Eric Roberts stars as grizzled reporter Ronnie Bullock in 'Deadline'.

Nashville Gets Another Taste of Hollywood

'Deadline' is latest movie to film here

by Claudia Pinto, Tennessean
January 23, 2011

It's shortly before 9 in the morning on this frigid Saturday, but near the intersection of 12th Avenue and Broadway, tensions are heating up. More than two dozen protesters are marching, waving signs and screaming at a fresh-faced young reporter as he tries to enter his workplace. With a grimaced look, he makes his way through the angry crowd.

The sequence isn't part of some escalating social conflict, though. It's just Nashville's latest taste of Hollywood.

Deadline, a movie about a tenacious journalist investigating the cold case of a racially motivated murder, began shooting on Friday and is expected to wrap up by mid-February. And while no one will mistake the size of the production for, say, Avatar 2, it's another chance for the city to play a supporting role on a silver-screen project.

In December, Blue Like Jazz, another film intended for theatrical release, finished filming here, and that month also saw the local premiere of Country Strong, which was shot in and around the city.

Deadline stars Steve Talley as Matt Harper, a young reporter at the fictional Nashville Times, and Eric Roberts as grizzled reporter and mentoring figure Ronnie Bullock. It was inspired by the real-life story of Mark Ethridge, who was a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, and adapted from his book Grievances.

"It's really a movie about how one person can make a difference," said Ethridge, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

With the exception of the two lead actors, the entire cast consists of Tennessee residents. Well-known Tennesseans in the movie include Larry Woods, a Nashville attorney and co-owner of BookMan/BookWoman, who plays the part of prosecutor Max McCallum; and Memphis Circuit Court Judge D'Army Bailey, who stars as Judge Horace Williams.

Curt Hahn, who's the director and one of the producers of Deadline (and also chief executive officer of Film House, the largest film production company in the state), said he originally expected locals to play only supporting parts. He held casting calls in Los Angeles, and some familiar names showed up, but ultimately he preferred the actors he found in Tennessee.

Talley, who wrote for his high school newspaper in Avon, Ind., said he's really impressed by his fellow cast members.

"You think of Nashville and you think of music," he said. "There's a real oasis of acting talent here. I had no idea."

Eric Roberts and director Curt Hahn on the set of 'Deadline' in the newsroom of The Tennessean.

Quiet on the set

Later on Saturday morning, Hahn, wearing a headset, and more than a dozen other crew members are in the renovated newsroom of The Tennessean, fixated on three flat-screen televisions that show what's being filmed in a room just a few feet behind them. In this scene, the young reporter and his editor are arguing with the newspaper's publisher.

The actual making of a movie isn't as glamorous as one might expect. But the efficient movement of all involved can be impressive nonetheless. Set decorators, sound engineers, grips, hair and makeup assistants, wardrobe handlers — everyone has a job to do, and on this day, each goes about it quietly and calmly.

Once the cameras roll, the only voice that cuts through the air periodically is Hahn's — and then that of the assistant director who echoes his comments, virtually word for word:

"Great. Cut." ... "Nice job, guys. Beautiful." ... "Good. Let's do one more." ... "I like the one we had better."

Earlier in the week, Hahn described the movie as a "Grisham-esque courtroom thriller."

"It has the racial story of A Time to Kill and the thriller elements of The Pelican Brief," he said.

In addition to shooting at The Tennessean, Hahn will film at sites that will include the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Rippavilla Plantation in Spring Hill and the Giles County Courthouse in Pulaski. The entire film will be shot in the state.

Nathan Lux, the incentives/music and media coordinator for the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission, said new financial incentives set up by the state three years ago have helped to make Tennessee more of a movie destination.

There were 32 movies and TV shows that took part in the incentives from 2008 through 2010, compared with seven projects in the three-year period before that, Lux said.

However, all of these projects were relatively minor in scope. Lux said the average movie filmed in Tennessee has a $6.2 million production budget. Even the bigger films, such as Country Strong and Hannah Montana, had production budgets of only about $15 million.

"These aren't $200 million Steven Spielberg movies," Lux said.

Hahn won't disclose Deadline's budget. One of its investors is J. Hunter Atkins, chairman of the Bank of Nashville.

The crew sets up for a scene for 'Deadline' in The Tennessean newsroom on January 22, 2011.

A veteran perspective

It's midafternoon, and Talley and Roberts are sitting in a cubicle rehearsing a scene that calls for the characters to banter back and forth and commiserate with each other about their separate troubles at the newspaper.

As they prepare, lighting technicians on ladders are working on big fluorescent bulbs overhead, but almost everyone else in the crew is standing around watching.

Hahn, monitoring everything nearby, is as calm as he was in the morning and appears pleased with the way the day is going.

"Everything is going fantastic," he said. It's not certain whether they're sticking to the production timetable, but that doesn't seem to be an issue for him at this point.

"I don't know if we're on schedule," he said. "I don't wear a watch. I just go as fast as I can to get it right."

However the film ultimately turns out, Roberts said, smaller productions such as Deadline have benefits because they enable him to team with younger actors.

"It's about giving back to people who are just starting out. With my name, I can be of assistance," said Roberts, whose performances in Runaway Train, Star 80 and King of the Gypsies earned him nominations for an Oscar and three Golden Globes.

"These kids get to work with me and they get to ask me anything they want. I get to be a mentor, I guess is what you'd call it. I hate that word though, when it's applied to myself."

Deadline is expected to premiere in Nashville in February 2012 and then be released nationwide that April. But it's still not too late to get a piece of the action if you'd like to see yourself on screen.

Hahn's looking for unpaid extras. Those interested should e-mail their name, race and contact information to [email protected].

Copyright (c) The Tennessean. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc.

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