production, Brenau’s competitive cheerleading appeared in scenes filmed in Atlanta for director Ang Lee’s 2016 movie Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Also, Brenau alumni have gone on to be Hollywood actors, directors, costume designers and more, including Shannon McIntosh, a theater major in the 1980s whose recent production credits in her 30-year career include The Hateful Eight, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, as well as Will Bradley, BU ’09, who has acted on television shows Pretty Little Liars and One Bad Choice. Read more about Will Bradley in Humble Nomad from the Winter 2017 issue of Brenau Window.

Gainesville’s movie man

Georgia’s booming film industry has another direct connection to Brenau. Ed Spivia, who in the early 1970s founded the state government office that was the genesis of the phenomenal growth of the film industry here, sent his daughter, Cole Spivia, WC ’15, to Brenau for a technical theater degree. Today Cole designs and constructs costumes for productions for the Horizon Theater and Synchronicity Theater in Atlanta.

Brenau President Ed Schrader, right, during filming of the History Channel’s ‘Return to Roanoke: Search for the Seven.’
Brenau President Ed Schrader examines the Dare Stone during the filming of ‘Return to Roanoke: Search for the Seven,’ a History Channel program. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
David Frederick gets a shot of the Dare Stone while Executive Producer Ted Bourne looks on during the filming of ‘Return to Roanoke: Search for the Seven,’ a History Channel program. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Ed Spivia’s Lake Lanier home, where he and his wife, Barbara, have lived for two decades, has walls lined with photographs of scores of movie folk with whom he has worked over the years, including some of his favorites: Burt Reynolds, Sally Fields, Walter Matthau, John Wayne and Hal Needham. During a visit a few years ago by Needham, Spivia arranged for the director-veteran stuntman to stop by Brenau to meet with students and do an interview on WBCX.

After overseeing production of more than 300 feature films in Georgia, Spivia started a production company based at the old Lakewood Fairgrounds on the south side of Atlanta that has become one of the most important locales in the global movie industry. The area is home to Tyler Perry Productions, a Warner bros. property department and the Pinewood Atlanta Studios group that includes Marvel Studios, which produced some of the top-grossing films of 2018. In 2006 Gov. Sonny Perdue lured Spivia out of semi-retirement to lead the Georgia Film, Video and Music Advisory Commission and spearhead more government incentives for the film industry.

So, what can Brenau do to get more involved in the movie business?

“There are many ways,” Spivia told Window during an interview at his home, “but you have to have an organized effort. Like any business, you have to know how to sell yourself, and identify and expose yourself to people you want to work with. It’s no big secret; it’s hard work.”

Brenau’s program, with Danielle Miller in the lead, is off to a good start. Key assistant location manager Sarah Goller, who worked on Rampage and other films, including Avatar, X-Men: First Class and Transformers, appreciates the professionalism that Miller and the Brenau events and facilities staff demonstrated during production.

Watch the cinematic trailers:

“Working with Brenau University staff was a great pleasure,” she says. “It was wonderful to experience the pride that Brenau staff have for their university.”

Watch the television trailers:

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