A closer look inside Ebbing, Missouri
The fascinating things you find when you delve deep into Google
Perhaps like many early viewers of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, the title felt more of an obstacle you had to overcome, than something intriguing that drew you in. The New Yorker even wrote, “It doesn’t sound like a movie, it sounds like a photograph.” But as word of mouth spread, I decided to give it a go. It didn’t take long before I was drawn into its darkly comedic story and the excellent cast especially the brilliant portrayal of its redemption-seeking protagonist, Mildred Hayes, by Frances McDormand.
The BBC’s arts editor, Will Gompertz, called it “one of the finest black comedies I’ve seen this century” concluding “It’s a very well written, beautifully shot, expertly told story: it is a modern classic.”
It was all those things. Indeed, when it ended I could easily have watched it a second time, it was that good. No wonder The Times called it the film to beat this year. It’s already won four Golden Globes, three Screen Actors Guild Awards and is a shoe-in to win even more.
At its heart, what’s so good about Three Billboards is it’s absolutely nothing like you expect it to be.
Not being that clued up about Missouri, I was surprised when I learned that Ebbing itself doesn’t actually exist. In fact, the “quintessential American town” that’s the location of the movie that bears its name was actually all in the mind of writer, producer and director, Martin McDonagh. Given that the last film of his I’d seen was 2008's In Bruges, there was no reason to think that Ebbing wasn’t a real place. When McDonagh wrote the script eight years ago, he invented the name. “I just liked those two syllables,” he said.
My curiosity aroused, I did a little digging and quickly discovered the movie wasn’t even filmed in Missouri. It turns out it was shot in North Carolina. And Sylva, the town that stood in for Ebbing, was another one I’d never heard of. Wikipedia confirmed it was located in Jackson County at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains.
According to Three Billboard’s production designer Inbal Weinberg, Sylva was chosen because it was “a place that’s a little stuck in the past, with architecture dating back decades and a feeling of a classic Main Street, USA.”
With a population numbering just 2,588, there seemed nothing especially remarkable about the place, but my curiosity hadn’t piqued, so I did some more digging. On YouTube I found a short video shot by a Sylva resident during the filming of one of the movie’s key scenes — when Red Welby is thrown out the window of the Ebbing Advertising Company by Officer Jason Dixon.
Watching it, what surprised me was quite how rudimental it all was. There was Sylva’s Main Street looking much like I’d imagine it would on any normal day. There was little if any evidence of a motion picture being made, even the film crew were hard to spot. A flatbed truck, loaded with cardboard boxes suddenly reversed alongside the building, a few crew crouched behind it. A stuntman rolls off the canopy onto the boxes and the truck drives away. Seconds later, Caleb Landry Jones, the actor playing Red Welby, positions himself on the ground in the middle of the road and Sam Rockwell comes out of the building and punches him before walking across the street to the police department.
There’s a single cameraman — handholding — an assistant and a few others. And that’s it. No lights, no other visible cameras, no other visible crew. Looking at the video, you’d be forgiven that you’re watching a small-time production, not a Hollywood movie being made. Often when one sees behind the scenes footage of other movies, you can’t believe how many people are involved in getting each shot. But this was nothing like that.
Having seen the clip, I was intrigued by Sylva. What was it actually like?
Google Maps would show me. It was easy to find the location of the filming — where the Ebbing Advertising Co office was. I slid the yellow man to Main Street and almost immediately something odd struck me: I was looking at Sylva, but I was seeing Ebbing.
For a moment I was confused. I knew Ebbing didn’t exist, but I was seeing signs that clearly read Ebbing Police Department and The Ebbing Herald. And then it clicked. The Google camera car had driven through Sylva the very same time the movie was being made in May 2016. How extraordinary was that? In fact, I later found out Three Billboards was filming in Sylva between May 2nd and 20th.
Given that it only came out in November 2017, I was somewhat surprised it was filmed quite so long ago. But my curiosity about where it had been shot was not yet sated. The police department exterior, it turned out, was in fact a furniture store called Sassy Frass. It’s a key location for the movie and the side of the building is where you first see the poster informing you this is Ebbing, Missouri, established 1886. By the way, the bird on the poster is an eastern bluebird, the state bird of Missouri.
