PAWHUSKA — The arrival of a major motion picture has turned a little Oklahoma town into a star-gazing destination.
Said one sightseer to another: “Have you seen Leo yet?”
Leo is Leonardo DiCaprio. He and fellow Academy Award winner Robert De Niro are in the cast of Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a film being shot in Pawhuska and other Oklahoma locales.
There was a Leo sighting Monday, when filming occurred in Pawhuska at a faux train track constructed for the movie.
Eager to get a closer look, people roamed the perimeter of a barricaded filming site in hopes of finding ideal vantage points. One of those vantage points was the intersection of Main Street and Leahy Avenue. Drivers of some passing automobiles paused at the intersection for a look-see, but they were urged to keep moving by law enforcement officials, who didn’t want the star-gazing site to become the scene of an accident.
Foot traffic at the intersection included a foursome from Missouri (Renea Tuck of Springfield, Dorothy McCaslin, Angie Carroll and Teresa Little of Lamar) who talked about how they would love to see a celebrity and how cool it was that a little town gets to be a part of “something like this.” Tuck said her son is big into films, so she couldn’t resist calling to give him an update as she walked to a spot closer to the action.
Pawhuska, a town of 3,000-plus in Osage County, is part of “something like this” because Osage County is where the tragic events that spawned the movie took place.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is based on a best-selling David Grann book, which you can find in shops all over downtown Pawhuska. Set in 1920s Oklahoma, “Killers of the Flower Moon” depicts the serial murder of members of the oil-wealthy Osage Nation. The crimes came to be known as the Reign of Terror.
A news release last month about the beginning of principal photography on the Apple Studios film included this statement from Scorsese: “To be able to tell this story on the land where these events took place is incredibly important and critical to allowing us to portray an accurate depiction of the time and people. We’re grateful to Apple, the Oklahoma Film and Music Office and The Osage Nation, especially all our Osage consultants and cultural advisers, as we prepare for this shoot. We’re excited to start working with our local cast and crew to bring this story to life on screen and immortalize a time in American history that should not be forgotten.”
This isn’t Osage County’s first go-round in the movie-making world. Also filmed here was 2013’s “August: Osage County,” which earned Academy Award nominations for Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.
Coincidentally, Pawhuska is the home of a museum dedicated to Academy Award-winning actor and rodeo champ Ben Johnson, who was born northwest of Pawhuska in Foraker and grew up in the area.
“Gunsmoke” actor Buck Taylor visited Pawhuska for the grand opening of the Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum (“home of the world’s greatest cowboys”) in 2019. A “Killers of the Flower Moon” cast member was a more recent visitor. Music artists Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson are in the cast. Museum manager Anna Jenkins said Simpson came to the museum to check out a display about Henry Grammer, the person he is playing in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
“He had already done lots of research. He just wanted to see what we had on him,” Jenkins said. “We were so excited that he was here.”
Pawhuska continues to be transformed for movie usage. Two blocks of Kihekah Avenue have been made off-limits to vehicles and pedestrians because that stretch of downtown is getting a 1920s-era makeover. Businesses were vacated and relocated so the movie crew could make use of Kihekah.
Billie Kelley’s Funky Pearl Boutique at 518 Leahy Ave. was in operation Monday despite close proximity to the filming site that was attracting attention. She said the movie people (“they are real nice”) were OK with her remaining open as long as customers came directly in and out of the store instead of lingering outside.
Kelley, asked for her thoughts on all the movie-related activity outside her store, said it was entertaining and fun to watch. She said it has helped business a lot, too. “People just want to get close to it,” she said.
Kelley said it’s neat for a little town like Pawhuska to be the site of a motion picture. Workers with the film have changed Pawhuska for the better.
“All the open, old buildings that have just sat and crumbled here, they really brought life back to all of them,” she said. “Like this one next door, it was literally almost falling down and they put in all new glass windows. They really pumped up the town.”
Kelley said she would love to see the actors from “Killers of the Flower Moon” just so she could say she saw them. She had a front-row seat — a bench in front of the boutique. She joked that her feet might be in the movie.
