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Movies on location

Kevin Costner’s ”The Postman” and Robert Redford’s ”The Horse Whisperer” visited Metaline Falls, WA and Big Timer, MT respectively

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Hollywood just loves small towns. From Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Phenomenon, mainstream movies have rarely displayed anything but reverence for that white-picket world of green lawns, Little League, and values like fairness and civility.

But just how well do Hollywood and small-town America really mix? Every year, scores of productions forgo the controlled sterility of L.A.’s soundstages for the verisimilitude of location shooting. What exactly happens when Sunset Boulevard meets Main Street, USA?

For the people of Metaline Falls, Wash., what was supposed to be a short, giddy fling with Hollywood turned into a summer of discontent. For two months beginning in May, the small hamlet near the Canadian border hosted Warner Bros.’ production of The Postman, a postapocalyptic thriller starring and directed by Kevin Costner. The crew turned Metaline Falls — chosen for its rugged beauty and its proximity to Boundary Dam, where a number of scenes were set — into a disaster area to convey the look of a village in the wake of a global cataclysm. Workers attached decrepit facades to some buildings and sprayed a dark, grimy film on others. But some residents say the ”disaster” was more than fictional. ”They flipped this place upside down,” complains one 50-year-old local, tired of the noise and congestion. ”We lost our summer. If it happened again, I’d move. I’d put my house on the market right now.”

Of course, the townspeople were warned of the changes beforehand, but few were prepared for its scope. Metaline Falls has a population of 230; Postman’s cast and crew numbered more than 300. Many were irritated when filming, which was supposed to last a few weeks, ended up taking two months. And the Hollywood folks did little to open communications: Most stayed in larger towns and barely mingled with locals. ”They had to bring in lobsters and crab legs,” sniffs Mayor Lee McGowan of the catered meals the cast and crew chose over local eateries.

For its part, Warner says Metaline Falls’ sensibilities were considered. ”We tried to adapt to the town’s needs and went out of our way to compensate people generously,” says a studio spokesman. In truth, Warner hired residents to help on the production, and it estimates it will ultimately have poured about $7 million into the region’s economy. ”Personally, I was thinking of the dollars I’ll be counting,” says McGowan, noting that the windfall outweighed any inconvenience.

But goodwill is a shakier commodity. Around the same time The Postman was being returned to sender, the people of Big Timber, Mont., were hailing Disney’s The Horse Whisperer with open arms. Based on the best-selling novel about a Manhattan family that moves west, the film — directed by and starring Robert Redford — generated hardly a whisper of city-slicker bashing in this cozy burg (pop. 1,600). Before arriving, the roughly 200 cast and crew members were given manuals on how to deal with Montanans. Combine the good etiquette with a generous pro- duction budget (reportedly $85 million), and it’s easy to see why Big Timber accepted the role of Hollywood North this summer. ”We had the worst year in 39 years,” Jack Fuller, owner of the Timber Bar, says of the town’s recent economic slump. ”But this” — he gestures toward the film crew crowding his tavern — ”is pulling us out.”