Ball Ground is home to around 1,900 residents, and many of them seemingly have a new best friend.
Actor Tom Cruise has been filming scenes for his new movie, “Mena,” in the quaint Cherokee County town about an hour north of Atlanta. While the project brought traffic and crowds and temporarily caused the closing of a main drag through town, Cruise managed to outcharm any disruption.
“He managed to turn every man, woman and child in this town into teenage girls in the ’80s fainting at a Michael Jackson concert,” mused resident Ashley Byrd. “The entire experience has brought many to a town they didn’t even realize existed before now. The cast and crew working on the movie ‘Mena’ have been complete gems to everyone who stopped in town to visit filming.”
Many residents have been sharing their photos on a fun and cleverly named new Facebook page, “Cruisin’ Ball Ground,” created by Josh Turner. We asked the page’s members to share their thoughts about Hollywood coming to their town.
“This has been very awesome,” Miranda Roberts said of the filming. “All the various movie people have been very nice and have patronized the local businesses (like Auto World Auto Parts) and it’s been exciting to get a taste of what goes into a movie.”
“Tom Cruise was so open and friendly with us fans and he was especially nice to the children,” said Robyn Hohensee. “I am more of a fan than I was before!”
“We went up the other day to watch and my 4 yr old son goes ‘Mommy, I’m so lucky cause I get to see a movie star!’” added Melissa Liliestedt Fernandez.
“Mena” also has had a great impact on Ball Ground’s bottom line, where last year’s municipal budget was about $1.9 million, said City Manager Eric Wilmarth. He hasn’t tallied an official dollar figure but ticked off a number of economic pluses.
“At any given time in Ball Ground since they started about a month ago, we’ve had eight to 10 security guards at every location, the bulk of them hired locally,” he said, noting that off-duty deputies also were hired. “They paid to shoot interiors, rented parking lots; the caterers purchased items from local merchants. They did a lot of sign work, so local sign businesses had a piece of that. Every place you turn and look, you can see money is being spent.”
The Ball Ground filming was scheduled to be mostly wrapped up this week although movie crews did leave behind some equipment and may need to do a little touch-up work, Wilmarth said. Everyone associated with “Mena” has impressed him, leaving behind no litter at all, only goodwill.
“(Cruise) interacted a good bit with folks,” Wilmarth said. “I’ve had two dozen people tell me that when he stepped out of a building where they were filming, people were screaming at him to sign autographs. He didn’t have time but put up his hand to silence the crowd and said, ‘Thank you for letting us borrow your town.’ He won a multitude of hearts right then.”
The movie, about a pilot working for both the CIA and as a drug runner in the 1980s, has featured period clothing and cars. Ball Grounders have had the opportunity to glimpse Cruise behind the wheel of a retro station wagon, sporting vintage threads and standing in a historical relic known as a phone booth.
“The filming of ‘Mena’ in Ball Ground brought this little town to life,” said resident Alessandra Elliott, who enjoyed gathering with her fellow citizens to watch the action. “‘Mena’ brought Ball Ground out to play. It brought us together. I hope the newly found notoriety brings in investors so we can open all the currently closed commercial spaces. And I hope now people won’t go, ‘You live where? Where is that?’”
Ball Ground, which got its name from a game played by its original inhabitants, the Cherokees, became a town in 1882 when the railroad came through, according to works cited by the Cherokee County Historical Society. Its economy has been most closely linked to the marble industry although the city is eager to welcome new enterprise.
The town’s official website boasts this motto: “Where we roll out the red carpet, not the red tape.”
The real Mena is a town in Arkansas, population just under 6,000. Its motto is “Where good things happen,” but its airport has been the subject of allegations claiming “that the CIA was somehow involved in running guns to Nicaragua and that agency-chartered planes may have been used to smuggle cocaine into the United States,” according to a 1996 Associated Press report.
The CIA investigated itself and cleared itself of responsibility.
“No evidence has been found that the CIA was associated with money laundering, narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling or other illegal activities at or around Mena, Ark., at any time,” CIA inspector general Frederick Hitz said at the time.
Coincidentally, the alleged links between the CIA and Central American drug smuggling were the subject of another Atlanta-filmed movie, last year’s “Kill the Messenger,” based partly on a book by investigative journalist Gary Webb. The late Webb was played by Jeremy Renner, who has been back in Atlanta recently for a role in “Captain America: Civil War.”
Ball Ground residents have focused on the excitement of moviemaking rather than the film’s controversial topic.
“My boys met Tom and were thrilled,” said resident Melissa Schaly. “He was gracious and friendly. He transformed our town into a stage set and made it fun. I would like to think that Tom Cruise enjoyed his stay here, too. Maybe he got a little break from Hollywood chaos.”