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Casting Call

The people of Kittanning, Pa., were in the bright lights last March and many are now on the silver screen. Sony Pictures took over the town to film The Mothman Prophesies, a recently released movie starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Debra Messing, and Will Patton. But a close look at some scenes will also reveal people from IUP.

Armstrong County Commissioner Jim Scahill ’70 and his wife, Audrey, were picked from the hundreds of extras to portray Santa Claus and his wife (their daughter Katie got to play one of the elves), and Richard Muth ’96 from the Armstrong IUP campus had the honor of playing an arrested drunk.

Mark Pellington and Jim Scahill as Santa Claus

Jim Scahill (portraying Santa Claus) listens as director Mark Pellinghton sets up a scene for The Mothman Prophecies.

The movie is one of the latest examples of the increasing attention to the Pittsburgh region of the film community and is the second major motion picture to be filmed in Armstrong County. (Several scenes in Silence of the Lambs were shot in the nearby community of Rural Valley, ten miles from Kittanning.) The film’s director, Mark Pellington (Arlington Road), liked the quaintness of Kittanning and preferred it over the real Point Pleasant, which he felt had grown too commercial. The community was asked to leave their Christmas decorations up until March to avoid having to redecorate.

“There are three rules for extras,” said Muth. “No friends, no photographs, no autographs.”

Along with hundreds of others, he filled out an acting application and was chosen by the director to play a drunk being arrested. In a scene where Gere and Linney walk though the police station, Muth is visible through the glass doors being escorted to the front desk. The scene, which lasts no more than twenty seconds, took over three hours to shoot.

“You never know what they’re going to cut, but it would be cool if I am in it,” said Muth. “I was in a scene with both main actors, so I hope there’s a good chance the scene will stay in.”

Odds are that Scahill’s appearance won’t be cut. He was picked by Pellington to portray a West Virginia coal miner who plays Santa Claus for the children at the lighting of the town’s Christmas tree. The director didn’t learn until after Scahill had been chosen that he’d been playing the jolly old elf for over twenty-five years. Such experience came in handy the first night as he walked a few blocks to his scene in full costume. (Rather than depend on the whims of sunlight and clouds, most of the filming was done at night under lights so the crew could “control” the weather.) He passed a group of children who were understandably confused why Santa Claus was in town three and a half months late.

“I became Santa Claus,” he said, “and I assured them all that I had come to see the movie being filmed and had been asked to be in it. I explained that Mrs. Claus was fine and the reindeer were sleeping. People loved it and I loved it; it got me really psyched up.”

The best part of Scahill’s experience happened during the next night of filming. Pellington took him to a group of children gathered around a burn barrel. The director whispered to him to talk to the kids for about five minutes and he would film it. He didn’t care what Scahill said. “Just tell a story and end it by saying, ‘Let’s light the tree.’” Scahill conferred briefly with his wife and the elves, then turned to the children. He introduced his companions and asked the children if they had been good. In just moments everyone was fully into his or her role.

“I forgot about it then, and I was Santa Claus,” he said, “and I got the kids’ eyes gleaming. It worked because Mark Pellington believed in me and he saw something in me that I didn’t see. And that’s why directors are directors.”