Welcome to Glasdelphia

GEORGE Street, the unremarkable thoroughfare that leads east     from Glasgow’s George Square, has become a truck park. There is a new green traffic sign: straight ahead for Highway 30, apparently. Two men in a cherry picker are painting its back a weathered metallic grey. Further along, a cop struts along the pavement. Or is it now the sidewalk? He is black, with almost-afro hair and a substantial weapon in his belt.

Welcome to Glasgdelphia where, for 17 days, nothing is as it seems. The guy on George Street is not in a Village People tribute band. He is in an extra in World War Z, the biggest-budget Hollywood movie ever to be shot in Glasgow. The centre of the city has been transformed, at eye-popping expense, into downtown Philadelphia. The street furniture, yellow traffic lights, Don’t Walk pedestrian crossings, fire hydrants, hot-dog stands, USA Today dispensers, hanging banner adverts are all Pennsylvania-perfect. The vehicles carry the Philadelphia Police livery and local number plates.

Sadly Brad Pitt, the star of this $125 million production, is harder to spot. Playing the part of Gerry Lane, a UN zombie expert, he spends his non-filming hours in a trailer parked on John Street, emerging only when he is required to sit in a silver Volvo on Cochrane Street (Thursday) or join his screen-family in the same vehicle, being pulled in a truck (Wednesday). He is driven to and from the set in a dark blue Jaguar, to join the ‘wife and kids’ at Carnell House, a 16th-century pile south of Kilmarnock.

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The arrival of the Jolie-Pitts in the west of Scotland makes the Take That reunion tour look like a school disco. Central Glasgow is roiling with hormonal women, mobile phones clutched in their newly-done nails. When word got out that the family had left London by train on Tuesday morning, a crowd assembled in Central Station. Sadly for the gawpers, Pitt was zoomed straight to the set while Angelina Jolie and their six children were driven to Ayrshire.

The economics of recreating Philadelphia in Scotland may look, to the outside observer, bonkers. Delightfully so – it’s not every day that the staff from the Caledonian University nursery get to see Brad Pitt while giving the toddlers their fresh air – but still nuts. Yet the sums, according to Belle Doyle who runs the locations department at Creative Scotland, add up. The cast and crew, all 1,200 of them, were already in Europe, having filmed in Malta and Cornwall. The weakness of the pound against both the US and Canadian dollar – when the Canadian dollar was in the toilet, it was a favoured location – add another advantage. Factor in the tax breaks offered in the UK compared to Philadelphia itself, where there was apparently confusion about what tax sweeteners were on offer, and Glasgow starts to look like an attractive target for any zombie army.

“Every day, in every film studio in the world, there are accountants looking at the different tax breaks and the strengths of the different currencies, working out to the last dollar how much it costs to shoot a movie,” says Doyle.

Of course the city had to look the part. “When the first scouting team were over in March they brought photos of the square in Philadelphia and George Square was a good match,” Doyle recalls. “I think that clinched it.” She thinks the council’s willingness to close roads and suck up the general disruption, was also a factor. “If the local community are positive and up for it, it makes my job easier. It’s no fun if the police and roads department are grumpy and unhelpful.”

Doyle estimates that a major production, such as World War Z, spends between £25,000 to £30,000 a day. This covers hiring local crew (which they have to do to qualify for the tax breaks), accommodation, on-site facilities such as catering and toilets, office rental and fees for police presence and road closures. That works out at around £500,000 for 17 days. Glasgow City Council, however, are thinking that £2 million is more likely, based on 1,200 people staying in hotels in the city, then eating, drinking and going out, as well as rents and fees. And that’s before the Jolie-Pitts have hit Hamley’s. They will do a final economic assessment once the last yellow taxi and SWAT truck has rolled out of town.

