Shoot Day 11 of 25, 10/22/18, Part II

Part II: Interiors

Typically, during the shoot, except for the on-set crew members, you don’t see many of the Art and Set Decoration crew members: they come weeks, days, hours before, creating and transforming the spaces. But at the Freeman’s property, I get the opportunity to finally meet a few of them and watch them work.

Debbie De Villa, Production Designer in the Art department, oversees and designs all the sets, and she’s done such a brilliant job. I follow her into the church, where tomorrow there will be a flashback scene with Cole and his grandfather. While the grips and electricians work on the lighting and getting the church ready for the shoot, the set decorators and dressers put the final touches on—flowers, framed pictures of Bible quotes that they found in a church nearby.  It’s really the perfect church for the Freemans, and even with all the activity, it feels peaceful. I’m looking forward to seeing tomorrow’s flashback scene, when Clyde Freeman preaches.

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Later, I walk into Cole’s trailer, to warm my frozen toes but also just to be in Cole’s space. It’s another perfect set, imagined and designed with thoughtfulness, care, and creativity. I scan the books on the neat, compact bookshelf, and notice a nursing book and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. A writing exercise I give my students is to describe your character’s bedroom. It’s a great way to give you insight into the character, and to reveal the character without explaining. And, that’s similar to what the set designer does (but on a much bigger scale); she reads the script and begins to imagine: where does this character live, and what does this space reveal about him? What do objects, rooms, decorations tell you about a person, about his story?

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Cole’s living room reveals his quiet, muted, but observant personality; his tidiness and need to control some part of his life; his connection to nature and wildness; his habits of smoking and maybe drinking a little too much; his love for his grandparents. Plaid wallpaper, the simple brown couch brightened with a colorful pillow; neat arrangement of lamps and side tables. A picture of his grandfather; pack of cigarettes; bottle of Tylenol; ashtray; neatly stacked National Geographic magazines.


 Later, On-Set Dresser Chris Reisz takes pictures of the scene with his phone when it’s up on monitor, checking for continuity and to make sure nothing is out of place. Sometimes the crew comes through and will accidentally move something, or someone will set down a coffee cup, and Chris has to track all of this: grab the misplaced coffee cup or straighten a picture on the wall. Cole’s trailer is supposed to look tidy and neat, but Braden had mentioned it needed to look more lived-in, so Chris set out a bowl of Cheerios and left out a half gallon of milk on the counter. Those little kinds of details turn a set into a real space—so when we’re watching the film, we’re not seeing a set, but Cole’s home. I think of author and critic John Gardner’s point that a novel must be a “vivid, continuous dream.” Every detail matters—whether it’s a book on a shelf, or the bowl of cereal on the counter—because you never want the reader, or in this case the viewer, to bump out of the continuous dream.

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Shoot Day 11 of 25, 10/22/18, Part I

Part I: After Clyde’s Funeral

Today we’re at the Freeman’s property—up the mountain, about 18 miles away from downtown Harlan, in Crank’s Creek. It’s a beautiful spot, perfectly echoing the lay-out in my novel. Cole’s grandparents’ house, Cole’s trailer (which the film company brought in), and a small old country church, no longer in use, with amber glass windows, all on the same spread of land.


I arrive early, joining the crew, who’ve been here since 7 am, and the sun has just started to rise. It’s cold. Frost blankets the ground, and the early morning light mixed with the fall color gives everything a dusty, vintage-photo filter. Hand-warmers get passed out again. I’m shivering. Jacqueline Oka, Braden’s assistant, lends me a pair of her gloves—purple and fuzzy. Jacqueline basically has whatever magical item you need stocked in her fanny-pack or backpack—she’s always a step ahead, the film survivalist.

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As they shoot a scene with Cole, I walk the grounds. In this early morning, a hushed, holy mist rises around the land. Sunlight hits the autumn leaves in the distance, but here, in the valley, we’re still under the mountain’s shadow.

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Down below the yard, there is a pumpkin patch, orange flames against the frosty ground. Later I found out the pumpkins were planted by the set decorators—the skilled and talented artists who come in the day before or the early hours, turning place into set: movie magic.



In one of the scenes, Cole walks to the back door of the house. The grass, stiff with frost, looks dead, and it isn’t right for the shot, so Chris Reisz, the On Set Dresser, uses a rake to make it look greener and fluffier,  alive. Every detail is taken into consideration. Braden oversees everything—it’s his vision—but it’s also the vision of the art department and set decorators and props and locations and costume and hair and so many others who come together to create this work of art.

