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How ‘American Honey’ and Shia LaBeouf came to Kansas

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

American HoneySome residents of Mission Hills were surprised to see actor Shia LaBeouf traipsing through their well-manicured yards last year — and making out with a girl as the sprinklers turned on. The public had no idea why the reclusive “Transformers” star would even be in town.

With the release of the acclaimed “American Honey,” LaBeouf’s onscreen adventures — and the behind-the-scenes efforts it took to bring him and Oscar-winning director Andrea Arnold here — are now being revealed.

“American Honey,” opening in Kansas City on Friday, Oct. 14, tells the tale of itinerant young con artists who roam the Midwest hawking magazine subscriptions. In addition to LaBeouf, the movie stars Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) and newcomer Sasha Lane, whom the director cast after randomly spotting her cavorting on a Florida beach. The other co-stars are also novice non-actors.

The nearly three-hour drama won a Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

In May 2015, the movie’s producing team got a first real taste of Kansas City: dinner at the Blue Bird Bistro with Stephane Scupham, film and media manager at Visit KC (aka the city’s film commissioner).

While the English director and her production heads spent a few days ahead of the shoot becoming familiar with the locale, others in their squad weren’t so enlightened. To maintain a sense of hyper-realism, Arnold’s cast and crew were never told in advance the places they’d be filming. Not even in what states.

“They were insulated from everything. They felt like they were literally this band of magazine sellers — kind of a teenage gang almost,” Scupham recalls. “The process was extremely private. I was on the set a few times and never met the cast. I would see Andrea and say hi and chat, but every other aspect was closed.”

The six filming locations in the area included a Days Inn and a house off Ward Parkway, as well as numerous moving shots around the downtown interstates. In the final cut, Kansas City earns plenty of face time.

“It’s a great feeling to see what you know up on the big screen,” Scupham says. “The experience of seeing your town — and potentially people you know — is a real source of pride. It also communicates to other filmmakers and the world that Kansas City is a great place to shoot.”

For Julia Oh, a co-producer of “American Honey,” KC proved quite hospitable to their cinematic road trip.

“We got a true, warm Midwestern welcome,” says Oh, who oversaw casting and financing prior to hitting the highways with the production.

The cast and crew planned for an eight-day shoot when they arrived May 17 but ended up staying through the first week of June last year.

“Producing this film was all about accepting the unexpected and going forward, no matter what,” says Oh, a Chicago-area native. “We adapted to what Andrea’s process needed. That’s how we try to produce: Throw away assumptions and support what she needs to tell her story.”

Along with repeated visits to Town Topic Hamburgers downtown, she reveals the cast and crew enjoyed their off days by “going to a Royals game, hitting up Worlds of Fun and our favorite: going-for-broke line dancing.”

Oh and company also trekked to Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa and North Dakota.

“We drove over 12,000 miles on this production,” she says. “You can’t do that without seeing and meeting beauty in this country.”

One local actress who enjoyed the deepest immersion into this cloistered band of artists is Laura Kirk of Lawrence. Kirk, who is also a filmmaker, got to play a wealthy housewife who is visited at her Mission Hills home by LaBeouf’s and Lane’s characters. She even makes an appearance in the theatrical trailer, scolding the intruders: “I’ve been trying to be Christian, but I can see the devil has a hold of the two of you.”

The sequence is pivotal, as it’s the first moment the two leads join forces on the job.

“It was really important to Andrea how she cast locally and how she envisioned the script,” says Kirk, who withstood three rounds of auditions before landing the role.

Her initial conversations with the director ranged from bird-watching to raising teenagers. It was crucial that she showcased some improvisation skills during the audition process because she wasn’t given a script until 48 hours before her scene was to be shot.  Read more

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