POWHATAN – What do you get when a black snake crosses the road?
For some local residents, a new business opportunity.
Three years ago, Landon Graham agreed to let filming for the television show “Homeland” take place on his property in northern Powhatan County. When the crew was unnerved to see a black snake crossing a gravel road one day, they asked Graham if he knew anyone who could “wrangle snakes.”
Graham accepted the role, inviting a few friends to take shifts checking the sites for snakes before and during the filming. He never imagined this simple decision would open up a whole new world for his friends and himself.
That first request to be snake wranglers has led to more opportunities, with the group taking on the role again for about three months in 2018 on the set of the film “Harriet,” and, just wrapping up more than five months of work as wildlife wranglers on the set of the miniseries “The Good Lord Bird.”
“It was a lot of fun. It was basically a very unique, very interesting opportunity and I was just glad to have a chance to take advantage of it,” Graham said.
When filming in remote, rural areas like you find in parts of Powhatan and other parts of the state, humans and wildlife are bound to meet. The wildlife wranglers are tasked with either preventing that from happening, or safely removing and relocating the animals when it does so nobody gets hurt, Graham said.
Working alongside a representative from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the wranglers safely relocated possums, snakes, bees, spiders, skunks, and even an owl during the various film projects. With the exception of some hornets that were attacking people, none of the animals were harmed, and the wranglers are proud of that fact.
“I respect creatures. We are filming out in the woods. Animals are just doing their things in their habitat. It is one thing to move them but another thing to kill them,” Graham said.
The first job involved taking advantage of an opportunity literally in Graham’s backyard. The subsequent jobs have come as an offshoot of building a reputation for doing a good job and helping put the cast and crew at ease in unfamiliar surroundings, said Fred Bates of Powhatan, another member of the group.
With “Harriet” filming in rural areas of Virginia in 2018, the issue of wildlife came up again. A friend who was the head medic on the set recommended the production reach out to Bates. The canine officer with the Richmond City Police Department enjoyed working on “Homeland” and knew the others had as well. So he agreed to take the job and invited the others, including Graham, to step back into the role of wrangling.
Some were friends from the area and others were fellow officers. They all were familiar with traversing a rural setting and not afraid of the wildlife they might find, Bates said.
Peace of mind
In the beginning, on “Homeland,” it was all about trial and error, Bates said. The wranglers started off using sticks to look for snakes and going through the bushes.
“It was hunting. We were hunters. Then we saw that the crew and cast started to really like it. They could relax onset and do their jobs while we did our job. They knew if they came upon any type of animal, we were there,” Bates said.
There are three main elements of the job, Bates said. Wranglers need to be proactively hunting around the sets for critters, whether they walk, crawl, slither, or fly. They need to be connected by radio with an earpiece that lets them know if they are needed without disturbing filming. And they need to be seen to be doing all of that by the cast and crew who might be feeling uncomfortable in the rural setting.
“You’ve got to remember, a lot of these guys are Hollywood folks and they are not used to the woods of Powhatan” Bates said. “It freaks them out a little bit. They see us hunting and they literally think we are like Steve Erwin. They like it and it makes them relax. That is an offshoot of what we do.”
Part of the job is also getting used to the cadence of a film production. With each project, the wranglers have been assigned a shift on a particular day. They worked 12-hour shifts that sometimes drifted into the 14 and 15-hour range.
Graham, who works for Sign Crafters, said his job was good about letting him take time so he could fill shifts. Working on the film sets offered some extra money as well as some excitement, which he said he needed at that time.
“It filled a little bit of need for adventure for the summer – enough to make me appreciate my daily routine a little bit more. It is a lot of fun but, I am glad to be back to normal now,” he said on Nov. 12, the day after his final day of working on the set of “The Good Lord Bird.”
Bates said he didn’t realize before he started hanging out around film sets how boring and unglamorous it could actually be at times. He might watch actors shoot the same scene for hours either to get it just right or capture it from a variety of angles.
But even when it wasn’t the most exciting day, it was still fascinating to see how the filming process worked, especially when it came to filming somewhere as familiar as parts of Powhatan County, he said.
“You can’t get better than the State Farm for filming. You have wide open areas. You don’t have the sounds of traffic. You can make Powhatan look like any country scene anywhere in the country,” Bates said. “Then when you add movie magic, they do incredible things. They can make it rain. They can make it look really hot with the lighting and the effects they do.”
The process of wildlife wrangling on a movie set can also be both fascinating and grueling, Graham said. He recalled his first day working on the miniseries one day this June. He showed up and was already overheated and tired. A “very tall, furry looking man in period clothes” came up behind him and told Graham he would be wrangling butterflies for a scene that was about to be filmed.
