‘Hearts’ viewing is free tonight

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 14, 2004

DEMOPOLIS – Thirty-seven years ago, a young Joe Turner of Demopolis graced the silver screen for “oh, about a minute.” But that minute for Joe and several other Demopolites was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make history as they participated in the filming of the major motion picture, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”

Tonight, Turner and other residents will take a trip back in time and relive those moments as the Marengo County Historical Society and the Two Rivers Arts Council sponsors a free showing of the movie, which was filmed primarily in Selma and Demopolis.

“On Saturday, Oct. 7, 1967, Demopolis answered Hollywood’s casting call for the film version of author Carson McCullers’ “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” William Gantt of Birmingham, said. “Local extras were asked to appear in summer clothes for a staged July 4th celebration in the city’s square as background for Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke.”

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Joe Turner and his wife, Martha, were among those appearing in the brief scene.

“My wife and father sat on the edge of the fountain there in Confederate Park,” Turner said. “The film director for some reason picked me out, and another person, and we were told to walk back and forth in front of the camera.”

Though it sounds like a simple thing to do, Turner said it took several takes to get it right.

“The first two takes, we were looking directly at the camera,” he said. “They quickly broke us of that.”

Despite the hard work, which earned each extra a crisp $1 bill, Turner said it was worth it.

“It was great fun,” he said. “It was a very special Saturday.”

That $1 bill is still more special, after Turner used it for an autograph pad.

“I got signatures of those involved,” he said. “I got the signature of the director (Robert Ellis Miller), the cinematographer (James Wong Howe), Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke,” Turner said.

The movie, Gantt said, began production September 29, 1967, “an eery day” for Miller.

“According to director Robert Ellis Miller, he heard radio news announce McCullers’ death as he rode to the Selma set,” Gantt said.

The movie was arguably one of the most acclaimed releases in 1968, bringing Arkin an Oscar nomination for best actor.

Turner said he went to the theater when the movie was released, and said it was an interesting experience.

“My friends in the audience noticed me before I did,” he said. “They were yelling out, there’s Joe.”

Turner will be there tonight as well, to watch a 37-year-younger version of himself walk across the silver screen again.

“I just don’t want people yelling out like they did then,” he laughed.

Miller had planned to be in Demopolis to introduce the film, but was called away for a current production.

The Los Angeles resident, who also directed such movies as Reuben, Reuben and Sweet November, said the decision to direct “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” was an easy one, because he had read the book in college and thought highly of it.

“It’s a good story,” he said.

Miller said the producer sought him out for the job.

“I was a young director then,” he said. “I had just done a movie that the producer really liked, so he called me. It was as simple as that.”

The choice to film in Selma and Demopolis was not as simple, but still was not a terribly difficult choice, either, he said.

“We looked at about 20 places – we went to Georgia, Alabama and a few spots in Tennessee,” he said. “We wanted to find a place that had the right feel, Selma and Demopolis felt comfortable for that story.”

He said the people of this area were “very generous, very nice.”

“They showed us around, the producer and I, and we told them what we were looking for. They pointed out places that might work,” he said.

Filming the movie in the south had several advantages, the director said, including the natural southern accents found locally.

“Everyone I chose for the smaller parts had the right accent naturally,” he said. “They came by it honestly.”

It also provided such a good backdrop for filming that no fabricated sets were needed.

“The houses, the hotel (St. James Hotel in Selma) and even the rooms in the houses were perfect for what we were doing,” he said.

He chuckled as he remembered one challenge they had in filming one of the rooms.

“We had this room that was a very important part of the movie, but the trouble was where to put the camera,” he said. “We thought, ‘the closet,’ but while the man fit in the closet, the camera wouldn’t. We asked what was behind the closet, and the owners said another closet, so we took out that wall and laid tracks inside the closet so the camera could move about.”

He said that was just one incident where something had to be “rearranged” to make it work.

He said the most difficult challenge, however, was not as much in the directing as it was the scripting.

“You’re taking a 600-page book and turning it into a two-hour movie,” he said. “That’s equivalent to about 100 pages.

“That was the hardest challenge, excising from the book the characters and scenes we wanted to build on. I think the writer and myself did well in making the 600 pages into 100.”

Miller said he enjoyed filming the movie, which he said was a chance to bring to life one of the great American books.

“I think if someone came up with a list of classic books, you would find this one on it,” he said. “(Filming) it was very fulfilling.”