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Montgomery Advertiser

Lifestyle-Jan. 14, 2003

'Big Fish' creates a big stir

By Blu Gilliand
Montgomery Advertiser

WETUMPKA -- Other than a few stargazers huddled in groups here and there, things in downtown Wetumpka remained pretty much business as usual as the cast and crew of the Columbia Pictures movie "Big Fish" went about their first day of filming Monday.

Spectators kept a polite distance from the set of orange cones that blocked access to the day's set, an old house sitting on a hill on East Bridge Street overlooking much of downtown Wetumpka. From their vantage point, it was difficult to see past the crowds of crew members, lights and cameras to get a good idea of what was actually going on. Still, the bustle of activity was enough to keep them interested.

"It's just exciting," said Tammy Lynn, owner of The Book Basket, a small bookstore on Company Street, near where the day's work was taking place. Lynn said she's enjoyed seeing the changes to the downtown area as the film crew has been at work, and hopes to see more of the action as shooting progresses. Filming continues at the location through Thursday.

"The coolest thing I've seen so far is (director) Tim Burton looking in my store window," Lynn said. She's hoping to get an close look at Jessica Lange and Danny DeVito during production.

"My dream would be for Danny DeVito to come shop in my store, or at least to come in and get warm," she laughed.

Jack and Terri Beasley came to Wetumpka from Montgomery hoping to catch a glimpse of some of their favorites at work.

"I'd love to see Albert Finney," Terri Beasley said. Her husband was less particular when asked who he hoped to see.

"Any of them," he laughed. "I just like movies, and I like being able to see something like this up close."

The house where all of Monday's filming was to take place, known around Wetumpka as "the old Collier house," has been transformed from a small, one-story structure to a grand, two-story Victorian home by the film's production company. The home's owner, Carlton Gray, said the members of the production crew have been working on the house since early October.

"We told them up front that we weren't attached to the house, that they could run free with what they wanted to do," Gray said.

The main transformation came in the addition of a second story, which is actually just a shell that will be removed once filming is complete. The crew also redid the landscaping around the home, added a swimming pool and extended one side of the house by about 3 feet.

"The original house is still in there," Gray said. He said the plan is to completely restore the house to its original condition once filming there is complete. "Except maybe for the swimming pool. That might stay," Gray said.

Gray and his wife, Christine, do not live in the house and don't plan to hang around a lot during the filming.

"We've just tried to stay out of their way," he said. "I understand they're only going to be filming there for a few days."

The experience as a whole has been positive for Gray. "They've been real nice to work with," he said. "In doing a project that size, you can't cover everything in a contract. We've had to make a lot of decisions along the way. They've been fine if we needed to go in a different direction."

Brian Kurlander, executive director of the Alabama Film Office, was on hand for the first day of filming.

"We pursued this project for a while," Kurlander said. He said his office first heard of the project a couple of years ago when it was being developed by Steven Spielberg.

"We didn't hear anything about it for some time, and then when we saw that Tim Burton had taken over development of the picture, we went after it again," Kurlander said. "This was the project to get."

Kurlander's office put together a packet of photos of potential locations and sent them to the production company.

"Most of what we sent was based on the recollections of people who'd only read the script one time," he said. The package led to some members of the production team traveling to Alabama to scout the locations in person, and eventually it was decided that the state had everything they were looking for."

Now, standing in downtown Wetumpka among refurbished storefronts and busy members of the crew, Kurlander said it was gratifying that all the hard work paid off. He also acknowledged the role that local leaders had played in getting the film here.

"We were able to rely on the support of the Wetumpka City Council and Mayor Scott Golden quite a bit," Kurlander said. "They were able to get us access to sites we needed with very little notice."

"Big Fish" is the story of Edward Bloom (Finney), a man who lived a larger-than-life existence that took him from a small town in Alabama around the world and back. Bloom is able to charm his way into the good graces of everyone he meets, with the exception of his son, Will (Billy Crudup). When Edward falls ill, Will's mother (Lange) calls him home in the hopes that the two will reconcile their differences. Monday's scene was that of Will Bloom's homecoming, according to production publicist Eileen Peterson, who said all of the day's work would revolve around that scene alone.


Actor Billy Crudup, left, director Tim Burton and actress Jessica Lange prepare for a scene Monday in Wetumpka. It was the first day of filming for "Big Fish." Filming will continue at the location through Thursday.

-- Photos by David Bundy, Advertiser