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.
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.
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.
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.
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.