Imagine coming to the fall semester at Bob Jones University and within weeks taking off from classes to go to a film location for almost a week with hundreds of your nearest and dearest friends and faculty. That’s what happened in September 1976 when the large revival meeting scene for the motion picture Sheffey was filmed.
When Unusual Films (BJU’s film production unit from 1950 to 2016) was in production on a feature film, the whole campus got involved.
Probably the film with the most audience impact that the University produced, the filming of Sheffey was memorable for the crew and cast too, and even today, behind-the-scenes stories about the production abound when the crew gets together. Or, just mention Sheffey on BJU pages on social media, and people will chime in about their own experiences.
Sheffey has been fully restored and will be rereleased in HD July 4 with a free premiere showing on VCY America. Watch the trailer.
See Also: ‘Sheffey’ Rides Again
Sheffey is based on The Saint of the Wilderness, a book by Jess Carr about the life of Robert Sayers Sheffey, a 19th-century circuit-riding preacher who lived in the mountains of western Virginia. According to George Rogier, sound engineer for Sheffey, Unusual Films had been looking for a good story ever since they had released Flame in the Wind several years earlier.
The book found its way to Katherine Stenholm, the director of Unusual Films, and it appealed to her. After a first draft of the script came in at an estimated eight hours in length, the book was assigned to Tim Rogers to write a (much) shorter screenplay. According to Rogers, the first thing he had to do was “go through the book and do the big chops of the story. We had to simplify the story to make it fit (the planned film running time).”
The story had a lot going for it. First, it had a message — an automatic prerequisite for an Unusual Films feature. Also, though the book was far too long for a two-hour film, the story could be condensed to a manageable level. The locations needed for the film exteriors could mostly be found within driving distance of the University. And, the time period was an appealing one that Stenholm knew much about.
Pre-production and casting began in 1975. Wade Ramsey described how Harold Kilpatrick, BJU alumnus and Atlanta-area pastor was cast as Robert Sheffey. “We had just one photo of older (Robert Sayers) Sheffey. She (Stenholm) looked at it and decided that Harold Kilpatrick looked like him quite a bit. So, she worked on getting him to take the part. We did a screen test of him and we set up the Eliza death scene. We were doing a CU of him and I’m looking through the Mitchell camera and he’s crying real tears, and I thought ‘that’s the guy.’ She apparently thought so too.”
To find someone to play the young Sheffey, Ramsey said, “After she (Stenholm) decided on Harold, she got a picture of Harold when he was young. She got it duplicated and sent it to the dorm (supervisors) and said, ‘Find this man.’ Someone suggested Dwight (Anderson).”
Other roles were filled by faculty, students, friends of BJU and people from the communities where filming took place.
One role was cast in an unusual way. Rogier, who wore many hats on the production, was in charge of getting animals to be used in the film. He heard about a man nearby who had a pair of jacks (a cross between a horse and a mule) and went to see them. As usual, he took Polaroid shots of the jacks. When he got back to the office and showed Stenholm the pictures, she said, “Forget about the jacks. I’m interested in HIM!” and pointed to the man in the picture holding the reins. The man was locally famous evangelist Billy Kelly, and he was cast as the moonshiner.
The filming phase of film production is the one that involves the cast and the largest crew. Because Unusual Films was both an independent production company and a teaching unit, cinema majors who were enrolled during that phase of a UF production were immersed in incredible opportunities for hands-on responsibilities and experiences.
Likewise, the Unusual Films faculty wore many hats throughout production. Their work ethic was that everyone filled in wherever there was a need; no one did just one job (even though most crew members got just one film credit). Rogers, the screenwriter, was also the chief editor, boom operator, second cameraman, gravedigger and part-time horse wrangler. Rogier, the chief sound engineer, also acted as a location scout, horse finder and general liaison with the communities where the production was filmed. Ramsey was the director of photography, but he also was the camera operator, hands-on lighting director and animator as well as doing a lot of teaching while guiding his student crew.
Aunt Elizabeth’s Home
One of the first locations to be used was the home of Tom Smith, a prominent Greenville businessman who owned a stately home in the McDaniel Avenue area of Greenville that was impeccably furnished with valuable antiques. The interior could be used in the film just as it was — after the removal of a fragile and highly valuable Ming dynasty vase.
Smith graciously allowed the crew to bring in all their necessary gear and even let it sit in the middle of his home for a month while a film stock problem delayed filming. The scenes shot there were the Aunt Elizabeth home interiors, and Smith was one of the extras in the dining scene (he sat at the head of the table and carved the meat).
The Moonshiner’s Still
Shooting the still scene proved to be an adventure. Rogier found an authentic still that had been confiscated in a neighboring county. The sheriff agreed to let the film crew use it in the scene but warned them to keep it under wraps when they transported it to prevent it from being taken by “the feds.” Not long after the scene was shot in a remote part of Greenville County, a couple of working stills were broken up within a mile of the location. The filming of that scene was observed by local visitors, including one of the non-human variety — a copperhead snake slithered through the set during filming. Shooting paused while he was dispatched.
The campground location was one that initially stumped the film crew: where would they find a preaching shed of the right period within driving distance of campus that would hold hundreds of people? But as always, the Lord provided. Stenholm heard of an old Methodist campground near Ninety-Six, South Carolina, about an hour’s drive from the campus. At first, it looked as if it just had run-down cabins, but on second look, a preaching shed built in 1905 was found at the back of the property. The only thing that needed to be done to the preaching shed to make it ideal for filming was to put down sawdust over the asphalt floor. Not only that, but there were housing and a new dining hall that could be used to accommodate the crew and some of the cast.
The large cast for the campground scenes was largely made up of people from BJU, though there were some local folks in the mix. Students and faculty went down to the campground and stayed for several days until the scenes had been shot. Because both day shots and night shots were needed, the shooting days were long.
