Smithville’s idyllic setting and community spirit create a
picture-perfect environment for filmmakers—and visitors
By Jane Wu
Could Smithville, the Central Texas crossroads that calls itself “Heart of the Megalopolis,” soon change its slogan to “Movietown Megalopolis?” Already known as the pastoral setting featured in the 1998 romantic drama Hope Floats, Smithville has boasted considerable movie-making activity in recent years, notably with Austin director Terrence Malick’s 2011 Cannes Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life. Two more productions with big-name talent have been shot since Tree was completed two years ago: Beneath the Darkness, a teen thriller, and Doonby, an offbeat drama. And several more independent films have been “made in Smithville” as well.
Smithville—the first town to receive the “Film-Friendly City” designation from the Texas Film Commission—has established its own local film commission, which assists production companies interested in shooting in Smithville, and once they arrive, helps them obtain street permits, arrange casting calls, and procure last-minute props, from automobiles to vintage apparel.
Smithville was the first town to receive the “Film-Friendly City” designation from the Texas Film Commission.
The film buzz has also brought increased in-terest from star-struck visitors looking for settings such as Honey’s Diner from Hope Floats, or the Fifties-era neighborhood in The Tree of Life. As a cinema geek, the prospect of exploring Smithville through its film locations enticed me.
A Houston Chronicle article on Smithville’s current spate of filmmaking revealed plans to post a map of movie-location sites on the Smithville Chamber of Commerce’s website. When I contacted Adena Lewis at the chamber to request a map, I learned that the chamber offers film-site tours to visitors, so I arranged to meet her and see for myself.
We drove in the direction of a lush, tree-lined neighborhood north of Main Street and saw late 19th- to mid-20th-Century homes, many of which have been renovated or restored. First up: The stately, neoclassical-style residence at the end of Olive Street, where Birdee Pruitt—Sandra Bullock’s character in Hope Floats—returns with her daughter after her marriage has ended. The Trousdale home, as it’s known by locals, is named for a descendant of a prominent Smithville family and remains among the top must-see movie sites. More than a dozen years after filming, posters and VHS tapes of Hope are still displayed in shops and businesses around town.
A couple of blocks west, on the corner of East 8th and Burleson Streets, sits the main house where The Tree of Life was filmed. I was amazed by the smaller, more intimate scale of this beguiling, Victorian-Queen Anne home with its wraparound porch, as compared to how large it appeared in the film. The homes in the surrounding neighborhood also seem closer together than I remembered them from the movie, which suggested expansive lawns and houses set wide apart. Lewis pointed out a large live oak tree in the side yard, which had been dug up from the Hurta Ranch, five miles from Smithville, and transplanted here specifically for the film. “It was a team effort for the town, involving police, power-line crews, and arborists getting the tree to the site,” said Lewis. “They worked steadily, beginning in the afternoon, removing the tree, wrapping and protecting it for the trip, and then arriving at the home the next day, and re-planting it, all with utmost care.”
Many of the nearby homes have served as hair-and-makeup stations, wardrobe facilities, and prop-building studios as well as temporary residences for the cast and crew of Tree (including Brad Pitt and his much-photographed family). Some of the owners moved out temporarily (and were compensated for the inconvenience), while others owned vacant houses that were available for rent.
As we wrapped the neighborhood portion of the tour and headed downtown, I soon discovered more examples of movie-mania in Smithville. Pocket’s Grille displays a collection of Smithville film memorabilia, including some of the signage created for Hope Floats. The signs are so massive that they’re installed on the ceiling, or they wouldn’t fit have in-side the restaurant. Pocket’s owner Troy Streuer appeared in Beneath the Darkness, Doonby, and was cast as one of the lead actors in Under the Western Sun, an indie western currently awaiting distribution. He’s also featured on the latter’s poster, which hangs in the back dining room.
On Main Street alone, it’s easy to see why Smithville attracts filmmakers. All the elements for the quintessential, small-town scene are right here: a newspaper office, city hall, post office, library, police department, and three banks, as well as shops and cafés, many of which occupy historic buildings. And for the film-curious visitor, there’s the juxtaposition of make-believe and real life, thanks to the actual businesses that doubled as fictional establishments in film.
The Back Door Café, a longtime Smithville favorite, has turned up in various gastronomic guises in The Tree of Life and Doonby. Down the street from Main, the fictional Honey’s Diner, whose façade was created for Hope Floats, stands vacant yet preserved, as if it were an honorary shrine. The faded murals on the sides of some buildings reveal traces of long-defunct ad campaigns. One such mural, for the Star Biscuit Co., was painted specifically as a backdrop for Hope Floats.
I stopped and poked around in some of the shops. Tom-Kat Paper Dolls sells 2-D interactive figures created by longtime fashion illustrator and store owner Tom Tierney. If you’re interested in “the way they wore”—from average American families of the 1950s through the 1990s, to U.S. presidents and celebrities—you’ll likely spend a chunk of time (and a bit of cash) here. Like nearly everyone I en-countered, Tierney has a movie story or two. “During the filming of Doonby, my neighbor and I watched John Schneider finishing a scene. We invited him in for a sandwich and a beer,” Tierney recalled. “John and I talked for a while, and I found out he’s from Hopewell Junction, New York, where I owned a farm for many years.”
Next door, Merrilee Albers, owner of Feathering Your Nest antiques shop, has fond memories of the Beneath the Darkness shoot, including meeting Dennis Quaid. Albers was asked to help design a set for a suspenseful scene, which was outfitted with furnishings from her bedroom, as well as her store. “The lace coverlet that you see on the bed in the film is the one I always use, so every time I pull it back to go to sleep, I think of the movie!” she mused.
One block from the Main Street strip on Olive Street, Reachable Stars Resale saw plenty of movie action when The Tree of Life set decorators were looking for ’50s-era clocks, dinnerware, and keepsakes. “Some of the crew members come in, and not only buy stuff for the film, but for themselves, too,” said co-owner Renee Alexander.
After you’ve had your fill of Smithville filmdom, a short ramble on FM 153 will take you to Murphy’s Steakhouse in nearby Winchester. Murphy’s serves steaks, seafood, and comfort food in a family-friendly, roadhouse setting. Word to the wise when ordering steak: The weight list-ed on the menu is the “after-grilling” size. And do call ahead to make reservations, especially on high-school football nights.
For lodging near the epicenter of movietown, the Katy House B&B, one block west of Main, offers a pleasant respite. While the B&B itself has not yet had a starring role in feature films, owners Sallie and Bruce Blalock have hosted many film crews. The iron picket fence along the backyard was originally used in the Hope Floats home and later moved to the Katy House. A delightful mix of antiques, Texana, and vintage railroad memorabilia furnish the comfortable, spacious rooms of this handsome, historic structure. Across the street from Katy House, Huebel’s Bier Garden, whose interiors were shot for key scenes in Hope Floats and Doonby, remains a popular watering hole with locals and visitors. On a Friday night, I sat at the bar with a companion and watched an exuberant, boisterous crowd dancing and cheering on friends’ Karaoke performances, and enjoyed the show.
All this cinematic activity seems truly remarkable for a town that doesn’t even tout a movie theater. Perhaps it’s this personable ambiance, combined with the genuine, resourceful nature of the community, that draws not only film people, but also folks from miles around to visit.
From the November 2011 issue.