Some even feel that £2m may be an underestimate as any business with a tenuous connection is wringing every penny out of this opportunity. Laterooms.com reports a 20 per cent rise in bookings in Glasgow since filming started. Committee Room No 9, on the corner of John Street and Cochrane Street, with a clear view of much of the action, has never been busier. Further down John Street, at the Metro Cafe, staff are wearing “I (heart) Brad Pitt” t-shirts. An A-board outside advertises their World War Z tribute paninis. “Chorizo, cheddar and salsa. Hot and spicy – just like Brad.” (He has, according to Perez Hilton’s website, enjoyed one already, with extra onion and jalapeno.) The cashing in does not stop there. Bonnie Bling, a Glasgow-based company that turns the city’s witticisms into acrylic jewellery has rushed out a special brooch that reads “pure fancy Brad Pitt”.

Then there are the crisps, cans of juice and takeaway coffees consumed by the legions of rubberneckers who throng George Square, to see for themselves that shooting a movie consists of hours and hours of hanging around followed by filming the same thing 15 times in a row. At some points of the week the crowd was 50 deep, pushing against the barricades, before being courteously redirected further back by the heavy private security presence. Everyone has some kind of image-capturing device with them. The professional photographers are identifiable by their step ladders, enormous zoom lenses and even-grumpier-than-normal expressions. With no official provision, they are lumped in with the star-spotters, moved on constantly by the guards. But with two of the most sellable stars in the world in their home patch, they are not going to give up and go home. The international appetite for photographs, and stories, about the Jolie-Pitts appears to be bottomless, from the scuttlebutt blogs to the patrician broadsheets. Whoever gets the definitive snap of Jolie and brood – ten-year-old Maddox, seven-year-old Pax, six-year-old Zahara, five-year-old Shiloh and twins Knox and Vivienne, three – buying sausage rolls in Greggs, or looking at the wall of cars in the Riverside, can take the rest of the year off.

You don’t have to subscribe to Heat magazine to find this family irresistible. Pitt, the former Mr Jennifer Aniston, whose career has taken him from hunk-in-trunks to the Coen Brothers and Terence Malick, is one of the most genetically blessed men on the planet. And when you have romanced leading ladies Robin Givens, Juliette Lewis and Gwyneth Paltrow, then emptied the sainted Rachel in favour of your smoking hot Mr And Mrs Smith co-star, you can’t blame the world for wondering what you are going to do next.

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Angelina Jolie, tattooed knife- collecting wild child turned UNHCR goodwill ambassador and matriarch of a multinational family, was a compelling character before she blasted the Pitt-Aniston marriage apart. The Oscar-winning daughter of Jon Voight, the ex-wife of Trainspotting star Jonny Lee Miller, then hellraiser Billy Bob Thornton, the tireless comber of the world’s trouble spots to find another member of the family, is more compelling than any of the characters she plays on screen.

Collectively dubbed Brangelina – they understandably hate the tag – the couple have become accustomed to living with constant attention. Their children think everyone has film crews at the door and long lenses across every street. They are so accustomed to flying first class that they found the train journey from Euston to Glasgow on a chartered Virgin Pendolino, wildly exciting and ran up and down the carriages for four hours.

Pitt and Jolie alternate filming so that they can travel together between locations, family in tow. They are “home-schooled” – more accurately hotel room or rented mansion-tutored – by nannies and tutors using the international French Lycée programme. When they are not hanging around in John Street, or voicing the high-kicking lady tiger in DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda franchise, the Jolie-Pitts take their responsibilities as gazillionaire celebrities seriously. This opens them to mockery, but they do it anyway. They auctioned the first photographs of their birth children – Shiloh and the twins – and donated the $21m raised to their Jolie-Pitt foundation. This distributes cash to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, an Aids clinic in Ethiopia and Iraqi schoolchildren affected by the war.

For feminist commentator Naomi Wolf, Jolie’s “intense work on behalf of stricken women and children worldwide” has made her an “unconventional role model”. Add in Pitt and the kids, and the Jolie-Pitt story becomes “one of family devotion and global idealism.” No wonder, she finds that they stand out when most of their Hollywood contemporaries “simply shop, tan and go into rehab”.

It’s not Pitt’s global idealism that pulls Glaswegians towards George Square. “People find filming interesting,” says Belle Doyle. “It’s something special. It’s not like the Gas Board digging the road up.” Or, as one of the expectant crowd at Central Station said on Tuesday: “I don’t think I was this excited at my own wedding.”