Moviegoers first met talented Jonathan Taylor Thomas earlier this year when he made an auspicious feature film debut starring in Walt Disney Pictures’ liveaction comedy hit “Man of the House” (which captured the #1 spot at the box office during its opening weekend, March 3-5). The popularity of this young star has been undeniable ever since he burst to fame playing Tim Allen’s middle son, Randy, in the hit television sitcom “Home Improvement.” And when the producers of “Tom and Huck” set out to make a new motion picture adaptation of Mark Twain’s literary classic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, they felt strongly that someone of Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ caliber would be ideal for their film.
Indeed, as the central character of the story, the role of mischievous prankster Tom Sawyer is tailor-made for the hardworking young actor/comedian.
“I was especially excited about doing this film because Tom has all the qualities that I would look for in a friend,” says Jonathan. “He’s got leadership abilities. He can always be counted on. He loves adventure and excitement. But at the same time he has a good heart and knows right from wrong. When placed in a difficult situation, he always comes through.”
With Jonathan Taylor Thomas committed to the project, the filmmakers went
to work finding the other members of the ensemble. A couple of months of
searching yielded Brad Renfro for the role of Huck Finn. As producer Laurence Mark says, “Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Brad Renfro, each in his own way, meld 1845 into 1995, and so, hopefully, does the movie. Mark Twain’s work continues to have a great deal to say to contemporary audiences.”
“The relationship between Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn is really extraordinary,” says Jonathan, of his and Brad Renfro’s characters. “They both depend on each other for a lot. And I think the spirit of the real boy in Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn is alive in today’s kids. And that’s why I think today’s kids will be able to relate to the story. Because deep down, kids are the same no matter what era they live in. There will always be the kind of spirit that Tom and Huck represent. They’re just true blue kids.”
Brad Renfro adds, “Tom is very willful, whereas my character, Huck, is a little crazy. But they’re perfect together. Like Laurel and Hardy. This is a coming-of-age story filled with fun and adventure.” With a smile, he sums it all up succinctly: “Huck is pretty much the first street punk in American literature.”
Determined to be responsible to the source material, the producers resolved to attempt to maintain the integrity of Mark Twain’s story of a close friendship between two boys. But at the same time, they wanted to make it new and different, in a way that would be consistent with Twain’s imagination. “We hoped to make a movie that would be somewhat surprising,” says producer Mark. “We all agreed that British director Peter Hewitt could bring a fresh point of view to this American classic.”
“We wanted to make a family film with an edge, something that would appeal to a slightly broader audience, for both kids and adults,” adds producer John Baldecchi.
Although The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the quintessential American literary classic, it is equally beloved throughout the world. Thus English director Peter Hewitt was delighted when he was asked to consider the producers’ invitation to direct “Tom and Huck.” “Everybody, not only Americans, can relate to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn,” says the British-born Hewitt. “Mark Twain’s characters are smart and complex, and the author was dealing with some interesting and weighty issues, but in the guise of two boys larking around. The screenwriters, Stephen Sommers and David Loughery, did a masterly job of being as true to the book as possible. It’s dark and gritty at times, but there is a lot of fun and humor too. I would like to think that Mark Twain would approve.”
Hewitt also feels that audiences today will be able to relate to Tom and Huck
because the characters’ physical appearances don’t look outdated, but rather somewhat contemporary. “Huck’s long hair and Tom’s baggy earth-toned clothes can be seen today at any high school,” Hewitt says. “Kids have not changed much from the 19th century. If Tom Sawyer lived in the 1990s, he would be fascinated with video games, POGS, and a pair of rollerblades, while in 1845 he was taken with a fish in a bottle or a slingshot. As Tom Sawyer, Jonathan Taylor Thomas reacts to a marble the way a kid of the ’90s would react to the most sophisticated electronic toy. You can see both the joy and sometimes the sorrow in Tom’s face, and that is what I hope contemporary audiences will relate to,” the director says. Hewitt collaborated closely with director of photography Bobby Bukowski to bring his vision to the screen. “When Peter Hewitt first talked to me about doing this film, we agreed right away that ‘Tom and Huck’ is truly a coming-of-age adventure tale,” Bukowski says. “He stressed he wanted to create a realistic, gritty, and naturally lit movie.”
Never having been to the South before, Bukowski rented a farmhouse outside the location town in Alabama where he could begin to feel the landscape. By doing this, he developed a strong sense of the rhythm of the day and the natural light. This was important for Bukowski because “Tom and Huck” had so many exterior locations. “You have to think of lighting a film in terms of emotions, and use light and color as tools to elicit a feeling in a theater audience,” Bukowski says.
Finding and replicating an authentic 1840s town was not an easy task for the “Tom and Huck” production. The core crew spent months searching the southern United States for the ideal location base for their film. Executive producer Barry Bernardi says, “Every reader of the novel has their own fantasy of what this legendary American story looks like. We had to live up to this vision and then add something of our own.”
The filmmakers chose not to shoot in Hannibal, Missouri, where Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer takes place because they felt this town’s freshscrubbed appearance lacked the charm of the small town described in the novel. “The Hannibal of today has turned into a very polished tourist attraction, which is not what we were looking for,” executive producer Barry Bernardi says. “Unit production manager Ross Fanger suggested we scout some of the surrounding southeastern states where authenticity might still be found.”
