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Site of A Painted House : Movie sets up house on Helms Farms

In one scene of the movie “A Painted House,” as a group of laborers hand-picked their way through a cotton field, the faint outline of a center pivot irrigation system can be seen far off in the distance. Of course, center pivots didn't make it to the Mid-South until the 1970s, and the movie was set in Arkansas in the early 1950s.

The person who caught this anachronism was Clarkedale, Ark., cotton producer Allen Helms. No doubt, Helms has a sharp eye, but he had an unfair advantage in spotting the pivot — it belonged to a neighbor.

Less than a year earlier, in the fall of 2002, Helms had heard rumors that a movie company was scouting locations for Hallmark's adaptation of the John Grisham novel. The New York Times bestseller focused on an Arkansas Delta family trying to scratch out a living on a cotton farm in 1952.

Helms was a little surprised a few days later when the movie company asked for permission to film on his Clarkedale farm, which is 50 miles south of Black Oak, the setting in Grisham's book. They offered a very equitable compensation package to Helms and his landowner, who readily accepted.

Soon, dozens of trailers for housing movie stars and their staffers along with hoards of gaffers and grips swarmed in and set up camp on the farm. The cameras began to roll, and soon trucks and cars of the 1940s and 1950s were bumping up and down the roads, and actor spottings quadrupled daily.

At the time, Helms was busy in his own theater — defoliating and harvesting a cotton crop — but he found time to drop by the movie sets and base camps almost daily.

In some ways, making a movie was like raising cotton, Helms observed. There was hard work. The crew built a house and barn for the movie from the ground up. The homestead was constructed on the site of Helms' grandparents' home, which burned down in December 2001. His grandfather was a bookkeeper for the farm that Helms now runs.

There were other parallels. In the 1950s, Helms was about the same age as seven-year-old Luke in Grisham's tale. “I remember the Mexican laborers coming in (as they did in the novel). I can remember going out to the field when I was small and doing all the hand picking,” said Helms, who read Grisham's novel about two years ago.

On the other hand, where Helms grew up “was a little closer to the Mississippi River, and cotton production was more of a plantation versus a sharecrop environment.”

And there was irony. Imagine Helms' surprise when he observed one member of the movie crew spending the better part of a day transplanting johnsongrass in a cotton field.

Helms met many of the actors and actresses in the film, but missed Grisham's one-day appearance on the set. His conclusion after five weeks of watching the filming — farmers should get pampered like movie stars do.

For example, in one scene, Luke's love interest, Tally, is supposed to bathe in a creek while Luke watches from a distance, hidden from view. But the “creek” was actually a stagnant bayou next to an old church, and there was no way anyone, much less the actress, was going to take a dip in such an untidy place. It took some Hollywood magic to make it look like she did.

The production crew filled a large Plexiglas cylinder with warm water, hoisted it into the middle of the bayou and deposited the actress in the middle of the container. “She wasn't actually in the muddy water,” Helms said. “I looked to see if I could see any cylinder edges in the scene (during the movie's premiere in Jonesboro, Ark.) and I couldn't.”

Filming a movie about the 1950s in the middle of an ongoing modern farming operation had its challenges. For example, the movie makers had to coordinate with the Boll Weevil Eradication Program to make sure no one was in the field when application sprays were made. And while it rained much of that fall, all of the rain in the movie scenes came from fire hoses aimed skyward by members of the Turrell Fire Department.

The director, Alfonso Arau, had to be careful about where he positioned his cameras since there were grain bins, railroad tracks, modern houses and the center pivot surrounding the homestead site.

But those efforts were not always successful — witness the center pivot — and not always true to life.

For example, the director wanted Helms to defoliate the cotton field where the picking scenes were filmed. “They wanted us to get the field as open as we could possibly get it, which was not authentic,” Helms said. “Back then, they did not defoliate fields. They picked as fast as cotton opened. But the director wanted to see the white.”

Helms was asked to teach the actors how to hand pick cotton, but most of the “students” weren't too keen on the idea. “They didn't pay much attention,” Helms said with a smile.

Helms was hoping he would get a new house and barn out of the arrangement with Hallmark. “Stay at the Painted House,” Helms said, musing at how he might promote a bed and breakfast venture.

But workers dismantled the homestead immediately after filming. Helms surmised that the movie company didn't want any liability entanglements, since the structure wasn't built to code.

And just like that, they were gone. Packed up and left. The movie premiered in April 2003, and for many Mid-Southerners the movie did not do justice to Grisham's highly-acclaimed work. It goes to show that Hollywood has its highs and lows, just like cotton prices.

A couple of picnic tables sit under a grove of mature trees where the movie house stood. Cotton surrounds it on three sides. There's a dirt circle for cars and trucks which has been around since Helms' grandparents' day.

Wednesday lunches on Helms Farms have since moved there, from behind an old commissary. The gatherings have long been a social event for anybody with an empty stomach and a story to tell.

No movie stars have happened by, according to Helms. But it's not because they're not welcome. The Hollywood people he met here in October 2002 were just as cordial as the Arkansas Delta citizens they portrayed in the movie. “I have no complaints at all,” Helms said. “I would have them here again.”

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