Shoot Day 12 of 25, 10/23/18

Snake Church

This is one of my favorite days on set—even though it’s bitter cold, even though we’re here from morning until evening.

We’re back at the Freeman property. The sun rises, burning through the mountain mist, revealing golden and fiery orange leaves, fall colors mixing in with the green kudzu and trees that haven’t yet turned.

After a full morning and afternoon of shooting, we’ll move to the country church for a flashback scene: Preacher Clyde Freeman, Dorothy Freeman, and young Cole, along with church members of the Holiness religion. I didn’t grow up in a Pentecostal church; I grew up Methodist, which is much quieter and perhaps duller. For my novel, I researched the Holiness, and thought about how growing up under such a force of fear and love shaped Cole: “The Holiness said God gave his people gifts. To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues. Cole did not have a gift. He did not speak in tongues or handle snakes or see the future. His grandmother said he needed to open himself up to the Holy Ghost. He’d grown up knowing that there was another world beyond this one; there was more than a person could see with just his eyes.”

Today, the sides (pocket-sized scripts that contain the scenes for the day’s shoot) contain a warning: “Snakes on Set.”

Yes, real snakes.

Kristen Wiley is the snake wrangler. She is a professional who manages the Kentucky Reptile Zoo in Slade, Kentucky. Today, she’ll be a member of the congregation, and like the other background actors, she’s wearing a long dress, Pentecostal-style. She gives us a quick lesson on the snakes: they’re not venomous (they’re black rat snakes, I believe, which can reach up to 6 feet in length). Once they come out of their bins, the snakes will stay up front, and only people who are comfortable need to touch them or even be close to them. They might bite, but they won’t hurt you, she explains. I plan to stay far away.

There are 50 background actors here today, most from around Kentucky. Many of them go or have been to Pentecostal church services; some of them have been to snake-handling churches.

The wonderful costume department—Carisa Kelly, Greta Stokes, and Jessica Hafer—have perfectly dressed the background actors. They could be a congregation at any small church in eastern Kentucky. The women wear dresses or ankle-length skirts, cardigan sweaters, no makeup. The men wear plaid shirts tucked-in, jeans, boots. On a break, before the shoot, a crowd of young, long-haired women in skirts and sweaters smoke cigarettes in the parking lot, and it’s a funny contrast—these women in Pentecostal costume, gabbing with cigarette smoke swirling.

Jerry Johnson and me.

Jerry Johnson and me.

Before the shoot stars, while the crew is still working on another scene with Cole in his trailer, I hang out at the church, meeting some of the background actors. I talk to Jerry Johnson, who I met from my friend Robert Gipe; Jerry appeared in the documentary Harlan County, USA, when he was fighting for union miners’ rights, and also to stop strip-mining back in the 70s. Jerry is kind and generous, and tells me he’s read my book. We talk about him growing up in a snake-handling church, and how he used to hunt snakes in the woods to sell to preachers. We talk about addiction and doctors over prescribing pain meds, about strip-mining, about Kentucky politicians hurting eastern Kentucky, especially one particular current senator who will go unnamed. I also get the opportunity to talk briefly with another man who read my novel, Barry Brady. He brought his own snake-box, which he built and carved in the Bible verse from Mark 16: 17-18, “They shall take up serpents.” Barry also is kind, with bright, intense eyes. We shake hands, then get our picture made. It’s a few minutes of feeling famous; when other background actors find out I’m the author of the novel, they want to pose with me.

Barry Brady with his snake box.

Barry Brady with his snake box.

Director Braden King comes in the church and explains what will happen next and how they’ll do the shoot. The background actors show him what they’ve been working on. There is a band, and everyone stands and sings an old bluegrass song and Appalachian hymn, “Glory Glory Glory, Somebody Touched Me,” and they take us to church—the congregation dances, sings, claps hands, shakes tambourines. (For a super-fast bluegrass version, check out this one).

Glory glory glory somebody touched me
Glory glory glory somebody touched me
Glory glory glory somebody touched me
Must’ve been the hand of the Lord


I stand in the back, watching them move with the spirit. It’s church except not scary, just pure happiness, a dynamic blend of acting and truth.

During the shoot, most of the crew and I wait outside, gathered around a monitor, watching the magic inside as the voices carry through the walls. Everyone’s excited. It’s a fantastic scene: loose, vibrant, electric. Frank Hoyt Taylor as Clyde Freeman is incredible to watch: as he preaches, he walks up and down the aisle, reaching out, touching people on the shoulders, hugging them, everyone drawn to him. Singing, tambourines shaking, and then the snakes come out: a couple of people hold them up front, dancing around, praising Jesus. And there is Dorothy, played by the wonderful Tess Harper (yes, from one of my favorite movies, Tender Mercies). She’s sitting up front, singing along, a protective arm around Cole, who is played by Everett Bowlin. He’s an amazing child actor, and looks just like a little Philip Ettinger (Cole), his big eyes taking everything in. I think everyone on crew felt the energy of this scene. I know I felt completely in awe of what was unfolding, and can’t wait to see this on the big screen one day.

church night.jpg