Friday, April 01, 2011
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'Wettest County' -- Franklin County -- goes Hollywood

Matt Bondurant's novel about his Franklin County moonshine-running ancestors has been adapted to the big screen, with big names on the bill. One of those big names visited Snow Creek to record the local accent.

Shia LaBeouf with young cast members on the set of “The Wettest County in the World”

Shia LaBeouf with young cast members on the set of “The Wettest County in the World”

Jason Clarke

Jason Clarke

Shia LaBeouf

Shia LaBeouf

Tom Hardy

Tom Hardy

Mia Wasikowska

Mia Wasikowska

Andrew Mitchell read for a movie part, and he's not even an actor.

Mitchell, who lives in the Snow Creek community of southeast Franklin County, recited a few lines from the script of "The Wettest County in the World," all because Jason Clarke, a real actor, wanted to record Mitchell's accent.

Clarke is an Australian actor who plays one of a trio of brothers in the Depression-era film, which is based on Matt Bondurant's 2008 novel about his moonshine-running ancestors. After a few production hiccups, "The Wettest County in the World" began filming this month in Georgia.

The movie has an impressive young cast, led by Shia LaBeouf ("Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," the "Transformers" series), Tom Hardy ("Inception") and Mia Wasikowska ("The Kids Are All Right," "Alice in Wonderland," "Jane Eyre"), who are joined by veterans Guy Pearce ("The King's Speech," "Memento") and Gary Oldman ("The Dark Knight," "JFK").

Clarke (who stars in the new series "The Chicago Code" on Fox) plays the stoic Howard Bondurant -- a real person, although the movie, like the book, is fiction -- and he wanted to hear for himself how people talk in rural Franklin County as he prepared for the role.

So, the author, who lives in Texas, called his cousin Whitney Mitchell Eanes in Martinsville and set up a Snow Creek fact-finding mission for Clarke.

That is how Andrew Mitchell, Whitney's uncle, ended up with an actor in his kitchen. Clarke spent a February weekend meeting folks, recording voices and dining on down-home cooking of ham hocks, corn and biscuits, served up by Mitchell's mother, Betty Lou.

"He was a nice cat," said Mitchell, who met Clarke on a Sunday and gave him a driving tour of Snow Creek, where the novel was set.

"He wanted to see the countryside," Mitchell said. "Then we went to my mom and dad's for supper. He wanted to tape us and try to pick up the way we speak down here. He had a book, like a textbook about a half-inch thick, that he wanted me to read from. It was like from a language class, it showed how to pronounce stuff. Then I read a few lines of the script."

Clarke spent a couple of hours making recordings to study for his role. He stayed for a couple of days before heading south for filming.

And, no, this is not an April Fool's Day joke.

Not quite the same story

Mitchell, 41, who works for the Virginia Department of Transportation, is author Matt Bondurant's first cousin. The late Jack Bondurant was their grandfather, and he is the lead character in both the book and the film.

The story mainly follows Jack and Forrest Bondurant (played by LaBeouf and Hardy), bootlegging brothers who fight the law, endure brutal attacks and shootouts and try to evade prosecutor Carter Lee (another real figure).

Although the book was based partly on the true events that led to Franklin County's infamous "Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935," both the author and now movie director John Hillcoat have taken liberties with the story.

"They've changed up the characters quite a bit, other than the three brothers," Matt Bondurant wrote in an e-mail. "They've essentially added this whole Chicago gangster thing -- the Carter Lee character brings in Chicago guys to take down the Bondurants -- and there is generally more shooting and violence."

Bondurant saw some of that violence up close when he visited the film. He posted on Twitter: "Not allowed to take pics on set and T. Hardy was busy punching people most of the time I was there."

One hopes that Hardy's punches were all part of the script.

A Down Under touch

Even though the movie is being filmed in Georgia, Bondurant believes that the onscreen setting will remain in Franklin County.

Some of Clarke's interviews and recordings took place in Jack Bondurant's old house in Snow Creek, where Andrew Mitchell now lives. Clarke met a house full of Bondurant and Mitchell kinfolk, including 92-year-old Talmadge Mitchell of Martinsville, who recounted stories of moonshiners from his Franklin County boyhood in a lilting Southside accent.

"Lots of times, you could look out at Chestnut Mountain from our back door and see the smoke rising from three stills at the same time," Talmadge Mitchell said.

The movie's release date has not been set but will probably be next year. Hillcoat, who also directed the grim 2009 drama "The Road," is working with screenwriter Nick Cave, a former progressive rock musician and, like Hillcoat, an Australian.

In fact, the Blue Ridge story has a real Down Under vibe. Hillcoat, Cave, Clarke and Wasikowska are all Australian. Pearce, Hardy and Oldman are British. LaBeouf, a Southern Californian, is the only native-born American among the actors getting highest billing.

As for Andrew Mitchell, he's looking forward to the film to see if he can detect a little of his own voice resounding from the big screen. He also hopes that Clarke will make a return trip to Snow Creek.

"He took a book with him to get the cast to sign it," Mitchell said. "Hopefully, he'll swing back through here. He was a cool dude."

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