Oscar nominated movie ‘Three Billboards’ includes students, staff, faculty

While studying as a WCU Film and Television Production Program student, Jason Miller earned a spot as a TV news cameraman in “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.” He’s seen here on set with Malaya Rivera Drew in the role of the TV reporter. (Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight)

The locally filmed “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” will again command attention throughout the community and Western Carolina University when ABC broadcasts the 90th annual Academy Awards.

The drama is nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture, best actress, two supporting actor nods, best original screenplay, best original music score and best film editing. The Oscars will be presented Sunday, March 4, at 8 p.m.

The movie depicts a woman outraged over the lack of progress in the investigation of her daughter’s rape and murder. To hold the sheriff accountable, or perhaps spur some action, she places messages on three billboards along the roadside coming into town, with the fictional town of Ebbing being the actual town of Sylva.

Substantial filming with stars Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell rolled in May 2016. Students from WCU’s School of Stage and Screen were cast as stand-ins for the main actors, and WCU faculty, staff and students appear as extras, in bit parts or behind the scenes. Arledge Armenaki, associate professor of cinematography, reached out to the movie’s production team and proceeded to take students to the set.

Arledge Armenaki

“We went into town, talking with the casting director and location manager,” Armenaki said. “The construction crew was in the middle of a build of the police station at the Sassy Frass furniture store on Main Street.”

Students brought resumes to actively seek jobs associated with production and all would learn about process and techniques. “The location manager and his assistant spent a few hours one afternoon talking about making movies and the life of a location manager,” Armenaki said. “They were very gracious, and it was a great experience for the students.”

And Armenaki got a scene as well. “I’m in the movie so quickly,” he said. “When the Rockwell character comes into the ad agency to confront the manager about the billboards, I’m seated at the desk as he walks back. I’m strictly background in an otherwise impactful scene.”

Armenaki described that filming as a continuous and complex hand-held camera shoot; “The camera starts across the street, coming out of the police station following the Rockwell character. He crosses the street and has a near miss with an approaching car. He reaches the Ebbing advertising agency, smashes the glass out of the door, then stomps upstairs and passes by me and the receptionist. We are startled by what’s happening. Then, he walks into the corner office and throws the agency owner, played by Caleb Landry Jones, through a glass window onto the street below.”

The scene required numerous directional cues throughout; there was one false start and four takes, with the final two being acceptable for editing, Armenaki said.

“Three Billboards” is already a winner of numerous film awards, including Golden Globes for best drama, best actress in a drama, best supporting actor in a drama and best screenplay, and Screen Actors Guild awards for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture, outstanding performance by a male actor in a supporting role and outstanding performance by a female actor in a leading role. It also won film of the year, actress of the year and screenwriter of the year awards at the London Critics Circle Awards.

Frances McDormand on set with two of the three billboards. (Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight)

Among WCU staff members appearing in the movie is Dawn Behling, visitor services coordinator at the Fine Art Museum of the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center. “I saw an ad on Facebook for extras and applied,” she said. “I learned on the set that the term ‘extra’ is considered unprofessional, and the proper term is ‘background actor.’ I got to work on the set for five days and even got to be a stand-in for Kathryn Newton, a supporting actress.

“I’m in the scene where Harrelson’s character is wheeled out on a stretcher,” Behling said. “I’m a townsperson on the sidewalk, looking on. I’m also a driver behind the stunt car that slams on the brakes in the scene where Rockwell’s character storms across the street and smashes the door to the ad agency.”

She recounts it being a fun and learning experience, plus she got to meet McDormand. “She’s as cool as you might think,” Behling said.

Recent WCU graduate Jason Miller of Charlotte appears as a news cameraman in a scene that is featured in trailers and commercials, making him one of the more widely seen background actors in “Three Billboards,” even by people who haven’t seen the movie. Ironically, he is a cameraman in real life, and the camera he operated as an actor captured footage that appears in the movie.

“As a featured extra you really don’t expect to be noticed,” he said. “But, I’ve been getting calls from family and friends and people I haven’t heard from in years, including one that started out ‘There’s a guy in this new movie that looks just like you.…’”

Being on a professional movie set was a learning experience, Miller said, and it was Armenaki’s determination for WCU Film and Television Production Program students to at least witness and possibly be involved in production work that helped earn him a spot in “Three Billboards.” He said he paid close attention to the interaction between set designers, film crew, production coordinators and assistants, and, of course, the actors, and the dialogue and terminology everyone used.

Woody Harrelson greets a crowd of onlookers during a break from filming. (Photo courtesy  Sylva Herald)

Marty Keener Cherrix of Cherrix Casting was responsible for getting the background players to work on the film. She collected photos and contact information, and worked closely with Armenaki and other faculty. “Extras casting is always about looking for specific types of people, specifically when it’s not a big crowd scene,” she said. “Background actors provide the textures and balances to make scenes look real. For example, we can’t have a scene where there’s 20 people and all of them look somewhat alike. We could not put 20 blondes in that scene. As the weeks moved forward, I reached out to WCU faculty, staff and students and they responded quickly to offer assistance. It was a juggling act at times with student class schedules, et cetera, but it worked out.”

Miller was cast in five scenes, of which three made it into the movie. “I’ve seen the movie twice with friends and understand even more how the various scenes came together to be the whole story, which is compelling,” he said. “I’ll be watching the Oscars, for sure, and think (‘Three Billboards’) is deserving some wins.”