Robert Foulkes, location manager for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” embarked on the road to Ebbing in 2014, traveling through four states in search of the perfect town. But the movie got scrapped, and he moved on. Until November 2015, that is, when the project resurrected and he contacted Sylva for the first time.
He talked to Jackson County Chamber of Commerce Director Julie Spiro, going through the film criteria to see if Sylva had what was needed. When he came back in December, to speak with Spiro and Town Manager Paige Dowling, it was to say that Sylva had made the short list of locations. Dowling said she didn’t have much expectation the movie would actually come to Sylva, though. She’d had similar meetings with three other film representatives in her four years as town manager.
“We were really excited that we found out it was frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson, but knowing that they’re looking at 22 towns I thought it was a small possibility that it would end up being Sylva,” Dowling said.
But it did.
Tammy Fuller, owner of the main filming location, Sassy Frass Consignment, could hardly believe the news.
“I was just like oh my goodness. This has got to be nothing but the Lord,” she said.
It wasn’t long after the decision was made that crew began to have a presence in Sylva. As Foulkes said at a town meeting Feb. 22, “it would be wrong of us to sit here and say you’ll never know we’re here.”
Dowling began to meet with crew, determining what permissions and information they would need to make the movie happen and who they should be in touch with to get all the hurdles cleared. She sat in meeting after meeting, including one with Foulkes and leaders at the Sylva Police Department, during which Foulkes asked about the possibility of turning Main Street to two-way traffic during filming. Given Sylva’s decades-long debate over that very issue, Dowling said, she and Police Chief Davis Woodard “looked at each other and thought, ‘Oh my goodness.’” That concept, predictably, proved too cost-prohibitive to enact.
Traffic detours had to be worked out, and the stoplight at Main Street’s intersection with Spring Street had to disappear. Trees planted outside Sassy Frass had to go, the dirt covered over with brick pavers — the crew will replace the bed and trees when filming is complete.
And Sassy Frass itself had to undergo a transformation. For Fuller, that process began March 30, when she closed her store and began moving everything into storage. The crew started building the set, transforming her furniture store into a police station and the upstairs into an interrogation room.
“They worked a few weeks on all of that,” Fuller said. “They worked their tails off from early in the morning till late at night, every single day to get ready.”
In the meantime, Fuller stayed in the background, relishing the time off to stay home with her 22-month-old daughter. The movie was paying her to stay closed, cutting checks not only to Fuller but also to her employees and the booth vendors who typically set up shop there. She’d visit the building only occasionally, to pick up paperwork or messages.
“They’ve kind of let me go behind scenes and watch how the movie takes and the recording goes, and you put on the headsets and get to hear the directors record,” she said. “That has been crazy.”
She, her husband and some of her employees even got to be extras in the movie — Fuller wound up in a scene with McDormand.
Arledge Armenaki, a cinematography professor at Western Carolina University, also saw an opportunity in the filming. After Sylva was announced as the location, he got in touch with the production company to see about possibilities for collaboration. His upperclassmen got a field trip to the set for a behind-the-scenes look, and some students even landed jobs on set.
“It’s been a great learning experience for them,” Armenaki said. “They had the ability to interface with a professional movie company. They could see how their training led them to give them the confidence and understanding that they too could work in this industry.”
This week, the crew will shoot a scene in which the Sassy Frass building burns up. Fuller said she’d be lying if she said she wasn’t a little nervous, but she trusts that they know what they’re doing and her building will be turned back over, good as new, in time for her scheduled June 3 reopening.
The reopening will be a lot of work itself, Fuller said, but “I cannot complain at all. They (the crew) have been more than helpful and more than accommodating.”
It’s been amazing, she said, to see just how hard they work. When you watch a movie all you see is the cast acting out their lines, but there’s an incredible amount of effort that goes on behind the scenes.
“I never dreamed of how big of a job they have and how hard they worked,” she said. “They’re usually up there rolling at 7 o’clock in the morning and work until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. They don’t quit — it’s just go, go, go.”
It’s been go, go, go for Sylva, too — for its leaders, its business owners and anybody who frequents downtown. But the consensus is that it will be more than worth it.
“We’re very grateful to them for choosing Sylva,” Dowling said. “We all know what a wonderful community this is and a pretty downtown, and I think that says a lot that a movie of this size thinks so, too.”