Madison County, Alabama, southeast of Hannibal, won the hearts of the filmmakers as they scouted for the ideal 1845 Hannibal-like town. With the help of the Alabama Film Commission, location manager Mike Leon discovered the tiny, sheltered community of Mooresville. With a population of only 69, picturesque Mooresville was complete with 19th century buildings and a brilliant canopy of oak and dogwood trees lining the streets. Director of photography Bobby Bukowski says, “We shot a lot of film amongst trees and this created a real challenge for me. When we first scouted the locations it was winter, and the branches were completely barren. When we returned in the late spring, however, because of the year’s unusually heavy rainfall, the foliage was fuller than we anticipated. Even in Mooresville the trees consumed the village and made the streets very dark.” Bukowski and his team had to create a lot of artificial exterior light to make the extremely shady days appear brighter.
Structures in the town were restored and building facades erected to create a 1845 Main Street that included all the notable buildings in Mark Twain’s story. From Doc Robinson’s office, to Aunt Polly’s house, to the local jail, painters and construction crews worked around the clock to create the specific details of this period piece. Mulch, donated by a neighboring city, was used to cover the asphalt paved roads, taking the city back to its 1800s roots.
The location for the film’s climactic scene in which Tom is chased by Injun Joe also had to live up to the excitement of the novel. “The caves of Cathedral Caverns were the main reason our production came to Alabama,” says director Hewitt. “These awesome caves have a stalagmite forest which is one of the largest in the world. The temperature inside is a constant 52 degrees with a 100% humidity factor, quite a contrast from the ninety-plus temperature outside.”
Bukowski adds, “The caves were definitely my favorite location. I had complete control of lighting these pitch black caverns, and it was a daunting, challenging assignment.”
Because “Tom and Huck” involves many child actors, the preparation and precautions for shooting at the caves had to be foolproof. Director Hewitt says, “Ten spelunkers, Emergency Medical Transports and paramedics from the Huntsville Cave Rescue Unit were hired to ensure crew safety. We also went to great measures to protect the natural conditions of the caves, which will eventually be opened to the public.”
Once the locations were in place, production designer Gemma Jackson began her Herculean tasks. “I did a tremendous amount of research to turn quaint 1995 Mooresville into 1845 Hannibal,” Jackson says. “However, there is a point where you have to close the history books and create your own image.” Jackson and director Hewitt agreed that the Mooresville location had an extraordinary feeling of timelessness and tranquillity. Nevertheless, they still wanted things to look a little rough and chaotic. Jackson had to consider every last detail of the period, from the type of nails used to construct buildings, to how to disguise modern diaphone poles so they looked like naturat foliage.
Costumes worn by actors in a film must speak a good deal about the nature and personality of the characters. And in order to fulfill the filmmakers’ wish to remain faithful to the period in which “Tom and Huck” takes place, costume
designer Marie French and director Hewitt agreed the wardrobe should have an organic, earth-toned appearance. This was especially difficult to research because in the mid-1800s, most photographs were taken of people in their best Sunday church clothes. Therefore, it was hard to see how they appeared in their daily lives. For insight into this period, France found herself relying mainly on paintings by American artists of the time.
France and her wardrobe team used imported natural fabrics, such as wool
and cotton, and no artificial blends. She imported fabric from Europe where color dyes appear more subtle. Once the costumes were created from scratch, they had to be aged. Fabric was stone-washed to take away the newness and make it look worn down. Patching, mending, and tattering techniques were also utilized.
Not only do the costumes have to look authentic, but they must reflect the personality of the characters. For example, when France designed costumes for the Becky Thatcher character, a judge’s daughter, she considered that Becky was moving to Hannibal from the big city, and would therefore have a finer wardrobe. As for the character of Tom Sawyer, he was raised in a home where, most likely, all the clothes he wore were hand-me-downs.
For special lighting requirements, Bobby Bukowski consulted with production designer Gemma Jackson and costume designer Marie France who referen d 17th century Dutch and French paintings for inspiration. Bukowski says, “In a period piece like ‘Tom and Huck,’ practical lighting sources always come from a lower direction. People of the 19th century used lanterns and candles, while in modern society our lighting is up higher, such as hanging or fluorescent lamps.”
In some of the larger scenes on Main Street, hundreds of extras were cast as townspeople. Octavia Spencer, head of extras casting, was instructed by director Hewitt to find extras who had unusually distinct features that would enhance the background. The media was alerted, and an open casting call was held for the locals. The area communities were so supportive of the film that over 5,000 people came out for the casting calls.
Key hairstylist, Vicky Phillips, researched old historical books in local
libraries only to discover how rare photographs were in the 18th century. With the aid of sketches and detailed written descriptions of people’s appearances of this era, Phillips began prepping hair pieces during pre-production. “It is important on period films for extras to look as period-correct as possible,” she says. “It adds texture to the film. Coordinating colors and styles of hair is similar to painting a picture. If it is done well, audiences don’t notice it; but if it is done poorly, they do
Stunt coordinator Ben Scott found that working on “Tom and Huck” with these kids “was terrific because they were willing to do anything required of them,” he says. “It is refreshing to work with such fearless individuals.”
Scott, along with special effects coordinator Mike Arbogast, arranged some very dvanced and complicated exterior situations for this film. In the caves, for example, avalanches were created as well as fight sequences between Injun Joe, Tom, and Huck. There is also an intense fight which leaves Injun Joe hanging by Tom’s shirt sleeve over the edge of a cliff. Other stunts and effects include Injun Joe jumping through a courtroom window at the infamous trial, and Tom falling through the roof of the church at his own funeral.
Some of the more intricate stunts and effects work involved the raft at Limestone Creek. Arbogast created rapids by bubbling water with air hoses and huge compressors. A large gimbal set was built underwater by divers in fortydegree water.
Post-production on “Tom and Huck” was completed in Los Angeles where composer Stephen Endelman used his mastery of music to weave yet another extremely important layer into the rich fabric of this time-honored story.

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