By PAULA OLIVER
Hollywood glamour officially came to the place locals call Taradise when film superstar Tom Cruise emerged from his hideaway.
The world's highest-paid actor did nothing to hurt Taranaki's tourism industry during a slick 40-minute international press conference at the weekend for the Japanese period epic The Last Samurai.
"It's stunning. How can anyone not want to be here?" Cruise gushed.
He repeatedly praised the region's "breathtaking" scenery and excitedly said he couldn't wait to get it on film.
Cruise's trademark dazzling smile and booming laugh made regular appearances for the cameras, as he cruised through questions from the media.
Yes, his partner Penelope Cruz would be coming to visit. Yes, his children would be, too. No, he hadn't had time to go out for a beer yet, because his role in The Last Samurai was demanding and he had been preparing.
In fact, he has recently learned to speak Japanese, handle a sword, fight on horseback and trained in martial arts.
He managed to extend his new language skills even further, nervously trying a few lines of Maori in an effort to thank the performance group who welcomed him.
While The Last Samurai won't be seen in New Zealand for a year, it is already generating spin-offs in Taranaki.
Cruise described it as "a big movie".
"From a production stand-point, this is the biggest movie I have ever worked on in my career."
For Taranaki, that has meant an influx of international visitors, employment for many locals and the attention of international media.
Film Venture Taranaki project manager Peter Avery, who worked to get the production into the region, puts a conservative estimate of $20 million to $60 million on the economic spin-offs.
He is in the process of commissioning an economic impact study and doesn't like talking figures.
"It's the intangibles that are valuable; what it does for the New Zealand film industry and the region. This is the only movie [to be filmed] here since Vigil. To host something of this size is great. Two-thirds of this film is being done here."
Crews will be filming at seven sets over the next four months. Local builders have been employed to construct the intricately detailed Japanese-style buildings seen decorating hills just outside New Plymouth. Local timber suppliers are smiling after supplying the sets.
In the city, hotels are heavily booked for crew members, support staff and extras.
In Oakura, where Cruise has rented a $5000-a-week mansion, several locals have rented out their homes to production staff for $700 and $800 a week.
Navigating Taranaki's rural areas requires four-wheel-drive vehicles and a local car dealer is known to have rented several to film crews.
But he may have become a bit concerned about the vehicles' safety when director Edward Zwick joked yesterday of 150 rented vehicles driving on the wrong side of the road with their windscreen wipers on.
Venture Taranaki's Stuart Trundle says Taranaki has more than a monoculture of dairy farming, and the country's big cities need to know that.
"It's about getting Taranaki to register on the awareness Richter scale."
When filming is completed the elaborate Japanese sets will be demolished with bulldozers and the locations returned to their original condition.
"They're not built to last, they're built for a purpose," says Avery.
His colleague chips in: "Aren't there a few houses up in Auckland like that?"
Today, after a week of attracting all the attention, it will be down to business for Tom Cruise.
Lights, camera, action.