Ann Arbor Park Gets Movie Stimulus

Virginia Park trees trimmed in prep for Reiner movie "Flipped"
Tree Trimming to separate canopies

The sycamore trees were trimmed enough to get blue sky separation between the canopies. The tree on the right will be digitally removed in the film. (Photo by the writer.)

On June 18, neighbors of Virginia Park, located just north of W. Liberty Street in Ann Arbor, received a letter from the city. The note from parks and recreation services manager Colin Smith alerted them to the filming of the Rob Reiner movie “Flipped,” to take place towards the end of July. Construction of the set, according to the letter, would begin as early as June 22.

Part of the set construction involved trimming some branches on two of the park’s sycamore trees – a task that was begun the same week as the letter sent from the city.

But the trimming was interrupted, and wasn’t completed until this last Friday morning – under the scrutiny of an Ann Arbor police officer, locations staff from the movie, Craig Hupy (head of systems planning for the city), Kerry Gray (coordinator for urban forestry and natural resources planning), Kay Sicheneder (city forester), plus a half-dozen interested neighbors.

Some of the neighbors were skeptical about the trim job for the sycamore tree, which is slated for movie stardom in a story involving a little girl who’s trying to save a tree. Their interest in the the city’s approach to tree management had been piqued by the recent removal of some street trees in the vicinity. But there was no “trouble” on Friday morning.

The only incident that might qualify as “trouble” had taken place a week prior.

Kay Sicheneder gives directions for tree trimming for the movie Flipped

City forester Kay Sicheneder gives directions for tree trimming for the movie "Flipped." (Photo by the writer.)

Why Trim the Trees?

The story of “Flipped” partly involves a young girl, Juli, who’s trying to save a tree. In the identically-named youth novel by Wendelin Van Draanen, on which the movie is based,  it’s a lone sycamore tree that Juli wants to save. [For readers interested in more detail of the story, the Ann Arbor District Library owns 12 copies of the book. On Friday they were all checked out, with 32 patrons on the wait list, counting The Chronicle.]

According to Gray, the pair of trees receiving the trim on Friday morning are actually London Plane trees – a hybrid of the Oriental and American sycamore trees.

When Gray arrived at the park, resident Kirsten Williams struck up a conversation with her. Williams  wanted to know why the trees couldn’t be digitally trimmed. “That’s what technology is for!” she said.

The Chronicle confirmed with Warner Bros. (which is, for now, handling public relations for the Castle Rock Entertainment production company about the movie) that part of the plan is, in fact, to use digital editing technology. Digital technology will be used to remove one of the  trees completely. The trimming of the two trees was undertaken to achieve a visual separation of the tree canopies, to allow digital removal of the second tree – the one to the north.  The resulting shot will depict a single, lone free-standing tree, as in the book.

As an interesting contrast to the digital approach to recording and editing images, here’s a pinhole photograph of one of the Virginia Park sycamores, taken by local photographer, Matt Callow: [Virginia Park Sycamore]

Movie Set Tree Trimming Interrupted

Friday a week ago, when the letter went out to neighbors about the upcoming movie set construction and filming, The Chronicle headed over to Virginia Park to have a look. There we chanced across Sue Perry, a resident who lives in the vicinity of the park, walking her dog.  She reported that the trim work had already begun, but that she’d stopped it.

Writing on trees Ann Arbor Michigan

This city of Ann Arbor tree-mail did not require a FOIA request to uncover – just a bit of climbing around in the sycamore that will have a role in the movie "Flipped." (Photo by the writer.)

She’d accomplished that by simply inserting herself physically between the cherry-picker and the tree, she said, and not budging, even after city staffers raised the possibility of involving the police or Mayor John Hieftje. The name Hieftje did not intimidate her, she contended – she’d shared a real estate office with him years ago, when the mayor was still in that line of work.

So the city had packed up its trimming gear and left the task for another time, which proved to be this last Friday. Perry was also present watching, but there was no drama beyond critical commentary.

Completion of the Trimming: Action! Cut!

The trimming on Friday morning took place under the direction of Kay Sicheneder, city forester. Two city workers in a cherry-picker made their cuts to the branches as Sicheneder pointed out the branches to be lopped. Watching with The Chronicle and a small handful of neighbors, Kerry Gray (coordinator for urban forestry with the city) explained that the canopy would grow back as “advantageous buds” came forth. That assurance was met with skepticism by some: “But that will take decades! They’re totally wrecking the shape of the tree.”

