The City of Absurdity The Straight Story
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Movie company mixes excitement, politeness in Laurens

By John Carlson
Des Moines Register October 9, 1998

When Alvin Straight climbed on his riding lawn mower in Laurens three years ago and drove it 240 miles to Wisconsin, he said he didn't want much attention.

It's too bad Straight didn't live to see all the commotion he caused. He might have changed his mind if he had gotten a look at what's gone on in his home town the past few weeks.

Downtown Laurens has been overrun with movie stars and cameras, set builders and directors and people running around with earphones and microphones, shouting things like "cut" and "take 30 minutes for lunch."

"It's pretty exciting," said Dorothy Long, an owner of Laurens' hardware store, which became a movie set for a few hours last week. "I never had any idea how a movie was made. It's pretty complicated."

Director David Lynch is making "The Straight Story," a recreation of Straight's world famous lawn mower ride, which means people in Laurens are seeing actors like Sissy Spacek and Richard Farnsworth walking around Main Street.

Iowa hasn't seen anything like it since "The Bridges of Madison County" was filmed in Winterset in 1994 - and come to think of it, there's a big difference between the two.

"The Bridges of Madison County" with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep was protected by as much security as some military installations, and that's no joke. Eastwood's people actually got the Winterset police chief to run around in front of photographers, blocking photo access to Streep who, two blocks away, was worried the photos might damage her "inner self."

In Laurens, they shot a scene in the grocery store and allowed customers to come in and pick up a carton of milk and a loaf of bread during the filming.

"This is their town," said Gaye Pope, publicist for the film company. "We're visitors. We're trying to be nice and not disrupt things too much."

Which is tough when a few knuckleheads think it's OK to pound on Farnsworth's or Spacek's motel doors for a quick picture and an autograph.

Farnsworth is playing the role of Alvin Straight, and the 78-year-old actor who appeared in his first movie in 1937 is in virtually every scene. Spacek is playing his daughter.

Farnsworth is one of those actors whose name makes you say, "Huh?" Then, when you see him, you say, "Oh yeah, I know that guy."

He was nominated for an Academy Award in the Jane Fonda movie "Comes a Horseman." He was the sheriff who figures out the Kathy Bates character in "Misery" is a crazy woman, moments before she blows him away with a shotgun.

This is a nice man. Instead of nodding and walking away when a reporter is introduced to him, he says come in the trailer during the lunch break for a little talk.

"I was pretty much retired on my ranch in New Mexico when David Lynch called me about playing Alvin Straight," said Farnsworth. "I told him, 'No, I'm slowing down and I've got a bad hip and walk with a cane.'"

That's great, Lynch said. Alvin Straight used two canes. You'll be perfect.

Farnsworth read the script, liked it, and agreed. A couple of months later, he found himself in northwest Iowa, riding a John Deere mower and being the central actor in a movie he thinks will be a great success.

"Imagine this man, wanting to visit a brother. He can't see to drive and the only way he can get there is to ride a lawn tractor," said Farnsworth. "It's, a good script. There are lots of interesting things that happen to him on his trip. I've been around a long time and I know, this is something special."

The film company was housed in motels in Pocahontas, Storm Lake and West Bend. What did they do for fun in their off hours?

"I went to Sioux City last Sunday," said Pope. I found a good cup of coffee and a Sunday New York Times."

Lots of area people are working as extras in the film. "I don't know what they want me to do," said Lee Anderson, who farms north of Laurens. "Whatever they tell me I guess. Hey, it's the chance of a lifetime."

The company headed to northeast Iowa this week to film in the Clermont and West Union areas and will finish up in Wisconsin. The movie will be released in theaters next year.

"I think it's going to be a blockbuster," said Farnsworth. "This will be a movie you'll be proud to take children to see. That's important to me. I don't think there's a four-letter word in the entire movie. People are going to like it."

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© Mike Hartmann