News Column

Spotlight Moments ; Filming of 'To the Wonder' offered chance to shine for several locals

April 26, 2013



"To the Wonder" stars Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, the city of Bartlesville and numerous local residents.

The movie - much of it shot in the Bartlesville and Pawhuska areas in the fall of 2010 and debuting in a Tulsa theater this Friday at Circle Cinema - is directed by Terrence Malick, the famed filmmaker who as a youth lived in Bartlesville for a few years with his family. Watching the film shows his love for Oklahoma's golden sunsets, for Frank Lloyd Wright's artistry displayed in Price Tower, for the bison and the landscape of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, and for the people.

When Malick returned to his boyhood home, it created a stir among the locals, some of whom tried out for smaller roles in the film, hoping to rub shoulders with Hollywood heroes.

As opposed to his reputation as "Terrence Malick, reclusive filmmaker who hasn't granted an interview in nearly 40 years," those residents who ended up in the film all refer to him as "Terry," the man who seems to have given each of these amateur actors a single piece of acting advice: Just be yourself.

These are their stories.

The Justice of the Peace

By day, he is Washington County Associate District Judge Russell Vaclaw. In "To the Wonder," he is simply the man who marries Affleck to Kurylenko, or at least their characters.

"I have a friend who was a liaison for the movie, and word got to me that (the production) needed a courtroom, and I said, 'Well, I have a courtroom.' When it happened I thought actors would be coming in for any roles, and then they asked me: Would I be the judge?" Vaclaw said.

"So they arrive and start arranging the courtroom, and one hour before filming, Terry (Malick) asks if I would perform a wedding and do it just like I normally would, so I got my book."

The book is really a journal. It lists the many weddings that retired District Judge Jan Dreiling performed in her time on the bench in Washington County. She passed it down to Vaclaw, who keeps his vows on sheets inside the book.

He fills in names in the blanks anew with each wedding, and he inserted the names of Neil and Marina prior to performing this "wedding."

"Those became my lines in the movie," Vaclaw said, chuckling about the fact that he's now performed 10 weddings as judge, "and all of the people I've married are still married - except for Ben and Olga."

Big-name stars like Academy Award-winner Rachel Weisz and Michael Sheen acted in the movie, but those appearances ended up on the cutting-room floor. For the longest time, Vaclaw assumed he'd been edited out, as well.

"There was this (trailer footage) that showed a wedding scene with a pastor in a church, and I started telling people, 'I'm out,' and it was just a couple of weeks ago that I learned I made it," Vaclaw said.

"There I am with an A-list movie star, me a country judge with one of the biggest stars in the world, saved for all posterity."

The Pastor

So who was that other man bringing Neil and Marina together in marriage? That would be the Rev. Kenneth Woodhams, senior pastor of Pawhuska Ecumenical Parish.

He works out of Pawhuska's First Presbyterian Church, where Malick was interested in filming. The filmmaker asked: Can we shoot here at this time, and are you available to perform a wedding?

"They said, 'You've done weddings before, so just pretend you don't see the cameras,' so I did a very basic kind of service, and asked if that was what they were looking for, and Mr. Malick said 'Yes, that's what we wanted,' " said Woodhams, who moved to Oklahoma five years ago.

As to the fact that Neil and Marina are seen in two different wedding scenes, Woodhams is clueless. "I don't know anything about that," he said, "but that's interesting."

Woodhams said the film crew waited until a time of the day when the natural lighting from outside allowed them to employ no extra lighting inside the church, "so they kind of whipped in with a couple of cameras and not much more and maybe shot for about three hours."

For the most part, Woodhams' role as the pastor is limited to his voice and his hands, seen handing a ring to Affleck's character, while the camera is usually focused on the bride's face - "As it should be," Woodhams offered.

"I keep telling those who ask that these were just normal people, outside of the fact that they are people that we see all of the time," he said. He has teasingly been asked for his autograph more than once.

"I always tell them that I'm not giving up my day job," said Pawhuska's well-known pastor, "and that the only autographs I have people seeking is my help on their electric bill."

