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Arts & Performance

'Three Billboards' Up for Six Oscars. People in Sylva Would Like a Seventh: Best Location

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Everywhere you turn inside Sassy Frass Consignment, your eye catches bejeweled, gleaming crosses and other Christian symbols sprinkled among t-shirts, furnishings, glass baubles and other nicknacks.

Then there are very different signs about one special chapter in the store’s history -- the charred doors left behind by a firey Molotov cocktail and the giant block letters that temporarily hung on the building’s facade, spelling out Ebbing Police Department.

Two springs ago, cast and crew spent six weeks prepping and shooting in and around Sylva for the film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.” Producers converted Fuller’s store into the police department, one of the movie’s central locales.



“I love the transformation that took place here,” said Tammy Fuller, the store’s owner. “Just in a matter of days, it was from Sassy Frass to a police station, and I was like ‘Man, these guys are gifted.’”

Shooting largely happened in the open along Main Street. Locals were free to watch from a short distance and a number of them made it into the film as extras. Between takes, Woody Harrelson would walk into In Your Ear Music Emporium to play a guitar. In turn, people in town have adopted the film as their own.

“The buzz is still there. It hasn’t gone away,” said Paige Wood works behind the bar at The Mad Batter, a bar and restaurant that also screens second-run movies. Wood has lived in Sylva all of her 28 years and says everyone in town sees “Three Billboards” as their movie.

Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News
A keepsake from the movie resides just inside the front window of Sassy Frass Consignment.

“We were super excited when they came to film, we were super excited when it came out, we’re super excited that it’s up for all these awards,” she said. “We’re really proud to be a part of it.”

At first, Adam Gelbaugh thought it a backhanded compliment when producers asked to use his house as the bedraggled, paint-starved home of the police officer portrayed by Sam Rockwell.

“They did say don’t do anything to the outside of your house, including mow the grass, you know, paint, anything,” Gelbaugh said. “It looks rough. It’s an old house, so we were not surprised by that.”

That directive extended to the town, itself. Producers chose Sylva from about 40 cities under initial consideration because downtown hasn’t changed much in 40 years ago: Brick buildings--none taller than two stories--dated signage and a county courthouse overlooking everything from a hill at the end of Main Street.

The only question for locals: Would the cast and crew of a film rife with violence and free-spirited language gel with a largely conservative, church-going community?

“We pray over this place every day. We pray that the holy spirit is here,” Fuller said.

Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News
The porch of Adam and Mary Gelbaugh's home in Sylva. The makers of "Three Billboards" used it as the home of the police officer portrayed by Sam Rockwell.

So Fuller didn’t see it as much of a leap of faith to open her store to some of the most unsavory elements of the film. The night producers shot the fire-bombing Fuller’s phone lit up with texts from friends

“I didn’t realize how big, you know, it was actually going to be,” she said. “When you see it on the screen, I was like ‘Oh my goodness, it’s crazy.’”

This isn’t the first major film produced here. Nestled between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Nantahala National Forest, Sylva still draws visitors keen on catching backdrops from “The Fugitive,” starring Harrison Ford and shot largely in Sylva 25 years ago.

Only 2,644 people live in Sylva and 42,000 in all of Jackson County, but the area draws a mountain of tourism--hikers, campers and drive-by leaf-peepers spent $188 million there in 2016. But “Three Billboards” has given Sylva an entirely different level of visibility. The courthouse, main street, the houses, the views--all figure so prominently in the film that Ben Davis, the film’s cinematographer, has described the town as a supporting character.

Nick Breedlove, director of the county’s tourism development authority, says “Three Billboards” is already adding another dimension to the region’s tourism. Visitors to the county tourism website are invited to print a rundown of locations used during the filming and take a self-guided tour. Here are behind-the-scenes photos and videos produced during the film's production.

Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News
Nick Breedlove, director of the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority.

“People are asking ‘Where’s Ebbing?’ You know, that’s one of the top Google searches, and you know when they search for Ebbing, they go ‘Sylva, huh? Where’s Sylva?’” Breedlove said.

Gelbaugh and his wife, Mary, are thinking of a wholly modern turn for their home--converting into a short-term rental, as is.

“There have been a lot of drivers passing by,” he said. “Some have stopped and talked to us and let us know they just got done watching the movie.”

Sylva residents have a lot of opportunity to potentially cheer Sunday night. “Three Billboards” is up for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. People in Sylva only wish there were another award category: Best location.

“Yes, a very big deal,” Fuller said. “I’m praying that they win.”

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