Filmmakers revel in riverside Cape Girardeau's filming potential

Friday, October 25, 2013 | 1:45 p.m. CDT
“Gone Girl” director David Fincher is seen on set of the feature film, which is being filmed in Cape Girardeau.

CAPE GIRARDEAU — In moviemaking, there are the lights, camera and action. But getting to that point is a large responsibility that falls to Steve Mapel, location scout and manager for the 20th Century Fox production of the feature film "Gone Girl."

As it entered the final week of production in Missouri, the making of a large Hollywood film has since September captivated the attention of locals, giving them a chance to spot a star or participate as an extra. The city has seen businesses, homes and empty buildings transform into full-fledged sets, skirted with cables, trucks, security guards and spectators.

But just how did Cape Girardeau become North Carthage, a Mississippi River town that has seen better days? Mapel, who has been here since April, is perhaps best positioned to say.

"This was our establishing shot," Mapel said this week, pointing toward the river from where he stood atop the hill at the northeast corner of the Common Pleas Courthouse. "It's that one shot that really helps you get a sense of place."

The view is of downtown rooftops, with a backdrop of the river and the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge.

Mapel basically used that shot to sell using Cape Girardeau to Academy Award-nominated director David Fincher, who Mapel said was already considering the town. Fincher fell in love with Cape Girardeau after seeing the look from that hilltop angle, Mapel said.

"Then the second we pulled into town, he knew it was the place," Mapel said.

At the time the city was selected in mid-May, Mapel began "cold calling" locations to see whether property owners would go along with their buildings becoming actual sets.

"In a film like this, the locations in many ways become characters," Mapel said. "They provide great visual context in telling the story and give a real sense of place to the film."

By September, filming was well underway. Crews descended on locations such as the Common Pleas grounds, used to film a nighttime vigil; a private residence on the west side of town that is the on-screen home of the movie's main characters Nick and Amy Dunne; and the former Socials Cafe, turned into a bar that is owned by Nick Dunne.

The production's original schedule called for total time spent filming in Cape Girardeau to be about three weeks. But several factors, including the availability of suitable locations, have more than doubled that.

"We are staying longer just because of the good locations," said producer Cean Chaffin. "We've found really good ones. We are considering ourselves very lucky."

Chaffin, a longtime partner of Fincher who has worked on the films "The Social Network" and "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," said the filming of exteriors is usually only done in locations away from Hollywood. Scenes with the insides of buildings are filmed on soundstages once a production "gets back home" to California or another filmmaking base, Chaffin said.

Not in the case of Cape Girardeau. Many interior shots also are being filmed here — in the bar, for example. The bar is named The Bar in the book version of the story, written by Gillian Flynn, and in the movie.

A total makeover of The Bar location was done in preparation for "Gone Girl." The building was an empty former coffeehouse. A look inside now shows what anyone would believe is an actual functioning bar — the set decorators and crew even added scratches and scuffs to walls and furniture to give the space a lived-in feel. A faded Irish flag hangs over the door, and the right amount of dust has settled on bottles behind the bar.

Readying locations for filming takes considerable work because crew members have to "add layers of detail which make it appropriate to the characters in the film who live/work in these places," Mapel said.

"In our business, we tend to obsess over these details, and a great deal of thought and planning goes into making a location just right for the scenes being shot there," he said.

At the Common Pleas Courthouse gazebo on Lorimier Street and the former federal building at 339 Broadway, the work entailed mostly landscaping and painting.

Also on the Common Pleas grounds, crews painted the streetlights on the courthouse steps so the color would match the rest of the lamps throughout the district, Chaffin said.

The work done by the production on a location, if it is an improvement and gets approval from the property owner, is left when filming is finished. Mapel said the crew is "very committed" to restoring locations to pre-filming status, but the crew also is happy to leave improvements behind when possible. The lighting, landscaping and painting at the gazebo and the former federal building, for example, will remain.

Other locations go through an opposite transformation — grass at several locations was allowed to grow tall to allow a look of a neglected neighborhood for scenes.

The fictional North Carthage, as imagined by the book author and filmmakers, is not as nice as the real Cape Girardeau in several locations, Chaffin said.

In all, about 30 locations, including those in Cape Girardeau, Giant City State Park in Makanda and Thebes, Ill., will be used for the film.

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