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Metro Pulse Rocket Ride

Hollywood brings opportunities and a bit of glamour to East Tennessee.

By Mike Gibson

APRIL 27, 1998:  It's the heart of a frigid mid-March afternoon. Coarse hills lined with rows of barren trees rise like sullen giants on the horizon to meet a slate-grey sky. Set hard and grim against the ridges, a 125-foot wrought-iron tower, an imposing contraption of rusty girders, pulleys, and wheels inexorably cycles a chain of huge buckets in and out of a sheet metal silo perhaps two-thirds as high.

Milling about the structure are dozens of black-faced miners in hard-hats, grimy denim, and heavy grey coats—small-town working men, all obstinate jawlines, thick Appalachian faces, and sturdy grits 'n' gravy paunches. Sweating from the oppressive heat and turbid black smoke of the tipple, they shiver as soon as they step out of the mine head and greet the piercing wind. Only a few yards from the tower, a tall, arcing sign announces, in hard steel font, "Olga Coal Company - Coalwood WV".

And in fact, the only clue that this place isn't really Coalwood, West Va., circa 1957—that it's really Petros, Tenn., in 1998—is...well, there are lots of clues actually. Like the men in headsets and movie jackets scampering around like so many restless fire ants. Like the dozen or so huge truck trailers scattered carelessly about the lot, their gates gaping open to reveal everything from stacks of plywood to cartons of canned drinks. Like the festival-sized array of stinky porta-potties lining State Route 116 at the crew camp less than an eighth of a mile from the set.

But the period sets are truly stunning, the attendant bustle and clutter aside. In refacing tiny Petros to look like a mid-century West Virginia mining community, Universal Pictures hopes to capture the essence of former NASA rocket scientist Homer Hickam's childhood home. His rise from the dead-end prospects of a coal mining town to national prominence in the scientific community is the subject of The Rocket Boys, a major Hollywood feature film being shot in and around Knoxville this spring.

Boasting a cast of well-regarded actors (including quirky, talented cutie Laura Dern, who takes the decidedly un-quirky role of the nurturing schoolteacher) and director Joe Johnston of The Rocketeer and Honey I Shrunk the Kids fame, the production ranks among the largest films ever shot in the state.

Right now, however, the bewildering inconstancy of East Tennessee springtime weather is wreaking havoc with the production schedule. It's almost freezing, and the caustic wind has even the heavily-dressed crew members shuffling numb feet and casting forlorn glances at the well-heated extras' tent.

This afternoon's shoot is devoted almost entirely to a single two-and-a-half minute scene; the precocious young Homer (played by 17-year-old actor Jake Gyllenhaal) has just seen one of his homemade miniature rockets fly astray and scorch through the middle of the worksite, nearly razing off a dozen heads in the process. The accident earns him a very public dressing-down from his father (played by Chris Cooper, the protagonist in John Sayles' critically-acclaimed Lone Star last year), who is the mine foreman and who vehemently disapproves of his son's absurd hobby.

Cooper has most of the lines in the scene, and he's a model of thespian intensity as the cameras roll for take after take, his voice crescendoing violently mid-way through each repetition of the tirade, cracking with sudden anger and festering contempt as he calls his errant moviedom son "a menace—and a damn thief." But with each successive shot, it seems that the wind grows a little fiercer, the temperature a degree colder, the sky a shade more overcast. With a series of close-ups yet to be filmed, a few tiny, sparse, but very cold water droplets begin to fall out of the leaden sky.

"Is it always like this around here?" asks co-producer Charles Gordon, assessing the capricious elements with an incredulous chuckle. "It's hot. It's cold. It's hot. It's cold. It's cloudy, then you get a burst of 90 degree sunshine."

Gordon shakes his head. It's Wednesday; the early part of the week was mild and sunny, while the weekend saw the town lightly frosted by a frenetic snow-flurry, a storm that left most surrounding counties untouched.

"I thought we were coming to East Tennessee in the spring; this is more like the Arctic," he says, tightly clutching two small hand-heaters at waist level and shivering palpably through a heavy black Waterworld parka. "In California, if it gets this cold, they shut everything down."


The Third Coast?

