Large bright lights illuminated downtown Bristol this weekend as dozens of Hollywood production crew members and cast mates filmed action sequences for “Believe,” a Christmas-themed movie.
Shot among vacant old manufacturing buildings, the team of about 100 set up, rehearsed and filmed a dramatic fight scene and explosion on the lot between State and Goode streets near Commonwealth Avenue late Friday and Saturday nights.
Producers said the site, which is where developers plan to break ground this spring for the new Sessions Hotel, provided a perfect backdrop for the drama.
Each night, the crew began setting up the scene just before dusk. Members are tasked with certain duties, including setting up lights and sound, preparing cameras and coordinating actors and extras.
The movie, described as a cross between “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Scrooge” in Southwest Virginia, is based in Grundy, Virginia, the hometown of lead actor, Ryan O’Quinn, but a number of scenes have been shot in and around Bristol in recent weeks.
Earlier this past week, O’Quinn and a number of other notable television and movie actors, and the production company, occupied the third floor of the historic L.C. King Building at the corner of Shelby and Seventh streets.
Between takes and rehearsals at L.C. King, O’Quinn chatted about filming in his “old stomping grounds,” as he put it.
“It’s been really amazing,” O’Quinn said about filming locally. “I feel that Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee have and always will be home.”
The first actual filming to take place for the movie occurred last December, when they joined thousands of other local residents along State Street for the annual Christmas parade.
“In the final product, it’s all going to seem like one town,” O’Quinn said. “Most of the film is set in Grundy, but we talk about things happening in the Tri-Cities and surrounding areas. Even the Christmas parade that we shot in December, we’re going to marry that one with another one we shot in Grundy and make it look like one.”
O’Quinn, a former Grundy athlete who for the last 20-plus years has starred in a number of television shows, portrays the main character, Matthew Peyton, the owner of an automotive parts factory in a small town. Peyton is the town’s primary employer and the namesake of the local Christmas pageant and festival.
“Because his business has gone belly up, he can no longer afford to put on the Christmas festival,” O’Quinn said. “So now, he has not only laid off most of the town at Christmastime and ruined Christmas for everybody, now he also breaks it to the town that there will be no festival.”
The actor said he immediately becomes the town pariah.
“That’s where the drama happens when they pull him out of his car, beat him up and blow up his car,” O’Quinn said, referring to the scene that was filmed Friday and Saturday nights. “He ends up literally and figuratively on the other side of the tracks and befriends a young boy. The boy and his mother nurse him back to health and they kind of remind him of the true meaning of Christmas.”
There’s something more to Christmas than the gifts and the commercialization of the holiday, he added.
The original script was set in rural Pennsylvania.
“When I got the script, I asked our director, ‘What’s the connection to Pennsylvania?’” O’Quinn said.
The director wanted a small town with hospitable, blue-collar people.
“I said, ‘Let me take you back to where I’m from,’” O’Quinn recalled. “I have a house here in Abingdon and I grew up in Grundy.”
Last summer, O’Quinn and a few others visited Bristol and Grundy to meet with community leaders.
“I often say they literally and figuratively rolled out the red carpet for us, “O’Quinn said. “They asked us what we need and made a list. They said, ‘We can do that.’”
The more than one-month-long filming process has taken place on both sides of the state line in Bristol and in Buchanan County, Virginia.
In Buchanan County, the crew filmed at the county courthouse, which will portray the town council; Main Street; Walnut Street; Buchanan General Hospital; the Rainbow, a restaurant in Vansant; and Poplar Gap Park, the site of the town pageant and festival in the movie.
Grundy Town Manager James Keen commended the crew for working with local officials and residents in the production. He noted that for the festival, the crew put out a call asking for people to show up in cold-weather clothing. Although the temperature was about 70 degrees, more than 2,000 Grundy residents showed up in coats and hats.
“We’ve tried to provide as much assistance as possible,” Keen said. “It’s been a very positive experience.”
O’Quinn and his family have been “great” to the community, the town manager added.
“We’re grateful that they chose to film in Grundy and Southwest Virginia,” he said.
The crew and cast have filmed in both Bristols, at the L.C. King building, two other local factories, Piedmont Avenue, the State Line Bar and Grill, a convenience store on Weaver Pike and the former Eastman Antique House.
The crew’s trailers and equipment were at the house, built in 1935 along Lee Highway, earlier in March.
“Our character is a 40-year-old guy who owns an automotive factory in Southwest Virginia,” said Jeff Frizzell, the movie’s location manager. “This house just fit his character.”
The third floor of the King Building, which was empty, has been used to create a number of scenes. Temporary and movable walls were installed and could be quickly reassembled between scenes. O’Quinn said the building is supposed to look dilapidated inside.
Last night, city police and fire personnel were on standby as the crew planned to blow up a BMW sedan. They previously attempted to film the dramatic scene, but O’Quinn said wind and rain led producers to postpone.