Still, at least one neighbor did not assess the final result as a complete disaster. Said Marilee Woodworth, “If this is it, I don’t think this looks too bad.”

There had been discussion of the possibility of using a cable and ratcheting winch to bend some of the branches out of the way, to eliminate the need for branch cutting. But in the end, the separation of the two canopies was achieved without trying the cable tie-back method. Gray said that the sycamore branches were not particularly amenable to bending, and that splitting a branch under the stress was a risk – if the split went back to the trunk then it would expose the tree to disease.

What the City of Ann Arbor Gets

Chronicle readers will no doubt be familiar with the incentives offered by the state of Michigan to encourage movie making here. The basic idea is that movie production helps the local economy – the workers have to eat and sleep somewhere, and there are jobs created for locals or work for existing businesses that would not otherwise exist. For example, although the road constructed for the set (a real road that will bear vehicular weight) will be dressed up by production company “scenics” to make it look like it’s been there a while, the road itself is being built by a local company.

Building a road for movie set in Virginia Park

Building a road for the "Flipped" set in Virginia Park, Ann Arbor. (Photo by the writer.)

Beyond the possible general boost to the area’s economy, the movie will infuse a modest amount of cash straight into city of Ann Arbor coffers. According to Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation services manager, Virginia Park is being rented out by Castle Rock Entertainment at the standard rate for park rental – $100 a day.  According to Chronicle calculations, the 49 days between June 22 and the final restoration of the park to be completed on August 7 will yield $4,900 in revenue to the city.

The park is to be restored to its original condition, which will include the replacement of the basketball court.

In addition to that, Castle Rock is making a contribution to the city of Ann Arbor parks and recreation scholarship fund, which benefits income-eligible residents. Use of a second set location, near Thurston Pond on property owned by the Ann Arbor Public School system, includes a donation to the Thurston Nature Center.

Trees in General

The skepticism among some neighbors about the movie set tree trimming comes from a heightened awareness in the Virginia Park neighborhood of the city’s approach to tree maintenance. That heightened awareness and interest stems partly from the  recent removal of some street trees there for reasons that are not clear to residents.

In fact, The Chronicle happened upon the movie set tree trimming on Friday morning on our way to photograph a linden tree on Bemidji Drive near Virginia Park, which is marked for removal if no solution can be found for the roots that have heaved the sidewalk.

Bemidji Drive linden tree

Bemidji Drive linden tree. (Photo by the writer.)

The challenge there is how to leave the buttressing roots in place that are crucial to the support of the tree, but have wrecked the sidewalk. Three slabs of sidewalk have been removed and the revealed roots have sat for a couple of weeks as city staff and the property owner work through the options. According to Kerry Gray, planing down the roots isn’t an option. One possibility is to bend the sidewalk around the roots by going outside the city’s sidewalk right-of-way, which would require permission from the property owner.

Pouring concrete right over the roots so that there’s a hump is in theory a possibility, but would  be subject to an Americans with Disabilities Act requirement that the resulting slope is not greater than 5% – in which case a handrail would be required. One obvious downside to that approach is that the roots would continue to raise the sidewalk and the property owner would eventually be faced with the same problem in the future.

The Chronicle met with a former city of Ann Arbor arborist, Cam Knight, along with resident Gary Woodworth last Saturday morning, June 20, to get Knight’s assessment of the Bemidji linden tree. “Is this tree a candidate for root pruning?” was what Woodworth wanted to know. Knight was not overly optimistic that pruning the roots of the tree would be feasible – his assessment was that it appeared to have already been tried before. “Six of one, half dozen of the other,” he allowed. Lindens, he said, aren’t “the most trustworthy of trees.”  But then again, he said, “Any tree can fall over.”

In the course of the time spent Friday evening and Saturday morning a week ago, plus this past Friday morning with neighbors and city staff, it seems evident that at least some of the friction over tree removals might be eased if communication about city policies and strategies for managing the city’s trees were more successful.

To that end, the city is hosting an information session at Slauson Middle School on Monday, June 29, starting at 7 p.m. [confirm date]

The meeting will include information about the city’s plan to plant trees – which will likely include the plan to use storm water funds to plant trees. In the first proposals for the city’s FY 2010 budget made in April (and since adopted by Ann Arbor’s city council) an additional 600 trees per year were to be planted.

writing that says god bless this tree written on bark

A note from a tree enthusiast in the sycamore tree with the starring role in "Flipped." (Photo by the writer.)

birds eye view of the tree used for Flipped the movie

A view downward from up amongst the branches of the tree selected as a location for the movie "Flipped," to be filmed in and around Ann Arbor this summer. (Photo by the writer.)

