(Town Crier photo/Nan Snider)
Lepanto has been selected for use in filming a segment of the made-for-television Hallmark Hall of Fame movie based on John Grisham's 2001 novel.
The novel was set in the 1950's farming town of Black Oak, just northwest of Lepanto. Grisham's book was inspired by his own childhood growing up in a time when people picked cotton by hand and going to town on Saturday night was a big event.
Cookie Miller, coordinator for Jo Doster Casting, of Nashville, Tenn., was prepared with 200 casting sheets on hand at 5 p.m., along with a large box of Polaroid film for taking mug shots. By 6:30 she had to print more casting sheets, and found her box of film diminishing quickly.
The casting information consisted of general name, address and telephone number, along with clothing and shoe sizes, height, weight, hair and eye color and special skills.
Each person registering was given a sheet of paper titled, Extra's Survival Guide, which outlined possible hours (10-14 per day), listing pay would be $6 an hour,and listed rules of conduct while on the set. The pay and long hours did not seem to matter to those present, but rather the chance to be in this special movie.
People of all ages made the trek to city hall. Erma Ferrell, 85, took her place in line hoping to be selected. Judy Ferrell didn't even tell her mother where she was taking her, when they arrived at city hall, as she just knew she would be perfect for a part, having lived and worked in that time period. Even though Mrs. Ferrell is a retired lunch room employee from Manila, she is still active and works every day. The Ferrells encouraged Nicole Dexter to bring her 5-month-old son, Chad, to apply also. The toddler was dressed in blue and white striped overalls, complete with a matching hat.
Miller stopped taking applications at 7 p.m., as the town hall meeting began.
Paul Boydston, of McGee Street Productions, addressed the standing-room-only crowd to explain how Lepanto was chosen and plans for production.
"My boss gave me a copy of A Painted House, and told me he had booked me a flight the next day for Memphis," Boydston said. "He told me to drive to Black Oak and check out the area around it for possible filming location. He told me not to tell anyone what I was doing there.
"I soon found out that was going to be an impossible thing, as everyone in this area has read the book," Boydston said.
As instructed, Boydston left Memphis on Highway 55, turned off onto Highway 63, then on Highway 135 toward Black Oak. He took his time and looked at old farms, barns and buildings along the way. As he entered Lepanto, he was immediately amazed at the perfection of the town, as a possible site for street filming, needed for the movie. He drove on to Black Oak, and Jonesboro, and back again the following morning.
"Lepanto had old stores on both sides of the street, and a wide street," Boydston. "I could visualize the perfection of front and back conversational views. It had a drug store and theater, just like we needed. There were two cotton gins in town, the old Portis Gin #1 was downtown and older gin #2 was east of town and still in good shape. I wondered just how much luckier I could get."
Trying not to give himself away, Boydston went into the Portis Company,in Lepanto and told them he was doing some research and wanted to look at the old cotton gins.
"The lady looked me straight in the eye and asked, 'Are you John Grisham?'" Boydston. "There was no way getting around the fact that people knew about the book, and any inquiry from a stranger meant that we were here to make a movie."
Still looking around for old gins, homes and buildings, Boydston decided to drive to Kennett, Mo., which was mentioned in the Grisham's book also.
"I meandered along toward Kennett, and stopped at Holcomb to look at an old cotton gin," Boydston said. "Trying to be better at being discrete, I told a man at the gin I was interested in looking at the old gin. He told me that downtown Holcomb might be good to use also, as it was looked like it did in 1952. Without me even mentioning Grisham's book, here he was seeing right through me, and was soon offering good local sites for possible filming.
"He said, it's okay, I didn't read the book," Boydston said. "I'm a farmer, and I listened to it on cassette, in the cab of my tractor. From then on, I knew there would be no secret keeping, as to filming."
McGee Street Productions of Studio City, Calif., will be doing the filming, and have set up operations in Memphis. They are planning to film the street, cotton gin, store, and theater scenes in Lepanto. Cotton field locations could vary. A replica of the bungalow home, reminiscent of the 50's, has been built on the Allen Helms farm in the Clarksdale Community, near Turrell. The house has movable walls for ease in filming, a barn, and a outhouse on wheels for good backdrop setting.
John Grisham will be one of the film's producers. Mexican actor and director, Alfonso Arau, will be directing the movie. Arau has previously directed Like Water for Chocolate and A Walk in the Clouds. The stars of the movie have not been announced.
Buffalo Island antique car and farm equipment collectors, Melton Emery, of Caraway, and his son Monte, of Lake City, were some of the first people to be contacted about using their vehicles and equipment in the movie. They were both on hand for the Lepanto Town Hall meeting. Lepanto Mayor, Dale Dunlap, expressed his appreciation to Boydston, and McGee Productions, for choosing Lepanto. He pledged his city's support in helping get Lepanto camera ready, and sees the adventure to be a great economic boom. Overwhelming support was also pledged by those in attendance, as they are taking pride in their selection for such a historic film.
The film is slated for filming in Lepanto in November, with the final release of the movie in the spring of 2003.
"I have just fallen in love with Lepanto," Boydston said. "I plan to enter three turtles, myself, in the Terrapin Derby (Oct. 5)."
It appears that Boydston and the McGee crew have fallen victim to the Southern charm given out in large doses by the people of Northeast Arkansas, and depicted so beautifully in Grisham's book, A Painted House.