 I wander around to the front of the Freeman house, where soon family and friends will come together after Clyde’s funeral. It’s the big scene for the day, with 23 background actors, including 5 kids. Chairs are set out, and two tables for food, which the Set Decorators work on preparing. As B Wheeler arranges biscuits in a bowl, Steve Sheehy uses a blow-dryer to defrost the dishes and plates. Everyone is freezing, blowing on hands, stomping feet.

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By late morning, the sun blasts full-force across the scene, and the background actors have arrived. It’s another strange and perfect moment for me, walking on to the set, taking me into the pages of my novel. I’m in a place of familiarity—this could be the set design for my own grandfather’s funeral I went to ten years ago, but also clearly a movie set. Perfectly real and not-real. The background actors are given instructions: where to stand, when to walk, what to do. Erin Plew, Props Assistant, makes up a couple of plates of food for the actors to hold on their laps—potato salad, chips, sandwiches. The tables of food are the perfect Appalachian spread. Biscuits, fruit pies, a rainbow-colored Jell-O-mold, macaroni and cheese, baked beans. Then, the dance begins.

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Crowds scenes are difficult to write, and I remember that this particular scene in my novel underwent many drafts. This seems to be true for film too—there are more parts and more steps, more to organize and direct. Little kids run across the set (they’re being directed behind the scenes), chasing each other, while other background actors walk across the lawn or converse with each other or add a piece of chicken to their plates, whatever they’re supposed to do. Braden watches on the monitor, notices where there is a hole or the space looks too cluttered, and changes up the movements and placements. The background learn their action and do this one thing again and again and again: walk across the lawn, or grab a plate, or talk to the person sitting next to them. Braden calls Action, and everyone starts to move, a choreographed dance on stage and off, the sun shining golden across the land.

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Shoot Day 9 of 25, 10/18/18

Today, the shoot moves to Charlotte’s trailer. It’s another cold, brisk day. I walk over a small bridge, cross a creek. Bright green kudzu swallows trees and telephone lines, eating everything—beautiful, impossible to stop. Today, basecamp—where the crew parks, and where the catered lunch is served—is at another church. A velvet print of The Last Supper hangs above the tables, Jesus and his disciples watching us eat.

It’s freezing cold, especially for the crew whose been out here since 7 am. I pull up my hoody. Jacqueline Oka, Director’s Assistant, kindly passes out Hot Hands handwarmers. Paul Dillon, boom operator, puts them in his boots.

First scene, Cole and Charlotte in a pickup. Cole’s pickup won’t start. The first line of the scene, Charlotte says, “What a piece of shit.” It’s a simple line, but it’s straight from my novel, and my chest thrums. This will happen to me again and again on set—the dream and strangeness and joy of being here, watching this unfold.

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The fantastic Stacy Martin plays Charlotte, Cole’s on and off again, troubled, pill-addicted girlfriend who dreams to get out of Dove Creek. As Charlotte, she has long dark hair with ends dyed purple, a haunting face. We chat briefly on the set, and Stacy, like all the actors I’ve met so far, is generous, kind, and warm.

The day focuses on various scenes between Charlotte and Cole (and I’ll write more later on the brilliant Philip Ettinger). I love getting to see the interior of Charlotte’s trailer, where the art and set departments have worked their magic. It’s a nice touch that they pinned up pictures of New York, and also a snapshot of Charlotte and Cole, smiling for the camera.

 Photo courtesy of Tiffany Williams

Photo courtesy of Tiffany Williams

For the last scene, we’ve changed locations to town, near the train tracks. Cole drops Charlotte off at the bus stop. It’s dark and cold, and everyone is hungry. Ashley Williams, who runs craft service, also known as Crafty—coffee, soda, snacks on set—offers up a tray of hot, microwaved Bagel Bites, and everyone is delighted.

It’s an emotional scene—the dialogue between them, and in what is not said—the gaps of silence, the tension. Cole gets choked up and teary. Charlotte too—she’s finally leaving Dove County, heading out into the unknown. I’ve now been on set only 3 times, but already, I can see how much potential this movie has—Declan Quinn’s gorgeous shots, Braden King’s vision as a director, Elizabeth Palmore’s tight script, the actors’ nuances and richness. Every scene hums with tension and beauty.