Unexpected cold fronts were about the only thing that hindered Tennessee's effort to become a significant player in the film industry last year. 1997 saw a record 14 major motion pictures bring lights and cameras to the Volunteer state, including the upcoming Dreamworks SKG release In Dreams (a Neil Jordan film with Annette Bening and Aidan Quinn), the Tommy Lee Jones/Wesley Snipes vehicle U.S. Marshals, and Francis Ford Coppola's take on John Grisham's The Rainmaker. Even last year's D.C.-based Oscar-nominee Wag the Dog featured a handful of scenes shot in Nashville.

All told, the Tennessee Film, Entertainment, and Music Commission estimates that feature films brought $16.5 million in revenue to the state last year. And 1998 is off to an even quicker start with The Rocket Boys, the largest non-Memphis production shot entirely in Tennessee since 1984 when Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek navigated The River over in Rogersville. Studio moguls and economic analysts believe this latest production will drop a hefty $6 million locally before shooting wraps sometime in May.

"This is one more example of how active our film community is here," gushes Ann Pope, executive director of the film commission, adding that Tennessee is in the top 10 nationally in total film/video/cable productions. "We're a very film-friendly state."

Well, maybe. But whether or not The Rocket Boys and other recent productions really do bode the rise of a new "Third Coast," the film already boasts plenty of other significant—albeit less quantifiable—accomplishments.

To dozens of local practicing and would-be actors, it provided either an impressive résumé credential or the experience of a lifetime, a once-only chance to bask in the opulent glow of Hollywood lights. To single-stoplight hamlets like Petros and Oliver Springs—and jaded big-town Knoxville, as well—it brought unparalleled spectacle: massive sets, extensive period recreations, and a sort of gypsy carnival atmosphere that belied the one-more-time monotony of the filming itself. (On a day when the production took over Gay Street for an evening shoot, one onlooker remarked, "I haven't seen so much going on downtown in years; it was like being in a real city today.")

And to the West Coast folks who trekked down to a sleepy Southern city to shoot a sweet family film about a coal miner's son who trumps fate, it gave a telling glimpse into what East Tennessee has (or maybe doesn't have) to offer should they ever get the notion to come back—things like old-fashioned Southern hospitality and great scenery. And, of course, some pretty goofy weather.


Why Here?

Set designer Barry Robison, one of the first members of the production team hired by producers Gordon and Larry Franco, is arguably the man most responsible for bringing The Rocket Boys to Knoxville, although he gives props to the film commission's Pope and David Glasgow— "the most incredible film commissioners in 50 states"—averring that "they really did their homework."

After fruitless trips to Virginia and North Georgia ("they didn't feel right") and the real town of Coalwood in West Virginia (which was "too remote"), he visited Knoxville at Pope's behest. What he found was near-perfect amalgam of urban vitality and rural charm, from rustic Petros—the "perfect site for our staging of Coalwood"—to Knoxville's quaintly aging center city, used for later scenes set in Indianapolis, where Homer's functional model rockets earn a berth in a national science fair.

"It's important when you shoot film that you be able to shoot as much as possible within a certain area, without too many long-distance moves," explains the 45-year-old native San Franciscan, in precisely measured tones seemingly tailor-made for NPR interviews. "The Knoxville area had everything. It was fantastic visually, and it had a great downtown."

Robison eventually swayed Johnston and the producers. "They had just seen West Virginia and had been very depressed by the remoteness of it," he remembers. "I drove them down here thinking, 'Oh my god, I hope they like it.'"

They did. And in December, the production team began the daunting work of planning and fashioning period sets in more than a half-dozen locations in Knox and surrounding counties. In Petros, the crew rebuilt, bolt-by-bolt, an old mining tower disassembled from a dormant Knoxville excavation. They also dumped tons of crumbled asphalt in the vicinity of the newly-erected tower and refaced with weathered brick and tin paneling a cluster of old Petros buildings (a couple more were built outright) to recreate the Olga Coal Company's base of operations, complete with machine shop, wash house, first aid station, and post office. "A logistical nightmare," observes publicist Dave Fulton, a veteran of the notoriously problematic Waterworld shoot.

The team also brought an old 1911 steam locomotive up from the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga; they rented a handful of buildings in Oliver Springs and Harriman—many of which house active businesses—and recast them, with new storefronts and signs, as the hub of downtown Coalwood; they removed the asbestos and lead paint from the old Brownlow school in Knoxville and repaired faulty wiring in the marquis lights of the Tennessee Theatre.

