Down on Railroad Avenue, one block of the street is roped off with orange cones, police cruisers and uniformed officers. The buildings facing the street have been refurbished to look like post-World War II Louisiana, and curious onlookers stand motionless and quiet, staring at the movie set's cameras, staff and giant lights. A makeshift stage sits to the left of The Grapevine restaurant. Crew members with earplugs scurry around the set, while others in McCarthy-era garb stand around and wait for their marching orders. One man, dressed like a state trooper, takes a call on his cell phone. And yes, there are old cars lining the street -- Model T's, Buicks and Cadillacs. Posters with Sean Penn's smirking face cover the doors, windows, cars and light posts. In bold black letters, the placards proclaim: "WILLIE STARK FOR GOVERNOR."
Penn stars as Willie Stark in the new film version of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men, based loosely on Louisiana's Kingfish, Gov. Huey P. Long. Penn, no stranger to controversy himself, is an inspired choice for the role of one of Louisiana's most mercurial politicians.
Based in Louisiana, shot in Louisiana, with a story about Louisiana, All the King's Men -- with its reported $60 million production budget -- is one of the largest cinematic events in Louisiana's history. Penn, Law, Anthony Hopkins, James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet and New Orleans native Patricia Clarkson have all signed on to retell the tale. Political strategist and Louisiana native James Carville is the film's executive producer. The 2004 version of All the King's Men is written and directed by Steve Zaillian, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Schindler's List.
In 1949, the first movie adaptation of the novel, starring Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, garnered seven Academy Award nominations. It won for Best Motion Picture, and both Crawford and supporting actress Mercedes McCambridge took home Oscars.
The new adaptation takes the original's Great Depression-era story and places it in the 1950s. The storyline and characters remain the same. "It's a heart-wrenching story, based on Huey P. Long," says musician and author Ann Savoy during a break on the set. "It's a sad story about how people who have high morals, how things get out of their control, and they can't keep up those high morals."
Savoy stands on the sidewalk facing five boys and a little girl, including young Breaux Bridge accordionist Hunter Hayes. They're all dressed in period garb, all sitting on a long wooden bench. Savoy is conducting them, teaching them the song "Hail, Hail, the Gangs All Here!" She's been enlisted as the associate music producer for the film's soundtrack, a job she will share with T-Bone Burnett, the Grammy Award-winning producer of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. (To her credit, Savoy is also a Grammy-nominated producer in her own right, with her projects Evangeline Made and Creole Bred.)
"It started out with [Burnett] saying, Let's do this together,'" says Savoy. "So I made him a CD of historical music that would have been around Louisiana in that time. As a consultant, I just handed him some ideas. And the director has his own ideas, so it's all being developed still." Even though the soundtrack is in its infancy, Savoy has already enlisted the help of local musicians like Steve Riley, The Red Stick Ramblers, Joel Savoy and Cory Ledet.
Ann Savoy is as excited to be involved with the story as she is with the music. "It's one of the great American novels of all time," she says. "It's the story of America and its people. I think it's a story that all children and adults need to read. It's the story that every type of person would love."
THE MOVIE BUISNESS IS KILLING Cynthia Breaux's business, and Sean Penn has taken over her apartment, but she doesn't mind. Hollywood has assured her that she'll be compensated for her troubles.
Inside her restaurant, The Grapevine, the tables and chairs are empty. Normally, the restaurant would be packed for the weekday lunch-hour crowd, but the movie set outside the front door trumps the lunch specials. The waitresses and cooks stand behind the bar, talking to one another and looking bored.
Breaux takes the opportunity to sit down, eat lunch, and visit with her manager, Effie Barnett. They watch the stars and the crew pass back and forth in front of the two large windows overlooking Railroad Avenue. Despite the slow day, Barnett says, "There's been a lot of curious people, and I think it's been good for the town. I have never seen this many people on this street in all my life."
For Breaux, the filming has provided her with a two-day paid vacation, and she hasn't had to go all the way to Hollywood to see the stars. The Governor's Office of Film and Television Development contacted her when it was helping scout locations for the movie. "They knew it would affect our business," she says. "They're paying us for the facade changes, and they pay us based on how much business we lose." In addition to a new awning out front (which now reads "Restaurant LaFourche"), new doors and two signs flanking the entrance, Breaux has been assured that she will be paid for the loss of business each day the film crew is in town and blocking her doorway.
Another part of the deal was that Penn would be able to use her upstairs apartment for his dressing room. Breaux says the production wasn't concerned with the apartment's amenities as much as making sure there was ample air-conditioning to cool Penn down, if needed.
As Breaux is talking, a young man with an earpiece and walkie-talkie comes in the restaurant and asks, "Can you please hold it down?" He walks back into the kitchen and turns off the building's air conditioning and the overhead exhaust fans. Even though the filming is outside, the crew tries to minimize all external noises on the set.
With no lunch crowd, the kitchen staff and waitresses hang out in the front lobby of the restaurant and peer out the window. There are long periods where nothing happens, and people mill about the staged scene. Then, as if by telepathy, the actors, extras and crew scramble to get in place. James Gandolfini stands in the street, munching on a cigar, looking very much like his Tony Soprano character, but in a fedora. He walks past the women standing behind The Grapevine's window and sticks his tongue out at them. They chuckle.
For a couple of hours, they film one scene in front of the restaurant. Over and over again, Gandolfini drives a green Cadillac up to the corner, honks the horn, and jumps out with Penn. As they walk down the street, Penn introduces himself as Willie Stark, Gandolfini passes out handbills, and they shake hands with the extras. They make their way past the restaurant to a stage for a stump speech. After every take of the scene, both the crew and the crowd of curious onlookers applaud, as if it's the first time they've ever seen the performance.
Penn walks back down the street to do the scene again, smoking a cigarette. Barnett watches him as he walks by and says, "He's not good looking, but he's sexy."
JAMES CARVILLE LURKS on the perimeter of the set. He talks with Zaillian, Gandolfini and a group of high school students on a field trip. A nametag hangs around his neck, and he has a red, white and blue Willie Stark campaign button pinned to his hip.
Carville says he's had the idea for the movie for a long time. He mentioned it to his friend, Mike Medavoy, the co-founder of Phoenix Pictures, which produced The Thin Red Line and The People vs. Larry Flynt, a film in which Carville portrayed a prosecutor. The two then pitched the idea to Amy Pascal, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. The startup venture was rounded out with screenwriter and director Zaillian.
"We're just unbelievably excited about it," Carville says. "We're pumped. Everybody's pumped. I'm kind of in awe. We have probably the best story, maybe, that's ever been told in American literature, but we've probably got the best cast assembled, in my memory, to do this. It's exciting."
Carville says Warren's novel is his favorite book of all time, and that there are no first or second runner-ups. "I think it's the best book ever written," he says. "It's got everything in it. It's just a book about human nature. I think that the testament to it is the cast we're putting together for this."
Carville says the state has been more than accommodating during filming. "Louisiana has a premier program to attract film," he says. "We've had bang-up cooperation. The tax treatment is extremely favorable, and it's the kind of industry that's very high paying. It's completely clean. When you come through, you pollute nothing; you pay everybody. It's very creative."
All the King's Men, shot partly in Donaldsonville, New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana, will be filming through March and is scheduled for release in late 2005. "We have what I would call a very good, creative infrastructure," says Carville. "We have creative people here, and we need to build on that. We have this attitude that we don't do well, and we ought to promote the things that we do well, and film is one of them that we do very well. It's a good thing to have."