Kerry Gray with the city of Ann Arbor talks with resident Kirsten Williams about tree trimming and general tree policy.

Kerry Gray, left, a city of Ann Arbor staff member, talks with resident Kirsten Williams about tree trimming and general tree policy. (Photo by the writer.)

tree roots under sidewalk causing heaving

The roots of the linden tree on Bemidji Drive that caused the sidewalk to heave. The boots belong to arborist Cam Knight. (Photo by the writer.)

Arborist truck logo Cam Knight

Ann Arbor loves its trees. In conversation with arborist Cam Knight, the observation that candidates for city council sometimes liked to integrate a tree into their names on their yard signs provoked a laugh. "I know something about how to do that!" he said, pointing to the logo painted on his truck. (Photo by the writer.)

trimmed branches in Ann Arbor Michigan

Trimmed branches from the movie set in Virginia Park. Arborist Cam Knight assessed the trim job as "appropriately done." (Photo by the writer.)

Two sycamore trees for movie Flipped

Two sycamore trees being used for the movie "Flipped" a week before their final trimming. Pictured are arborist Cam Knight, Sue Perry, and Gary Woodworth. (Photo by the writer.)


  1. June 27, 2009 at 8:48 pm | permalink

    I’ve always liked those trees in Virginia Park. Here’s a decidedly non-digital image I made one of them a couple of winters ago: [Virginia Park Sycamore photo]

  2. By Dave Askins
    June 27, 2009 at 10:32 pm | permalink


    We’d included the pinhole shot you created of the Virginia Park sycamore in the article, but I’m glad you’ve highlighted it here in the comments, too. I was actually looking for the blog of the kid who has written on the tree, when I stumbled across your photo. When I saw it, I thought, “Wow, that looks like a pinhole photo, I wonder if Matt Callow knows the photographer … oh, it IS Matt Callow.”

    And for added small-town flavor, it’s worth mentioning that when I visited the Ann Arbor District Library to check out a copy of “Flipped,” it was Allison (Matt’s wife) who was there at the reference desk who provided the stats in the article on the title’s status in the system — not to mention fixing my botching of a title request. It was nice to meet her for the first time in person in such a serendipitous way.

  3. By Sue Perry
    July 11, 2009 at 9:41 pm | permalink

    Aside from the issue of “trimming” the Sycamore tree, I’m generally supportive of most projects that bring business and dollars to Ann Arbor, including the movie folks.I understand that the Ann Arbor area has suddenly become a hot spot for movie productions – - and that government and businesses want to bend over backwards to secure the good will of these folks. (I understand some areas, mostly in California, were long ago tired of the constant disruptions caused by these filming events). I don’t begrudge the loss of part of our park and the basketball court for several months, the rescheduling of baseball games, parking and traffic restrictions while they film, etc. However, a lot more honesty and transparency would go a long way in ensuring the continued good will and tolerance of those most affected by the filming activities – - and perhaps the public at large as well.

    (1) First, as I stood under the Sycamore tree that day, disrupting the planned tree “trimming”, I quickly grew weary of city staff and Castle Rock movie folks trying to convince me that (a) the trees needed trimming anyway (b) they would grow back to their natural shape just fine in no time, and (c) there was no other way they could film their scenes without “trimming” the trees. Well, pooh,it just ain’t so. (a)The trees were in near perfect shape; they had all been pruned nicely just last year (2)I’ll bet anyone $50 that it will be years, if ever, that these trees regain their beautiful and natural shape, and (c) we asked why they couldn’t digitally remove the offending limbs or perhaps considering tying/pulling the branches out of the way temporarily. Puh-leeze – -I’m so very tired of business/government rhetoric, untruths,and distortion – - enough already !! (As an added note, the City of Ann Arbor itself, has specific rules in its instructions to developers and contractors that plant new shrubs or trees for the city, in that they are not allowed to trim or prune them in any way that alters their natural shape.)

    (2)”Castle Rock will be making a contribution to the city’s Parks and Recreation scholarship fund. The amount wasn’t disclosed.” Why can’t the amount be disclosed? Castle Rock/Warner Brothers didn’t want it disclosed? The city didn’t want us to know how little it was? Was it $5,000 or $50,000? How about a contribution specifically for use in Virginia Park – - so that those most affected by this filming benefit directly? Maybe give away 100 basketballs to kids in the area that constantly use the basketball court – - a number of them are from lower income families. And, we’d be glad to give you a list of improvements we’d like to see at the park.

