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The Big Fish

When Peter’s job relocated to Montgomery, Alabama in April 1996, we relied on our realtor, and Peter’s work associates, for directions on where to buy a home. Wetumpka, a small town built along the Coosa River, was much hyped for its beauty, as well as its growing reputation as a setting for Hollywood movies, thought to be a boost to the residents.

Our realtor was especially upbeat about buying a home in Wetumpka.

“In addition to the television shows and movies that will be filmed here, a casino is going to open soon,” she enthused. “Property values will shoot through the roof as people see how wonderful it is to live in Wetumpka!”

Quickly we discovered the townspeople of Wetumpka and Elmore County split into two factions: those who welcomed the movie productions and gamblers, and those who opposed strangers coming to the town. The sturm und drang was palpable. The word carpetbagger was whispered, but this epithet, and other, darker phrases, were lobbed at us by an angry neighbor and her kinfolk, who had been using our driveway rather than fixing their own potholed one. The neighbor operated a day care from her house and her clients drove constantly up and down the driveway. One morning I nearly collided with a mother and her baby: she barreled up the hill as I soared down. The unrestricted access drive presented two problems: an accident, or the neighbors would attempt to claim our driveway through eminent domain. We closed off a branch of our long lane with bricks and tree limbs, forcing them to repave their own driveway.

The limited access from our driveway to their property did not win us any popularity contests. Indeed, the neighbor, whom we dubbed Annie Oakley, took to firing shotgun blasts off her front porch whenever she saw one of my children or dogs outside. But Peter and I were adamant: they would not use our lane.[1]

This incident turned into our very own War of Northern Aggression.

Welcome to Alabama! I muttered.

The movies came, despite the opposition. The casino and hotel were built, after decades of legal wrangling that enriched the state’s biggest law firms, and further pitted evangelicals against progressives.

The Grass Harp, with stars Sissy Spacek, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Edward Furlong, and Piper Laurie, fueled the first wave of accord and discord. Filmed in and around Wetumpka in 1994 and 1995, this little movie, based on a story by Truman Capote, pitted neighbor against neighbor. Some people were proud that Wetumpka, with its antebellum homes, many in poor repair, were selected for exterior shots, although one of the largest property owners refused multiple offers by producers to include her mother’s house. The movie was released shortly before we moved to the area, but the Hollywood buzz continued for decades. One afternoon I watched as Angela Bassett, cast as Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks, filmed a scene in which she opened a door to the courthouse annex and entered the building, at least ten times, her head held high with grace and dignity, for a made-for-television movie.

But the big Hollywood-to-Wetumpka activity was the production of the 2002-2003 Tim Burton movie, The Big Fish. This was an allegorical story of an emotionally remote father, Edward Bloom, who spun fantastic tales about his childhood in a small town, who has reached the end of his life. His journalist son Will returned from his job in France, with his pregnant wife, to his father’s deathbed. Will examined these tales, to determine which were factual, and which were yarns spun from whole cloth.

Indeed, the movie symbolic characters: the witch who foresaw deaths, a lonely monster befriended by Edward and led away from the small town of Spectre, and a catfish of mythical proportion, the metaphor for the major theme of the movie, and accurate descriptor for Edward:

the big fish in a small pond

Albert Finney played Edward, Jessica Lange was Edward’s wife and Will’s mother. Billy Crudup played Will. The cast also included Helena Bonham-Carter, Danny DeVito, and Ewan McGregor.

A movie crew built the Bloom house in downtown Wetumpka specifically for the movie; later it was sold as a residence, and it’s still known as The Big Fish House.

For weeks, the town was alive with film crews and extras, and bystanders followed the movie sets, caught up in the excitement. The abandoned Fain theatre, the high school football field, and the historic Bibb Graves bridge appear in the film. Residents and business owners were either thrilled or furious—there was no middle ground. One lawyer boarded up the windows of her office building to keep it out of the movie. My job brought me downtown often and I was an eager spectator in the days when the car racing scenes were filmed on Bridge Street, with Ewan McGregor as the young Edward Bloom. Over and over, the red vintage hotrod sped by the attorney offices, the real estate office, the barber shop, the pharmacy, the theater, and over the bridge. Sometimes there were gunshots, as the car chase involved Edward Bloom chasing robbers.

Occasionally I spotted my son Danny, a high school senior, and his best friend Eric, skipping classes to watch the action. Sometimes I’d order them back to school; but mostly I stood with them, to savor the experience.

One day, in early February 2002, the daughter of a client called. She invited me to her family farm in Tallassee, a town to the north of Wetumpka on Highway 14. I was surprised to learn their property housed the production team of The Big Fish. There were multiple scenes scheduled to be filmed on the farm and the frontage. She invited me, along with a guest, to spend a day on the set.

“Most of the actors are staying up at mama and daddy’s so you’ll see a lot of them,” she said, “but I don’t know if Ewan McGregor will be there.”

That was okay. I’d seen Ewan McGregor in downtown Wetumpka. I hoped to see someone else.