A team from Los Angeles, which includes O’Quinn’s stunt double, planned to film the scene a block just north of State Street.
“The actual explosion is not like pouring gas on something and setting it on fire,” O’Quinn noted. “Cinematically, they make it look much bigger in the final product. It’s flame gel. It’s a big explosion all at once and everything dies out. There’s a lot of movie magic that goes into making it more dangerous than it actually is.”
A number of safety measures were to be in place, in addition to having emergency personnel on standby, such as flame retardant clothing and standing back a safe distance.
Local fire department personnel have also provided assistance by soaking the exterior scenes for additional effect.
While in town, the cast and crew of about 140 people have stayed at a local Bristol hotel. In addition to the cast and crew, there have also been a number of local extras in Bristol and Grundy. Several Bristol residents were cast as extras in scenes at L.C. King, O’Quinn said.
Associate Producer Katy Bunn-Davidson, who is a local resident, said the estimated number of crew members on a daily basis is about 72. On heavier days, such as stunt double and action days, it’s about 100. And the number of extras per day has ranged from six to more than 2,000.
A normal work day during filming lasts at least 12 hours.
“It’s extremely long days, multiple set-ups,” O’Quinn said. “Obviously, we don’t shoot chronologically, everything is out of order. We spend three or four days in one location before we move on to the next one.”
The crew is the first team to show up on location. The actors come in a short time later. O’Quinn said the actors then go through makeup and rehearsal before going through scenes.
“Then we do the scene and we capture every single angle of that scene,” O’Quinn said. “We go over and over and over again.”
When not filming, O’Quinn said the cast and crew has been exploring Bristol.
“We ate at Quaker Steak and Lube and we had [actor] David DeLuise with us,” O’Quinn said. “We were just mobbed, by not just the patrons but the wait staff. Word had preceded our arrival and people wanted to come out to support us and take photos. We’ve had no negative push back at all. It’s been great.”
DeLuise, best known for the “Wizards of Waverly Place,” portrays a man named Tom Blackhorn in the film.
Actress Danielle Nicolet, who will appear in the movie “Central Intelligence” this summer with Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson, said she’s really enjoyed the shops and restaurants along State Street.
“It’s been really sweet,” she said.
Nicolet plays Sharon Joseph, the lead character’s love interest and mother of the little boy.
“I won’t spoil the end, but it’s happy,” Nicolet said.
The actress, who like many Bristol tourists recalled taking her picture along the state line, said she plans to visit every restaurant downtown by the time filming is complete.
“I just like to eat through every city,” she said.
O’Quinn said the crew has also gone bowling a few times while in Bristol.
Officials in Bristol say they’re excited about “Believe,” which producers plan to hold premieres for in both Bristol and Grundy.
“We’re very excited that ‘Believe’ is being shot in Bristol,” said Beth Rhinehart, president and CEO of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce.
Rhinehart, who first met the crew and O’Quinn during last year’s Christmas parade, said, “We certainly hope that this is a catalyst for more movies being filmed here.”
The chamber believes the direct impact will be about $350,000 for Bristol, but that doesn’t include public relations once the movie is released.
Terrie Talbert, who has been communicating with the crew for the city of Bristol, Tennessee, said the economic benefit is about $143 per day, per person.
“We’re very thrilled that they’re filming here,” said Talbert, who noted that the cast and crew have been very professional.
Talbert also said she’d like to see more movies and TV shows film in Bristol.
In addition to local extras, they’ve also hired a local construction crew, which is building sets for the movie.
“I feel like we’re giving people a different trade than they’ve been accustomed to,” said O’Quinn, who is also credited as a producer. “We’re pouring millions of dollars into the economy. In addition to that, the end result will be positive. It will be a positive light on small town USA.”
In Grundy, which has consistently had one of the lowest unemployment rates in Virginia, O’Quinn said he’s received a lot of pats on the back.
“Everywhere we went, they said, ‘Thank you, we needed this. We needed it for the morale.’ As a former resident, that’s probably the most rewarding thing,” O’Quinn said. “I’m glad I can do something.”
“Believe” may also be the launching point for a new and rising star in Hollywood.
“Issac Brown is going to be a star,” O’Quinn said. “This is going to be a breakout role for him.”
Since appearing on “America’s Got Talent” in 2012, Brown has also appeared on the hit TV shows “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Black-ish.” He plays Clarence Joseph, the little boy who helps O’Quinn’s character in the movie.
O’Quinn said he still gawks at the movie production, although he’s been in Los Angeles for more than 20 years.
“I finally got to see an early trailer for the film and I had chills,” he said. “I’ve been there every day. I feel like it’s going to be a big deal.”
In addition to the local premieres, the goal is to show the movie in 1,500 theaters around the country. Producers will work on negotiations to distribute the movie in coming months. The tentative release date is Nov. 11.