Says local independent producer Jeff Talman, hired as an assistant location manager for the film, the logistical impact of the project can be gauged through any number of small but telling measures: hundreds of hours of security purchased from area police forces, more than $10,000 spent on propane gas, nearly 100 cars rented, more than $1,000 expended just for signs giving directions to the sets. "The scope of the thing really knocks you out," says Talman. "It's like trickle-down theory at work."


The Big Break

In terms of human resources, Fulton says the movie employed more than 2,000 local extras and actors, as well as drawing around 60 percent of its 200-man crew from the ranks of area technicians and laborers. For most of the extras, that meant attending one of two February casting calls, one in Oliver Springs and one in Knoxville.

Jason Dean, a 26-year-old restaurant manager (at Charlie Pepper's on Cumberland Avenue) and aspiring local actor, recalls the freezing temperatures that he and nearly 1,000 other hopefuls endured (some for nearly three hours) waiting outside Oliver Springs High School in a line that snaked for some 500 yards.

"Lots of people were there just for fun—lots of business men who took the day off for the heck of it," says Dean, whose clean-cut All-American looks earned him his first acting job, in a national public service announcement, while he was still a senior at Central High School. "Lots of high school kids. Then there were those few of us there looking to be discovered."

After submitting a photo and sitting for a brief interview, Dean found himself among the chosen; he landed a spot as a featured extra, playing a newspaper reporter covering the Indianapolis science fair, a role that was originally intended to be a speaking part. Dean's lines hit the cutting-room floor before he even arrived for his first day of shooting. Nonetheless, he expects that his character will be prominent—if silent—in more than one scene.

Dean was disappointed by the elimination of his speaking part; his paycheck doubtless eased some of the pain. Extras like Justin Whitsett, an 18-year-old senior at Oak Ridge High School, earned $500 to $600 for a day's work—sometimes more depending on their classification and whether they remained on set longer than eight hours.

"There were lots of extras from the high school, some of them gone a whole week, getting paid for mostly standing around," says Whitsett, whose own part, as a Coalwood teen known simply as the Kid, called for a short line ("Hey Rocket Boy, Mars is that way.") "One of my buddies said, 'I feel like I'm taking advantage of them.' I said, 'That's what you're supposed to do; you're an actor.'"

For his single day of filming in Oliver Springs, Whitsett was given a private dressing room, small but well-furnished with a couch, television, and sound system. "I was taking pictures the whole time and trying to hide it so people wouldn't think I was a dork," laughs Whitsett, who landed his role through the local Talent Trek agency.

"I was treated like one of the other stars; no one knew I was not brought in for this movie from L.A., and I sure wasn't going to let on," says Donald Thorne, a school teacher at Halls Middle and a veteran of several local acting troupes. Also a Talent Trek client, the 43-year-old part-time thespian was cast as Coalwood's senior law enforcement official (a state trooper), a plumb assignment that afforded him four scenes, with speaking parts in each, including a shot at Brownlow where his character arrests Homer and three friends on the suspicion that one of their rocket launches may have triggered a forest fire.

(The trooper's accusation spurs a heated exchange with school teacher Dern, the boys' staunchest defender. Thorne describes Dern, the movie's chief source of starpower, as "a cute little small blonde woman; very nice. She was very giving and willing to help you in a scene.")


Hollywood meets Petros

For Dave Fulton, leaving his Los Angeles home for a shoot in the rural South was less a matter of culture shock than routine; his last movie, the recent Kevin Costner epic The Postman, was staged in a remote village in Washington two hours from Spokane, a town of 200 accessible by a single one-lane road. "You end up shooting in lots of strange places," says Fulton, a paunchy, affably sardonic sort in his early 40s.

"When you have any kind of culture clash on a set, it's more often from the locals," he continues. A former journalist and editor of Cashbox magazine, Fulton is a freelance publicist; he travels to perhaps three motion picture sets a year, hired by major studios like Universal to navigate the often-perilous straits of media relations—one of many strange cogs in the odd machine that is a major motion picture production.

"People are always surprised at the scope of things," he says. "They think filmmaking is just a matter of pointing a camera at an actor. When they find out there's a lot more time and trouble involved, you occasionally have differences of opinion."

