BIG STONE GAP — All glamorous in her grandmother’s vintage rabbit fur coat and lingering just outside the perimeter of the bright lights of the movie set, Bonny Mullins looked for all the world like a big star.
Which is precisely what the teen girl thought when she approached Mullins, thrust pen and paper toward her and asked for an autograph. Mullins didn’t know what to do, but a crew member smiled and motioned for her to start writing, so she did.
“I love your character on ‘Vampire Diaries!’” the girl gushed.
Somewhere a star-struck fan is the proud owner of an autograph belonging to a stylist at The Big Tease Hair Salon in Big Stone Gap.
Hollywood, in a sense, had come to Big Stone Gap, and who could resist getting swept up in the moment? Star or not, Mullins savored the chance to be an extra in the making of the film version of hometown girl Adriana Trigiani’s “Big Stone Gap.”
“It’s been an experience,” said Mullins, who was in several scenes and over the month of shooting had the opportunity to chat up Ashley Judd, Jenna Elfman, Anthony LaPaglia and other cast members. She even got hired to serve as Judd’s stand-in. In one scene, she just had to act as if she was asleep. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch a movie the same way again.”
Born and raised in Big Stone, Mullins has a connection to Trigiani, who also directed the movie: Her parents, Tammy and Shug Hall, attended Powell Valley High with Trigiani, and her grandfather’s bowling alley was mentioned in the novel based in the late 1970s.
“Adri told me, ‘Your dad made me fail computer class!’” Mullins said with a laugh. “Yeah, I can probably believe that.”
Mullins sipped a cup of coffee outside the June Tolliver Playhouse, site of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” outdoor drama each summer and, on this cool autumn night, the location of a buzz of activity as a throng of extras had crowded into the amphitheater for the shooting of a scene. The pigtailed Judd repeated her running entrance into the playhouse several times. The male lead, Patrick Wilson, strummed a guitar. LaPaglia walked past, awaiting his turn and cracking wise with every step.
“He’s a hoot,” Mullins said. “I really like him.”
Filming would last until almost dawn.
On this evening, Mullins portrayed one of the “foxes” in Trigiani’s story, over-the-top characters – pretty, flirty and chomping gum – who were the young women who sold tickets and handed out the programs for the outdoor drama. They were named in honor of John Fox Jr., the author whose novel is the basis of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” drama.
Mullins pronounced the movie the biggest thing to happen to Big Stone in her lifetime – other than the Jones brothers, Powell Valley football stars Thomas and Julius, making it to the National Football League. Of course, Mullins, who turned 30 during the filming, pointed out she wasn’t alive when actress Elizabeth Taylor choked on a chicken bone at a Big Stone restaurant in 1978 during a campaign appearance with her then-husband John Warner who was running for the U.S. Senate. That one made news all over the country, and it’s also in the movie. Mullins was an extra in that scene, too.
“This has been a really good thing for Big Stone,” Mullins said of the film. “I hope it brings visitors here because this town sure does need it.”
Trigiani has wanted to make this movie in Big Stone since she wrote the story as a screenplay. When it didn’t sell, she transformed it into a book, which launched her ascent as a best-selling author.
She has worked for more than a decade to bring the movie project home, waiting for the right deal. The film is eligible for a $300,000 grant from Virginia’s Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission and up to $600,000 in state incentives, though she turned down better financial offers from other states. With her background in theater and television – she worked behind the scenes of “The Cosby Show” – she served as director.
After almost a month, filming in Big Stone wrapped up in the wee hours of Nov. 14. Editing is underway. There is no firm timetable for the movie’s release, although Trigiani hopes it will be in theaters in 2014. She sounded absolutely ebullient – which is sort of how she always sounds, but in this case even more so – during a phone interview from her home in New York a few days after filming ended.
“There’s a line in the movie that says, ‘True love energizes you, and all the other kinds exhaust you,’” she said. “I’m really energized by this. I can’t say in words to you what it was. The closest thing I can say is childbirth. Years of planning … and then the baby shows up.”
Trigiani grew up in Big Stone, part of a large Italian-American family that had moved there when she was 6, lured by an opportunity for her father to open a garment factory. During the filming, she slept in the old Victorian house where her mother still lives – “I slept in my clothes on top of the covers most nights because I didn’t want to be late” for the next day’s filming, she said – and reconnected with family and friends, many of whom wound up in the movie.
She laughed recounting how she showed her actor friends around town, taking them to a high school football game at Bullitt Park, pointing out homes where she had babysitting jobs and making special note of the house “where my appendix burst when I was 14.”
Every day was like a treasure box,” she said.
Best of all? The filming unfolded just as she had envisioned it for years, so much so that when she would peek through the camera she would see what her mind had thought, and “it freaked me out with such joy.”
“I’m just going to go out on a limb and tell you: This is a spectacular movie,” said Trigiani, who heaped praise on the cast and crew, many of whom were involved out of friendship to her. “I didn’t know what this was going to be. It could have been ‘The Hindenburg Hits a Corn Dog.’ You cannot know.
