Black Mountain relives "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

If the buzz around “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” left any doubt it was a bona fide hit, the hardware given out at the 90th Academy Awards March 4 removed it. The film, directed by Martin McDonagh, netted Frances McDormand her second Oscar for best actress and Sam Rockwell his first, for best supporting actor.

In the Swannanoa Valley, the most recognizable star of the critically acclaimed drama is Black Mountain itself, which is featured prominently.

In April 2016, crews erected the three red billboards referenced in the movie’s title on a farm on North Fork Left Fork. The messages read, in succession “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Crews set up billboards for new movie

The juxtaposition of the coarse text over a bright red background, set against the scenic backdrop, was jarring.

The land on which the billboards were built is owned by Roger Brown. It's been in his family for at least five generations. 

Brown was approached about the use of his farm after film crews passed by it to film scenes near the North Fork Reservoir for "The Hunger Games," released in 2012. 

Brown was "lucky to grow up" surrounded by the natural beauty, he said, and was happy to allow his property to be used in the production of the movie. 

"I felt a sense of pride," he said last week when asked what it was like to see his family's land featured so prominently in the film. "It was exciting to have a movie filmed right out there. It really reinforced all those thoughts I had as a child about what a pristine place I grew up in."

The plot of "Three Billboards" revolves around the pressure a hurt and angry mother (Mildred, as played by McDormand) puts on the local police department to pursue the case of her murdered daughter. Dark, intense and containing harsh language and graphic violence, the film was praised early by critics and received a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture-Drama.

Downtown Sylva got serious screen time as the setting for the fictional Ebbing, Missouri, and the location of the town’s police department. A landmark in Black Mountain served as the setting of a pivotal scene.

Town Pump bartender Melissa Lees talks to customer Amy McGillicuddy, a regular at the Cherry Street bar, on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Not long after the billboards went up in 2016, film crews arrived on Cherry Street to make changes to the Town Pump Tavern. The iconic bar plays itself in the movie, where its name appears several times.

Terri Dolan, who has owned the bar since 2012, was excited to see her business on the silver screen, but it wasn’t a debut. "The Pump” as its known colloquially, was also in the 2015 on-screen adaptation of “The World Made Straight,” a 2006 novel by Ron Rash.

The very same thing that attracted Dolan to The Pump is what likely makes it an ideal setting for a dive bar in a movie. “The Town Pump doesn’t try to be anything else,” Dolan said. “It’s just a bar. And that’s what makes it so great.”

Dolan was a patron at The Pump, which she calls “a bar’s bar,” before she was the owner. As someone who loves dive bars, she was inclined to purchase the bar when it went up for sale.

The Town Pump Tavern, which served as a setting for scenes in the the 2017 film "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," was also featured in "The World Made Straight," which was released in 2015.

A location scout in Western North Carolina approached Dolan about using her bar for scenes in “Three Billboards.” Footage for “The World Made Straight” was shot after hours, when The Pump was closed, But "Three Billboards" was different, Dolan said.

“They were going to need to 'buy' the business for three days,” she said. “It was like having 100 strangers in your kitchen.”

While crews modified the interior of The Pump, the production company solicited extras for the movie. Among those in the background of the scene filmed in the bar is its real-life manager, Gretchen Mercado. She applied immediately after hearing the movie was looking for extras. 

“When we filmed in the bar, there was probably around 40 people in the scene,” Mercado, who has worked at The Pump for six years and managed it for five, said. “They had the place packed.”

Another local who served as an extra was Lucy Adkins, who works just a few doors down at The Black Mountain Ale House. “The filming was from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.,” she said. “Being an extra is definitely being a piece of movable furniture.”

Adkins and Mercado were in the bar for scenes on the first night of filming, and on the second night dozens of background cast members “walked up and down Cherry Street,” Adkins said.

The two went to see the movie together; both spotted themselves in a scene.

“Every time I’ve seen it, it’s like excitement and pride and a little surreal,” Mercado, who has seen the film three times, said. “The shots of the bar are really good; you get a full view of the mirror and the window with the name of the bar is on it. It’s definitely The Pump, you can’t miss it.”

Adkins was right next to Sam Rockwell on the set at a point, and Mercado had a brush with McDormand as the extras were exiting out of the back door.

“As I walked by, she said ‘Oh, I love your hair; let your freak flag fly,’” Mercado recalled. “That was probably my favorite moment in my life, ever.”

McDormand would go on to captivate audiences around the world with her acceptance speech at the Oscars, adding to the movie’s legacy in popular culture. The broad reach of the film, according to Mercado, has already brought tourists looking for the site of the pivotal scene in “Three Billboards.”

“We’ve already had several people - groups of people and single people - come in, not interested in drinking, taking pictures and asking questions about the bar in the movie,” she said. “People want their pictures taken in the bar from the movie.”

But fame earned from being in a hit film won’t change the place, Dolan said.

“This is really a nice story for all of us who love The Pump, and this is a great experience for the town,” she said. “But the Town Pump is going to be the same Town Pump it was before the movie, long after the movie. There’s just no other way to look at it.”