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My Life as a Film Star (Sarcasm at its Finest)

Loudoun author recounts time on movie set, marks one off ‘bucket list.’

Well, maybe I should qualify the title. Recently, I was asked to be an extra in the making of the movie Moving Mountains filmed on the Shepherd University (Shepherdstown) campus, in West Virginia. I didn’t have a speaking role nor was I the ‘featured’ anything in it, but who can tell where even that could lead? After all, Brad Pitt was an extra at one time as were most stars prior to their real starts in the film industry. Okay, the Brad Pitt analogy is an extraordinary stretch but the experience was, nonetheless, exhilarating and, informative. An actor I’m not, nor do I have the desire to make the attempt. They can act in them, I’ll just write them.

I was further impressed at the fact that it starred an amazingly gifted actress and A-lister, Theresa Russell. She starred with Debra Winger and Dennis Hopper as the husband-killing beauty in the 1987 Bob Rafelson directed drama, Black Widow as well as many other major motion pictures and countless television shows. However, in meeting her, I found her far from the devilishly evil character depicted in the film. She was funny and playful and quick to allow this obscure author his moment with her and a photographer. I was so amazed that she could turn her acting switch on and off with such ease that I was once confused if what she was saying was real or scripted. One thing I wasn’t confused about was that she was beautiful then and equally stunning now. She walked around the sets with all eyes on her as she systematically and professionally delivered her lines with expert timing and expressions that made you believe that you were attending the actual historic event rather than a film set depicting that event.

Moving Mountains is adapted from the multiple award-winning book Moving Mountains: How One Woman and Her Community Won Justice from Big Coal by Penny Loeb. Ms. Loeb, who also wrote the screenplay and was the Executive Producer, achieved heights in writing that most of us authors only dream of. She was the quarter-finalist BlueCat prize, semifinalist for the Kairos Prize, semifinalist Monterey prize, finalist at the Gloria Film Festival. Her triumphs also include winning many national journalism awards, National Magazine Awards, two-time winner Society Professional Journalists Public Service, and Scripps Howard Public Service award and to top it off she was also the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  Awards that will never be on this fiction-writers mantle. I met her through the Loudoun County Writers Association (LCWA) where I was the past Vice President. She told me that a movie was in the works based on her best-selling book, Moving Mountains, and wondered if I wanted to play a coal official in it.

The book and the movie present the true story of Trish Bragg (played by Ms. Russell) and her fight with the billion-dollar coal industry situated in the small southwest West Virginia community of Pie. The story chronicles her one-woman struggle to save her land and her community from coal-wash emanating from the nearby coal strip-mining operation. Faced with the fact that the mountaintop coal mining supplied many jobs in the area and the shear power of coal industry, the story explodes with David and Goliath comparisons. She fought the coal industry, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the coal unions and faced the hatred of the very same citizens she sought to protect. Mainly because many in her community worked at the mine and they saw her efforts as threatening their jobs. She fought the good fight, and was responsible for the coal industry adjusting the way they do business and causing the EPA to explore new rules for the coal industry’s environmental procedures.

 

I had the privilege of meeting the real Trish Bragg and found her southern charm engaging, very approachable and eager to discuss her life as an advocate for environmental rights and, of course, her potato pancakes. I asked if the fight is still going on, she emphatically said, “It does. I don’t think it will ever completely end.” A seriously friendly woman, we talked many times during my time on the set and she never seemed to tire from the questions I was peppering her with. She just answered them with grace as she made up the prop signs for the protest scene, one of which I would eventually be waving on film. She knew I wrote books from Penny’s introduction and asked what kind of books I wrote. I told her about a few of them and she was interested in Falling Waters. The title caught her imagination because of the West Virginia town of Falling Waters. When I wrote the book, I didn’t know that Falling Waters, West Virginia existed. Being an author, I always take books with me just in case I come across someone who wanted one and I happily signed it and presented it to her. From then on she introduced me as an author and proudly displayed my gift to her friends and family. This woman was a go-getter. A woman who obviously had a hard time walking but that didn’t stop her from going outside in the heat and asking passers-by if they wanted to be extras in her movie.

 

As far as the rest of the cast, I didn’t get a chance to meet them all. I met Rick Roberts who played a Coal Official and the beautiful Alexandra Hewett, who played the snooty head of the Federal Office of Surface Mining who dismissed Theresa during the auditorium scene. I didn’t talk to Alexandra much but I certainly wanted to. Rick and I were constantly talking about acting and writing. I told him that I was in the final stages of  adapting Falling Waters into a screenplay and he expressed an interest in being involved with it after I explained the story. I also got to meet the award-winning Director Jeanie Clark. I could tell who was in charge as her eyes were fixated on positioning of the extras and directing the actors to get that perfect take. I could tell that this was not her first directing gig. It was as if she already envisioned the movie in her mind and was just simply making her thoughts a reality by skillfully managing all facets of the production. I’m sure the final product will mimic exactly what she envisioned. All in all, I will cherish my brush with Hollywood albeit via West Virginia. Moving Mountains is presently being professionally edited and will, hopefully, be submitted to the Tribeca and Toronto film festivals and eventually to television screens across America.

I thanked Penny for allowing me to be a part of it and was sorry that my brief part ended so soon, so abruptly. I wanted it to go on and on but the movie, just like my movie career, wrapped. It didn’t make me long for another shot at false fame nor did it make me desire to be among the Hollywood elite, however it did allow me to scratch off an all-important item from my bucket list and leave me with many very memorable moments.

To learn more about Gary Henry, visit http://www.garydhenry.com. To learn more about Moving Mountains, visit http://www.movingmountainsthemovie.com.

 

 

 

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