So says Harriman business man and property owner Frank Williams, who leased his downtown Harriman building space, home to his own Odds and Ends Manufacturing—a fold-out hat company—as well as a karate school and a child's clothing store (which had to close for the week), to the production. He's less than enthusiastic in appraising the makeover, complete with new paint and signage, the Rocket Boys crew performed in recasting the storefronts as a lawyer's quarters, a bail bondsman's office, and a restaurant. "They painted one of the buildings a putrid chartreuse," he says sourly.

"When they come in, they consume you; they take right over," he says in a pinched backwoodsy drawl. "They're nice as they could be and they pay for what they do. But if it was coming again I'd say 'no.' I wouldn't want the mess again."

Which points at the dirty little secret of movie-making: that the shooting itself is often inconvenient, tedious, and largely bereft of the glamour and excitement usually associated with the business. "It disrupts some things when we come into these towns and shoot," admits Gordon. "People think that when a movie comes in, it'll be a great thing. Then you watch for eight hours, and nothing much is happening, and you still can't get to your house. That's when people start thinking, 'Oh my god! This goes on for another month.'"

It's 6 p.m. on Gay Street. A nearly quarter-mile stretch of Knoxville's version of Main Street is cordoned off, accessible only to foot traffic. Another veritable ant colony of movie folk is swarming downtown, taping bulky aggregates of wires to streets, hanging cartoony period signs ("Indianapolis Business District", "Cocktail Lounge"), orchestrating a fleet of '50s-era automobiles as they putter down Gay and park along either side of the avenue—hulking dinosaurs from the Steel Age of cars, all wall-of-chrome bumpers, palatial trunks, and pool-sized hoods.

Upon exiting his well-preserved navy blue mid-'50s Chevy, one wintry old salt looks back on the sparkling giant with paternal affection. "Got out of the war and bought it for $1,400," he tells curious onlookers. He and dozens of other vintage car owners were solicited via fliers and newspaper ads in early spring.

"I thought Lord-God Almighty; I'll never pay this thing off—worried myself sick about it," he continues. Then he sighs, smiles and adds, "Now here she is—400,000 miles."

This latest transformation—from downtown Knox, 1998, to downtown Indianapolis in 1957—is a curious one. The older buildings of Knoxville's central business district seemed largely well-suited to the task of subbing for those of a city from another era, but the anachronisms are still glaring—Dogwood Arts murals lingering behind '50's street signs, aged buildings with gleaming modern storefronts.

By 9 p.m., however, with most of the street cast in shadow and the tiny stretch in front of the Tennessee Theatre (which has been renamed Ennesse, via strategic marquee manipulation) bathed in the celestial glow of a half-dozen spotlights, there's enough Hollywood magic in the air of this warm April night that the alchemy seems complete.

With a sizable crowd of onlookers pooled in the grass behind the bus stop next to First American, the crew runs through a handful of shots, short street scenes—awestruck Homer wandering the busy sidewalks of downtown Indy.

The action soon lapses into tedious repetition, ultimately less absorbing than watching the metamorphosis itself. But something about the evening—the mild weather, the beguiling '50s flourishes, the dazzling suffusion of light in the midst of the looming darkness—holds everyone rapt for the better part of the six-hour shoot.

Asked if The Rocket Boys holds any sort of promise for the state's (and the city's) future in showbiz, Gordon is encouraging. "It's a viable area. Attracting movies mostly comes down to what the material calls for, and this is an area with a lot of different looks to it. And Hollywood is a small town. People hear you shot in Knoxville and ask 'How was it?' The more you make, the better you are.

"My only complaint has been the weather; it boned us time and time again," he says. "We really hit it perfect tonight, though. This is beautiful." He pauses and looks skyward, smiling, drinking in the sweetness of the still night air. The sky is cloudless, lovely, tiny flecks of starlight on a blanket of warm indigo.

By 9 a.m. the following morning, nearly all traces of filming have been removed from downtown—the signs, the cars, the thick streetside entanglements of cable. Even the missing letters on the theatre marquee are back in their rightful place. And all not a moment too soon, as the entire city is now enveloped in the dreary gray throes of a kinghell dousing, a long, hard rain that promises not to let up for days to come.


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