Movie Article

Bright Lights, Small Town

Plainview, Texas -- An inside look at life in the small town where Steve Martin and crew are filming ''Leap of Faith''

On June afternoons around three, the dirt-dry Plainview, Tex., heat flares up above 100 degrees. Sometimes, just to be cruel, it stands off in the distance and ripples like a drink of water. The 50 or so people bunched on the Seventh Street sidewalk are used to it. They arch their hands over their eyes and stare across the street at a run-down diner called the Quick Lunch. There are huge lights aimed at the 7UP sign above its door, and serious trucks are parked in the side alley. By the curb, a young mother in pink sweats drags on a cigarette. The little boy by her feet wrestles with a large bag of Doritos and a bottle of Dr Pepper twice his size.

And then Steve Martin appears. He steps out of a black Lincoln Town Car parked in front of the Quick Lunch, and the crowd shouts his name. He waves. More hollering. Under the 7UP sign, Martin grabs a dark-haired woman in sunglasses by the shoulders and presents her to the masses. ''Debra Winger!'' he shouts. Cheers. The stars disappear inside the cafe, and the crowd is silent again, except for one man's voice, rich with Texas twang: ''What the hell's she been in?''

Hollywood has come to Plainview — this clump of 23,000 people on a straight ribbon of Interstate 27 between Lubbock and Amarillo — to turn it into Rustwater, a fictional burg on the plains of Kansas. The film is Leap of Faith, an oddball tearjerker opening Dec. 18, starring Martin as a con man/revival preacher, Jonas Nightengale, whose caravan breaks down in Rustwater, and Winger as his manager. To the filmmakers' way of thinking, Plainview looks a lot more like Kansas than Kansas. Massive white grain elevators command the landscape, and farmhouses sit among cotton fields, as lonely and lovely as if Edward Hopper had painted them there. Billboards at the highway exit promise ''down-home cooking'' at the Kettle restaurant and salvation at the First Baptist Church (296-PRAY).

And Hollywood has pulled into Plainview just in time — right after the heaviest spring rains in almost a century devastated the community's cotton crops. During the two months of preproduction and 11 days of actual shooting, Paramount nourished the town with movie star sightings and more than $1 million in Hollywood currency. Merchants filled orders for paint and lumber, the young and able-bodied found work on the crew, hundreds appeared as extras, and local hotels were booked solid. ''Rustwater'' replaced ''Plainview'' on the water tower, sales of Evian water at the United Supermarket went from one case a week to 350, and for the first time in Plainview's 105-year history, there was a run on arugula.

Plainview was discovered last January by the film's location manager, Bill Bowling. He spent three weeks searching through Texas for a dried-up place that could stand as a metaphor for Nightengale's parched soul. Throughout the spring, producers Dan Melnick and Michael Manheim (whose wife, Janus Cercone, wrote the script) made a half-dozen pilgrimages to the Texas panhandle, and by April the question of where to shoot was settled. The downtown Rustwater scenes would be shot on Plainview's lumpy brick streets. The Quick Lunch, a greasy spoon that still bears some of its original 1920s grime, would play the diner where Lolita Davidovich — as the local woman Martin takes a shine to — slings hash.

Plainview's ambassador to the studio is Muff London, 36 — a thin, blond firecracker with big glasses, a pageboy hairdo, and a quiet but sharp Texas drawl. She manages the city's program to revitalize its downtown, but before the production crew arrives in May, she has to convince merchants not to spruce up their storefronts. ''Lots of people want to put up new awnings,'' she laments, but the studio is adamant about preserving the town's air of dessicated neglect.

London also spearheads efforts to find houses for director Richard Pearce (The Long Walk Home), the producers, and the cast to rent. Winger is assigned to a large two-story house that belongs to a couple who are spending the summer traveling. London is there to welcome Winger on her arrival, but the star's chartered jet is late and London falls asleep on the couch. Around 7:30 p.m., the sound of the front door shakes her awake. In the foyer she greets Winger, her son, Noah, 5, and a nanny.

''Hi, I'm Muff London,'' she says.

''Hi,'' says Winger flatly. ''I always wondered what someone named Muff would look like.''

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