Dirt was hauled in to cover a parking lot in Olde Town in preparation for filming “Bessie,” an HBO production set in Chattanooga, Tenn., in the 1920s and ’30s. Street closings and parking issues related to the filming ruffled some feathers in Olde Town Thursday. (Staff Photo: Julie Wells)
CONYERS — Streets in Olde Town were closed Thursday due to preparation for filming of the HBO feature film “Bessie,” closures that were met with frustration by some merchants and city officials.
Some Olde Town business owners complained that they could not find parking and it was impacting their customers and clients.
City Councilman Vince Evans, a pharmacist at Beasley’s Pharmacy at the corner of Main and Center streets, said he could sense the frustration from other merchants and customers in Olde Town Thursday.
“I’m one of the lucky ones with an entrance on Main Street, but anybody in the heart of Commercial Street is out of luck,” Evans said.
Film crews have transformed Olde Town to recreate a street scene from the 1920s in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The film depicts the life of Bessie Smith, an iconic blues singer who overcame a wild personal life to become one of the most acclaimed performing and recording artists of the 1920s and ’30s. She was nicknamed “Empress of the Blues” in recognition of her unique voice. Queen Latifah will play the role of Bessie.
Other actors to be featured in “Bessie” are Michael K. Williams, known for his role in “12 Years a Slave” and “RoboCop,” who will play Smith’s husband, and Mo’Nique, who is taking on the role as Ma Rainey, one of the first professional blues singers billed as the Mother of the Blues.
Other scenes for “Bessie” have already been filmed at the Georgia International Horse Park and at several locations in Covington.
Filming on Center Street and a portion of Commercial Street was to take place Thursday, and motorists and business owners were advised earlier this week that there were to be intermittent closings of those streets.
However, Evans said when he came to work at 7:30 in the morning, the streets were already completely closed.
“My frustration is that I thought they were filming today and were to complete their prep work prior to that, which could have been done without street closures,” he said.
Evans said it was his understanding from the permit application that the production company needed the roads to be closed for filming, but learned that crews were dressing sets throughout the day and the actual filming would not get under way until closer to 6:30 or 7 p.m.
“I would not have voted to allow the streets to be closed if I had known this,” he said, adding that he felt it was “misleading.”
“This is a huge amount to dump on the business people in the city anyway,” Evans said. “Business people need to be compensated for their time and inconvenience. We really try to let them know in advance to have the least amount of inconvenience put on them as possible.”
Local attorney Laura French, whose office fronts Commercial Street, said she is normally patient with the regular filming of television shows and movies in Olde Town, but Thursday’s situation was “very frustrating.”
“I and other business owners would like to know that the city considers how the movie and TV industry is affecting our businesses,” French said.
She said she believes there are some viable solutions to avoid situations where businesses and merchants are put in a position to operate at the mercy of the movie industry.
“I think there are some alternative parking places for tractor-trailers so that they don’t take up the primary spaces at the Whistle Post and those can be preserved for businesses and their customers,” French said.”Too often, it seems tractor-trailers get to those spaces first and the people who live, work and play here are left to figure out for themselves where they can park.”
She said she would also like to see some stricter guidelines on when movie crews prepare their sets.
“I think some of the set preparation can and should be done in the overnight hours so it does not impact businesses to the extent it did today,” French said.
She said business owners and merchants in Olde Town would like when city officials negotiate with television and movie producers that they accommodate the views of the merchants and businesses and “not just those of Hollywood.”
Jennifer Edwards, director of public relations and tourism with the city of Conyers, said this particular production has been problematic.
“This has been a frustrating one because we have been working with the company and attempting to get a commitment for two or three months when they planned to film and we just got word last week,” Edwards said.
She said the city’s film policy is written to try to give merchants as much notice as possible so they can notify their customers or arrange deliveries if needed.
Edwards said the production company also worked out private arrangements with some merchants before the city had given approval for their filming in Olde Town.
“We got caught in the middle, trying to make both sides happy. It was more rushed than it had to be,” she said.
To complicate matters, Edwards said that NBC is planning to shoot on Monday a part of its new series, “Constantine” in Olde Town. The CW network’s TV series “The Originals” is set to resume in Olde Town in mid-August.
“It is a delicate balance and it easily gets rocked,” Edwards said.
Evans said the city established its film policy to try to avoid issues like those that have arisen this week.
“I am filing this situation away in my mind for the next time something like this comes up,” he said.