Shoot Day 8 of 25, 10/17/18

The film will be shot in many locations in and around Harlan. Every morning on the drive to the location, we follow the bright yellow signs, black arrows directing us to Crew Parking and Set. My favorite is a simple yellow sign that says “TEH.” I’m so grateful they didn’t change the title.

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Today, we’re not too far from town, outside Lacy’s house. It’s a sunny, cold morning. Mountains rise up around us, most of the trees still green but a few starting to flash a mix of golden and scarlet leaves.

Lacy’s house is “small but proud,” according to the script (written by Elizabeth Palmore). Neat lawn, a few potted plants and flowers on the porch. Subaru wagon in the driveway, anti-MTR (mountaintop removal coal mining) stickers plastered to the bumper. Kerry Bishé is perfect as Lacy, the single mom and smart environmentalist Cole falls for. In this scene, she’s with her daughter, a local Harlan kid, who looks like Kerry. As they’re coming out of the house, Cole pulls up in his pickup. This is late in the screenplay. He’s been in a fight—and the makeup department head, Anouck Sullivan expertly applies various shades of red and brown make up and fake blood to his face and shirt. He looks rough and beat up, his knuckles swollen and scraped up.

This scene is short, a single page of dialogue, with only about 8 lines between Cole and Lacy, but it’s still a dramatic, haunting scene. I’m again enthralled by the emotions the actors carry in their voices, eyes, mouths, body language.

As the camera focuses on Cole, a man about fifty feet away crosses the street to talk to his neighbor. They chat, out of ear-shot, but in the frame. Background. I’m becoming more accustomed to seeing them, but my first day on set, they kept throwing me off—I watched one guy walk across the parking lot during the middle of the shoot and thought it was a mistake, that he didn’t realize where he was. But then they shot the scene again and he walked across the parking lot again, and then it clicked.

The background actors are locals who came to the open casting call at the mini-mall, and were called back. Screenwriter Elizabeth Palmore tells me, “You’ll never watch a movie or TV show the same way, without seeing the extras.” And, it’s true—later in the week, I’m watching a TV show, paying attention to the extras: behind the scenes, they’re being directed to talk or walk or sit a certain way, adding texture and helping to create  suspension of disbelief. It’s fascinating to think about from a fiction writer’s perspective: finding the texture, the composition.

 Watching the scene unfold on the monitor.

Watching the scene unfold on the monitor.

I try to stand out of the way, coffee in my hands, breath cold in the air. I’m the only one here with nothing to do—I just get to watch. I’ll talk about the many jobs and roles in a film in a later entry, but I do want to say: there are many necessary spokes in the film wheel. To shoot a film really does take a village, and the one for The Evening Hour is a village of hardworking, smart, dedicated people. Everyone I’ve met is giving it their all, trying to make something special.

Shoot Day 1 of 25, 10/8/18

9 am. Mist coming off the mountains. We’re in a valley down below the mountains, off Highway 421, a neighborhood of small homes and trailers, mowed lawns. It’s pretty down here, a view of the mountains, a bridge crossing a creek where two boys play, trying to catch fish they tell me. Little dogs run out from a front porch, clamoring at the chain-link fence. It’s too hot and humid for October, already feel the heat burning through the morning mist.

Headquarters for today is a Baptist church, an unlikely place for all us sinners, and in the parking lot sits a giant movie trailer filled with clothes—organized by character, hanging from racks. Today, the shoot will be at a nearby nursing home, a real nursing home that’s now partially transformed into a set.

Outside the side door, a sign says Beverly Nursing Home, what it’s called in The Evening Hour screenplay, in neat, precise letters which I realize are made from Styrofoam. Inside on a stand, a stack of fake brochures for Beverly Nursing Home, a dish of candy. I am standing in a blend of a real place, a set, and some physical version of the place I imagined, which others—the director, screenwriter, and art department—also imagined.



The first scene of the shoot: Cole walking up to the nursing home. Cole, in a long-sleeved shirt under a t-shirt, thick flannel coat, jeans, and boots, sweats in the humidity and 90 degree heat in October. He crouches down. One of the extras sits there, twiddling his thumbs, just like in my novel. “Squeeze my hands,” Cole says. With a headset on, I can hear the actor, and watch in two realms: the scene live and acted in front of me, and one the monitor—a scene in a film.

