Principal photography on "Fire Down Below" began in the Cumberland
range of the Appalachian Mountains in Southeastern Kentucky.
Jeb Stuart explains that "we scouted Southeastern Kentucky extensively when the film was first optioned. There is nothing on Earth like the Cumberlands, very different from any other area of the Appalachian Mountains."
Director Alcalá employed his skills as a cinematographer to capture some of the country's most beautiful landscapes for the production. With the coal-mining town of Hazard becoming the company's "old Kentucky home" for six weeks of production, Alcalá traveled to various points of surrounding Perry and Breathitt Counties to film the story during the resplendent fall foliage season.
Curiously, just as the film commenced production, life imitated art as local Kentucky newspapers reported an actual E.P.A. inquiry into an abandoned mine shaft outside of Pikeville (60 miles from the company's base), comparing the real E.P.A. agent, Fred Stroud, to Seagal's character in the film. When the actor heard about the agency allegations, he invited Stroud to visit the set and chatted with him about environmental issues and his work.
For two key sets, filmmakers chose spectacular natural settings ­p; elevated plateaus, themselves rejuvenated sites of former strip mines ­p; where production designer Joe Alves built, from the ground up, sets overlooking the breathtaking vistas of Kentucky's Cumberland hills: the Kellogg House and a country 'cathedral.' Sarah's clapboard house was constructed on a mountain a mile above the picturesque tributaries of the Carr Fork Lake, and Reverend Goodall's Pentecostal church rose on a cliff high above the county's popular dirt track speedway.
"When I first got the script, I thought it would be more of a location type of show, working with existing locations," Alves explains. "When we couldn't find a church with any kind of view, I grabbed a book on Andrew Wyeth. I liked that look of starkness for the sets."
"It was an emotional moment for me when they decided to destroy the church," Alves continues. "The church was built strongly, to last for many years. The special effects guys had a hard time with the steeple when they torched it."
Another local landowner, mining engineer James Bowling, had wanted to keep the set of Sarah's house that Alves had erected on his property, a former strip mine restored to its natural beauty with an even more spectacular view. Bowling asked that the two-story structure not be razed after the company departed Kentucky.
"Bowling had all sorts of plans to build a golf course," Alves relates about the landowner's desire to use the set for a clubhouse. "He also helped us out with the barn, a real barn that was 200 years old. It took us two months to take the barn apart and move it. We had to number every board and piece."
An operational strip mine, one that will continue to produce coal for the next two decades, also played an integral role in the production for the film's dramatic chase sequence. Longtime Alcalá colleague and second-unit director Larry Carroll shot the chase over a two week period, with the climactic moment set atop the strip mine 300 feet above a gorge.
Carroll, who has directed numerous car commercials with Alcalá, found the location while directing aerial footage for the movie. Carroll worked in tandem with stunt coordinator Bobby Brown and effects supervisor Schirmer in mounting the high-speed chase between Taggart and an 18-wheel coal rig through the Kentucky mountains.
"This chase ­p; a prolonged, very exciting action sequence ­p; culminates with Taggart leading his nemesis to the top of a cliff," Carroll describes, "and both vehicles end up going over the cliff."
Utilizing seven cameras to capture the stunt (which could be executed only once), Carroll says, "Felix and I grew up in the commercial business and shot a lot of car commercials together. We love to put mounts on cars and hang cameras from places you don't normally see."
Following six weeks on location in Hazard, the production moved about 90 miles west to Mt. Vernon, Kentucky and the Great Saltpetre Cave, a 2500-foot grotto that doubled for one of the story's abandoned coal mines. One of over two dozen caverns scattered throughout central Kentucky's Greater Cincinnati Grotto, the cave was discovered in 1798 and used to mine saltpeter, or niter, in the early 1800s. The cavern contributed significantly to the production of gunpowder during the War of 1812.
Hollywood first discovered this dank chamber, with a constant temperature of 55° Fahrenheit, when location scouts suggested its use for the Batcave in "Batman Forever." Under the management of the National Speleological Society, the mine has been closed to public tours for almost a decade. Due to the foundation's long-range preservation program, Alves had to erect his set inside the cave very delicately.
"It was quite an engineering feat to put up that set without marring the cavern walls and ceiling," Alves admits about the elevator shaft set, where toxic waste is lowered into the abandoned mine. "It was a tremendous amount of rock work for the mine scenes. We couldn't attach anything, so the set had to be self-supported using scaffolds."
Utilizing another of Alves' spectacular designs, Alcalá staged one of the film's many action scenes in the cave's Echo Auditorium, about 1,000 feet inside its cool, dark interior. "This was a real cave, a saltpeter cave, that looked like a mine," the director describes. "The scene was a coal mine where they store all the barrels of toxic chemicals, and they have this big shootout, then the mine blows up."
Departing Kentucky in late October, Alcalá moved the action to Los Angeles, where the company spent seven weeks in such areas as Santa Clarita, Agua Dulce, Valencia, Topanga Canyon and the famous Los Angeles City Hall for a variety of scenes.
