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Camera crazy: Downtown Sylva comes alive during filming of big-budget movie

coverAn air of excitement and expectation reigned over downtown Sylva last week as crews and stars alike rolled in to film streets transformed into the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri. 

The long road to the big screen
• ‘Dirty Dancing,’ ‘Three Billboards,’ and economic ripples

Crowds gathered on street corners, craning their necks for a view during scenes filmed outdoors on Sylva’s Main Street or keeping a more laidback watch during indoor scenes, hoping for a glimpse of the Hollywood A-listers cast in the big-budget film, called “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

“Woody Harrelson walked down the street in his white T-shirt, got in a car and left,” reported Sylva resident Mary Moody, after an hour of watching from the corner of Spring and Main Streets Wednesday (May 11) afternoon. 

“That was the most exciting thing we’ve seen today,” said her friend Geri Browning. 

Worth the wait, the two agreed. And there were plenty of others around to concur with that sentiment.

“It’s Woody Harrelson. Duh,” laughed Anna Hance, of Sylva, watching the proceedings with her 14-year-old son Michael Tarlton, when asked why she’d come out. The two are big Harrelson fans, having loved him in movies such as “Zombieland” and “Now You See Me,” and Hance recalling older appearances such as “Cheers” and “White Men Can’t Jump.” They were all camped out in hopes of catching a Harrelson autograph before he left town. He’d been generous with those, they’d heard.

“Even if we don’t, this is still pretty cool,” Hance said. “When the movie comes out, you can say, ‘I was there.’” 

Take a walk down Main Street Sylva now, and it’s certainly easy to feel like you’re somewhere quite different than the place that existed before set crews arrived at the end of March. Cones and traffic guards have been moderating travel down the eastward block of Main Street during filming, and vehicles full of equipment can be spotted all around town. In Your Ear Music now bears a sign dubbing it the Music Emporium, Jackson’s General Store has been rebranded Ebbing Advertising Agency and, most notably, Sassy Frass Consignment has been remade as the Ebbing Police Department. 

“I was amazed every single time I went in on how much work they had done and how realistic,” said Tammy Fuller, Sassy Frass owner. “It looks like it has always been a police station. They did an incredible job.” 

The transformation drew an ever-growing following of spectators as filming progressed, giving the crew another task — moving everyone around from corner to corner so as to keep spectators out of the shot. 

With the scene getting ready to shift, Coleman Terrell — key set production assistant for the film — told the group watching across Spring Street from Sassy Frass that they’d all be in it if they didn’t move.  

“As much as we would like for that to happen, we can’t have it happen,” he said, herding the group over toward Blackrock Outdoor Company. 

While happenings outside were about as far from the norm as it gets in Sylva, a step into In Your Ear Music — next door over from Sassy Frass — represents a return to business as usual. 

“We’ll peek outside for a minute, but other than that it’s just another day,” said Jason McMahan, manager at In Your Ear. 

Though that assessment comes with a caveat. Sometimes sounds from the filming filter through the walls, such as one in which frances McDormand did take after take of a scene in which she yells, “You will f***ing die!” at the top of her lungs. Then there was the time when Woody Harrelson himself wandered into the store. He and McMahan played some guitar together — even for an even-keeled guy like McMahan, that was pretty cool. 


Impacts on downtown business

The level of business at In Your Ear has also been different than it would on a “normal” day in mid-May — it’s slower. 

But McMahan isn’t complaining about that. 

“Overall I think it’s a good thing, definitely bringing more attention to downtown, which is needed,” he said. “I think the town needed a little kick in the butt overall. Not many people get a chance to experience this, especially not in a small town in Western North Carolina.”

With traffic blocked off or regulated differently than usual, and parking a bit more scarce, some people are avoiding that east block of Main Street, McMahan said. Especially the area that’s directly part of the set — it can be confusing to see what’s open for business, what’s restricted and where it’s OK to walk. 

But businesses in that area of direct impact have been compensated for the inconvenience, the loss of business, and the “general hassle,” McMahan said. So monetarily, it’s OK. And once the movie comes out, that hassle is likely to pay out dividends in people coming to see the places shown in the film. 

Bernadette Peters, owner of City Lights Café and Evolution Wine Bar, has had a similar experience to McMahan, at least as far as Evolution is concerned. Numbers for that business are lower than they were at this point last year — though in April 2015 Evolution newly rebranded itself from being Perk ‘n’ Pastry, so other factors could account for some of the difference in numbers. 

“I have talked to other business owners in this end of downtown,” Peters said, “and they have the same challenge with traffic rerouting, and people are just avoiding downtown unless they’re here to see the filming.” 

City Lights, on the other hand, which is a half-block away from the set and offset from the traffic detours, has been doing well — better than this time last year. Patronage from cast and crew could be part of that.

