Director Adam Sigal (right) and Vernon Davis Matt White

“The Chariot,” a sci-fi comedy starring Thomas Mann (“Me and Earl and The Dying Girl”), John Malkovich (“Being John Malkovich”), Rosa Salazar (“Parenthood”), Shane West (“Gotham”), Scout Taylor-Compton (“Rob Zombie’s Halloween”) and former NFL tight end Vernon Davis, started filming in Little Rock on Jan. 18. The 20-day shoot, which included locations in the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, the historic Lafayette Building and Hotel Frederica [formerly Hotel Sam Peck], wrapped the second week of February. “The Chariot” is writer/director Adam Sigal’s third feature film. “It’s a science-fiction dark comedy,” Sigal told us. “It’s a very strange, sort of quirky David Lynch-esque film.”

Matt White
Vernon Davis and a turtle.

Arkansas film commissioner Christopher Crane started communicating with Sigal a couple of months before the new year, and scouting began shortly thereafter.

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Sigal said he and his team were looking at states with good film incentives and relatively low COVID-19 numbers.

“We looked at Oklahoma, Montana, a couple places in the South and then we looked at Arkansas,” he said.

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Sigal knew he’d found the location he was looking for when he saw the Lafayette Building in downtown Little Rock at 523 S. Louisiana St.

“It was exactly what I wanted,” Sigal said. “The lobby, the look, the exterior. …”

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Matt White
Filming at the Lafayette.

“We were looking for a hotel kind of like ‘The Shining,’” said producer Sasha Yelaun. “We stumbled upon The Lafayette because it looks very vintage.”

The Lafayette Building opened as the Lafayette Hotel in 1925 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. It is owned by G&G Hospitality, which granted the filmmakers permission to shoot in the former hotel, known for its ballroom and wood-paneled lobby with marble flooring.

Sigal said that the rest of the locations in the film were easy to find. “Everyone that’s working on this has just been in awe of the locations,” he said. “The film looks really great.”

Film commissioner Crane said that because of the pandemic, there’s a lot more to do on the front end of arranging how a set is going to work.

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“We have to put together a COVID action plan,” Crane said. “First of all, the Screen Actors Guild has one, so we work with them. We work with the Health Department and the production in establishing protocols for set and for filming. That includes not only testing for different zones while they’re shooting, catering and craft services, transportation … we have to make sure that everybody’s secure. They have to make sure that PPE [personal protective equipment] is accessible so they have plenty of masks and tests, et cetera. …”

Crane described shooting at the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s a first floor and a second floor, and [it’s] zoned off so that you have to wear an N95 mask when you’re upstairs where the shooting takes place. You can have a regular mask on downstairs, but that’s a different zone. You have to be tested every three days. If you haven’t been tested, you can’t walk onto the actual set. Logistics like that are a little bit cumbersome,” Crane said, “but we’ve shot a couple other films during this time period and it’s worked well. Everybody’s been very diligent. Most of the cast and crew really do quarantine and kind of stay together and do it correctly, so that helps. It’s been a challenge, but it’s also led to everybody being a little more close-knit as well,” he said.

Yelaun’s last film was shot in California, and he said hours and hours were lost to COVID-19 testing. When he arrived in Arkansas, there was a new system put in place that allows the actors and crew to self-administer COVID-19 tests. The self-administered tests go to Baptist Health Medical Center and results come in within 24 hours, Yelaun said.

“There’s definitely been an additional layer of work,” Yelaun said, “but the fact that we could give them tests that they could self-administer without nurses — and having the ability to deliver the tests to the hospital — really saved us a lot of time.”

Sigal said COVID-19 testing adds about $50,000 to $75,000 to a film’s budget. But aside from the masks and the testing, it still feels like a film set.

“The set is kind of divided into zones for the people who are dealing with the actors and the people who aren’t, so that part’s a little different,” he said. “But honestly, it’s not that different, because if you think of a normal film set, you don’t want too many people interacting with the actors and going up and talking to them, so really it’s kind of the same from that perspective.”

Matt White
Director Adam Sigal (left) and actor Joseph Baena (right).

“The Chariot” is lead actor Thomas Mann’s first project since film productions have resumed, and he said for the most part the process hasn’t changed much.

“We’re taking more precautions to make sure everyone feels safe and that we can continue production without having to stop for someone to quarantine or anything like that,” he said.  Mann said that mask wearing is enforced and people are social distancing as much as possible.

Matt White
Thomas Mann

“You do what you can,” he said, “but it’s mostly been pretty simple. As far as getting the work done, it’s been the same.” Mann said the shoot has been kind of a communal experience because he’s been staying downtown, and the majority of the film’s shooting locations are nearby. “I got to know a lot of people that work at the little restaurants around here, and everyone’s super hospitable,” he said. “I have no complaints about Little Rock; It’s been very kind to me.”

Director Sigal said he didn’t have to do any script rewrites to adhere to protocols.

“Fortunately, this is a film that’s really a pretty limited cast and usually no more than two or three cast members [are] on screen at any given time. So we don’t have any football stadium scenes or a scene where a guy’s running through a crowd of people.”

The state film commission has a mandate that local people make up at least 50% of the salaried production crew. “The Chariot” exceeds that requirement, Crane said.

Matt White
Local filmmaker Craig Wynn worked as first assistant camera on “The Chariot.”

“First of all, it mitigates the travel,” Crane said, “but also they get an extra percentage on rebate for hiring locally.”

“It’s a very different feeling than LA,” Sigal said. “You know, LA, everybody’s just so over it, and it’s the industry and it’s like, ‘Oh God, a movie’s shooting in my front yard. I’m going to see how much I can extort them for filming there.’ Here, it’s like, ‘Please come shoot, we’re so excited.’

“Essentially we’ve hired mostly locals for crew and they’ve all been great. The extras, when we did have them, were super happy to be there. So it’s been great, really one of the smoothest shoots I’ve been on so far. I’m sure it will continue that way,” Sigal said.

Sigal’s been getting a lot of calls, texts and emails from friends in the industry asking what it’s like to shoot in Little Rock. “I think that people are seeing it and definitely interested in filming here after we leave,” he said.

Yelaun echoed that sentiment, saying, “I’ve been really blessed with all the hospitality here, and I’m planning on bringing more productions here as a result.”

Crane said Arkansas is on a good trajectory for in-state film production, but that the process has been a gradual one. “We’ve baby-stepped it,” he said, and that’s been very intentional. “Talk to Michigan, because they jumped in with a 42% incentive a few years ago, and they didn’t have the crew base to support it. So they over-promised and under-delivered. They had economic leakage because they didn’t have the crew base, and they had to bring everybody in. And so it truly was a transient industry. So we want to guard against that somewhat.” For films that shoot in larger markets, Crane said, “You’re a number. If you go to Georgia you’re film number 72, and you’re going to get the ninth line of crew. Here you can still get some of our top-of-the-line people, you get great customer service from everybody and I think people truly enjoy that.”