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Just Part Of 'Hillbilly Elegy' To Be Shot In Middletown

middletown ohio
Al Behrman
A child flies a kite near AK Steel's Middletown Works plant. J.D. Vance's book 'Hillbilly Elegy' provides a vivid tour of the world he grew up in, set mainly in the Ohio city hit hard by the decline of its dominant steelmaking company.

Yes, it's true: All the visits to Middletown by Oscar-winning director Ron Howard were to scope out locations for his Hillbilly Elegy movie based on J.D. Vance's memoir of growing up among working-class "hillbillies" in the Butler County steel town.

But only a fraction of the film will be shot in Ohio, unless things change, says Ami Vitori, a Middletown City Council member and a Middletown Visitors Bureau board member.

"The latest I’ve heard is that some of the exteriors and maybe about 15 percent of the total movie will be shot in Middletown," says Vitori, who also owns Gracie's restaurant in downtown Middletown.

"Allegedly Ron wants to shoot more here, but the Ohio film tax credits are all allocated for the (fiscal) year and the new tax credits do not begin until July 1. They intend to be in production by then."

Credit Courtesy Triple Moon Coffee Co.
Ron Howard at Middletown's Triple Moon Coffee Company on March 25.

Much of Hillbilly Elegy would be shot in Georgia, "where there are still film credits available," Vitori said.

Howard, location scouts and representatives of Netflix – which in January announced it will pay $45 million to finance the film – "have indeed been in town looking at locations, and we've chatted with them and the City of Middletown," confirms Lisa Grigsby, FilmDayton director.

Multiple Oscar nominees Glenn Close and Amy Adams will star in the film along with young actorGabriel Basso portraying "J.D. Wade," the fictionalized name for Vance.  Close will play "Mamaw,' J.D.'s grandmother and family matriarch. Adams will play Bev, J.D.'s addiction-riddled mother.

amy adams
Credit Chris Pizzello / Invision/AP
Amy Adams will portray the author's mother.

Since 2011, the Ohio Film Tax Rebate program lured Hollywood productions here starring George Clooney, Robert Redford, Cate Blanchett, Casey Affleck, Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Danny Glover, Bruce Willis, Emilio Estevez, Alec Balwin, Ryan Gosling, Don Cheadle, Colin Ferrell, Nicole Kidman, Nicholas Cage, Faye Dunaway, Mariah Carey, Sissy Spacek and John Travolta.

"The way the Ohio Film Tax Rebate program works, there is currently no funding available.  If the rebate is renewed in the (state) budget, that would become effective July 1," says Gribsby, who helped provide Dayton locations for Redford's The Old Man & The Gun two years ago.

Howard has been photographed twice at the Triple Moon Coffee Company in downtown Middletown, on March 23 and last October.

Credit Courtesy Heather Gibson
Ron Howard at the Triple Moon in October 2017 with Ranea Theiss and Heather Gibson.

Middletown folks are making a last-ditch effort to keep Howard shooting in town longer.

"We are trying to see if there’s a way at the state level to capture unused funds from this year, as we know that there are some that were never put towards an actual production. We would love to see him be able to shoot more here, but know that there’s a financial component with Netflix," Vitori says.

"I think it’s a legislative issue, and not sure how quickly we can make progress there, although we are trying," she says.

Two weeks ago, the Triple Moon posted a 90-second video on its Facebook page urging Howard to film Hillbilly Elegy in Middletown. The coffee shop asked people to share it with the hashtag '#MakeitinMiddletownRon." Watch the video here.

"The #MakeitinMiddletownRon video/campaign was an attempt to get his attention, and hopefully sway Netflix a bit to shoot more in Middletown. The economic impact is significant, and obviously the excitement and other tertiary benefits would be so great to have here in our town," says Vitori, who appears in the video. 

"We hoped the videos would go viral in some way to capture the attention of the producers and influence their decision making, but I don’t think that has happened," she says.

Howard will direct from a script by Vanessa Taylor, who was nominated for an Oscar last year with Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water. She was also a writer-producer on HBO's Game of Thrones, Jennifer Garner's ABC Alias action series and WB's Everwood drama.

Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, The Beatles: Eight Days A Week, Frost/Nixon) will produce with Brian Grazer, co-founder of their Imagine Entertainment, and former Imagine president Erica Huggins.

Vance, a 2003 Middletown High School graduate, and Julie Oh will be executive producers, according to the Internet Movie Database.

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.