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Thursday, May 26, 2005 02:23 am

Star of the show

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Hollywood loves the now-closed Joliet Correctional Center. “It’s so ominous,” says Brenda Sexton, head of the state film office.

Illinois has a new movie star. Her home is in a southern suburb of Chicago, where she’s resided since before the Civil War. Now almost 150 years old, she’s only getting better with age.

It’s the Joliet Correctional Center, which has served as the set for three show-biz projects since it was officially decommissioned as a prison last August. Derailed, a thriller starring Jennifer Aniston and Clive Owen, was filmed there in November. In December, Fox shot the pilot for a television drama called Prison Break at Joliet, and will begin filming a dozen episodes there next month. And the feature film You Are Going to Prison — described as a “buddy comedy,” starring Will Arnett (Arrested Development) and Dax Shepard — just wrapped.

Brenda Sexton, managing director of the Illinois Film Office, says the picturesque prison is attractive to production companies for several reasons.

For starters, it’s empty, so production companies can have the full run of the complex. And unlike most vacant penitentiaries, Joliet is in good condition, with functional air conditioning and plumbing. “A lot of empty prisons are abandoned because they’re decrepit,” Sexton says.

Costs are minimal due to Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s policy of charging only expenses for state-owned sites, combined with the unions’ willingness to count Joliet within the Chicago zone, which means workers get regular scale instead of time and a half.

But the biggest selling point, Sexton says, is the “visual power” of this scenic slammer.

“It’s so ominous,” she says. “It looks like they’re going to clank the door behind you and you’re never going to see the light of day again.”

Production companies get expert help from Deb French, executive assistant to the warden at nearby Statesville Correctional Center. A 27-year employee of the Illinois Department of Corrections, French has learned that some crews want authenticity and some just want access.

“With Derailed and Prison Break, they really wanted our input. We practically dressed their sets,” she says.

For Prison Break, she helped round up genuine prison-approved radios and televisions — clear instead of opaque. For Derailed, she shipped one of Joliet’s special stainless-steel modular toilets to London so that a realistic prison cell could be recreated in the studio for re-takes. But for You Are Going to Prison, all she had to do was get out of the way.

“The other day, they were doing a dance scene in the cafeteria, with the inmates singing and dancing. And they were good!” French says.

Sometimes, she has had to treat silly questions seriously, like when one crewmember asked her if tattoos are allowed in prisons.

“I have to be very careful not to give them a smart-ass answer,” French chuckles, trying to imagine how the DOC could possibly remove every convict’s skin art. “I feel like saying, ‘I know you people work in Hollywood, but let’s come down to earth for a second.’ ”

Still, she has a newfound respect for the movie industry, and an even deeper appreciation of her own profession.

“Everybody thinks oh, that’s so glamorous. But it’s actually very long hours, very tedious,” she says. “That was the real eye-opener about this whole thing. I say man, no thanks. I’ll stick with the prison business.”

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