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Movies
Kittanning marks an extra Christmas

Thursday, March 15, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Full moon's rising in the town of Kittanning. Hundreds of people loiter on the main drag, Market Street. A large Christmas tree stands in front of the county courthouse; decorations hang from utility poles and in shop windows; people warm their hands over fire barrels; little wire reindeer with lights perch on fire-truck ladders meeting in midair to form an arch over the street. Armstrong County Commissioner James Scahill, dressed as Santa Claus, greets everyone with a "Ho, ho, ho."

It's Christmas in Kittanning, where the filming of "The Mothman Prophecies" includes the "Noel" women, from left, Heather Vorpe, 29, and Maria Faith, 19, both of Ford City; Katie Scahill, 13, and Jessica Doerr, 18, both of Kittanning. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

But the month is March. The sign on the police station announces the town as Point Pleasant, W. Va. A man hands out empty foam cups to people in the street and tells them to keep walking back and forth. A giant crane swings over their heads, looking like it will either smash into the side of a building or knock down the power lines overhead. A man who walks out of an alley into the crowd looks like actor Richard Gere. He exchanges small talk with another man, who is Richard Gere.

The Twilight Zone? Nope. Just another Mothman moment.

Principal photography for the movie "The Mothman Prophecies" moved to Kittanning two weeks ago, but the town's transformation into Point Pleasant, site of the 1967 Silver Bridge disaster, may have reached its peak on Friday. Yet the main event -- the bridge collapse, to be simulated on Kittanning's span over the Allegheny River -- won't happen for a few weeks.

The 2000 U.S. Census says Kittanning is home to 4,780 persons. That represents a loss of 333 residents in the past 10 years. On Friday, it appeared as though all of them had returned, each bringing friends. "The Mothman Prophecies" hired 600 local extras to appear in the Christmas pageant street scenes. It turned away several hundred more, some of whom joined the additional throngs who came just to watch. Hey, most people didn't have to get up for school or work the next day.

Dizzy at Lizzy's

restaurant at 300 Market Street usually closes at 3 p.m. on Fridays. But on this night the place was jammed at the dinner hour, catering to "Mothman" mavens and Gere gazers.

A party of 12 at the table in the front window gobbled down hamburgers and gabbed about how they arrived at 4 o'clock to be extras and didn't make the cut. "But we might be back tomorrow," said Pam Rupp of Applewold, a hamlet just across the river. It's where the movie-makers chose a house to represent the home of Point Pleasant's sheriff, portrayed in the movie by Oscar nominee Laura Linney.

"We're going to have a fun evening," Rupp continued. After watching a bit of the filming -- or the endless preparation for the filming -- they were thinking about heading back to Applewold to "watch a Richard Gere movie." One of the group had brought along a tape of the film "Runaway Bride," in which he starred with Julia Roberts.

Beyond Applewold, in the borough of West Kittanning, other tributes to the star appear. A sign in front of a gift shop reads, "Richard Gere, your pretty woman is here" -- a reference, of course, to Gere's other film with Roberts. Another store's sign reads, "We're all Gere'd up."

So are the knot of about 50 people who stand daily in front of "base camp" -- the parking lot containing the trucks essential to the production -- in hopes of seeing Gere walk to and from his trailer.

Kittanning is a star

Not every shopkeeper is smiling, although most are taking the presence of the movie in stride. Every week from Wednesday through Sunday, Market Street may get closed down to accommodate filming. The bridge across the river also is closed now, although there's another bridge a few miles downriver.

"It has affected most of the merchants," said Mike Boylan, who owns a furniture store on Market Street. "They block off meters, and no one can go in or out of buildings or walk up and down the street" when the movie is filming.

"But everyone is sticking together and doing their best," said Boylan, who recognizes that the movie ultimately is good for Kittanning.

Commissioner Scahill agrees that a few naysayers have surfaced. But, he said, "There's another star in the movie besides Richard Gere and Laura Linney. It's the town of Kittanning."

He's standing a few doors down from Dizzy Lizzy's, dressed in full Santa regalia with his wife, Audrey, playing Mrs. Claus. It's a familiar role for Scahill, who said, "Politicians serve the same function. We try to make people feel better and to deliver good things. Santa Claus is hope."

The famous face in the crowd is Richard Gere, who portrays a reporter investigating strange events in a small town in "The Mothman Porphecies." In this scene, he mixes with revelers at a Christmas-tree lighting part. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

Four takes

The movie's director, Mark Pellington, just hopes he can stay on schedule. Because Linney had to fly to Los Angeles to attend Sunday's Screen Actors Guild awards and Monday's luncheon for Oscar nominees, her Christmas street scenes all had to be shot on this one night.

But first, Pellington had to film the scene in which Gere walks out of the alley and into the crowd. It involves a tricky camera move in which it backs out of the passageway, turns and follows Gere from high above as he walks up the street. Security people keep moving folks away from the area where the crane will turn, trying to make sure no one gets hit.

The other concern is that the camera, which costs $300,000, doesn't hit the buildings on either side of the alley.

The movie's first assistant director, John Hockridge, greets the hordes of extras and tells them what to do. The main thing is not to stare at Gere when he joins their midst. He's just another guy, Hockridge emphasizes. He's supposed to be Washington Post reporter John Klein, in town to investigate accounts of strange, perhaps supernatural sightings.

Gere skips the first rehearsal, however. His stand-in, Wayne Calder, takes his place. Calder, of McCandless, bears a strong facial resemblance to the star, although his hair is grayer. You can see the difference when the two men chat, but some extras mistook Calder for Gere at a distance when they were apart.

After two takes, one of the crew members hands out the foam cups "so you'll have something to carry" while walking up the street. After getting a quizzical look at one point, he asked, "Are you walking?" When the spectator said no, he took the cup and said humorously, "Gimme that back!"

The fourth time was the charm, and crews began setting up for the next shot a block up toward the courthouse, beyond the fire trucks to an area where craft booths lined the street. Two crew members were strapping what looked like a periscope to a cameraman's back so he could get "hand-held" shots of people, with the glow from the fire barrels reflected in their faces.

Chatting with Gere

If you looked quickly you could get a glimpse of Linney before she headed back to base camp with one of the producers. Gere hung around a while longer, chatting at one point with a handsome young man with longish black hair and a red jacket.

He's an actor named Shane Callahan who, it turns out, hails from nearby Titusville and is a graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He plays Nat Griffin, a "good ol' boy" from Point Pleasant who shows John Klein some of the places where strange things have been happening.

Callahan has been working chiefly out of Wilmington, N.C., which means he's made the obligatory appearance on "Dawson's Creek" along with a TV miniseries and some small independent features "that you might never see."

He got into acting "to meet a girl," he said with a laugh. "I took an acting class and I liked it, got an agent, went to auditions, got a couple parts and just kept doing it."

He went to the Art Institute to learn about music and video but also took some film classes. "I was scared of acting then. I made a couple of short films, too, and I was scared of actors." He laughs again.

He auditioned for "Mothman" last Thanksgiving and got called back at Christmas, which worked out well because he was in the area to spend the holidays with his family.

And now he's playing reindeer games with Richard Gere, celebrating Christmas in March in a West Virginia town located in Pennsylvania.

By the way, that isn't really the police station. Oh, and don't try to get a fill-up at the gas tanks in front of the Laundromat at the corner of Water and Market. They're props, too.

Kittanning should be back to normal by Easter, which comes in April. Really.



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