The crew here will construct doppelganger backdrops of several key moments in Whitney Houston’s career for the biopic I Wanna Dance with Somebody in less than two weeks. As recently as last year, no one saw this coming.
Before the pandemic hit, I regularly sat criss-crossed on a gym mat at these same Quincy coordinates, watching my toddler bounce around a jump house as I traded niceties with other parents at an indoor playtime. No disrespect to children and their shitty taste, but it was more or less the least cool place in Greater Boston, right up to the loathsome Barney music echoing throughout the massive hangar.
Things have changed since then. And so it’s more than just a little jarring to be watching craftsmen build a replica of the office of music industry icon Clive Davis right where a ball pit used to be. To my left, meanwhile, is a full-size facsimile of the sound booth where Whitney Houston belted her first mega hits.
All of that, right here, in Marina Bay.
Just a Red Line, Lyft, or dingy ride away from Boston.
The inflatable slides that my kid loved are gone. This is now the cornerstone of Marina Studios, a 26,000-plus square foot pro-level studio that’s part of a filmmaking campus with more than 15,000 square feet of multi-use production offices and a three-acre backlot for exterior shots. The crew here will construct amazing doppelganger backdrops of several key moments in Houston’s career for the upcoming biopic I Wanna Dance with Somebody in less than two weeks. And yet as recently as last year, no one saw this coming.
“I came across this building by chance,” says Marina Studios Founder and CEO Marina Cappi. (Yes, her name is actually Marina, and her new venture is in Marina Bay.) “I actually saw it from a helicopter.” Though Cappi’s background is in real estate and finance, she’s been on the board of the Boston Film Festival since 2019, and heard Hollywood producers say “the problem with Massachusetts is that the studios are too far from the city.”
“There was a void,” Cappi adds. “No one would stay. They came, they filmed, and they left.”
“Nothing really shoots in Hollywood, so you’re really looking at Louisiana, Atlanta, parts of Canada,” says Denis O’Sullivan, whose Compelling Pictures is producing and financing the Houston biopic. “So to be shooting in the states and having to create multiple places around the world, it’s really about having a place that is metropolitan and that people want to be at, but also that is giving you multiple topographies, and to be able to get to the water and also have forests 20 minutes away. That’s the draw. And it’s always been the draw [for Massachusetts], but it’s about having the proper facilities. There’s also so many people who want to be making films here and who are making films here.”
Riding on the buzz of the Oscar-winning screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s Bohemian Rhapsody, O’Sullivan and his Compelling partner Jeff Kalligheri had been scouting locations for I Wanna Dance with Somebody, to be directed by Kasi Lemmons, and eyeing Boston among other places.
“We looked at Atlanta, New Jersey, Toronto, and this was all happening in the midst of COVID,” O’Sullivan says. “We didn’t know what was going to be feasible. … We looked at the specs of some of the stages we used for Bohemian Rhapsody, and [Marina Studios] was the perfect facility [for major films like these]. I worked on The Departed, and we were shooting in an old warehouse in Brooklyn, and then in a warehouse up here. So it’s really having the space and the infrastructure to support all of the electric and that stuff. And also having the production offices so nearby is great.”
Cappi says, “We met, and it was a fateful thing. We just really liked each other, and [Compelling] had a huge slate of movies. It just all made sense—you can live, work, play right here. They said they needed a media campus, and we somehow made it happen.”
Fate is one thing. But the relationship between Marina and Compelling was particularly fostered by Mass lawmakers, who in July finally acted to permanently extend the program that offers a 25% tax credit and sales tax exemption to any TV or movie production that spends half of its budget or time filming here.
“Actors want to be near a big city, ideally, and a place where they have access to great restaurants and stuff like that, but also the tax rebate is key,” O’Sullivan says. “Everyone is always chasing the rebate, and knowing how good the rebate was here and hoping it would become permanent is really the deciding factor.”
In addition to I Wanna Dance with Somebody, which will star British actress Naomi Ackie from Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker as Houston, Compelling is working with McCarten’s Muse of Fire Productions on projects including The Collaboration, “about the unique creative relationship between Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol,” and with writers Michael C. McGrale and Peter Craig on the Boston-set crime thriller Mission Hill, which “tackles the 1989 Carol Stuart Murder that nearly lead the city to burn as a result of racial tensions boiling over.”
All from their offices in Quincy, right across the bay from Boston.
“When talent lands, they don’t want to sit in traffic,” says Cappi, who also has two other stages in the works including a 30,000-square foot spot in Canton. “You have so many people who work on these projects that the convenience of being close [to Greater Boston] is important.”
O’Sullivan jumps in, “I have brought some friends from the industry here …”
Cappi completes his sentence … “they’re finding it to be amazing.”
O’Sullivan continues: “Often you’re like in industrial parks and stuff like that, so it’s a nicer atmosphere, but also it’s having the facilities to actually be able to fit a live scale production.”
And so O’Sullivan, along with Kalligheri and their crew, have committed to work out of Marina Studios for at least 10 years.
“Luckily,” O’Sullivan jokes, “I have no house plants in LA.”
Mackenzie O’Connell, whose family developed the harbor and who is now working with Cappi on the studio business, says, “There was always a vision with Marina Bay, and in some ways that’s all coming together. It’s changed a lot throughout the years, and now it’s clicking.”
Looking across the boardwalk at the latest section of the buildout on the grave of Quincy’s long gone stabby nightclub scene, O’Sullivan points to a feature of the new development that will be among the most exciting attractions for set workers and celebrity actors alike as they work long nights on productions.
“And they’re finally getting a coffee shop too.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.