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Funky Side of Town: Filming in Mississippi
That Get on Up is a story with Southern roots meant a lot to Taylor. "When I read the script, I totally knew how to weave in the Southern layers," he says. "That got me really excited."

That he could film in his native Mississippi meant a great deal, too. In the Magnolia State, he knew he had a seldom-seen canvas where he could re-create locations ranging from Harlem's Apollo Theater to Vietnam. Beyond that, there was the vibe. "My job's made easier and my actors' jobs are easier because it's an environment ripe with possibilities to draw from," Taylor offers. "There may be no better place for contradiction, paradox, beauty and pain-old and new-than the real South. It's hot, and it's green. There are bugs, there's roadkill, there's religion and there's booze."

In November and December of 2013, the Get on Up shoot was based in Natchez, a small city on the banks of the Mississippi River. After the year-end holidays, the filming unit moved two hours north to Jackson, the state capitol and Taylor's hometown. "Natchez is a particularly beautiful place with a tradition of preservation," says Pearman. "That simple fact allowed us to shoot a movie that took place from the '40s to the '90s without having to build a lot of sets."

One exception was the rural shack where James Brown spent his first years. Young James, played by eight-year-old Natchez twins Jordan Scott and Jamarion Scott, and his parents, portrayed by Lennie James and Viola Davis, endured a harsh, isolated existence in the woods of Barnwell, South Carolina.

Finding the right spot to build their shack was production designer Ricker's first mission when he arrived in Mississippi. It was August, and the goal was to shoot the Barnwell scenes before the trees were bare. Scouting on four-wheelers, he and Taylor found the ideal piece of land in Jefferson County, some 30 miles north of Natchez and adjacent to Taylor's own property.

Cinematographer Goldblatt was also invested in where this humble structure would stand and how it would sit. "The way the shack is positioned is for the light as much as the setting," he explains. "In preparation for certain scenes, such as this one, I would go out to the location 20 times just to look at it, to look at the light, and to work out what time of day would be best to shoot."

Principal photography began on November 4, and for a week Taylor and his cast and crew filmed scenes depicting the turbulent childhood of Brown. The woods were hushed, despite the presence of a film crew. The air was chilly and a breeze ruffled the treetops. Particles of special effects smoke lingered in shafts of diffused sunlight. The crew had been warned about diamondbacks and rattlers, but the snakes kept their distance.

Eventually, the sounds of a woman and her little boy running and giggling filled the woods, and day one of Get on Up filming was underway. "The leaves were just starting to fall, and floated through the middle of our shots," says Ricker. "It was a little bit magical out there."

Actor Lennie James appreciated the woods' influence on those scenes. "The thing about the woods is that they're timeless, and the spot where they built the shack is old land, which added to the feeling," he says. "In the woods, there's no need to whisper. You're not interrupting anybody, not getting dressed for anybody. Joe and Susie had nothing to hold back for."

Barnwell is about 40 miles from Augusta, Georgia, where Joe eventually took his young son to live. The Get on Up team left the woods then, too, and moved into town.

Natchez aficionados might notice several of the city's antebellum landmarks, including Dunleith Plantation, which stands in for a country club in Augusta. Stanton Hall, a Classic Revival mansion, which enjoyed a bit of fame in the 1985 miniseries North and South, is disguised as a New Orleans hotel. Just down the road, a more contemporary landmark, The Malt Shop, hosted a scene between Brown and Little Richard. It was also where the Scott twins had their initial interview for the role of young James Brown.

"The town is small enough that the distance between most locations was minimal," says executive producer Trish Hofmann. "It was almost like a back lot."

One low-key, downtown-adjacent block provided Get on Up with two cities and two decades in a single day. "We literally divided the street with a speed bump," says Ricker. "On one side, it was an unpaved Augusta neighborhood called the Terry in the early 1940s, and on the other, Toccoa, Georgia, in the mid-1950s."

The production also got double-duty from the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center, an imposing former high school that was built in Gothic Revival/ Tudor style in 1927. Ricker and his team transformed its neglected 660-seat auditorium into an ornate red-and- gold facsimile of Harlem's Apollo Theater. The Apollo sequence included backstage drama, as well as supercharged renditions of "Night Train" and "I'll Go Crazy."

The morning after that "show," all traces of the Apollo had disappeared. The auditorium was redressed during the night for a steamy staging of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." This time, the building portrayed an unnamed venue on an unnamed night in the nonstop touring schedule of the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business."

In downtown Jackson, Thalia Mara Hall provided the production with locations for several scenes. Most notably, it hosted the 1971 Olympia theater concert sequence. A six camera shoot with a thousand extras portraying French fans of funk was the most elaborate of the film's music sequences. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Get on Up re-created Brown's recording of the soul power anthem, "Say It Loud-I'm Black and I'm Proud." The sequence was filmed at Jackson's historic Malaco Records, also known as "The Last Soul Company."

Scenes depicting James Brown's famous April 5, 1968, Boston Garden concert were staged at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. "There was a closed convention of Seventh-day Adventists when Tate and I went there to scout last year," recalls Goldblatt. "We just pretended to be part of the group, snuck in, went to the top, took photographs and snuck out again. No stopping us!"

Not surprising in light of all that Taylor and his team accomplished in just 49 days of filming. Perhaps breaking that fourth wall brought Get on Up some extra help from "Soul Brother No. 1." Concludes Taylor: "We often say he's producing the movie."


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