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I haven’t stepped foot in a nursing home in years, not since my grandparents were still living. Now, I step inside with the others. It’s a typical nursing home, but now buzzing with New York and California people, mingling with the residents. “We’re their guests,” Elizabeth Palmore, the screenwriter, says, when the shoot pauses as one of the residents comes out of her room—an older woman with white hair, a pink bathroom, big eyeglasses—pushing her walker into the middle of the set, wanting to see what all the fuss is about.

In the lounge, the nursing home’s residents sit, watching the bustle around them—the film crew crowds in, and moves with speed and confidence, each with a job to do. Costume, hair, makeup crew; props; dialect coach; sound guys; lighting. Except for me—my job is done, and I’m just here to watch. An old man, an extra, keeps asking everyone if they’re an actor or not. An old woman comes by wearing socks, no shoes, looking for her pop money. One woman in scrubs works at the nursing home also serves as a liaison to the film, helping to direct the nursing home residents. Another younger, pretty woman in blue scrubs, earbuds in, sits waiting for her shot: this is the wonderful Ashley Shelton, who plays Ellen, the nurse who tries to be a friend to Cole.

Ellen is exactly how I pictured her. Pretty, with a kind face. Ellen and Cole meet in the hallway, and she tells Cole she’s sorry for not going to his granddaddy’s funeral. This happens in the novel, too, but it’s a different—a longer scene where they’re sitting down. Here, it’s a quick meeting in the hallway, and it’s perfect – you see it in Ellen’s eyes, she really is sorry, she cares about Cole. And, Cole, he likes her too, and thanks her, but he holds in his pain; he can’t reach out to her, or take her offer for kindness.

An old woman, an extra who pretends to sleep, asks Philip Ettinger (Cole) when the movie will come out. Maybe a year, he says. Someone else mentions this woman has the best job—she gets to just lay down as Phillip covers her with a blanket, over and over and over again.  

Background actors fill out the scenes. A little girl and her mother stand in the hallway, an old man leans on his walker, and another old man in a wheelchair keeps looking at the camera, so they have to reshoot. The background actors have no lines in this scene. They are here for texture and to create a sense of reality.

Cole helps an old woman—a resident with bright eyes, hunched shoulders—down the hallway, as we all cram into the lounge:  the crew, residents, extras. A daytime soap plays on TV.  A resident never stops talking. Goddamn you, she says, and continues on to a different topic, without taking a breath. I’m inside the pages of my novel. One of the extras who is not a resident, a grandmotherly type with a head of white curly hair and wearing a church skirt and blouse, sits in a chair next to me, shakes her head with dismay. “Why, who’s talking,” she wants to know, embarrassed. “I feel sorry for them,” she says, about the residents. She’s crocheting a pink and white blanket. I tell her it was a good idea to bring that with her. There’s so much sitting around, she says, and tells me she hates to be still. She holds up the square. “I just might finish this for my granddaughter today.”


And, yes, there is a lot of standing around. Waiting. Walking from location to location. Waiting for the crew to set everything up. Rehearsing the scene. Shooting the scene, take after take. It’s a marathon of standing, watching. I’m happy to see several of the extras I recognize from the open casting call.  

 Me on set, headphones on, watching and listening.

Me on set, headphones on, watching and listening.

The big scene of the day, the last one, is between Ellen and Cole. They sit outside on a bench smoking. The cigarettes, made out of cocoa beans, burn like real ones. Flick the lighter, flick. Not working, so someone from props borrows a lighter from one from the line of extras and residents sitting on the porch of the nursing home—old men and women, smoking, watching.  

The scene is powerful. The actors hit their marks perfectly, and in every single take, they carry the raw emotion in their voices, facial expressions, body language. It is both like the scene I wrote and something else entirely. Elizabeth explains it like this: I birthed the story first, and she rebirthed it as a script, and now the director, actors, director of photography, and the entire crew is giving The Evening Hour new life. We’re all trying to do something similar: create a story that makes people feel. And, look, here is our brilliant, beautiful child.

Donkeys bray from down the street, startling all of us and cutting through the quiet. The sun sets and a golden light falls across the sky, and here we are—dare I say it?—in the evening hour.