Alves flew home to Los Angeles to build several more sets, including the county park for the bluegrass music festival sequence, constructed at the Disney Ranch in Santa Clarita; the gas station/minimart set built on a runway of the shuttered Agua Dulce Air Park; and an Art Deco casino on a soundstage in Valencia. As Alves relates, "It was logistically difficult to use a real casino, where we could only shoot from 2:00 until 6:00 am. So we decided to build it."
The hills of Kentucky are famous for producing tobacco, bourbon and music.
With such a musically pedigreed cast, it was only natural for the performers
to begin gathering, and eventually ­p; well, a soundtrack is born.
Seagal, Levon Helm and native Kentuckian Stanton formed a trio who regularly met in several late-night jam sessions at Seagal's location house during filming breaks, where they (each strumming a six-string) improvised songs for the film's soundtrack.
The star and producer, himself an accomplished blues musician, also took his musical talents to the concert stage on two occasions during production, joining Helm and The Band at a New Jersey songfest and at Los Angeles' House of Blues for the premiere party of his previous hit, "The Glimmer Man" (for which Seagal wrote two songs for the soundtrack).
"It may be that I wound up in the film because Steven is a big fan," Helm observes. "He could be a great musician." The Hall-of-Fame rocker, who first came to film prominence in Martin Scorsese's classic 1978 'rockumentary,' "The Last Waltz" (which chronicled The Band's final concert performance in San Francisco), followed that with appearances in "The Right Stuff" and "Coal Miner's Daughter."
Interestingly enough, Helm was cast in "Coal Miner's Daughter" as grandfather to Patsy and Peggy Lynn (who were portrayed by child actors). "They were the cute kids running around at the wrap party at Loretta's place in Tennessee," Helm recalls. Sixteen years later, the actual Lynn twins make their acting debut in "Fire Down Below" alongside Helm.
In addition to their acting contributions, the twins were able to make a musical contribution to the film's growing eclectic soundtrack ­p; they composed and sang a pair of songs, "One of These Nights" and "It Hurts Me." Patsy notes, "The coolest part was when Steven heard our music; he really liked what he heard, and Peggy and I got to do two songs in the movie. And, we used a lot of our own band, called The Honkabillies, in the movie, too."
"We have a great soundtrack," enthuses director Alcalá. "We have incredible musicians and songwriters in the film, from Ed Bruce to Levon Helm. We also have a younger country-western star, Mark Collie, and Alex Harvey, a songwriter in his own right. And Harry Dean Stanton, who plays the blues and sings in a lot of clubs around. And, we also have Randy Travis."
Seagal comments on this virtual country music Hall of Fame, by saying, "When I read this script, I saw the opportunity for great bluegrass, great blues and great country music. I tried to cast it that way by combining great actors and great musicians."
Randy Travis' first meeting with Seagal occurred at Seagal's house where, Travis relates, "we sat and talked and played some music. He's a great guitar player and a good singer, too, a very talented man. I had no idea he had a love and talent for music."
Collie and Harvey won their roles after auditioning for casting director Rhodes. While Harvey has supplemented his composing talent ("Delta Dawn," "Reuben James") with acting gigs in such films as "Country" and "The Dollmaker," Collie makes his motion picture debut in the production.
"The first day I met Steven, it was cordial and everything," Collie remembers. "I noticed he had an old Martin guitar sitting around, and we started playing some Bill Monroe music together, and suddenly we found a connection."
"He's a player first," Collie observes. "He plays in a real soulful blues-rock style. My first impression was he did know his way around a guitar pretty well. Then as Alex and I began to spend some time with him, his songwriting began to show promise, too.
He approaches music the way he prepares himself for a film or a fight sequence. He's very disciplined. He's got quick hands, so he ought to be able to play a guitar pretty well."
Two-time Grammy winner Marty Stuart also makes his film debut. Echoing Collie's comments, Stuart says, "The first thing that hit me was that Steven could actually play the guitar really well. He also has great instincts about where to go with a song. Given a little time, he could be a pretty masterful songwriter."
The guitar great, who joined the production for three days on location outside of Los Angeles was initially reluctant about appearing in his first motion picture. When he finally journeyed to Hazard to meet with Seagal, "we talked and in the course of two hours' time, we had written two songs that you hear in the film. I then went away for a couple of weeks, got with a band, put the songs on tape, and the rest is, as they say, movie history."
Warner Bros. Presents A Seagal/Nasso Production: Steven Seagal in "Fire Down Below," starring Marg Helgenberger, Harry Dean Stanton, Stephen Lang and Kris Kristofferson. The film is edited by Robert A. Ferretti, A.C.E., and production designed by Joe Alves; director of photography is Tom Houghton and music is by Nick Glennie-Smith. Executive producers are William S. Gilmore and Jeb Stuart, and co-producer is Ronald G. Smith. The story is by Jeb Stuart; the screenplay is by Jeb Stuart and Philip Morton. "Fire Down Below" is produced by Steven Seagal & Julius R. Nasso, and directed by Felix Enriquez Alcalá. It is distributed by Warner Bros., A Time Warner Entertainment Company.
Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.