In 1996, when the Pentagon decommissioned the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, things looked grim for neighboring Vallejo. For decades a large number of residents had depended on civilian jobs at the 142-year-old shipyard. It was the end of an era Mare Island was the oldest Navy yard on the West Coast and produced 513 ships but the closing and elimination of jobs hasn't, as many feared, turned Vallejo into a ghost town.
Far from it. Last year, director Barry Levinson ("Wag the Dog," "Diner") converted several areas of the 5,000-acre island into a makeshift film studio and shot "Sphere," an $80 million underwater drama about a psychologist (Dustin Hoffman), a biochemist (Sharon Stone) and a mathematician (Samuel L. Jackson) who investigate a 300-year-old alien spaceship on the Pacific Ocean floor. The picture opened Friday. Based on a best-selling novel by Michael Crichton ("Jurassic Park"), "Sphere" also features Queen Latifah, Liev Shreiber and two Bay Area residents, actors Peter Coyote and Marga Gomez, in supporting roles.
For Levinson, who lives in Marin County, the Mare Island location offered not only convenience but also protection from sightseers. And it had a number of enormous, high-ceilinged warehouses that were easily converted to soundstages.
"It's a great space, like having your own studio," Levinson says. "We took over one building (the former Navy recreation center) for production offices, shot in two other facilities and had space for construction, workshops, computers. We also had an indoor Olympic-size swimming pool where we were doing scuba training and lighting tests."
More than 300 people worked on "Sphere" during preproduction and production, Levinson says. Initially, Levinson planned to shoot the film's underwater scenes at the enormous Mare Island dry dock, but he changed his mind when a number of experts cautioned that the murkiness and unpredictability of the water could create problems.
At that point, Levinson stopped production for two months, delaying principal photography from early January to early March. Five enormous water tanks, made of steel or concrete and ranging in depth from 19 to 26 feet, were constructed in Mare Island's cavernous Building 599.
That two-month delay was fortunate. It was during that time that Levinson shot the political satire "Wag the Dog," currently in release. He wrapped that film on Feb. 23, 1997, and was back at work on "Sphere" the next week.
For Warner Bros., "Sphere" is one more in an assembly line of expensive, high-tech extravaganzas designed for box-office luster. For residents of Vallejo and neighboring communities who lost not only 6,000 civilian jobs directly when Mare Island closed but thousands of other off-base support jobs "Sphere" and other Hollywood pro ductions bring the promise of economic recovery.
Before "Sphere," portions of the movies "Flubber," "Jack," "Metro," and the upcoming "What Dreams May Come" with Robin Williams were also shot on the island. According to Vallejo official Gil Hollingsworth, who oversees the Mare Island conversion program, MTV has also shot episodes of "Road Rules" on the island.
Mare Island isn't the only Bay Area military base that's been used for film and television production. "Copycat," "Jade," and "James and the Giant Peach" were shot at Treasure Island. The courtroom scenes in "The Rainmaker" were filmed at Alameda Naval Air Station, and "Flubber" used both Treasure Island and the Alameda facility.
Two upcoming films, "Ed TV" from director Ron Howard and "Patch Adams" from Tom Shadyak ("Liar Liar") are also set to film on Treasure Island.
"The movie industry is good for the economy wherever they go, because they spend money," says Hollingsworth. The city of Vallejo subleased Mare Island facilities to Warner Bros. for $300,000, according to executive producer Peter Giuliano.
During production and preproduction of "Sphere," $20 million was spent on lumber and building supplies, transportation, housing, food and utility services, says Alvero da Silva, Vallejo's head of redevelopment for Mare Island.
"They were good customers, you bet they were," says David Jones, who manages Foster Lumber in Vallejo.
"All of this comes back to the city in the form of taxes," Hollingsworth says. "And there were numerous people in the city who got employed." That's good news for Vallejo, which lost 3,000 residents and an economic bedrock not to mention a sense of continuity and tradition when the Mare Island shipyard closed. After the decommissioning started in 1993, says da Silva, "our unemployment rate was around 9 to 10 percent. Now it's at 5 to 6 percent."
Hollywood isn't the only tenant that moved onto Mare Island when the Navy left. Annette Taylor, Vallejo community development analyst, says it has more than 30 tenants, including the California Conservation Corps and Vallejo Unified School District.
"We're not dormant," Taylor says. "We're pursuing other possible tenants. This is not a ghost town."
"Our sales tax (revenue) is up," da Silva says. "Generally the economic conditions are better than 1993, but we have quite a way to go in terms of fully utilizing the facilities at Mare Island and becoming the kind of vibrant community we'd like to be in the 21st century."
©1998 San Francisco Chronicle