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Kick-Off Party, 10/6/18, VFW

It’s my first time in a VFW, a place where my Granddad used to frequent regularly. Any other day, I’d likely be turned away at the door, but today I’m free to walk in because this is where the kick-off party is held. In a few weeks, the VFW will be transformed to the Eagle, the bar in The Evening Hour where Lacy works, and where Cole and Terry Rose meet up. 



In the front area, it’s like any other night at the VFW: a few older white guys sitting around, drinking cheap beer. Later, they’ll start up a poker game. But in the back room, essentially a spacious dance floor, it’s filled with people from New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, Cincinnati, Texas, all here in Harlan for the next 5 weeks. A sign next to the open window of the bar, scrawled in a black Sharpie: Movie people, order here. It’s open-bar for a couple hours, with live music—the Local Honeys and my friends Brett Ratliff and his band, along with guest Nadia Ramlagan, came down from Lexington. Later, there will be karaoke, and at one point, all the women in the crew take the stage to sing Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”


 Braden King, the director, and me.

Braden King, the director, and me.

Braden King, the director, is here, and the screenwriter Elizabeth Palmore, friends of mine now, who have taken such care with my novel. The room is packed with people who are going to turn my novel into a film—producers, make-up artists, costume designers, set designers, camera crew, so many jobs and roles on a movie. It’s a magical night, the start of something beautiful. When I meet Philip Ettinger, who stars as Cole, we have a drink and talk: what makes Cole tick, and why Philip wanted to play this character. We talk about intimacy and vulnerability. It’s a surreal, wonderful moment, to  meet my character in the flesh—I’m walking into my own dream, and my dream merges with someone else’s dream. It’s like I’ve stepped into a stranger’s house, and yet I know exactly where I am.

 Me with Elizabeth Palmore, the screenwriter.

Me with Elizabeth Palmore, the screenwriter.

 Brett Ratliff and his band.

Brett Ratliff and his band.



Open Casting Call, 9/8/18, Mini-mall in Harlan, KY

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The mini-mall is a ghost-mall: a small Sears that sells appliances, a cellphone store, a Goody’s clothing store. Everything else is closed, just shells of store spaces where people once shopped. But on this Saturday afternoon, under the dim overhead lights, a line of people, some holding manila envelopes with 8x10 photos of themselves, winds through the center of mall, leading to an abandoned department store where the director and casting director search for faces for the film. They’re looking for extras and background actors, and to fill minor roles. The space is huge and strange, a store without products. Shreds of its former life remain: a few empty clothing racks, changing rooms, and naked mannequins piled in a corner. 

I go with my friend, Robert Gipe, author of the novels Trampoline and Weedeater, and a producer of Higher Ground community theater in Harlan. He knows many of the people in line, introduces me as the author of the book. One man, who read my novel, talks to me about fighting the strip mines in the ’70s. He was featured in Barbara Kopple’s brilliant 1976 documentary Harlan County U.S.A. The majority of people in line don’t have any film or acting experience: they’re responding to the call mentioned in the newspaper.

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The people in line ring with familiarity—resembling distant family members, my students in Kentucky, and, in some sense, the cast of my novel. All ages stand in line, from a young, four year old boy with wavy blond hair down to his waist and wearing cowboy boots, to an old, bony, hunched man in a wheelchair wearing a POW hat. Some came dressed for a job interview or for church: men with nice jeans or khakis, shirts tucked in. There are a few women in medical scrubs. Mothers, fathers. Teenagers. A guy  in his late 50s, with a long gray ponytail and dark, haunting eyes, gets a callback. So does a young woman, skinny and tattooed, anger and distrust shooting from her eyes. One man brought a full-size keyboard with him, and plays a song he wrote inspired by reading my novel. At the front of the line, each person gets their photograph taken and reads two lines with the casting crew. Some are nervous, worried about their lines. Some read in a monotone; others recite the simple lines with fiery emotion. Around 50 of the 400 who show up today will get call-backs, and some of those people will show up in the film.

I’ve never acted in anything, not even a school play. Just the idea of acting makes me anxious. I prefer to be behind the scenes, but I absolutely understand the draw. If I lived in Harlan, if this wasn’t about my novel, I’d probably be here. Because: movies are magic. I’ve always loved film, the same way I love novels. I’ve gone to them to feel connection and hope, for beauty and escape, the way other people feel going to church or camping underneath a wide open sky. To see my novel adapted for the big screen is a dream and a wild ride. Here we go.

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