Luck of the draw: how a Waynesville mansion made the silver screen
Haywood County was abuzz with excitement during the filming of the major motion-picture “Masterminds” two summers ago, but exactly how the directors set their sights on a local mansion for their movie location has been a closely held secret until now.
Thom Morgan, whose estate on the outskirts of Waynesville served as a key set in the movie, was barred from talking about the filming at the time. After a prolonged post-production delay, “Masterminds” was finally released this fall — and Morgan could at last share the story of his brief brush with stardom.
“On a daily basis, there was probably 100 crew people, almost 100 extras and probably a dozen celebs on the grounds,” Morgan said of the movie-making mayhem.
His stately knoll-top mansion is known among locals as “Little Biltmore,” with a winding entrance road and classic stone architecture that’s indeed reminiscent of the Biltmore House.
But exactly how the producers stumbled on Morgan’s off-the-beaten-path abode is a classic tale of coincidence.
Movie-makers had chosen Asheville as their filming headquarters mainly because the actors and directors wanted to bask in its uber-cool hipness for the summer.
Location scouts were then dispatched to find the right sets for various scenes. In the quest for a large mansion with a pool, a scout began scouring ritzy neighborhoods around Asheville, including The Ramble, an exclusive, upscale subdivision. The entrance is gated, so the scout camped out one day waiting for someone to come along. He stopped a crew of construction workers as they were leaving and asked them if they knew of anything inside that fit the bill.
“One of the guys said ‘What you are really looking for is Thom Morgan’s house,’” Morgan recounted.
The scout — who had also been on the ground when “Last of the Mohicans” and the “Hunger Games” were filmed in Western North Carolina — took the construction worker’s lead to heart and headed over to Haywood County.
When he saw Morgan’s house from the road, he knew it was perfect. The only challenge was convincing Morgan to bite.
While parked outside the Morgans’ gate one day, the scout encountered Morgan’s mother-in-law on her way to the mailbox and passed her his card.
Morgan, who still keeps the card in his wallet as a souvenir, wasn’t sure what to think at first. Morgan is a careful man. His business acumen is evident in the empire of Mountain Energy convenience stores and commercial properties he built in the region and the small fortune he amassed along the way.
Clearly not one to get duped, Morgan wanted to be sure he wasn’t getting played by a huckster or scoped out by a thief. After a few calls, including to the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority’s film aficionado Becky Seymour, he realized it was the real McCoy.
The Morgan estate was ultimately taken over for six weeks by the “Masterminds” entourage.
The movie makers also ended up filming a secondary scene in Haywood County at a trailer park below Wall Street near downtown Waynesville.
While Asheville raked in the lion’s share of the economic boon from the movie run — including hotel rooms, restaurants, office leases, cleaning and catering services, supplies, and so on — Haywood County got a modest share, too, thanks to the location scout’s eureka moment and Morgan and his wife, Jacque, agreeing to go along with it.
A few dozen locals were among the extras who got gigs as guests during a lavish pool party scene filmed over the course of a week at the Morgan home. A group of workers from the Maggie Valley restaurant industry scored parts playing chefs during the party scene, one of the more exciting roles since the grill they cooked over explodes during the dramatic climax of the movie — although stunt men took over for that part.
Merchants also picked up sales when the set crew needed supplies for their scene-setting magic, whether it was paint from a local hardware store or potted shrubs from a family garden center.
Morgan gave shout outs to several people and businesses who helped during the filming, including surprise meal donations from restaurants like Bocelli’s and Bojangles.
“They got to experience real mountain hospitality,” he said. “They weren’t used to that.”
The Saunooke Volunteer Fire Department even got in on the action, standing by during scenes that involved car crashes and Molotov cocktail explosions.
Hazelwood Elementary School, down the road from the Morgans’ house, served as a staging and rendezvous site for the actors and crew. Locals were hired to work the breakfast and lunch buffet line in the school cafeteria, including a Hazelwood school bus driver who learned how to make the perfect seaweed smoothie for the actors that summer.