On Set in Mooresville: Hartselle native films adaptation of Twain’s ‘Tom and Huck’ in north Alabama
By Catherine Godbey
For the Enquirer
A bamboo forest, home to a cacophony of croaking frogs and chirping crickets, served as a backdrop to the on-screen struggle between Huckleberry Finn and the gang of antagonists.
“Push them away. Really go at it. That’s it. That’s it. Cut,” director Lee Fanning cried.
For three days, ending last week, Hartselle native Fanning brought Mark Twain’s iconic characters of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer to life in Mooresville — a town older than the state, as the 69 Mooresvillans proudly claim.
From the Stagecoach Inn built before 1825, to the 180-year-old Brick Church, to the blacksmith shop created in 1995 for the “Tom and Huck” movie, Fanning’s film crew transformed Mooresville, once again, into Twain’s fictional town of St. Petersburg.
“I was a kid when they shot ‘Tom and Huck’ here. I knew they used the Three Caves in Huntsville, but I didn’t know until last year that they shot the St. Petersburg scenes in Mooresville,” Fanning said. “I thought to find an old town, I would have to go to Missouri or Canada. I had no clue Mooresville, a place I’ve driven past I don’t know how many times in my life, was perfect.”
Last week, 100 cast and crew members gathered in the small Limestone County town to film the fifth and final video in Fanning’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn series.
To bring the adaption to the screen, Fanning worked with husband–and–wife team Ryan and Gwena Sims of Moulton and Markus Matei of Los Angeles.
The series falls under Fanning’s Super Science Showcase umbrella, which Matei described as an educational series aimed at a younger audience.
Working at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and with Alabama Public Television spurred Fanning to launch the Super Science Showcase in 2015.
“Kids are smart. They know what good movies, good plots and good characters are. They are not fooled when you try to dumb things down. That’s not what they want,” Fanning said. “I wanted to create educational film and TV shows where what we are trying to teach the kids integrates seamlessly into the plot and the mechanics of the story.”
Think of “Apollo 13.” Without an understanding of the scientific problem, viewers fail to truly understand the situation and high stakes the astronauts face, Fanning said.
In the Super Science Showcase’s stories, the characters highlight astronomy, Newton’s three laws of motion, animal classification, the scientific method and states of energy.
The latest Tom and Huck episode will focus on magnetism.
“We directly talk about what magnetism is and how it works. Huckleberry Finn has to use magnetism in the climax of the film. We are also able to use it subtextually because the story deals with how popular Tom is while Huck is in his shadow,” Fanning said.
While most of the Super Science Showcase stories are original creations, a desire to work with classic characters spurred Fanning to turn to Twain.
“I’ve always really wanted the opportunity to work with iconic characters, and I’ve always been a big fan of Twain and loved ‘Tom and Huck.’ With those characters being in the public domain, it seemed like a natural fit,” Fanning said. “We knew we would never be able to touch Twain, but we have been faithful to the essence of who we interpret the characters to be.”
The cast features Jackson Fults as Huckleberry Finn, Luke Partridge as Tom Sawyer and Kevin Wayne as Holden, the main antagonist.
“We’ve done five films, and we’ve been working with the same actors for all five years. It’s been pretty cool to see the characters and actors grow up and evolve. It brings a unique spin to Tom and Huck, because most productions focus on them as children or as adults. They don’t show them growing up,” Fanning said.
Filming for the final episode spanned 12 days and included a cast and crew of 100 people plus 30 extras — roles filled by the people of Mooresville.
Along with Mooresville, the crew filmed several days in wooded areas in Decatur and Trinity.
For Fanning, who lives in Ohio, filming in north Alabama represents a return to where his love for writing and movies began.
“My earliest memories are of writing stuff. Growing up, I loved playing baseball, but I was never interested in being a professional baseball player. I always wanted to be a writer,” he said.
In middle school Fanning, inspired by “Star Wars,” used his family’s beta camcorder to film his first scenes with friends.
As a student at Hartselle High – which at the time lacked a theater program – Fanning, who graduated in 2014, co-founded the Huie Theater Players, a nod to author William Bradford Huie of Hartselle. The company’s high point was performing a radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells for several classes at Hartselle High on Halloween.
Fanning said while he enjoyed prose, he found his passion writing for the stage and screen.
“I love all the extra subtle elements that can be included in film, from moving the camera to setting the light a certain way to how you frame the composition to what good actors can do. All of those elements can elevate writing,” Fanning said.
Once complete, “Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn: St. Petersburg Adventures” will be on Amazon Prime, where the first five episodes of Super Science Showcase currently are available, Matei said.
“It is a really good platform for independent filmmakers with a smaller budget. It’s a great way to get your projects seen and to spotlight what we are doing here in north Alabama,” Fanning said.
Along with Amazon Prime, Fanning said the National Educational Television Association will offer the Super Science Showcase series to PBS stations.
“The PBS stations can choose whether to pick it up or not. That will happen in the fall,” Fanning said. “With a lot of schools still meeting virtually, it’s great to be able to help out the stations that want educational and entertaining content for young children. That is our goal: to entertain kids while teaching them something at the same time.”