But it was the building opposite that interested me more. And that’s because it was a much more architecturally interesting structure. In the movie, its most noticeable feature is the hip-roofed canopy that Red Welby falls from, but looking on Street View I noticed something else, there were some faded letters on the pointed parapet at the top of the building. Closing in, I could make out they read ‘C J Harris’.
Another search revealed it was the C J Harris building, one of the oldest on Sylva’s Main Street. Built in 1902 as a store for the Harris Tannery, it also housed a general store known as Sylva Supply Company until it closed in June 1999.
Today, it’s home to Crystal Cogdill’s Jackson’s General Store, which occupies the ground floor. The basement and second floor, which once housed parts of the Sylva Supply Company are empty. Look closely and you can see the building isn’t in great shape, its windows are boarded up and its cornices and lintels are falling off.
I also came across a photo of a model of the building, showing what it would like if it were restored.
Here’s a detailed description of the building contained within Downtown Sylva’s Historic District application for the National Registration of Historic Places:
The storefront retains fluted cast-iron pilasters manufactured by George L. Mesker and Co of Evansville, Indiana, bordering the wood-framed storefront sections, which include panelled kneewalls and an intact west entrance bay. Canted plate-glass display windows flank the recessed double-leaf glazed door, all surmounted by large square transoms. A deep, wood-shingled, hip-roofed, 1970s canopy shelters the storefront, covering its cast-iron cornice and the recessed sign band above. The five-bay second story retains two single and three pairs of double-hung, one-over-one, wood-sash windows ornamented with cast-stone sills and pressed-metal keystoned segmental arches, although all but one of the central windows have been covered with plywood. The largest arch, at the façade’s centre, features a foliate motif.
So, just who was C J Harris? Here’s what I found.
Charles Joseph Harris, to give him his full name, was born on September 11, 1853 in Putnam, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale and Brown’s School of Law in St. Louis, before moving to Denver, Colorado in 1876 where he made his fortune building irrigation canals.
In June 1881 he married wealthy Colorado resident Florence Rusk who bore him two sons, David Rust and Robert Ward. After their marriage ended in 1889, he came to Jackson County, North Carolina looking for investments.
Known as ‘Colonial C J’ The Waynesville Mountaineer reported: “his varied financial investments touched every section of this mountain area.”
In 1901, he established a tannery in Sylva which used chestnut chips to tan leather. The first industry of any size there, it operated under various names: C.J. Harris Tannery, Sylva Tanning Co. He sold it to the Armour Leather Co in 1916. Operations at the tannery ended in July 1957.
Harris built the downtown brick building that’s inscribed with his name in 1902 to house his Sylva Supply Co., the general store he founded with his business partner, Lyndon McKee. Its name and strapline “Dealers in everything.” can still just be seen, painted on the brick on the Spring Street side of the building.
In 1914, Harris was also responsible for building what is now Sylva’s most photographed building — its historic Courthouse — built on a hill overlooking Main Street.
C. J. Harris died in 1944, aged 90, at the home of his son, Robert J Harris, in nearby Biltmore Forest having been bedridden for several years following two broken hips.
He is buried in Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, NC.
Although the three billboards of the title are no longer standing, they were erected on a stretch of North Fork Road near Black Mountain. The billboards themselves were built by Allison Outdoor, a custom sign and billboard company established in 1958 and who are still based in Sylva.
The film’s tiny $15 million budget necessitated it was shot in a tax-credit state. Some $3.1 million came from a 2016 state grant to lure the filmmakers to Jackson and Buncombe counties. North Carolina said the movie generated more than 350 jobs.
Some 20 years earlier, another movie was filmed in Sylva. Despite being set in Chicago, many of the scenes in Fugitive, which starred Harrison Ford, were shot in and around Sylva. One of the locations was the Harris Regional Hospital, a facility named after its benefactor, one C J Harris.
Thanks to the success of the movie, North Carolina is now pitching Three Billboard’s various locations as tourist destinations. Indeed, it is promoting a three-day trip winding through Sylva, Dillsboro, Black Mountain, Asheville and Maggie Valley.
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