A trailer parked across the street was a “Star Waggon,” a custom film industry trailer from a company launched by late “Wonder Woman” and “Carol Burnett Show” actor Lyle Waggoner. You can safely assume the trailer was reserved for someone “Star Waggon”-worthy.
Many observers found a way to access a sweet spot for viewing that was around the corner from the boutique. A security guard informed visitors where they could stand so they would not be in filming range. They watched extras, clad in retro apparel, walk the same steps over and over again. For reasons related to COVID-19 safety, masks were required except when shooting.
Buck Walton of Tulsa said the same mask rule was in place when he served as an extra during an earlier “Killers of the Flower Moon” shoot in Fairfax. He and others were COVID-tested prior to participating.
A self-described “big movie fan,” Walton said he first served as an extra in 1998’s “Possums,” which starred Mac Davis and was shot in Nowata. He applied to be an extra in “August: Osage County” and didn’t get the gig, but he was jazzed to get an opportunity to be in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
“It’s a story that needs to be told,” he said.
Walton said he was in Fairfax for two days of shooting. The first workday lasted from 6:45 a.m. to 8 p.m. Let’s not give any secrets away, but here’s a personal observation: “I was amazed at how jovial Scorsese was. He didn’t go around the whole crowd and talk to them, but the people that were anywhere near him, he would talk to them a little bit and he looked like he was really enjoying himself.”
Vernon Shacklefoot found himself within walking distance of the set once the shoot moved to the train tracks in Pawhuska. He lives near the tracks and often walks to a Pawhuska grocery store for exercise. That task became more complicated when he broke his right foot, but he gets it done with the help of a walking boot and a wooden cane topped with a carving of a dog’s head.
Because roads were blocked Monday due to filming, Shacklefoot took the long way around to reach the grocery store. On the way, he gave his thoughts on a movie being filmed in his hometown, provided some Pawhuska history and passed a cattle pen that didn’t spring up near the railroad tracks until, presumably, livestock was needed for the movie.
Shacklefoot, asked if he is OK with taking a detour caused by filming, said, “I’ve got to put up with it — no other way but to put up with it.”
Waving to people and cars that passed, Shacklefoot seemed to be on a first-name basis with everyone. He stopped on the opposite side of the tracks to watch filming with others.
Is “Killers of the Flower Moon” the biggest thing to happen in Pawhuska in Shacklefoot’s lifetime?
“I’m going to say it is,” he said.
What would rank second? He’s not sure.
Don’t assume that all of Pawhuska’s visitors are aware that “Killers of the Flower Moon” is ongoing. Some were overheard asking others about the source of the commotion. But the movie was the carrot that lured Rebecca Anderson and Adam Chrisman from Sedan, Kansas.
“We knew ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ had been filming in Pawhuska,” Anderson said. “We just came on a whim to see if they were here today. We are taking pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio and trying to get as close as we can, fan-girling.”
Let’s call it fan-boying in Chrisman’s case. While capturing images of the film site with his mobile phone, he said he’s a huge fan of De Niro and DiCaprio. He said he couldn’t begin to pick a favorite movie they were in, but he loved De Niro’s humor in “Dirty Grandpa” and he used the word “amazing” to describe “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Said Anderson in regard to what was unfolding in front of her: “It’s cool. It’s not your everyday thing to have this going on in our little part of the world.”
Count them among many people in Pawhuska who were eager to find Leo. Pawhuska resident Leo Reese, if he was so inclined, could say “here I am.”
Same town. Different Leo.
But, seriously, Reese is an Osage who is happy the movie is being made.
“I’m glad that the story is finally getting out,” he said. “I just hope they send the right message with it and hopefully some action will be taken to see that what was wrongfully took from these Osages is given back.”
Photos: Leonardo DiCaprio appears on set in Pawhuska as filming of 'Killers of the Flower Moon' continues in Oklahoma
I cover pop culture and work as a feature writer at the Tulsa World. A former Oklahoma sports writer of the year, I have written books about former OU coach Barry Switzer and former OSU coach Pat Jones. Phone: 918-581-8389