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Filming In Music City
Shooting entirely in iconic Nashville allowed the filmmakers to generate an authentic piece of the world of country music. Not only did it allow them to embrace and secure local musical talent on and off-screen, they were able to shoot in and around locations in the motherland of country music. "What's so cool is that when I first started scouting locations in Nashville,” says Feste, "when I visited various music venues, you just felt history around you. When I went into the Ryman Auditorium or the Grand Ol' Opry, it felt almost as if I were walking into a church. It was something palpable that you felt in the air; you wouldn't get that in Los Angeles or anywhere else. This is where it all happened, you can feel the history in every single one of our locations and I think that translates into our film.”

Producer Jenno Topping remembers that "Tim [McGraw] said to me that this was the first movie that got this world right, and I think the fact that we came to Nashville and utilized both the people and the place allowed us to do that. It's an unquantifiable thing, but the fact that all of us in the cast and crew go to hear country music every week, talk about it all the time and have been introduced to so many people who are part of this community added something very authentic to making of the film. I've never had this experience of being immersed so deeply into a different culture—Nashville has a really specific vibe and tone that we've made use of both personally and professionally. And people are so nice and glad you're here. And one thing that was crucial to the making of the film was the deep and adept crew base that exists in a city that's not known as a filming location. There are a lot of great people here.”

Feste and her crew took advantage of some of the city's most iconic locations for scenes set in Nashville and the three cities of the Texas tour, including the alley by the stage door at the mythic Ryman Auditorium, once home to the Grand Ol' Opry (where James secures Beau's commitment to join Kelly on her tour); the historic Union Station Hotel (which doubles as the Austin Hotel); Fontanelle, the majestic and eccentric estate built for and once owned by country great Barbara Mandrell (seen as the rehab facility where Kelly and Beau meet); Belle Meade, a one-time plantation and now elegant subdivision (where the interior of Kelly and James' home was shot); and the historic Mt. Olivet Cemetery, where many Confederate fallen and veterans were buried.

Various local stages played important venues in the film where the characters performed. The Stage, one of the neon-signed clubs on Lower Broad that attract both tourists and locals alike, played itself for when James watches Beau and Chiles first perform together. The club retained its essential charm, including the Tim McGraw-cowboy-hat Bud Light light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, although production designer David Bomba draped over its touristy east wall of giant country hall-of-fame-like portraits with a less specific look.

In Liberty, Tennessee, an hour or so out of town, Bomba and his crew dressed the honky-tonk where we are introduced to Beau at the beginning of the film as he performs Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings”. "There was an issue of Texas Monthly that came out just as we were starting to prep the film that featured honky-tonks and dancehalls in and around Texas that I used as reference,” says Bomba. "A honky-tonk in Schulenburg, Texas, was the footprint for The Stage and we used a combination of two others for the honky-tonk that opens up our film.”

Costume Designer Stacey Battat notes that "since locations have a life of their own life and our characters either belong there or not, I always work closely with the production designer. At The Stage, part of the reason why Chiles was in that pristine white dress was so that she looked out of place in the dirty, messy dressing-room and club where Beau looks right at home.”

At the Municipal Auditorium in downtown Nashville, which served as the location for the climactic Dallas concert, the filmmakers were given the opportunity to use the set Tim McGraw was preparing for his "Southern Voices” tour. "Before Tim went out on the road,” notes Bomba, "his show was doing technical rehearsals in the Municipal Auditorium and we were fortunate that he allowed us to utilize the stage for our final big performance venue. Considering our budget limitations, we would never have been able to accomplish anything with that scale and production value, so I was thrilled. We did create some distinct things for Kelly's show, noticeably our lighting design was different--Mike (”Moishe”) Moyer, our gaffer, has a theatrical background, so it was wonderful to work with him picking different cues. We used Tim's wall of LEDs as the main backdrop, but created our own graphics for the three songs that Kelly performs, ‘Country Strong,' ‘Shake That Thing' and ‘Coming Home.' " The Municipals Auditorium has an illustrious history; performers who've played there in the past (country as well as rock and soul acts) include Bruce Springsteen, Earth Wind and Fire, Tom Jones, Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, The Judds,, Reba McIntire, The Jacksons, The Charlie Daniels Band, Elvis Presley, Gregg Allman, Kings of Leon, Teddy Pendergrass, John Denver, Bob Dylan, ZZ Top, Prince, Queen and James Taylor.

As for Kelly's interrupted performance and grand breakdown during the Houston concert, that was shot on the stage of the [Andrew] Jackson Hall in Nashville's TPAC (Tennessee Performing Arts Center); most of the dressing room scenes were shot at TPAC as well.

But truth be told, there was one aspect of shooting in Nashville in January and February, 2010, that the filmmakers found far from accommodating. Topping relates how "everybody told us that it was so mild here in the winter and we were really thrown for a loop by how snowy and cold and varied it was. We had so many exteriors, it proved to be a nightmare from a continuity standpoint.” The winter was the region's coldest in more than 30 years.

In the end, Feste hopes audiences take away from COUNTRY STRONG the feeling of having seen something emotionally rewarding, a peek at the world of fame and the hard choices people in that world make, with indelible characters and great music. "It's a very personal story for me,” says Feste, who nonetheless feels that her original vision of something indie and small "has become bigger, because I think the themes are universal. If there were two paths in front of me, and one led to making movies that were personal to me, and living that dream, and the other road was having a family and being married and living in a small town, I can't say that would be an easy decision for me. I think those are the themes in this film.”


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