“I realized it was Ethan Hawke once I saw past the makeup and beard,” he said.
Hawke plays abolitionist John Brown in “The Good Lord Bird,” and in that particular scene the actor would say a prayer and then open his hands and release a butterfly, Graham said.
“Five times I had to reload his hands with a butterfly to release. It was very satisfying. The butterflies looked great. Better than CGI. And it was a fun way to meet Ethan Hawke,” he said.
He recalled the filming of a night scene shot at Three Lakes Park last year that involved Cynthia Erivo, who plays Harriet Tubman, crossing a river. Graham said he was up to his chest in water all night. He was on the lookout for snakes and fishing spiders, which can look large and menacing when they are emerging from or skimming the water, especially at night.
“They are very large spiders on the water. I think anybody would be terrified of them,” he said.
Wildlife is unpredictable. Graham said he was caught off guard when he entered an old building one day to clear it and had an owl flying circles around his head. On his last day of filming, he caught a large copperhead snake on set.
“One day on the South Anna River I caught two hognose snakes. Everyone was terrified of it. I knew what kind of snake it was so I was able to ham it up a bit and jump right down there and catch it. It was a little bit of showmanship,” Graham admitted with a grin.
One morning during filming on “The Good Lord Bird,” wrangler Dale Brooks, 76, of Chesterfield was called to one of the food tents first thing in the morning because a possum had found its way inside. The possum was equally scared of the humans and ran under a pallet of water.
“I picked it up by its tail and carried it out in a field and let it loose in the tall grass. It was a big possum,” she said, adding it was an entertaining experience because she finally got to wrangle something besides bees and hornets.
While the job was fun, the reality of when humans and wildlife do meet can be harsh. Another night during the filming of “Harriet” at Berkeley Plantation, the crew rehearsed a scene twice and then was in the process of filming it, Brooks said. The cast had somehow stumbled upon some yellow jackets in the dark and “the whole cast ran out of the woods screaming” and were badly stung.
“A lot of them took their clothes off – the heavy coats because the yellow jackets were just sticking to them. I always carry a stick with me. One man, I had to basically scrape the yellow jackets off his back because they were embedded in the wool coat he was wearing,” she said.
Bates talked about constantly looking for snakes, especially on hot days or when the crew was filming in the woods or tall grass.
“The crew, they are running around in shorts. Sometimes I don’t know if they know the danger they are in, so we are right there with them making sure everything is straight,” he said.
Virginia sets aside $9.5 million each year for tax credits for film productions – a drop in the bucket compared to some states spending hundreds of millions, said Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office. But for every dollar in incentives Virginia provides, it returns $10 to the economy. Production crews hire carpenters, seamstresses, painters, sculptors, makeup artists, actors, extras, and other crew. They have to house, feed, and transport all of those people, which is more money cycled back into the local economy.
“It is like building a big construction project but it is a traveling circus construction project. That is why so many countries and states want this business – when they come in, they touch all parts of the economy and multiple skill sets. ... Everything you can imagine in an economy, somehow they touch it,” Edmunds said.
Part of that process is also discovering niche vendors who fill a need the production crews have, he said.
With three successful filming projects under their belts, Bates and Graham said they are going to seriously spend the winter ahead figuring out how to organize a business to meet their niche market.
Bates said he has two small children and works full time as a police officer, so he didn’t have as much time this year to actually work as a wrangler. Instead, he spent more time doing the administrative side of scheduling wranglers, supplying them with the necessary equipment, and making sure they are paid.
Working as a canine officer involves some paperwork, but he said administrative work isn’t normally a big part of his job description. So working as more of a coordinator in the last few months has been his favorite part of the whole experience so far.
It is good steady work that comes along about once a year. For someone that takes it seriously and does a good job of it, it is a nice opportunity they don’t want to fail to take advantage of, Graham said.
Brooks said she likes the idea of acting as a wrangler a little each year. She is retired and avidly hunts and fishes, so being in the Great Outdoors is nothing new for her. She said she spends a great deal of her time doing both in Powhatan, where her father and grandmother once lived, so she is pleased when the filming takes place there. She said it feels like “getting paid to walk around and look for things that don’t bother me.”
Powhatan has become “a focal point and Ground Zero for many historical projects of international significance,” Edmunds said. In addition to the rural locations, crews have loved the friendliness of the county and meeting “real, authentic people that actually know how to work with the land.”
Powhatan has a “lot of woods and a lot of critters,” so Bates hopes more film productions will be attracted to the county and its rural sites for filming. He thinks Powhatan is making a name for itself as a good place to film because of its setting but also because of the hospitality and work ethic film crews find when they visit.
Reflecting on the experiences of the past three years, he marveled how it all “started from that one black snake in the road.”
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.