    (3)” Castle Rock Pictures will restore the park and resurface the basketball court” and ” branch trimming cost will be covered by Castle Rock Pictures”. Right – - of course they are going to pay to put things back the way they found them – - and also for the tree trimming – - but many city staffers have spent – and will continue to spend – countless hours with the film folks for planning, meetings, tours, on-site supervision, etc. Anyone keeping track of these hours? Must easily be hundreds and hundreds of hours.

    (4) The City and Castle Rock said they were going to try our suggestion of pulling back the branches – - and we were very pleased that they were going to make the effort to do this. However, they came back the following week, with the added presence of a city police patrol car and officer, and proceeded to “trim” the trees – - and never even made the slightest attempt to experiment with pulling back the branches – - no rope, no cable, nothing. They evidently never intended to. I could have attempted to stop the proceedings, as I did previously – - but it would obviously have been an excerise in futility. I wasn’t in the least intimidated by the police officer – - nor was I concerned about being arrested. It was clear that the powers-that-be were going to have their way, in one fashion or another – - if not that day, then another day yet.

    (5) I’d to see a public accounting for each film. How much was the city paid and for what, i.e., staff hours, public services, etc? How many dollars were spent in the community by the film company, i.e., lodging, meals, services, materials? And how much of this was given back to them via the Michigan tax credit?

    (6) Lastly, I hope the city and Castle Rock will be as speedy, efficient, and thorough in restoring the basketball court and grounds as they are in demolishing it. This has not been the case in the past when the Parks Department has given permission to outside interests to use the park on a long-term basis. I hope I’m wrong, but I’ll bet they’ll repave the courts as cheaply as possible, grade the gounds, throw some grass seed down – - and never come back to water and tend the site as often as necessary to make sure the grass grows back and that all is in order.

    And isn’t ironic – - that Rob Reiner picks one of the most beautiful Sycamore trees in Ann Arbor to film a scene about a young girl refusing to come down out out of her beloved Sycamore tree so they won’t cut it down – - and Castle Rock/Warner Brothers then hacks up that very tree. Meatheads to be sure.

  4. By RBAS
    July 17, 2009 at 3:21 pm | permalink

    It’s just a stupid tree. Get over it.

  5. By Alan Goldmith
    July 17, 2009 at 4:00 pm | permalink

    “I’d to see a public accounting for each film. How much was the city paid and for what, i.e., staff hours, public services, etc? How many dollars were spent in the community by the film company, i.e., lodging, meals, services, materials? And how much of this was given back to them via the Michigan tax credit?”

    This is a great question. I think the tax credit is probably a great idea but is anyone keeping track of the actual money that is flowing into the state versus the tax credit?

  6. By Daniel R
    July 17, 2009 at 4:31 pm | permalink

    I was the person who wrote the letters in the tree. Also, I have been climbing this tree since I was 5. Also, take notice that the tree is shedding it’s bark, which gives the tree a green color, which would be very colorful tree in the movie. You set up this scene in the right place, and the right time. At first I thought those people were building a new basketball court. Today I met with one of the security people and I showed him the writing. He said my tree was going to be famous. The words I wrote in the tree were, “This tree belongs to Daniel R.” “Give Peace, not War.” “God bless this tree!” I also wrote the note about cutting the dead branches off my tree. I learned in school that cutting the dead branches off trees extends their life. Plus, the sycamore tree is my favorite tree. Also I want to tell you a little about myself. I have Autism, and I’am 13 years old. I live near this park on Charlton St. Please take good care of my tree. Dear Ann Arbor Chronicle, please tell the Ann Arbor News to come to my house to take pictures of me! I feel like the best citizen in Ann Arbor. I LOVE ANN ARBOR! And Ann Arbor loves me!

    Sincerely, Daniel R.

    P.S. My mom said it is okay for me to send this note!

  7. By Julie
    July 18, 2009 at 9:25 am | permalink

    Daniel, thanks for writing here! It’s wonderful to know who wrote the letters in the tree, and it’s wonderful to know how much you love that tree! I’m glad your tree is going to be famous. And I think climbing trees is one of the best things in the world.

  8. By Omari
    July 20, 2009 at 3:43 pm | permalink

    I was wondering why they had ripped out my basketball court. But hey, if you’re gonna make a movie about a tree, why not make it in good ol’ Tree City Ann Arbor.
    Side Note: I’m watching them film right now.

