Houma turns back clock for major film crew

Congressional races top list to watch
August 23, 2012
HNC barge gate floats as work progresses
August 23, 2012
Congressional races top list to watch
August 23, 2012
HNC barge gate floats as work progresses
August 23, 2012

The Tri-parish region, this time specifically Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, continues to draw moviemakers. Crews producing “The Butler,” which has been filming in New Orleans since mid-July, are in downtown Houma this week, where preparations are being made with the “action” call scheduled for Friday and Saturday.

A section of downtown connecting Main, Belanger, Church, Goode and School streets is being transformed to depict an era 44 years ago.

Additional filming spots include parking lots at Polk Street next to Wolf Pharmacy and at the intersection of Goode and Belanger streets.

Initial filming segments begin Friday at approximately 7 p.m. and continue until 5 a.m. Saturday. Cameras will focus on Main Street between Lafayette and Church streets.

“Just be cautious when approaching the downtown area,” Houma Police Chief Todd Duplantis said regarding traffic during the film shoot. “Extra officers will be there for street blockages and asking people to be patient and drive safely because this is good for the community.”

Duplantis said that spectators are expected although he is not aware of designated observation areas. “In the past there have been areas where spectators could come as long as they are out of the film crew’s way,” he said. “I guess that will be determined on the day of filming. We just ask people to be patient.”

 Filming Features

Directed by Lee Daniels and produced by Laura Ziskin Productions, “The Butler,” according to publicist Wellington Love, is an inspired interpretation based on true-life story of Eugene Allen (film name Cecil Gaines). “We have based this on his life,” Love said. “It is not an actual biography, but does represent [Allen’s] presence during historic events. That’s the reason for the name change.”

The main character is played by Forest Whitaker, who portrays Allen’s life as a White House domestic staff member, whose work spanned 34 years in the service of eight presidents.

The timeline (1952-86) begins during Harry Truman’s final year at the White House and extends into Ronald Reagan’s second term in office.

Scenes produced in Houma depict an area of Washington, D.C., during the hours and days following the assassination of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.  

Confirmed actors portraying historic figures include Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, Melissa Leo as Mamie Eisenhower, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines and Alex Pettyfer as Thomas Westfall.  

Additional well-known actors include Mariah Carey, Coleman Domingo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrance Howard, Nicole Kidman, Lenny Kravitz, David Ovelowo and Vanessa Redgrave.

Butler Bio

Eugene Allen was featured in a series of stories by Wil Haygood of the Washington Post. Haygood, who is being utilized as a film consultant for “The Butler,” described Allen as a first-hand witness to history during 20th century, particularly while having inside access to the world’s most powerful men.

Allen was born July 14, 1919, in Scottsville, Va. As most black men of his generation, he was offered a future limited mostly to labor-related careers. For Eugene Allen that meant becoming a waiter.

The butler’s big break came when he was hired onto the White House staff in 1952. Allen’s first job there was as a pantry man, assigned to wash dishes, stock cabinets and polish silverware.

During the next three decades he advanced to butler and ultimately White House maitre d’ – a post he held for the final five years of his career.

With immediate proximity to the executive mansion’s main occupants, Allen was on-hand while Dwight D. Eisenhower dealt with a developing arms race, desegregation and witnessed an emergence of the civil rights movement.

The featured butler was invited by the president’s family to attend the progression and services for John F. Kennedy following his assassination. Allen, however, declined that offer, stating, according to Haygood, “Somebody had to be at the White House to serve everyone after they came from the funeral.” 

Allen was nearby as Lyndon B. Johnson struggled with the Vietnam War and domestic unrest. He endured the rise and fall of Richard Nixon, and was present when Gerald Ford announced an end to, “Our long national nightmare.”

The butler was on hand as Jimmy Carter was welcomed to Washington. He then saw that president depart after 52 Americans had been held 444 days as hostages in Iran, only to be released while Ronald Reagan was sworn into office.

“First Lady Nancy Reagan came looking for [Allen] one afternoon,” Haygood wrote. “Mr. Allen wondered whether he or a member of his staff had done something wrong. ‘She said you and Helene [Allen’s wife] are coming to the state dinner as guests of President Reagan and myself,’ Allen said.” It is believed this is the first time a White House staff member had been a president’s state dinner guest.

Allen avoided celebrity, Haygood reported. His wife of 65 years died one day before the two were to cast their ballots for Barack Obama as the first black U.S. president in November 2008. Allen died March 31, 2010.

How Houma?

John McCollam is a New Orleans-based independent location scout that guided producers to the Tri-parish area after securing the Big Easy as a movie location.

“The film has a lot of period things in it and Houma has a downtown that works well with that,” McCollam said. “It is a film-friendly city and works well with the director’s vision.”

McCollam said that attention to detail is critical in transforming any location to appear story line appropriate. “That means we will have to remove a lots of signs and change things about [building] facades. We can’t have them with a neon Saints sign. It’s got to look like the 1960s. Once you start looking it is amazing how many signifiers there are to the [present] times.”

“We have had smaller productions during the past couple of years, but this is great to have bigger production exposure for the area,” Houma Regional Arts Council Director Glenda Toups said. “Something like this gets you on people’s radar. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Louisiana offers a [30 percent] tax credit [for movie productions].”

Not everyone is convinced that film crews working on location would particularly enhance Houma. “They came in one day, but they didn’t tell me a whole lot,” Kwik Kopy Printing owner Gordon Fitzgerald said from his business at 7712 Main St. “If they are shooting on the weekend it is not going to disrupt my business, because we’re not opened on the weekend. I think they will just be here and gone.”

Main Street Houma Manager Anne Picou said she expects more and said the film-shoot offers both an economic and public relations boost. 

“For us it is exposure,” Picou said. “On top of that, these people will be staying at the [Courtyard by] Marriott. They will be eating here and buying gas. The production will mean income for the community.”

Terrebonne Economic Development Authority CEO Steve Vassallo was involved in trade and industry development during the 1995 filming of “A Time to Kill” in Canton, Miss., which in that instance included construction of a sound stage facility.  “As a result of that [filming] the economic impact versus having the crew go back to California was about $12 million,” he said. “The filming totally transformed that community and helped lure other films because the Hollywood crew was treated well by the community.”

Vassallo agreed with Picou and predicted an intangible image investment of having “The Butler” filmed in-part locally will offer a long-term return on investment. “It takes it out of the norm of being just another small town,” he said.   

Scenes for “The Butler” are also being filmed in Raceland. “I can’t tell you what we are filming there, but it is a re-enactment of a significant moment in Civil Rights history,” McCollam said. “Again, we selected that area for the period similarity it has and how the setting fits the event being depicted.”

“The Butler” is independently financed. Love said that he was not at liberty to disclose the amount of money investors have put into the project.

McCollam said the major actors participating in this film are attracted to the story line and opportunity to work with an emerging director. 

Neither Love nor McCollam could reveal which actors might be on location for the film shoot.

“The Butler” is scheduled to hit theatres in 2013. 

Eugene Allen’s life is being depicted in “The Butler,” an independent film with a host of major actors. Allen was a White House staff member for eight U.S. presidents from 1952-1986 and first-hand witness to many of the 20th century’s most significant events. Filming segments for “The Butler” are taking place this week in Houma and Raceland.