GET ON UP
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
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
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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