Sal Rubio sat on the sidelines last May and watched as his Shallotte restaurant, The Grille, was emptied from the kitchen to the dining area.
The exodus took only about four hours. It was the next step, however, that proved far more daunting.
With the help of film production crews, Rubio’s restaurant was transformed into a TopperJacks, the fictional fast food chain at the center of the locally filmed Melissa McCarthy comedy “Tammy,” which hits theaters Wednesday. Making its way around the region, the 37-day production, which spent more than $14 million in the state last summer, incorporated some 50 locations, a couple thousand background extras and the efforts of roughly 150 local film workers.
Described to Rubio as “swarm of bees,” film crews descended upon on the restaurant just days prior to the May 31 film date to start prepping the shoot, which involved bringing in new equipment, putting a TopperJacks roof on the building, posting up TopperJack signs inside and out, and adding a fresh coat of paint — TopperJack’s signature red and yellow — to The Grille.
The finished product, which was first showcased in the film’s teaser trailer and appears on the film’s poster alongside McCarthy, is just one of the local places that dot the production’s map.
The film opens in Ohio and follows the misadventures of McCarthy’s Tammy, a TopperJacks employee who takes a road trip with her boozy grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), after losing her job and walking out on her philandering husband. With low inhibitions and no sense of direction, the mismatched pair quickly find themselves in a heap of hilarious trouble that crosses state lines. Kathy Bates, Allison Janney, Toni Collette, Dan Aykroyd, Sandra Oh and Gary Cole costar.
McCarthy also co-wrote and produced the film with her husband Ben Falcone, who directed.
For unit production manager Chris Bromley, working on the film provided the unique opportunity to help foster Falcone’s directing debut.
“Melissa and Ben were focused and knew exactly what they wanted. They were business first, but it was OK to have fun with the material,” he said. “The challenge for us, though, was providing them an atmosphere where creativity could flow and there is no distractions.”
But working on a star-studded comedy with McCarthy was always susceptible to a few side-splitting distractions.
In the film’s teaser trailer sequence, Tammy robs a TopperJacks in La Grange, Kentucky. The scene was shot overnight at Rubio’s restaurant and required no less than 15 takes to complete.
Marty Landau, McCarthy’s photo double on set, remembers the night, which lasted till 5 a.m., as the longest of production. As a photo double, Landau wore wear the exact same clothes and wig as McCarthy, but only appears on screen when the actress’ face is not shown. Working on a road movie meant that when Landau wasn’t stepping in for McCarthy in a particular scene, she was driving around the region in Tammy’s car so crews could capture the necessary on-the-road shots.
“If you ever saw a Cadalliac with the mirrors hanging off and a jet ski in the back with a blanket over it driving around town, that was me,” Landau said, laughing.
Traversing the region also was a job requirement for Location Plus’ Mike Hewett, the locations manager for the film, who was in charge of finding 50-plus locations that could double as stops along Tammy’s road trip.
Working in Wilmington since 1984, Hewett approaches each project hoping to find untapped locations that have yet to be exposed to the big screen.
“There has been so much filming done in this area over the years, there aren’t that many golden nuggets left to find. But I do my best,” he said.
The production originally looked at Atlanta to film, but, as Hewett notes, “Any rural locations necessary for filming there could only be found by driving far outside the city. In Wilmington, you hit rural in 10 to 15 minutes depending on which direction you go.”
Thanks to the suggestion of producer Rob Cowan, who also worked on the local productions of “We’re the Millers” and “The Conjuring,” “Tammy” made its way to Wilmington.
Here, Hewett was able to deliver locations like Blue Post Billards in downtown Wilmington, which plays as a Kentucky barbecue restaurant, and Two Fat Ladies Over a Simmering Pot on Dawson Street, which is another TopperJacks location.
During location scouting for the land-locked film, one of Hewett’s self-described “Achilles’ heels” was the abundance of palm trees in the region.
“We had to do a lot of movie magic to work around that,” Hewett said, adding that a few places allowed them to remove unwanted palms.
But for all the struggles he overcame, it made up for it when he found those “golden nuggets.” One that Hewett is particularly proud of is the cinematic lake house scene, which was filmed at a private residence near Masonboro Sound. The house has only been used once before, in HBO’s movie “Mary and Martha.”
The lakefront home, owned by the characters played by Bates and Oh, is the site of a Fourth of July party where, over the course of four days, crews shot off fireworks, filmed raucous crowds and even burned a jet ski.
The female-centric sequence required 250 female extras and 10 men. It was just a dent in the amount of extras used in the film.
Marty Siu, who handled extras casting, brought in more than 2,000 people during the production.
“Having to deal with that many extras and communicating with all of them is tough,” Siu said. “But when you have big celebrities involved like this, everybody was jumping at the chance to be in this movie.”
While Siu admitted that some of the days were “excruciatingly” long, she does recalls a consistent note of generosity from Tammy herself.
“No matter how tired Melissa McCarthy was, she would always come out and thank the extras who were there at the end of the shoot. She made it fun for everyone,” she said.
Dozens of local locations will hit the big screen this week when the locally filmed comedy “Tammy” opens Wednesday. Before you head out to the theater, here are five local hotspots to look out for in the film.
1. Blue Post Billards (15 S. Water St., Wilmington): The popular downtown hangout serves as a Louisville, Kentucky, barbecue joint in the film, where Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) and her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon) try to pick up men. Local bluegrass band Big Al Hall and Possum Creek can be seen performing in the scene.
2. “The Big Lake” in Boiling Springs Lakes: Featured in many of the trailers is this lake sequence that finds Tammy hitting the water on a jet ski and quickly colliding with a dock.
3. Two Fat Ladies Over a Simmering Pot (1601 Dawson St., Wilmington): Known during production as “TopperJacks 1,” this location appears in the beginning of the film and is where Tammy is fired from her job, prompting the film’s road trip.
4. The Grille (4736 Main St., Shallotte): This restaurant was dubbed “TopperJacks 2” and serves as the La Grange, Kentucky, location that Tammy hilariously attempts to rob in the film (as seen in the teaser trailer).
5. Carolina Beach State Park (1010 B Road, Carolina Beach): After a night of hard-partying, Tammy and Pearl find themselves, and their car, stuck in the middle of the Mark Twain National Forest. Through some bumpy driving, the pair plow out of the woods and back on their way.
– Hunter Ingram