James Gang spotted in Arkansas

It’s a cold, ominous Monday in Van Buren, Ark., and Frank and Jesse James are riding down Main Street. There’s a bank just ahead and robbery is on their minds.

This action, the Northfield, Minn., raid, is the big-bang high point of Trimark Pictures’ “Frank and Jesse,” a fact-based Western about the legendary outlaw James brothers filmed on location in Northwest Arkansas during six weeks of intense activity bracketing the new year.

The production, characterized by executive producer Sandy Lieberson as marking Trimark’s move into higher budget films with well-known actors, stars Rob Lowe as Jesse, Bill Paxton as Frank and country music star Randy Travis as Cole Younger. Itwas written and directed by Robert Boris. Producers are Cassian Elwes, Elliott Kastner and Lowe.

What kind of impact did a big Hollywood film have on this area, other than satisfying the star-struck?

Fayetteville Mayor Fred Hanna estimates that $ 6 million was poured into the state as a direct result of the film.

While the big shootout scene occurs in Minnesota, most of the movie is set in post-Civil War Missouri and Arkansas.

Obviously delighted with the location filming ending within budget and on schedule, Lieberson is also excited about the fresh appearance of the movie, which he described as “authentic, accurate and extraordinary.”

“We believe people will be surprised by the look and feel of the film,” he declares. He attributed the look to the choice of filming locations, which he described as being “what the country looked like when the James gang was operating in 1867-8.”

Over in Van Buren, they are no strangers to film crews, having had “Biloxi Blues,””A Soldier’s Story” and the miniseries “The Blue and the Gray” shot in this tourist hot spot. This time, the town doubles for Northfield, Minn., home of the James’ boys greatest and bloodiest battle. A full seven-block stretch of Main Street was closed to the public and dressed with period signs, period furniture (supplied by many of the area antique shops) and more than 40 truckloads of locally bought dirt to cover the concrete pavement.

“Frank and Jesse” was filmed at 16 different locations in Northwest Arkansas, Lieberson explains, including a home visited by the James boys when their relatives lived there. The house is still occupied by descendants of those relatives and five of them appear in the movie.

Phillip Steele, a Northwest Arkansas Film Commission member and James gang historian living in Springdale, Ark., says the house is located at Clifty, a tiny village in the Ozark Mountains between Fayetteville and Eureka Springs. Fielding and Mary Samuel, step-grandparents of the James boys lived in it at the time of the visit and Samuel is the name of the family residing in it now.

Selected for location filming were towns that could be given the period look with a small amount of dressing, Lieberson said.

Over in Van Buren, they are no strangers to film crews, having had “Biloxi Blues,””A Soldier’s Story” and the minisesries “The Blue and the Gray” shot in this tourist hot spot. This time, the town doubles for Northfield, Minn., home of the James boys’ greatest and bloodiest battle.

Van Buren was given the role of Northfield due to the unique frontier look of nine blocks of downtown Main Street lined entirely with restored Victorian era buildings. Three long blocks were dressed as Northfield, with six inches of sand covering streets and boardwalks disguising concrete sidewalks.

Despite disruptions of customer access and rerouting of traffic away from their businesses, people in the downtown area and Van Buren city officials were cooperative throughout the filming, according to Elwes and Lieberson.

“They also allowed us to break their windows and jump off their buildings” during stunts, marvels Lieberson, and Elwes chuckled while pointing out that nontraditional traffic on Main Street one day included 50 head of cattle being run through for the movie.

Other “Frank and Jesse” filming locations included the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad, a 110-mile-long system dedicated primarily to hauling freight. The railroad owns period passenger and baggage/mail cars rescued from salvage yards in the U.S. and Canada and restored to mint condition.

The search for filming locations and the open-arms reception by local officials were facilitated by the Motion Picture Development Office of Arkansas Industrial Development Commission and the Northwest Arkansaas Film Commission.

William Buck, director of the state office, says all decisions to film in Arkansas have been due to the availability of the right kinds of locations. All or part of more than 55 motion pictures have been filmed in the state. The most recent being parts of “The Firm” filmed at West Memphis in 1992, and scenes for “The Client” shot the following year at West Memphis and the nearby MississippiRiver delta town of Hughes.

To promote Arkansas, Buck’s office maintains a still-growing file of 70,000 plus location pictures, and has recently installed a Kodak Imaging System with a growing file of more than 11,000 location photos on compact disc.

The system, described as the latest word in speed and convenience, consists of a Quardra 800 computer utilizing an imaging process that reads CDs and displays selected pictures on a video screen and prints them as required.

The photos can be sent to other locations for viewing and printing provided the recipient has compatible equipment. Also, parties on both ends can view pictures simultaneously while discussing them by telephone. Arkansas is the only state using the equipment for such purposes, Buck said.

In addition to the photo files, the Arkansas Motion Picture Development Office maintains crew lists and listings of talent agencies as well as directories of businesses providing such goods and services as movie makers may need. A representative of the office also goes on location with production crews to provide any assistance that may be required.

Floyd Bohannan, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Film Commission, helped put cooperation on firm footing before on-location production preliminaries began for “Frank and Jesse” by arranging meetings between production management and local government and law enforcement officials. Also a Chamber of Commerce official, Bohannan carries a camera on his business travels to photograph potential filming locations for the state files.

Buck observes that movie making is still a novelty in Arkansas, film crews are “pretty well received everywhere” and those deciding to film in Arkansas are amazed at the physical beauty of the state and the interest and friendliness of its people.

The high level of interest became apparent as soon as plans for “Frank and Jesse” were announced. More than 1,000 turned out — many in period costume — at an open casting call in Springdale two weeks before filming began.

Approximately 500 more filed applications later. More than 20 speaking roles and requirements for approximately 400 extras were filled from those applicants.

Among the applicants were members of Civil War and Jesse James reenactment groups ready for immediate action. Some owned horses and all possessed authentic attire, firearms and other equipment. Elwes says 40 Civil War reenactors and 10 members of the Jesse James reenactment group were employed. And, except for 10 specially trained horses brought from other areas, all livestock used in the production was obtained locally.


Arkansas Motion Picture

Development Office

William Buck, commissioner

1 State Capitol Mall

Little Rock, Ark. 72201


FAX: 501-682-FILM

Eureka Springs

Eureka Spings

Chamber of Commerce

Bob Purvis, commissioner

P.O. Box 551

Eureka Springs, Ark. 72632


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