  9. By John Sea
    July 20, 2009 at 10:58 pm | permalink

    Nice story and great photo of the sycamore by Matt Callow. I live a few blocks away on Virginia Ave and all in all think the filming is a good thing. Sue, I agree on some transparency with the true cost of all this and what the net $$ gain really is for the city. But regarding the trimming, where were you when the city cut down at least 4 trees on my block ;) Trimming… at least with trimming we can give it a few years and the trees probably won’t even show. Hopefully the b-ball court will be even better than before too.

    Looks like filming is about to happen this week … they definitely picked the right location given the plot. A2 = the new Hollywood ?!!

  10. By Michael K.
    July 20, 2009 at 11:55 pm | permalink

    Why are there special tax credits or breaks for the movie industry, but tax hikes for all other businesses that already exist or may move here for good?

    I can’t believe that people think the economy can be stimulated because of a short-term project or payout. Economic “stimulation” can only occur through something SUSTAINABLE.

    BTW, I found out about the movie the hard way…I bought a basketball for my son and I to play with there. We walked up to the park just to find out that it was roped-off, the basketball net was ripped out, and a strange structure grew from beyond. I live about 300 feet from the filming and I knew nothing about any of this. Also, the basketball net was on its last leg. It was pretty bad. Any replacement would be better than what was there.

  11. By colliesue
    July 21, 2009 at 8:16 am | permalink

    The production company is putting a lot of money into the community. 3 Local hotels are housing a couple of hundred crew that came from California. I know, the next argument is that they brought their own crew instead of hiring locally. Well they did that too. For example their hair and makeup department might have brought 6 “heads” but then hired locally another 6-8 people. Same with wardrobe, set, electric, etc. The hundreds of “extras”- one day there were literally hundreds- and featured extras were all paid. The local establishments that the transplanted Californians frequent on their 40+ day stay is something isnt it? The local catering companies that have been hired to feed the cast and crew and the one hired to feed those hundreds of extras throughout a 10 hour day had to be paid. How can people say that this is not helping the local economy.

    Typical Ann Arborites have to fight the battle though…even if there is no enemy. A simple tree trimming and you are all up in arms. Give me a break! They trimmed a tree. The branches will grow back. It will probably need another trim again some day and the taxpayers will pay for that one. Trees need trimming anyway. But that was really smart blocking the workers. Wow lady, maybe your day could have been spent more productively. Wonder how much money that useless strike wasted?

    Why cant people just welcome the new industry and make it work for you? Sometimes change is good. This has been exciting to Michiganders and good for the economy. Stop trying to turn everything into an issue, a platform for something else and a reason to “stand up”even if there is nothing good to stand up against. This film company followed the rules and is leaving good things in its wake. The end, oh and thanks to the film company…its been exciting!

  12. July 21, 2009 at 8:56 am | permalink

    When the filming of “Youth in Revolt” took place on W. Liberty and First St., last year, the people who constructed the sets did a fabulous job, making the old house at the corner look much better than before (although I wish they had created and left a REAL Italian grocery store in the former Schlenker Building–through the window, the wares looked so mouth-watering and tempting). And everything in the area was cleaned up beautifully afterwards. There was a lot of work involved in staging that scene, it was all very well done, and everyone controlling the filming area was polite and pleasant!

  13. By Nancy Harvey
    July 25, 2009 at 10:27 am | permalink

    Sue Perry… yawn… can’t see the forest for the tree.

  14. By Amy
    August 10, 2009 at 10:09 am | permalink

    I just came across a new website for fans of “Flipped”. It looks pretty new since it does not have a lot of postings yet. Here’s the link.

    Also, my kids were extras in the movie and they had a blast. All the crew and cast were excellent to work with and they treated us great. I really believe that with the state of the economy in Michigan, the film industry is providing us with at least one bright spot. Let’s not be so critical or the industry will decide to film in more hospitable places.

    September 14, 2009 at 9:18 am | permalink

    I visited the tree yesterday with my daughter, and while we had a wonderful time climbing the tree and appreciating the late summer day, I was extremely disappointed at the graffiti and carvings which are now defacing the tree.

    While a couple of those carvings are shown in the pictures above, there are literally several dozen now all over the lower limbs.

    Treating a tree in this way is disrespectful, possibly illegal (vandalism), and even increases the chance that the tree will become infested or infected.

    If you or your friends are damaging the tree in this way, please stop.

    Just remember – if the tree ever really wants tattoos, you will see it at the Lucky Monkey!