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It's a Wrap: Residents reflect on 'Hollywood experience,' look ahead to 'Big Stone Gap' movie

December 1st, 2013 1:16 pm by Carmen Musick

It's a Wrap: Residents reflect on 'Hollywood experience,' look ahead to 'Big Stone Gap' movie

Film crews work in Big Stone Gap. Photo submitted by Melissa Miller.

Our recent visit to Big Stone Gap, on a chilly but beautiful November afternoon, turned out to be the final day of filming. We didn't plan it that way. But, as it turned out, it gave residents the perfect opportunity to reflect on their "Hollywood experience" and what it might mean, looking ahead, for Big Stone Gap and the region as a whole.

For those unfamiliar with the novel by Adriana Trigiani, "Big Stone Gap" tells the story of self-proclaimed spinster Ave Maria Mulligan who believes that life has passed her by. It is chock full of comical moments and eccentric characters indicative of small town living. Brimming with humor and romance, it's set in the 1970s in the small Southwest Virginia town from which it takes its name.

A Long Time Coming

It took more than a decade for Adriana Trigiani to realize her dream of making the movie about Big Stone Gap in Big Stone Gap.

"Adriana always said she wanted to film the movie here in Big Stone Gap. For a long time, it didn't look like it was going to happen. But she had faith and she worked through it," said Big Stone Gap resident Shirley Smith. 

"So many people tell you they're going to do something and never do it. But she put feet to it – she put feet to her faith - and she did it. And, in doing so, she's restored hope. That's what she's done for this community. She's given us hope. She has people excited about this town and it's up to us to make sure we keep that alive."

Filming began in October and concluded about a month later with plenty of opportunities for the real people of Big Stone Gap and the surrounding area to get in on the action. A talented playwright, filmmaker and former writer for "The Cosby Show," Trigiani enlisted the help of old friends and relatives, high school classmates, college students and townspeople as extras or background talent. Some even landed speaking roles in the film, which is not without its fair share of star power.

Ashley Judd plays Ave Maria Mulligan. Patrick Wilson (who has his own ties to Big Stone Gap) plays Jack MacChesney or Jack Mac. Whoopi Goldberg stars as Fleeta with Jenna Elfman as Iva Lou. The cast also includes Erika Coleman as Pearl Grimes, Anthony LaPaglia as Spec, John Benjamin Hickey as Theodore Tipton and Jane Krakowski as Sweet Sue Tinsley.

"We've got electric air," Smith exclaimed as she showed off her backporch overlooking trailers that housed dressing rooms for the stars.

"The best thing about the whole experience has been how the stars themselves have enveloped themselves into the community. They're causing people to want to look at Big Stone Gap through new eyes."

Greg Kress, a businessman in Wise and lifelong friend of Adriana Trigiani, knows exactly what Smith means.

During filming, Kress said he frequently entertained or shuttled members of the cast and crew from the airport to the set. Along the way, many of them would ask to stop at the overlook on Hwy. 23 to take in the views. 

"We take it for granted. I drive past it all the time and I've stopped maybe two or three times," Kress said, admitting that he had never snapped a photo of his own there - until he, too, took a renewed look at the beauty of the region through the eyes of his visitors. 

“They've caused the community to look at what they've got,” said Smith. “I think the movie's going to be a classic. When you see the movie, you're going to see the real Big Stone Gap and you're going to see the people of Big Stone Gap.”

And hopefully, Kress and Smith agree, everyone will see the potential – for small business and tourism – and work together to help make the town's future a little brighter.

Star Stories

Members of the cast, including the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Jenna Elfman, Anthony LaPaglia and Erika Coleman, earned legions of fans in Wise County by inserting themselves into various aspects of life in the tiny Southwest Virginia town. 

Residents recounted story after story about their beloved celebrity guests. 

There was the time Whoopi Goldberg was eating dinner at Little Mexico, and stayed for hours to sign autographs and take pictures with fans. And how about that 'sweet Erika Coleman' who went and read to school kids?  There was Anthony LaPaglia, who was frequently seen cycling in the region. His photos and mentions of Big Stone Gap and the region's beauty in social media earned him a place as the impromptu ambassador of Wise County.

And Jenna Elfman... who didn't have something nice to say about her? She'll have fans - and friends - for life in Big Stone Gap, having chronicled her experience in social media with frequent photos featuring everything from snow on High Knob to ice cream at Dari Delite.

Long-time dance instructor Angela Tipton, whose late husband served as the Powell Valley High School band director for years, got a sneak peak of Elfman's feisty Iva Lou character during filming. As she recounted her experiences, Iva Lou and Lyle were a recurring theme.

"I loaned my bed to them for Ave's bedroom. When they came to get it, I told them it was fine for them to use it, but that they'd better not let those Iva Lou and Lyle characters in my bed,” Tipton said with a laugh. 

“When you see the movie, you'll know what I'm talking about. When you see the scene up at the church, you'll see why. I noticed my preacher getting a little blush, and I was too."

When they brought her bed back, one of the locals who helped move it said, 'Ms.Tipton, Ashley (Judd) sure did look awful pretty lying in that bed.'"

The Tipton house sits right across the street from "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" outdoor theater. As a result, Tipton had a front row seat to a lot of the action. She worked with the majorettes, including actress  Bridget Gabbe who portrays Tayloe Slagle, helped with a dance number and appears in the background of a few scenes.

"It's been real exciting. I woke up in the middle of the night one night and it was like broad daylight out there. The streets were lined with big set trucks and wardrobe, and all of that. I went back to bed and, when I woke up a few hours later, they were gone. Just that quick," Tipton said. "... They were all very professional. I guess that's the way they do it everywhere Hollywood takes up.”

When it was all said and done, however, even the bright lights and big stars of Hollywood paled in comparison to Big Stone Gap's one true star:  their beloved Adri.

“I enjoyed seeing Adriana as much as Whoopi or Ashley. She is a star in herself. She amazes me,” said Big Stone Gap resident Melissa Smith.

Kress and Tipton echoed the sentiment, saying “Adri is our star.”

“Adri is one of the kindest, lovingest, most generous people that you'd ever want to meet,” Tipton said. “If you ever have Adri as a friend, you've got one for life.”

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