The making of ‘Evan Almighty’
Story by Chris Graham
(Editor’s Note: This story was originally published May 1, 2006.)
Months of anticipation were culminating in this one moment.
“We’re rolling!” a member of the production crew shouted to the heavens.
People gathered on the sidewalks of downtown Waynesboro buzzed at the beck and call.
Something was about to go on that was magical.
They didn’t know what exactly – but it was going to be something, and it was going to be good.
Into their view came a police car with lights flashing. Behind it was a flatbed truck that appeared to be towing a Humvee.
The police car turned right from Main Street to Wayne Avenue, and the flatbed towing the Hummer followed behind.
And … that was it.
Yes, this is how they make movies, ladies and germs.
“I actually got a kick out of seeing Steve Carell driving by,” said Len Poulin, the owner of a downtown business, LBP Enterprises, who pulled himself away from work long enough to take in some of the filming work being done last week on the big-budget film “Evan Almighty,” starring Carell and Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman.
“I’d never seen anything like this before. Just looking at what they’ve done in front of my building, or even the little coffee shop across the street, it’s really neat to see it in action,” Poulin said.
More than a few people among the several hundred who turned out to see the movie being made firsthand could be heard grumbling about the relative lack of action on the location set. The grumbling did seem to subside when Carell and Freeman rode by in their Humvee – Carell smiling after hearing the “cut,” Freeman occasionally waving to the assembled masses.
“What you realize watching it is that when they’re doing the scene like they’re doing today with him just driving up the road, there’s some dialogue in the car. He might not say it with the right expression, he might not say it with the right tone. They may have to do that take five, six, seven, eight, nine times to get it right. They could get it on the first take, it might take nine or 10 takes,” Waynesboro police chief Doug Davis said.
City manager Doug Walker got an up-close and personal view of how things were being done on that end. Walker was cast as an extra in one of the scenes shot in the River City – though he didn’t have to tax his skills as a thespian gained from years of work in community theater all that much.
“I have a certain action that when the car passes me, I come out from one of the buildings, and I turn right and walk down the street,” Walker said.
“The direction that I’ve been given is pretty straightforward. I think what they’re looking for is sort of consistency and uniformity – so that they know that in all of these takes the same thing is going to happen at the same time,” Walker said. “Many of the people around me are professional actors – and are coming here from Richmond, Ashland, Williamsburg. They’re here as paid extras. Obviously, I’m just fitting in – so the best that I could do is to make sure that every small little bit that I do, I do it the same way.”
Like those who were gathered on the streets to see what was going on, Walker was cognizant of the snail’s pace of life on a working movie set.
“What’s interesting is there’s a lot of the hurry up and wait, which I guess is part of what happens when you do this sort of thing,” Walker said.
Walker knows well the hurry-up and wait approach that is a fact of life in the moviemaking business even before the first bit of film is shot.
“The advance work that they do has been very impressive,” Walker said. “They’re very smart people. They know what they’re doing. They know what they need. They know how it’s all going to play out. The communication from them is from a very high level. There’s not a lot of guesswork involved – except for the weather and the schedule.
“They’re focused on what they’re trying to do here – the environment of the scene that they’re trying to create. That was very impressive – how much they knew about the town and the street and what they were looking for before they even got here. From then, the logistics are impressive enough – based on the magnitude of what they’re doing here, and how quickly it all happens. It’s almost like that,” Walker said.
Staunton tourism director Sergei Troubetzkoy has come to learn how movie-production schedules can move from the boiler to the frying pan in his years of working on film projects in the Queen City.
“It can be sometimes frustrating – because when you deal with a film-production company, it’s like working with an industrial prospect. You usually can’t talk about it until the film is definitely a go. So I’ve spent a lot of time over the years working on major films that ended up not coming here but that we were close to getting. But close to is not the same as actually getting the film,” Troubetzkoy said.
For every “Lassie” or “Red Dragon,” though, there’s a “Hearts in Atlantis” – which was shot in Staunton in 2000.
“I find the bigger projects are usually the easier ones to deal with,” Troubetzkoy said. “I remember, for example, getting a phone call several years ago from the Virginia Film Office, and they were driving film scouts around to different places, and they were looking for a site that met a specified set of criteria. I told them that I thought we had the perfect site for it on Sears Hill. That was ‘Hearts in Atlantis.’ ”
Filming for “Evan Almighty” is also on the schedule in Staunton – though the dates have changed several times.
“The date that we had down originally has long since come and gone. That’s one thing you get used to in this business,” Troubetzkoy said.
Another thing that locals are getting used to is the sight of movie crews.
“Charlottesville is a great place to make a movie – whether it’s a big feature film like “Evan Almighty” or a low-budget film,” said Paul Wagner, a Charlottesville-based independent filmmaker.
“It’s not like Los Angeles, where people consider a film project a nuisance because they’re closing the streets. In Charlottesville, it’s still exciting – as it is in most parts of the country. It’s still exciting – so there’s generally good cooperation, I think, from the city and people in the city and county who have an opportunity to somehow participate in the making of a film,” Wagner said.
On the location set of “Evan Almighty,” movie extra and Screen Actors Guild member David Foster talked about how location shooting can turn ugly.
“I did ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ with Nicole Kidman last fall. We were in Georgetown, and I have never been mobbed so much in my life. We had tens of thousands of people there. I was from here to there from Nicole for two days, and she had a bodyguard. She had to. People just mob people,” said Foster, a Waynesboro resident who has appeared on TV in “Homicide” and “The Wire” and in films including “Flags of Our Fathers” and “The Village.”
“People get pushy sometimes – and you need protection. Not crowd control, but protection. You get some crazies that come out,” Foster said.
The good news – there were no crazies in Waynesboro disrupting “Evan Almighty.”
“No problems at all. It’s not a problem at all,” said Scott Mactavish, a production assistant on the film crew whose responsibilities included keeping the gawkers in line.
“It’s been great. The people here are terrific. They’ve been very friendly. We greatly appreciate it,” Mactavish said.
The positive feelings could end up translating into more movie business being done in Waynesboro down the road. This is Poulin’s hope, anyway.
“The state film office knows that we’re here now,” Poulin said. “Everybody on Main Street was very cooperative, very gracious and willing to work with these guys as much as they wanted. All of that gets back to the head guys at Universal plus the people at the state film office, and that just gives us more opportunities to have more projects like this coming down the line.”
Stacey Strawn Evans, who took time from her busy day at Blue Moon Galleries to snap pictures of Carell and Freeman during a break in filming, is looking forward to something else.
“I really hope that we get one of those things in the credits that says, ‘Thanks to the City of Waynesboro, Virginia,’ ” Evans said.
“From what I understand, the state of Montana got thousands of calls after the movie ‘Brokeback Mountain’ came out from people saying, ‘Where was that filmed in Montana?’ And it turns out that it was filmed in Canada. But people just seeing the scenery wanted to go where that movie was filmed,” Evans said.
“Maybe people seeing downtown Waynesboro will say, ‘Oh, doesn’t that look like a place in America that’s still sweet and innocent and delightful?’ It looks great out here,” Evans said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.