Photo by Nick Breedlove
By David Perlmutt
With the Plott Balsam mountains rising in the distance and North Carolina’s most-photographed courthouse towering over Main Street, Rex Anderson could have chosen plenty of scenes to chronicle his visit to the charming Jackson County town. Yet there he is, nearly stopping downtown traffic, his aging Nikon set atop a tripod to capture the perfect shot: the Sassy Frass consignment storefront at the corner of Sylva’s Main and Spring streets.
“I’m here because of, you know — the movie,” Anderson says.
The “movie” he refers to is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the quiet but unruly Oscar-winning motion picture about a justice-seeking mother named Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand, who openly pressures the local police chief, played by Woody Harrelson, to crack her daughter’s unsolved murder and rape case. Director and writer Martin McDonagh chose Sylva from 20 finalists to stand in for the fictional Ebbing — attracted in part by a $3.1 million grant from the state film office. The film has grossed more than $159 million worldwide.
Set builders spent a month turning Sassy Frass into Ebbing’s police department, creating a façade vastly different from that of the home-decor consignment store. That didn’t stop Anderson, a movie buff from Huntsville, Ala., from shooting a dozen photos.
After watching Three Billboards for a third time in late May, Anderson drove five hours from his home to prowl Sylva, nearby Dillsboro and other film sites. “I would have driven across the country to find Ebbing,” Anderson, 61, says. “When I found out it was filmed only five hours away, I couldn’t sleep and told my wife I had to come.”
In a town increasingly dependent on tourism — it’s Jackson County’s top industry, with an annual impact of $188.2 million and generating more than 1,800 jobs in 2017 — Three Billboards has helped boost the local economy. The production company spent $12.6 million of a $15 million budget in western North Carolina, including $3.5 million for food, rent, set-building and other services. It created 353 jobs and hired 40 locals as extras.
Aside from that, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of the movie’s economic impact, says Paige Dowling, the town manager, and Nick Breedlove, director of the county’s tourism development authority. “It’s hard to quantify, but just from the numbers of people coming here, we know that the impact has been considerable,” says Dowling, who, like Breedlove, is a Sylva native.
Restaurants are more crowded. Rental properties and hotels report higher occupancies. The county’s chamber and tourism authority have assembled a walking and driving tour of local sites that for 34 days in mid-2016 were transformed into movie sets. In Sylva, with 2,700 residents 50 miles west of Asheville, they’ve stuck vinyl sidewalk signs in front of shops that had any connection to the film.
“We knew this movie had big stars, but I don’t think any of us had any idea how big the movie would become,” Breedlove says. “But when the awards started rolling in, the movie catapulted Sylva’s star internationally.”
At End of Main, an antiques and home-provisions shop, owner John Wermuth hears lots of new accents. “These are people who’ve made it a point to come here to see where the movie was filmed,” he says. “Many eat, buy gas and pay for lodging while they’re here.” Wermuth and other merchants keep a running list of the home states and countries of Three Billboards fans who’ve come to Sylva.
Since February, when the awards began piling up, fan traffic noticeably increased at John Bubacz’s Signature Brew Coffee Co. on Main Street. Visitors come to sip coffee and take their picture with the blue-and-white “Welcome To Ebbing, Missouri, Est. 1886” sign plastered on the side of the fictional police station. He trimmed it to fit a back wall.
“I’ve taken thousands of pictures of people from Australia, Italy, London, Ireland, Wales and from across the United States with that sign,” Bubacz says. “People from Missouri have come in. They say, ‘Your mountains don’t look anything like ours,’ but they say how lovely it is here.”
Aside from Three Billboards, Sylva’s biggest draw is its surrounding beauty. The town is 20 minutes from the most-visited national park — the Great Smoky Mountains — and 20 minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway. There’s trout fishing, kayaking and tubing on the Tuckasegee River; hiking and climbing in the Plott Balsams; gambling at nearby Cherokee; and five-star amenities in tony Cashiers, 28 miles away. Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, Jackson County’s largest employer, is a 7-mile drive.
It’s a classic mountain town, with four blocks of Main Street lined with restaurants, bookstores, galleries, outfitters for hikers and fishermen, craft breweries, the coffee roastery, antique shops, banks and offices — and two traffic lights. A 2016 Washington Post report referred to Sylva as “Asheville lite” without the crowds.
Sylva was hardly considered a destination 10 years ago, but that’s changing because of Three Billboards, Breedlove says.
The film wasn’t Sylva’s moviemaking debut. A scene from the 1972 blockbuster Deliverance was shot downtown. Filmmakers returned in 1993 to shoot The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford — Mill Street stood in for a Chicago street where Ford, playing Richard Kimble, a doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife, eludes authorities. Wreckage of the train that collided with the bus carrying Kimble to prison is still 2 miles west in Dillsboro.
Breedlove was 10 when The Fugitive hit theaters. “Twenty-five years later, people still stop and ask where that train wreck is,” he says.
Yet, Three Billboards has shined the brightest light on Sylva. It took top honors at the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards and collected seven Oscar nominations and two trophies.
“The [solar] eclipse [last August] brought thousands of people to town, but it’s Three Billboards that will bring people here for years,” says Jim Buchanan, another Sylva native who is special-projects editor at The Sylva Herald and Ruralite. The newspaper printed an Ebbing Herald edition for the movie production.
Nearly every day, fans visit the Sassy Frass to see owner Tammy Fuller’s shrines to the movie, which include blown-up photos of filming and furniture used in the police department, and the station’s front doors, charred after Mildred lobbed a Molotov cocktail through a window.
Next door at In Your Ear Music Emporium, where Harrelson sat one afternoon playing a guitar, neon signs from the movie adorn the front window. Across Main Street, upstairs at tenBiz Inc., a small business consulting and strategy firm, owner Tonya Snider displays Ebbing signs in her office where Red Welby, played by Caleb Landry Jones, ran his advertising company. One is a “Thank You Sylva” sign that the crew tacked up all over town before they left.
“There’s a different level of pride here now,” says Kristin Moore, a Sylva-raised therapist whose office is next door to tenBiz. “It comes when you say you’re from Sylva and they say, ‘Oh that’s where they filmed that movie’ — instead of asking, ‘Where’s Sylva?’ We’ve been on the map before. But this is like a national WOW!”