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Seeing stars in Mississippi
‘I guess he thinks I’m more used to European accents,’ said Clint, before giving my friend the directions she needed. She had to ask him to repeat them as she was too busy looking at him the first time.
Movie stars in Mississippi? Yes, they’ve made over 60 movies there in the last 30 years, with directors such as Alan Parker, Robert Altman, Walter Hill, Rob Reiner and the Coen Brothers all opting for its southern charms. Armed with a new ‘Movie Map of Mississippi’ and, in the absence of Clint Eastwood, directions from the local tourist offices, I set out to scout for locations.
First stop, Jackson, the state capital, and its splendid State Capitol building. Free tours allow you to see the courtrooms and debating chambers used in movies such as Ghosts of Mississippi and The Chamber. The County Courthouse was replicated in Hollywood for Ghosts of Mississippi, as the balcony in the real thing gave them lighting and camera problems. The art deco light shades you can see hanging down in the movie are beautifully copied fakes.
The self-styled ‘Movie Capital of Mississippi’ is the small town of Canton, about 20 miles north of Jackson, where several films have been made. It was strange driving into the town square, with its old courthouse in the middle. Only a few weeks earlier I’d watched the film of the John Grisham novel, A Time to Kill, on TV, and here it all was: the courthouse where the trial took place, the steps outside where the newsmen got their interviews, and the street out front where they shot the final riot scenes with the Ku Klux Klan.
Even the Canton Welcome Center has been used, as a jail in the powerful Alan Parker film of Mississippi Burning. So many movies have been made here that the Welcome Center offers visitors day-long movie tours. Why is it so popular? ‘Because it’s hardly changed,’ says Jo Ann Gordon from the tourist office, as she points out the square’s features to us. ‘Not many towns still have a square like this. It can be the 1930s, the 1950s or present-day, and you hardly need to change a thing.’
Jo Ann takes us to a two-storey balconied building on the corner, of the kind you might find in New Orleans. It was renovated at a cost of half a million dollars for A Time to Kill, and the film company had such a good time in the town that they handed it back to them to use as a movie museum. Walk into the first room and you walk straight into the diner. Climb the wooden stairs and up above is the office of the idealistic young lawyer, Jake Tyler Brigance. Next door is his secretary’s office, with ‘Free Carl Lee’ banners still standing in the corner. On the desk are accurate period letters and files. I gain a new respect for the amount of detail that goes into making a movie.
We drive a few miles out of Canton and take a turn-off into the woods, finding ourselves outside a log-cabin with the wonderful name of Tilda Bogue. It sounds like a Swedish movie star, but it’s the 1830s home of Nancy Grogan, who shows us round and tells us what it’s like to be taken over by the Coen Brothers. They shot three scenes from Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? at Tilda Bogue.
‘It was really great to have them here,’ Nancy tells this group of movie buffs. ‘After making a movie they always offer to return the property to exactly the state it was in, so I got them to remove the changes I didn’t want made, and leave the improvements! They chased a chicken in our barnyard. They also shot the cemetery scene here. They built the cemetery across the lake there, but when they finished I asked them to leave it and I brought it over here on my golf cart.’ Nancy shows us the cemetery from the movie, which she’s transplanted next to her house. ‘They’re only made of styrofoam,’ she adds, tapping a gravestone.
So far so good, but I’ve still not met Clint Eastwood. We head north to Clarksdale, home of the Delta Blues Museum and one of the settings for the film Crossroads, which told the story of a blues singer based on the legendary Robert Johnson. Johnson is said to have gained his unique musical talent by selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads, and the crossroads is in Clarksdale.
So too is Madidi, a restaurant co-owned by the actor Morgan Freeman. Freeman is best-known for playing the chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy. Oh well, if you can’t meet a movie star, at least we can enjoy his oven-roasted striped bass. But then as the crème brulée arrives, so too does Morgan Freeman. ‘Mind if I join you?’ he says. It was my Clint Eastwood moment.
I ask him if Mississippians aren’t tired of movies like Mississippi Burning and A Time to Kill dragging up the past. ‘Sometimes,’ he says. ‘I can see why they want to keep making those movies about civil rights. They’re powerful, dramatic stories. But I wish they’d make more movies just about people, you know, like Driving Miss Daisy, Cookie’s Fortune, My Dog Skip. Mississippi still has lots more tales left to tell.’
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