Neighbor No. 1

Not long after the opening scenes of "To the Wonder" shot in France (where Affleck's Oklahoma character meets Kurylenko's character), we see the couple arrive at his home in a new housing addition in Bartlesville.

Then we see a woman in a backyard talking to Kurylenko about "how tough it is to be a single parent" while spraying the grass with a hose.

Yes, Casey Williams has had some ribbing about her role as Neighbor No. 1, according to the movie's credits.

"I've been made fun of a little bit, because nobody waters their lawn that way in Oklahoma," she said with a chuckle.

And yes, Williams has heard the joke about her character gabbing away to Kurylenko in the scene, while most characters in the movie speak through narration.

"What joke - that I have more lines in the movie than Ben Affleck? Yes, I have heard that one," she said, laughing.

"When I got this call as an extra, I was totally surprised that I got to speak in the role," she said, then declining to tell any more about the film shoot due to her signing a nondisclosure agreement.

"If you knew me, you'd know how hard it is for me to not blab about this whole thing," Williams said.

But ask her about the impact on her community, and she lights up. Williams is a corporate flight attendant now, but at the time of the 2010 filming, she was waiting tables at the Bartlesville restaurant Frank & Lola's.

"OK, I loved the experience on the set, but the most fun was being in the restaurant, because I waited on so many of those wardrobe people and crew members, and then I saw so many of these people in our community, even some of the actors freely walking around Bartlesville," Williams said. "That is an experience I will always remember."

She was thrilled to appear in "To the Wonder." She can hardly contain herself when thinking about "August: Osage County," the Meryl Streep-Julia Roberts film shot in the area and being released in November.

"I just think it's so exciting that we're hosting these major motion pictures. It's just so good for the community and so good financially, and it breathes an exciting life into a community like Bartlesville.

"I mean, Bartlesville, wow, you know? It's a part of two pretty big films coming out this same year, and that's a really big deal."

She recalled the April 12 premiere of "To the Wonder," as a huge crowd of local residents watching the film and then staying until the credits finished rolling.

"We just had to see every little detail that was listed," Williams said, "because Bartlesville was a major character in the movie."

The Doctor

Like more than a few people in the Bartlesville area, Dr. Michael Bumpus and his wife tried out for parts in "To the Wonder," and the man who has practiced family medicine in the city for 30 years knew that he was auditioning for the part of a local doctor.

But so were several other Bartlesville-area physicians, so even after a call-back audition, Bumpus was still surprised when he got the call - from his son, an intern on the film: "Guess what, dad? Terry wants you to be in the movie," Bumpus recalled his son saying, adding that the director "apparently liked my eyes and my voice."

Malick is known for not physically writing a screenplay, and in his scene a doctor must talk to Kurylenko and Affleck about the couple's possibilities for childbirth.

"I didn't really get nervous until I started to realize that there was no script, and all he wants me to do is be myself and do what I do in my office," Bumpus said. "That's easy for him to say, 'Just be yourself, don't mind these movie stars and these cameras, just do what you normally do.' "

Outside of the scene itself, Bumpus found opportunities to talk with Malick ("a very interesting fellow") and the actors, with Kurylenko interested in his practice ("she talked like she might have gone into medicine if the acting thing hadn't happened"). Affleck was amused by Bumpus telling how his grown daughters liked the actor but thought that his young children "are even cuter."

Bumpus missed the Bartlesville premiere of "To the Wonder" (attended by 2,700 people over two showings) as he was visiting a daughter in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. The film was showing there, however, and he attended with his daughter and some of her friends.

"She heard my voice before my face was even on screen, so her elbow nudged mine first in the theater," the doctor recalled.

"My daughter's friends were shocked at how pretty our land turned out to be, and that was from some 20-somethings from Seattle. For me, to see a movie and it show your everyday scenes, from a Sonic drive-in to the older houses near downtown Bartlesville, but to be able to know the bigger picture of what those scenes are, that was very meaningful.

"I think (Bartlesville) is one of the greatest smaller towns in the world, but I'm biased."

Michael Smith 918-581-8479

Originally published by MICHAEL SMITH World Scene Writer.

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