“But it’s beautiful. It can be hilarious. You will cry your eyes out. I’m so thrilled.”
Big Stone Gap is a town of about 5,000 in the mountains of Wise County in Southwest Virginia. Hailed as the Pittsburgh of the South earlier in the 20th century, Big Stone has been hurt by the downturn in the coal industry. In recent times, the town has been aided by the building of a nearby state prison, but life here can be an economic struggle. Mutual Pharmacy, the real-life place where the novel’s heroine, Ave Maria Mulligan, worked as a pharmacist, closed over the summer, the competition too strong from the bigger CVS a few blocks away.
The movie is something town leaders hope they can hitch Big Stone’s fortunes to.If nothing else, it’s been fun.
Firefighters Michael Bentoski and Jeff “Salt” Stipe were enlisted to carry the stretcher bearing the actress portraying Elizabeth Taylor — Dagmara Dominczyk, the wife of actor Patrick Wilson, who plays Jack MacChesney — in the scene depicting the unfortunate chicken-bone incident. “We lifted her up and took her down those steps I don’t know how many times,” Stipe said with a laugh. The really cool part? Bentoski’s father, Mike, now deceased, the police chief in 1978, pushed Taylor’s gurney from the restaurant in real life 35 years ago.
Kathy McElyea, aka “Fletch the Reporter,” a high school classmate of Trigiani’s who kept fans informed about movie goings-on with folksy reports on Trigiani’s Facebook page, might get a book deal of her own. She’s traveling to New York soon. Town police officer Jody Taylor, keeping an eye on things during filming in late October at the set outside the June Tolliver Playhouse, said simply, “I’m loving the overtime.”
Scenes were shot all over town — in a bank building, the pharmacy, even an old Gulf station that was transformed into a diner. In the book, the diner was in Appalachia. But for the movie Trigiani decided to call it Carmine’s, a nod to a longtime Big Stone fixture that was run by the parents of town manager Pat Murphy.
“My mom (Carmine) started it in the late 1930s,” Murphy said. “Adri called me and said, ‘Pat, what do you think?’ You know how I felt about that.”
He loved it.
“My grandfather was in the movie business,” Murphy said. “He had several theaters in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. He had a neat drive-in theater outside downtown where you put a screen on the back of the horse barn. You’d stop at the tack room, pay for your ticket, drive right through the barn, through the horses, drive around back and watch the movie on the barn.”
His mother started a narrow little restaurant on the side of his in-town theater. “You had to turn sideways to get through the door,” Murphy said. “She said she had one booth and three stools.”
Murphy spent part of his childhood living above the restaurant, which became a popular place in town with its plate lunches, homemade pies and original paintings on the walls. The restaurant closed in 1982, and now the building itself is gone, a grassy gap amid storefronts. Murphy thought the memory of Carmine’s would die with him.
Now with the movie “it’s going to be preserved,” and town officials hope to maintain the Carmine’s movie set as a visitor center.
When Jack Beck told his sister, who lives in the north of England, that he was moving to Big Stone Gap, she said, “Is that a real place?”
His sister had read Trigiani’s books and thought Big Stone Gap was a creation of the author’s imagination.
He can assure it is not.
Beck, a native of Scotland, and his wife, Wendy Welch, came to Big Stone Gap seven years ago and opened a used-book store, Tales of the Lonesome Pine, in a grand old house in which they also live. They started with their own collection of 3,000 books and have traded, acquired and otherwise amassed an estimated 38,000 that fill every room and hide many light switches.
Trigiani cut the ribbon when the shop opened – the first in town and the only bookstore in Big Stone anyone can remember – and helped perpetuate the town’s literary tradition that now includes Welch. Her good-natured 2012 memoir “The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap” turned out to be a hit and has been translated into Korean, Portuguese and four other languages.
“She’s been a very strong influence on the town and a lot of the people who come here,” Welch said. “It’s a nice legacy to follow.”
The movie’s cast and crew made a most favorable impression on the town’s people with their friendliness and general willingness to fit into everyday life, whether it was grabbing a burger at the Dari Delite, hanging out in the lobby of the Comfort Inn or eating breakfast at the Huddle House.
The feeling seemed to be mutual.
A few days after filming ended, and the out-of-towners had returned to their far-flung homes, LaPaglia tweeted this:
Really missing BSG today. The set. The cast. The town. The people.
“These are the nicest people,” said Mayor Nancy Bailey of those connected to the movie. “Everybody we’ve dealt with has just been so nice and so complimentary.”
Added Pat Murphy, the town manager, with a laugh, “They have a hard time understanding what we’re saying, but other than that…”
No one has any difficulty understanding the love Bailey and Murphy have for their hometown.
“Both Pat and I grew up here in the ’50s and ’60s, left here in the early ’70s to go to college, but chose to come back here to Big Stone Gap to have our families and raise our children here,” Bailey said. “I would not change any of that, as I’m sure Pat would agree. We have the heart of Big Stone Gap as our reason for what we do for the town, as does Adri, in holding out to have her movie filmed here.”