Several Signal Mountain residents had the opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes look at a major film production when "Water for Elephants" shot scenes in the area this August. The movie featuring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson premieres in Chattanooga at the Majestic 12 Theatre April 22.
Based on the bestselling book set during the Great Depression, the film follows Pattinson's character Jacob as he takes a job caring for circus animals. He meets and falls in love with married circus performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), with whom he bonds over an elephant.
John Ryan Wilson, 14, was selected by the film's casting director to be a "featured extra." He plays the oldest of Jacob and Marlena's five children, who appears in a single scene without lines.
John Ryan's mother, Karen Wilson, said he landed the spot after she submitted photos of her children in response to a casting call requesting boys ages 7-15 and girls ages 9-11.
"I was hesitant at first," said John Ryan of his reaction to being selected. "I didn't really know what it meant."
He said it was surprising how quickly he finished filming his scene, in which he carries a bowl of mashed potatoes to an outdoor table on the film's Chickamauga, Ga., set.
As a stand-in, Thrasher Elementary teacher Carol Schoener's job was to literally stand in for an actor as the crew perfected the lighting and other effects.
"I wore the same color shirt [as the actor] so the light would hit the same way as in the actual shot," she said of the scene she worked on, which was filmed at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. "We were there all day for just one scene, but [actors] walk in the moment of the scene and get whisked out."
Working as a costume assistant, Lisa Stark unpacked boxes of 1930's era clothing at the Read House, the film's costume headquarters, where she helped fit the extras shooting locally.
Schoener and Stark said they were informed of the filming and open positions by Chattanooga State Film and Television Training Program director Dave Porfiri.
Stark said secrecy was stressed among participating locals concerning details of filming, particularly the location.
The "Water for Elephants" trailer can be found on YouTube. John Ryan Wilson's scene is briefly visible about a minute through the trailer, following a shot of Witherspoon on a horse.
The code name "Jerry Novak's Big Adventure" was used for the film in order to avoid attracting attention from potential set crashers, they said.
During filming Wilson received Facebook friend requests from girls in John Ryan's class, who she said were most likely hoping for updates on Pattinson's whereabouts.
All are relieved the release of the film's trailer, in which John Ryan's Chickamauga scene is briefly featured, grants them permission to finally unzip their lips about the experience.