Middletown Ready For Its 'Hillbilly Elegy' Close-up Monday

Aug 4, 2019

Hillbilly Elegy production crews have spent the weekend in Middletown preparing to film scenes in the hometown of author J.D. Vance starting Monday.

Filming moves to Middletown from Georgia. Oscar nominees Glenn Close and Amy Adams star in the film about Vance, a 2003 Middletown High School graduate,  growing up in a "white working class" family. Little known actor Gabriel Basso (The Big C, The Whole Truth) plays J.D.

Sign on driver's door of Enterprise rental truck which arrived Friday afternoon.
Credit John Kiesewetter

A trio of Enterprise rental trucks rolled into town late Friday afternoon filled with spotlights, lighting rigging, dollies, cables, extension cords and furniture while workers painted a house to be used in the adaptation of Vance's 2016 bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

Production staffers for Netflix's $45-million movie unloaded a couch, rocking chair, a 1990's analog TV, beds, dresser, a child's bike, plastic kiddie swimming pool and other items from one of the trucks.

Signs to block access and ban parking already had been dropped off in the older neighborhood near the center of town. Yellow signs marked crew restrooms available in a nearby home rented by the production company.

A generator on a trailer for the movie was parked behind this traffic barricade sign.
Credit John Kiesewetter

Miles of cable stretched to two adjacent streets to be hooked up to generators from Knoxville's Smoky Mountain Grip & Lighting and possibly other vendors.

A production office opened in downtown Middletown about a month ago in preparation for shooting in this Butler County steel town. Planning started in January, three months after Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, The Beatles: Eight Days A Week) came here in October, according to Lisa Gribsby, Film Dayton executive director.

"Even though they were here, at first we weren't sure if they were scouting for research purposes or to film here. It's exciting," says Ami Vitori, a Middletown City Council member, downtown restaurant owner and a Middletown Visitors Bureau board member.

Howard's intentions were evident when he returned in March. He came back again in early June with  Close, Adams and others involved with the production.

Amy Adams has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including for "Vice" and "American Hustle."
Credit Chris Pizzello / Invision/AP

Close plays "Mamaw," J.D.'s grandmother and family matriarch who brought stability and confidence to Vance's life as a high school student after living with his drug-addicted mother Bev, played by Adams.

Bo Hopkins (Dynasty, Murder She Wrote) will play "Papaw," his grandfather who worked at Armco Steel (now AK Steel) and helped him with his math homework.

Parking will be prohibited near the movie location through Thursday night.
Credit JOhn Kiesewetter

The cast includes Haley Bennett (The Girl On The Train, The Equalizer), Helen Abell (Stranger Things, Orange Is The New Black), Ethan Suess (Fear The Walking Dead, Scorpion, Alex Inc.), Amy Parrish (Black Lightning, Homeland, House of Cards, Stanger Things), Frieda Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire, The Path), Sunny Mabrey (Snakes On A Plane) and Jesse C. Boyd (MacGyver, Gone), according to the Internet Movie Datebase.

Andy Lipschultz, publicist for the production company, has said that about 125 people were needed to film scenes in and around Middletown this week.

Middletown Police and Grigsby have issues appeals to residents not to be disruptive to the stars or production employees. "Remember, they are trying to do a job and we are also, so please respect the process. We will have security everywhere," Middletown police posted on its Facebook page.

"Part of what makes films have a good experience is respect for the film's privacy. This is where we need the help from everyone in the area," Grigsby said Saturday in a  letter to the Journal-News serving Middletown and Hamilton.

She urged people not to take cell phone pictures of the stars (which has happened at every movie shoot I've attended here since George Clooney's The Ides of March in 2011).  The Middletown Police post said that "lots of big names will be here filming their scenes."

Yellow signs are used for the production crew.
Credit John Kiesewetter

"The filmmakers do not want to see their set splashed all over social media," Grigsby wrote, "and the stars certainly are not excited about having every person in town with a cell phone taking their pictures…. We have no doubt that the film's publicity crew will share lots of shots when the time is right… If we want to see more movies here, we need to be good hosts!"

Filming started in late June in Georgia, which offers unlimited tax credits to filmmakers. Ohio was out of tax credit funds when Netflix applied for an Ohio tax incentive on March 7. The fate of the eight-year-old Ohio Film Tax Rebate program was uncertain until two weeks ago, when Gov. Mike DeWine signed the new state budget which included an extension of the filmmakers' tax credit.

"It would have been nice to have more (shot here). The state tax credit situation wasn't much help," Vitori says.  Middletown leaders knew in April that only a small fraction of the film would be shot in the Butler County.

Howard's Imagine Entertainment acquired the rights to the book in 2017. Variety reported that Netflix is paying $45 million to finance the film.

Vance and Julie Oh are executive producers. Vance is an Iraq war vet who studied political science and philosophy at Ohio State University and law at Yale.