In the movie Almost Famous, the actor Billy Crudup played Richard Hammond, the lead guitarist for the fictional band Stillwater. I came of age during the rock and roll heydays of the 1970’s, and I’d kindled an infatuation for long-haired musicians who strummed acoustic guitars and sang soulful songs. Hammond invoked a wistful pang in my middle-aged heart for my adolescent dream guy, an archetype who taught me hard lessons in my 20’s.

“I hope we see Billy Crudup today,” I said to my daughter Michelle, my plus one to the closed movie set. I was giddy, caught up in excitement.

“Oh, my God, if he talks to me, I’d be over the moon,” I said. “Promise you’ll kick me if I do something stupid, like try to hug him.”

“Ew, Mom!” She was horrified.

We had to be ‘on set’ by 8:30 that morning. It was a cold, cloudy day. A winter storm approached; humidity filled the heavy leaden skies, rain spit occasionally. Trees were bare. Spring felt impossible. The temperatures stayed in the low 40’s that day, but it felt much colder as wind whipped off the river.

Security fit for a military base met us at the entrance to the Gunn farm. I handed my driver’s license to an armed guard in a security booth. Once he found my name on the list of invitees, he allowed our car through a gated entry and into a parking space. A man in a golf cart pulled up behind my car. He introduced himself as the transportation captain and drove us onto the property. He drove through the grounds, and pointed to each area where scenes were to be shot. He drove us down a line of trailers that housed the actors, cautiously watched by guards with walkie talkies. I was stunned by the size of the property. It was a misnomer to call the property a farm. That was a riverfront estate.

The captain pointed toward a large white tent. “That’s the commissary. If you want anything to eat or drink, just head inside. You never know who you’ll see.” He winked at us.

“Roam around, watch all the scenes, but be aware of the cameras and the crew,” he said. “Don’t make any noise while a scene is filming, or you’ll be escorted off the property. You’re allowed on set until five, when everything shuts down. Meet me in front of the commissary and I’ll take you back to your car.” He stopped the cart, shook my hand, and wished us a fun-filled day.

And there we stood. In the middle of Hollywood, Alabama style.

That day we came face to face with Danny DeVito, dressed as a circus Ringmaster. We watched Mathew McGory, who played Karl the Giant, prepare for a scene. We saw actors and extras, young women in cheerleader uniforms and vibrant summer dresses, young men outfitted as football players and acrobats. We stood on a hilltop overlooking the Tallapoosa River and watched cast members of the marching band line the riverbank, repeatedly. Later I’d learn this was the scene where Will carried his dying father to the river, and the entire town is there to bid him a fond farewell. Edward, the influential person in a little pond, morphs into The Big Fish and swims away from the joyous crowd.

The scantily clad extras wrapped in coats and blankets between the countless takes of this scene. By early afternoon we sought the commissary for warmth and hot beverages. The tent held dozens of people, and there was food for an army. We ate slowly, seated at a long table, surrounded by extras and crew members. We relaxed in the heated area, grateful to be out of the weather. We scanned the crowd for notables. We saw Jessica Lange, up close and personal. She was taller than I’d imagined, and prettier.

Starstruck, I looked for Billy Crudup. He was on set, but we hadn’t yet seen him. And then, nearing 5 p.m., just as we hiked to meet the transportation captain, we climbed a small hill, and came face to face with the actor. He smiled, nodded his head, said hello, and walked toward the commissary tent.

“There, we saw Billy Crudup,” Michelle said. “I don’t get what you see in him. Ewan McGregor is much cuter.”

“Nah, Ewan McGregor doesn’t do it for me. Crudup reminded me of my dream guy from when I was your age,” I said. “My teen fantasies involved a love affair with a rock star. You know, falling in love with me, writing me love songs, that kind of romantic stuff. Like Layla or Tiny Dancer, only better.”

“He didn’t look like a rock star,” she said.

I couldn’t summon the words to explain. I drifted along on Cloud Nine all the way home.

When I watched the movie, I was surprised to see the scenes filmed on that bleak winter day appear as a vibrant summer day of sunshine and beauty.

Oh, the magic of Hollywood.

Unfortunately, the ebb and flow of actors and high rollers didn’t bring soaring home values to Wetumpka. In 2012, at the end of our tenure, Wetumpka was still a small Southern town, divided between the status quo and the progressives. After 16 years of Alabama living, Peter and I sold the house and moved away. We barely recovered the money we’d put into renovations.

There are still film crews working in and around Wetumpka. In 2020 the cast and crew of the HGTV show Hometown Takeover renovated homes and brought new businesses to the downtown area. Michelle was enthusiastic about the changes certain to improve the town. During my summer visit in 2021 she and her children led me on a tour of the downtown: a wine and cheese shop inhabited the once-derelict Fain Theatre; a bookstore opened, and there were new boutiques and restaurants. A promenade wound along the riverfront. As we admired the river views, a couple in their 60’s, visiting from Birmingham struggled to take a selfie. Michelle offered to take a picture of them.

“Do you live here?” the woman asked my daughter. When Michelle said she did, the woman hugged her.

“You are so lucky!” she gushed. “Think what this is going to do to your property values!”

Hollywood, Alabama style.

[1] Several years later our properties were surveyed as part of the Wetumpka Crater project. We learned the neighbors had built a horse barn which encroached on our property. Rather than fight, contest, or sue, we waited for an opportunity to sell and move.

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