Some residents of Mission Hills were surprised to see actor Shia LaBeouf traipsing through their well-manicured yards last year — and making out with a girl as the sprinklers turned on. The public had no idea why the reclusive “Transformers” star would even be in town.
With the release of the acclaimed “American Honey,” LaBeouf’s onscreen adventures — and the behind-the-scenes efforts it took to bring him and Oscar-winning director Andrea Arnold here — are now being revealed.
“American Honey,” opening in Kansas City on Friday, Oct. 14, tells the tale of itinerant young con artists who roam the Midwest hawking magazine subscriptions. In addition to LaBeouf, the movie stars Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) and newcomer Sasha Lane, whom the director cast after randomly spotting her cavorting on a Florida beach. The other co-stars are also novice non-actors.
The nearly three-hour drama won a Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
In May 2015, the movie’s producing team got a first real taste of Kansas City: dinner at the Blue Bird Bistro with Stephane Scupham, film and media manager at Visit KC (aka the city’s film commissioner).
While the English director and her production heads spent a few days ahead of the shoot becoming familiar with the locale, others in their squad weren’t so enlightened. To maintain a sense of hyper-realism, Arnold’s cast and crew were never told in advance the places they’d be filming. Not even in what states.
“They were insulated from everything. They felt like they were literally this band of magazine sellers — kind of a teenage gang almost,” Scupham recalls. “The process was extremely private. I was on the set a few times and never met the cast. I would see Andrea and say hi and chat, but every other aspect was closed.”
The six filming locations in the area included a Days Inn and a house off Ward Parkway, as well as numerous moving shots around the downtown interstates. In the final cut, Kansas City earns plenty of face time.
“It’s a great feeling to see what you know up on the big screen,” Scupham says. “The experience of seeing your town — and potentially people you know — is a real source of pride. It also communicates to other filmmakers and the world that Kansas City is a great place to shoot.”
For Julia Oh, a co-producer of “American Honey,” KC proved quite hospitable to their cinematic road trip.
“We got a true, warm Midwestern welcome,” says Oh, who oversaw casting and financing prior to hitting the highways with the production.
The cast and crew planned for an eight-day shoot when they arrived May 17 but ended up staying through the first week of June last year.
“Producing this film was all about accepting the unexpected and going forward, no matter what,” says Oh, a Chicago-area native. “We adapted to what Andrea’s process needed. That’s how we try to produce: Throw away assumptions and support what she needs to tell her story.”
Along with repeated visits to Town Topic Hamburgers downtown, she reveals the cast and crew enjoyed their off days by “going to a Royals game, hitting up Worlds of Fun and our favorite: going-for-broke line dancing.”
Oh and company also trekked to Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa and North Dakota.
“We drove over 12,000 miles on this production,” she says. “You can’t do that without seeing and meeting beauty in this country.”
One local actress who enjoyed the deepest immersion into this cloistered band of artists is Laura Kirk of Lawrence. Kirk, who is also a filmmaker, got to play a wealthy housewife who is visited at her Mission Hills home by LaBeouf’s and Lane’s characters. She even makes an appearance in the theatrical trailer, scolding the intruders: “I’ve been trying to be Christian, but I can see the devil has a hold of the two of you.”
The sequence is pivotal, as it’s the first moment the two leads join forces on the job.
“It was really important to Andrea how she cast locally and how she envisioned the script,” says Kirk, who withstood three rounds of auditions before landing the role.
Her initial conversations with the director ranged from bird-watching to raising teenagers. It was crucial that she showcased some improvisation skills during the audition process because she wasn’t given a script until 48 hours before her scene was to be shot.
She describes the interaction with LaBeouf and Lane as “effervescent.”
“We ran some lines and went through the blocking. They actually helped me because they’d been on the shoot, so they knew how Andrea was working. It was just a tremendously fun scene to shoot,” she says.
As for playing such a suspicious and condescending character, Kirk draws from experience.
“I feel like I’ve been around enough people — whether it’s in Mission Hills or Connecticut, where I used to live — who are like that,” she says.
Despite multiple wins at Cannes, “American Honey” has proven profoundly polarizing to audiences.
The New York Times gushes, “On the shelf of essential cultural products whose names begin with the word ‘American,’ Andrea Arnold’s new film … might find a spot between Grant Wood’s ‘Gothic’ and Green Day’s ‘Idiot.’ ”
Time magazine considers Arnold’s approach to be more manipulative: “Over and over, ‘American Honey’ calls attention to how observant it is, rather than just being observant.”
This is hardly new territory for Arnold, who won a 2005 Academy Award for her short film “Wasp.” She has built a reputation for coaxing fine performances from non-actors in features such as “Fish Tank” and her adaptation of “Wuthering Heights,” as well as for her nontraditional, defiant methodology.
“Taking a risk means not fitting into an easy film experience,” Oh says. “We’ll take being loved or hated over being forgettable.”
Scupham, who has yet to see the flick, agrees it might be challenging for viewers.
“People are saying it’s Shia’s best performance in years. They’re saying it’s the year’s best road movie. It has an incredible soundtrack,” she says.
“But the film is really long. When it’s longer than 2 1/2 hours, that can make people uncomfortable. The content itself sounds like it has a meandering plot with nothing 100 percent defined for the audience. So the audience has to work a bit to create their own takeaway.”
Kirk attended the premiere in New York City several weeks ago (where she spent most of her professional career before returning to her native Kansas). She was able to catch up with Arnold and sit with crew members at the screening.
“I’ve been thinking about (the divisive responses) since I saw it, seeing how some people love it so much and others not as much. I’m wondering if it looks familiar to some people and completely unimaginable to others,” says Kirk, who notes Arnold’s fictional chronicle was inspired by a 2007 New York Times article investigating these “mag crews.”
“It looked extremely familiar to me, and that’s why I loved it.”
But beyond the discussion of how moviegoers respond now, Kirk thinks the enterprise might endure as culturally significant.
“I think it’s an instant classic. As someone who studies film and teaches film, it’s one that will be studied and taught for a long time to come,” says Kirk, who runs a class called Acting for the Camera at the University of Kansas.
“In the same way neo-realism films first showed us what post-war Italy looked like and how people were really living, this is one of the first films where you can go back and say, ‘Wow, this is what America really looked like in some areas that we didn’t see or know about.’ ”
For Kirk, “American Honey” also represents a more personal victory.
“One of the best things about doing the film was earning any shred of respect from my teenagers by getting Shia’s autograph. It was the first time they in any way acknowledged that what I was doing was remotely interesting,” says Kirk, who has a son and daughter in high school.
“When you’re a teenager, what movie did you grow up with that was so cool? ‘Transformers.’ And you know what? Shia is cool.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”