“During filming time we’ll see them get coffee or something to eat before or after they come down,” Peters said. Cast and crew get their meals catered, but when it comes to snacks and coffee, they rely on local businesses. With about 150 people on site at any given time, that’s a lot of coffee pours. 

John Bubacz has been sharing the burden of caffeine provision over at Signature Brew. 

“We’ve had a good number of the crew and the cast, and we’re very grateful,” Bubacz said. 

Sam Rockwell has visited the store, he said, and he’s a man who likes his liquids. A single visit resulted in an order for a double shot of espresso, a smoothie and chai tea — Rockwell brought in his own water bottle as well, Bubacz said. 

But it’s not just been people working with the film who have been boosting his sales. 

“It seems like a lot more locals have been in,” he said. Downtown has been full of people who live nearby but never seem to make it downtown, Bubacz said. During the late-night filming this week (May 18-20), he’s planning to keep his shop open late to take advantage of that fact. Bubacz hopes that this event will serve as a catalyst to drive spectators closer to regular status. 

“See those people?” he said, pointing out the window at a family walking along the opposite sidewalk. “I don’t know who they are.”

Hopefully, they’ll be back. 

Bubacz owns another downtown business as well — the relatively new Sylva Convenient Mart — and that one hasn’t been doing so well. 

“Sales have been devastatingly bad,” he said. 

Bubacz said that, as the convenient mart isn’t directly in any of the shots — though it is on the same downtown block as shops that are — he hasn’t received compensation for the loss in business, but plans to ask for some. He’s hopeful. 

“Everyone associated with this film has been so nice,” he said. “Very generous, polite.”

The staff at Humanité Boutique have been enjoying the interactions as well. 

“I thought we were going to be dead while it happened,” said the store’s web manager Carley Birch, but that’s not what transpired. People have been walking in and out of the store as a distraction while sticking around for the filming, and business has swung between really busy and kind of slow. 

Besides, added Birch’s coworker Katie Brandt, the store’s marketing coordinator, can you put a price on working across the street from your favorite star? She’s not a “bandwagon” Harrelson fan — she made that clear. She loves the star. And after making friends with a crew member, Brandt found herself with a chance to look around Harrelson’s bus, which is equipped with a rotary phone, Persian rug and yoga swing. Then, she got to meet him. 

“It was the highlight of my life,” Brandt said. 


The delayed reaction 

From a business perspective, though, the highlight will likely come after the movie is released. And that’s what has the downtown business community holding its collective breath. 

“Once the movie is released and Sylva is recognized as the small town in this movie, visitors will rediscover Sylva,” said Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. “That will bring new customers through the doors, into our shops and our restaurants. I do remain optimistic that there will be a long-term positive economic impact in the area.” 

Because “Three Billboards” isn’t a low-budget, barebones film. It’s written by Martin McDonagh, who wrote the Oscar-nominated film “In Bruges,” and it stars big names such as frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage and Caleb Landry Jones. In early December, Sylva Town Manager Paige Dowling was told the movie would have a budget of $15 million, though the amount has been reported to have increased since then. 

When presenting the project at a town meeting in February, the movie’s location manager Robert Foulkes described “Three Billboards” as “a passion project,” flat-out predicting that McDormand would get an Oscar nomination for her role. 

Spiro is already starting to think about how to piggyback the chamber’s marketing onto the film’s anticipated success. The chamber’s 2017 magazine will feature “Three Billboards,” and its website will soon include a permanent page dedicated to filming in Jackson County. 

“We’ve had numerous films before this, and we hope we’ll have more after this,” she said. 

Though, in terms of major films, the 1993 movie “The Fugitive” is about it for Sylva. But its impact is nothing to sneeze at. Starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, it was a popular movie, and 23 years later it’s still bringing people to Jackson County. 

“People are still visiting Jackson County wanting to go to the (train wreck) site,” Spiro said. “We can hope for that same type of long-term and positive lasting publicity from this movie.”

“There are still people that call town hall and want to know where “The Fugitive” was filmed,” Dowling agreed. “It could be years down the road that were still seeing the impacts of it.”

There’s some hard data to back that up. After the movie “Max” was shot at Crowders Mountain State Park, the N.C. Film Office measured a 100,000-person increase in visitors to the park, which it attributes to the filming. DuPont State Forest experienced record attendance after “The Hunger Games” was filmed there, and searches on the Film Office’s site for Wilmington locations increased by 131 percent after “The Choice” was made there. 

So, for those playing the long game in Sylva’s business community, the recent ruckus downtown is but the start of good things to come. 

“My hunch is that it puts us on the map a little bit more, and eventually we’ll have more tourist traffic here, more people aware of Sylva,” Peters said. 

And besides, McMahan added, “It’s not every day you get to look outside and see Sam Rockwell doing a scene.” 




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