About the Filming
After scouting several southeastern states, the production company settled on the Knoxville, Tennessee area to stand in for the coal mining community of Coalwood, West Virginia. Franco [Larry J. Franco, the film's producer] explains that the weather and surrounding terrain were key ingredients in that decision, "The film takes place during a school year which covers fall, winter and spring. We needed a climate and environment that would accommodate that much flexibility."
Production began on February 23, 1998. The town of Petros, Tennessee was literally taken over by the film crew. "It was obvious to Joe and Barry Robison, our production designer, that these towns were exactly what we were looking for," says Franco. "With a little artistic help, we could recreate 1957."
"The town of Petros was itself there and it had been a coal mining town at one time but the mine itself was no longer there," notes Johnston. "So, we bought one, disassembled it, trucked it in, reassembled it and built the tipple that stands next to it."
In Petros, the crew rebuilt, bolt-by-bolt, a massive 125-foot wrought-iron mining tipple, an imposing contraption of rusty girders, pulleys and wheels which cycle a chain carrying buckets in and out of a huge sheet metal silo. The parts had been disassembled from a dormant Knoxville excavation. They also dumped tons of crumbled asphalt in the vicinity of the newly-erected tower and refaced, with weathered brick and tin paneling, a cluster of old Petros buildings (a couple more were built outright) to recreate the Olga Coal Company's base of operations, complete with machine shop, wash house, first aid station and post office.
Even the real Homer Hickam was amazed at the accuracy of the set. He notes that the sets simply overwhelmed his senses. "When you came into Coalwood during that era the first thing you noticed was the coal mine itself because the whole town's focus was this 800-foot shaft that the coal tipple was built over and where all the men in the town, every day, disappeared," Hickam, recalls. "This film has done the same thing: its focus, really, is that tipple, and everything that goes around it. I think that, especially at night, when I've gone over to the set and looked at that tipple at night with the lights glowing and the way all the offices are around it, I think I'm back in Coalwood."
The filmmakers were equally committed to recreating the interior of a mine. "The miners use continuous mining machines that grind the coal out and create these perfect tunnels," Johnston notes. "They almost look like hallways. Most of the mines we visited are very low, only 52 to 58 inches, so we wanted that to be authentic. You have to bend to get to it."
The director notes that there is an almost sinister feel to the mine. "If there's a villain in this movie, it's the mine, which is a little bit unfair," he says, "because the mine was also the source of the life in the town. But when the coal gave out and the mine shut down, the town usually died."
The filmmaking team also brought an old 1911 steam locomotive up from the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga and rented a handful of buildings in Oliver Springs and Harriman, Tennessee-many of which house active businesses-and recast them, with new storefronts and signs, as the hub of downtown Coalwood; they removed the asbestos and lead paint from the old Brownlow school in Knoxville and repaired faulty wiring in the marquee lights of the Tennessee Theatre.
The film's production utilized more than 2,000 local extras and actors, as well as drawing around 60 percent of its 200-man crew from the ranks of area technicians and laborers. Cast members and extras were dressed 'in soot-covered denim and heavy gray coats, their faces smeared black, all carrying 1950s era lunch buckets in and out of the mine.
Later scenes set in Indianapolis, where Homer's functional model rockets earn a berth in a national science fair, were shot in Knoxville's aging center city.
The most formidable challenge for the filmmakers turned out to not be the mine, but the unpredictable weather of eastern Tennessee. "The weather is not severe, but it changes several times a day," Johnston muses. "We had every possible kind of weather, including snow. It made shooting difficult-we would have to stop in the middle of a scene and start other scenes because the weather would change so drastically. I think there was one time when we had four separate scenes start on one location because we had rain, sun, overcast, snow, you name it. But, ultimately, the movie looks great because of it. It gave the film a much more interesting and varied look."
Johnston, a longtime admirer of the American railroad, relished the opportunity to have total control over a section of trainyard. "We were shooting at an area called Canyon Creek that is a small switching yard and we were very fortunate because the railroad let us do anything we wanted," he recalls. "We could pull up tracks and replace them and change switches. I was amazed. It's almost like having a life-size electric train set. And it was particularly advantageous, because in the film, the boys do what they want with it anyway, believing it to be abandoned, which it turns out not to be."
Production wrapped on April 30, 1998.