‘Little Biltmore’ goes Hollywood
Thom Morgan isn’t the type to be star struck.
When a location scout approached him two years ago about filming a major movie at his mansion in Waynesville, the agent hoping to sell him on the idea ticked off the famous comedians in the playbill for “Masterminds,” a true-crime comedy about an armored car heist in Charlotte in the late 1990s.
But Morgan drew a blank.
“I kept replying, I don’t know who that is either,” Morgan said.
Only Owen Wilson sounded vaguely familiar.
But Morgan agreed to turn over the keys of his estate to the movie makers anyway. Ultimately, it was the art and science of movie making that piqued Morgan’s interest.
“I was more interested in the behind-the-scenes component and the business aspect of making a movie,” Morgan said.
A successful businessman, Morgan was intrigued by movie-making apparatus and exactly what went on in the filming process.
His wife, Jacque, took a little more convincing, however.
The first time Morgan talked to the location scout about the prospect, Morgan leveled with him.
“I said, ‘I’m going to tell you right now, my wife isn’t going to want to do it,’” Morgan recalled. “But I told her I wasn’t going to let her talk me out of it.”
She wasn’t the only one who was skeptical.
“I had to call my homeowners insurance company, and of course, they weren’t wild about it either,” Morgan replied.
Over the course of the following week, the Morgans met with an entourage of movie representatives, eventually culminating in a visit from the director himself, Jared Hess.
Their top concern: would they recognize their home when it was all said and done?
“They conveyed to me they would respect it and that they would make sure it was the same way it was when they left,” Morgan said. “This particular film company did everything they said they would do. They protected our home, they restored it, cleaned the carpets, painted it. It was like a total refresh.”
The only unforeseen damage was charred shrubbery from an explosion scene, but that was replanted without question.
During the height of the six-week production period in the summer of 2014, the Morgans essentially became guests in their own home.
“Between the extras and the movie crew and production people, we had 200 people in and out of here. It was a zoo,” Morgan said.
The main floor of their house was stripped bare of the existing furnishings and replaced with the gaudiest, tackiest and over-the-top décor the set designers could get their hands on — in keeping with the real-life story behind the movie, where trashy rednecks forsake their trailer for an elaborately decked out mansion after suddenly becoming millionaires.
Jacque’s bedroom was outfitted with a tanning bed and her fireplace flanked by ceramic greyhound dogs. The foyer staircase was covered in a tiger striped carpet. And a pink marble statue of the couple stood in the entryway.
Jacque said a friend who saw the movie was astounded.
“She said ‘I never in a million years would have thought someone would make your house look tacky, but they have truly succeeded,’” Jacque recounted.
Even the Morgans’ yard was transformed with a false stone wall and imported sod. Their pool was decked out with a giant Neptune statue. Set crews even built a gate across their driveway for a car to crash through.
It was one of several stunt scenes filmed at their house. The most dicey was a Molotov cocktail being tossed from a moving car at another vehicle parked in the Morgans’ driveway.
“They had to practice throwing it over and over and over to get it to land on the hood just right where the explosives were rigged,” Jacque said. “They had to have a certain speed on this car to get the effect they wanted, and they knew they would only get one shot of the scene once they rolled.”
When “Masterminds” was released three weeks ago, Morgan rented a theater in Asheville for a private showing. He filled the theater with friends and locals who’d gotten gigs as extras or somehow intersected with the filming operation.
“When the first scene with our house showed up on the screen, the whole theater started clapping,” Morgan said. “That’s the cool part really is seeing the things you recognize.”
The road in front of Morgans’ house got a lot of traffic during the filming weeks, with dozens of people stopping and watching from afar, hoping to get a glimpse of the stars.
“It was kind of a big deal for Haywood County,” Morgan said.
The movie makers would have paid to put the Morgans up in a condo or vacation home during the filming. But instead, they moved into guest rooms on the second floor that weren’t being used for the filming.
Morgan was on a first-name basis with the set crew, scene designers, various and sundry directors, costumers, caterers, grips and technicians.
One day during the first week of filming, Morgan was waiting in line at the fully stocked food trailer parked in his driveway to serve actors and crew on breaks, from cucumber water to grilled paninis.
As he made small talk with the woman in front of him, he asked what her role with the movie was. It turned out she was the lead actress, Kristin Wiig.
Morgan’s favorite place to be during filming sessions was looking over the shoulder of the cinematographer’s computer screen, watching the various camera angles and cuts in real time.
“They film the same thing over and over and over to make sure they have it from every aspect and every angle,” Morgan said.
Filming occurred at such a snail’s pace, a lavish pool party scene that took six days to films lasted just three minutes on the screen.
Despite playing out over several days, the scene had to look exactly the same every second of the filming so it could stitched together later. An elaborate pool-side buffet spread had to be precisely recreated by a caterer daily. During breaks, crew assigned to the extras playing the guests of the pool party ran about applying sunscreen on them so they wouldn’t get sunburned as the filming wore on.
Morgan was amazed by the sheer number of people on the set.
“They all have their specialized duties,” Morgan said. There’s the costumers, the electrical technicians, the set designers — it took a crew of four guys just to manhandle giant net screens around the yard all day to shield outside scenes from direct sunlight.
A giant portable air conditioning unit took up residence in their driveway to offset the heat of movie lights during inside filming.
“Your house air conditioning can’t keep up so they were piping it in,” Jacque said.
The Morgans loved meeting so many people from different walks of life and from so many places around the country.
“What made it a positive experience was that they were all so friendly,” Jacque said.
Of course, Morgan had made sure of that.
“When they started, I told everyone ‘Now you look after Jacque,’” Morgan said.
“And they did — I had three to four guys at my beck and call,” she said.
One of the more unusual acquaintances they made was the real-life thief David Ghantt, the vault manager who played a role in the armored car heist and served as a consultant on the script and filming. The Morgans were both actually fond of him, and believe he was conned into participating in the heist by the other people involved, including a girl he had a crush on.
“My take on him was he was a very gentle person who got manipulated by others and that was probably the only criminal act he ever did,” Morgan said.
The Morgans said people have often asked them if they would do it again.
“I would probably be on the fence,” Morgan said. “In hindsight, it was a fun experience. I thought it was a novel and unique thing, something you could talk about with your friends and grandkids for years to come.”
‘Masterminds,’ the drive-thru version
The movie “Masterminds” — starring Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakas, Kristen Wiig — is a crime caper comedy that follows the real-life story of the Loomis Fargo armored car heist in Charlotte in 1997.
An inside job by novice criminals, the $17 million score was the second biggest bank robbery ever in America.
The real-life story was perfect script fodder, a comedy of errors laced with foibles and double-crosses, from a comical get-away to lavish living after scoring the millions.
The armored car worker played by Galifianakas was duped into the heist by a work crush and a married couple he was friends with. The married couple try to off the armored car worker and claim all the dough for themselves, however. They trade in their trailer for a mansion and begin living extravagantly, but are lousy at laundering the loot or hiding their newfound wealth.
Scenes from the mansion and trailer park were both filmed in Waynesville.
In addition to the main stars, the movie boasts a deep bench of celebrities in the comedy genre, including, but hardly limited to, Kate McKinnon and Jason Sudeikis. Rated PG-13, it has gotten decent reviews as an entertaining and amusing romp.