The BJU dining common provided the meals and people to serve them, the campus transportation department assisted in getting people and materials back and forth, the costume department handled both making and renting costumes for hundreds of people, and other departments on campus helped as needed. Students and faculty/staff who participated still have memories of the experience.
A few shots in the campground scene show some of the attendees jumping rope. These shots were not originally planned for this scene, but the student cast started jumping rope on their own to keep themselves occupied during set-up times. Stenholm liked the jump roping so much that she filmed it and included it in the finished scene.
The campground location proved to be such a good spot for housing the crew and equipment that several other exterior scenes were shot nearby during the fall, including the burning of the campground, the dead horse scene, the lead up to the horse auction and the auction itself, Sheffey falling in the stream, and the exteriors for the Tilton and Beamer houses.
The funeral was shot at a farm that the University owned at the time near Fountain Inn, South Carolina. Because no cemetery existed there, the crew carved tombstones out of Styrofoam. Eliza and Sheffey’s tombstones were exact replicas of the real Sheffey tombstones in Virginia, but many of the others were more fanciful. A lot of them bore the names of cinema students and faculty with appropriate epitaphs inscribed. One dedicated to Ramsey, the cinematographer was inscribed, “He saw the Light.” Rogier’s read, “He heard the sound of angels.” Not surprisingly, some of the tombstones later ended up with the “deceased” as souvenirs.
The grave itself was dug by hand by Rogers, who made sure that it was appropriately deep and had sharp edges. My main job on the film was being an assistant editor, but on the day that we shot the funeral scene, my job during shooting the scene of the rose landing on the casket was to sit in the grave on top of the casket and throw the rose back out for the next take. It took over 40 takes — and four roses — to get the rose to land artistically on the name “Sheffey” on the casket. And to my advantage, I had the coolest spot on the set on a warm October day.
Giving Socks Away
Then there was the problem of snow. The script had an exterior scene (the socks scene) that called for a lot of snow. Because snow is a rare commodity in Greenville, South Carolina, the crew was on perpetual alert for snowfall in the North Carolina mountains. Once they got the right forecast, they loaded the trucks, headed north, and shot the needed scene near Boone, North Carolina.
Unfortunately, the film came back from processing covered with little yellow “chicken scratches” all over the original film. In other words, it was unusable. Ramsey was able to prove that the damage had occurred in manufacturing, and Stenholm negotiated with Kodak to not only replace the faulty film but pay for the shooting trip to the mountains as well.
By this time, it was late January, and snow chances were diminishing. But then, a miracle occurred. Greenville got a brief but heavy half-day snowfall. Kilpatrick hurried up from Atlanta and the scene was filmed on the back campus. By the time the scene wrapped in the early afternoon, the snow had quit, the sun had come out, and the snow was melting. UF got the scene shot in the nick of time. As it turned out, that was the last snow that winter.
Other scenes shot relatively near to Greenville were the schoolhouse interiors and Bertha’s home (Walnut Grove Plantation, Spartanburg County, South Carolina), Aurelius Vest’s cabin exterior (Cades Cove, Tennessee), the general store exterior (Tuxedo, North Carolina — no longer standing), the moonshiner’s still (off Hwy 25 near the S.C./N.C. state line — temporary site), Shedd McCombs’ church interior and exterior (Green River Cove, North Carolina) and many others.
Most of the interiors in the film were sets that were built on the Unusual Films soundstage at the back of Rodeheaver Auditorium.
Post-production began before shooting finished. A team consisting of the chief editor and three assistants shaped the raw footage into a polished film. The rough cut (first cut) of the film came in at about 170 minutes, so polishing included tightening the film to 137 minutes. The sound engineers provided sound effects for editing and completed the final sound mixes of dialogue, sound effects and music.
Once the picture and sound editing were complete, Dr. Dwight Gustafson wrote the music for the film. To do this, he would get timings at 10-second intervals of the scenes in question so that he could time his music exactly to the action of the film. The music was recorded by the University orchestra on Saturday mornings on the Unusual Films soundstage.
Joan Pinkston recalls, “Dr. Gustafson would be standing in front of us, the film would be over our heads behind us, and sometimes we’d actually have to stop a cue because his bones would crack, or his shoes would squeak. But the thing I remember most is that he would have his music timed out perfectly for every change in scene, and we would get to the point that Sheffey would be riding into the scene on his horse, and Dr. Gustafson so wanted that to hit in a particular place in the music, and he would be conducting, and if we hit it right on, his face would light up and then, even though he continued conducting, he would go like this on his nose (points to her nose) like he hit it right on the nose, and it would make his day, his week, his month, and we’d all be ever so thrilled, just like he was.”
The Film’s Influence
Sheffey changed the lives of cast, crew and audience. The stories from the film that the crew values most are those of the many people who were saved by being in the film, seeing the film, or who were called to serve the Lord as preachers or in other Christian ministries. After filming the campground revival scene one evening, a student was convicted and came to Ramsey and Rogier to be counseled about the assurance of his salvation. At the very first out-of-state premiere, over 100 people were saved and over 100 dedicated their lives to the Lord. To this day, people still mention how they — or their parents — have been challenged by seeing the film.
The trajectory of my own life was changed by participating in Sheffey. As an undergraduate history major, I would have never imagined being a film/video editor or having a ministry teaching university students, but both parts of my career came about as a result of Sheffey. It is impossible to measure the results of the film’s ongoing ministry, but it will be exciting to get to Heaven and hear the stories we haven’t yet heard.
For further information about Sheffey and other Unusual Films productions, please visit sheffey.org. If you have Sheffey memories of your own that you’d like to share, please feel free to send them to [email protected].