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— by Larry Carroll

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Somewhere near the electronics section of a local Wal-Mart, a shriveled corpse lies motionless. Dozens of people, all with identical faces, break out in synchronized applause. A two-time Oscar winner runs in circles, eager to have buckets of plastic frogs dropped on her head. Nearby, a cow is being pushed around in a shopping cart.

 MTV Exclusive: Behind the scenes on "The Reaping"

Such happenings might, to some, seem like indications of an impending apocalypse; to the cast and crew of the upcoming thriller "The Reaping," however, every unfolding scenario is more heartwarming than the last.

"People have definitely said, 'Do you think this is God or the devil trying to tell you to keep making the movie, or stop making the movie?' " Hilary Swank says of a film shoot she'll never forget. Flashing her famously toothy grin, she adds, "I think it's actually just global warming."

Looking beyond Swank's own personal beliefs, and the natural disasters that have ruinously plagued Louisiana of late, one can't help but be amazed by the events that have surrounded the film. Cast as Katherine Morrissey, a former Christian-missionary-turned-professional-religious-skeptic, Swank was hired to star in a film about bizarre, unnatural catastrophes that might just signal the biblically foretold end times. In the middle of the shoot, Louisianans and people around the world found themselves asking the very question at the heart of the movie: Why is this happening?

 "The town thinks that plagues have been sent to destroy them." — David Morrissey

"I play Doug Blackwell, a teacher in a small town in Louisiana," veteran British actor David Morrissey says of his role in the film. "A boy has been killed — he died on the river, the river turned red at the same time and the town is really freaked out by this. The town thinks that plagues have been sent to destroy them. Doug goes to find [Swank's character] Katherine, a scientist whose job is to [debunk the apparent signs of apocalypse]."

For anyone who hasn't recently brushed up on scripture, these biblical plagues include the aforementioned water turning to blood, bodily boils and ulcers, violent hail and several other manifestations that would be mighty tough to endure, but highly entertaining to witness onscreen.

"We did a [plague with] frogs that drop out of the sky, and that was kind of cool," Swank says of her favorite on-set apocalyptic moment. "Plastic frogs — you had to really watch out."

"There is a plague of locusts, too," Morrissey reports. "We head out to a young girl's house at the end of the movie to see her. And when we get there, the whole house is covered in locusts. Somebody makes a noise and the locusts just fly off and they come at us and start chasing us.

"Of course, the way we do it, we're just running," he laughs. "We're imagining the locusts to be there, and what they'll do afterwards is put all the locusts in — which was quite fun to do, in the sense that we were just running around, really."

"She was quite good at it," 11-year-old Annasophia Robb says of the award-winning Swank's potential as an actress in a special-effects-heavy film. "She acted like they were really there."

"I got to hold one and it sat on my arm," Robb earnestly reports of one of the real-life locusts. "The ones we had were extra big, about four inches long and they had big legs. And we had black locusts, and they basically just eat lettuce and reproduce and ..."

Suddenly, the surreal nature of the set yields another oddity: a crew member walks past the interviewer and his interviewee, pushing an enormous, plastic, white-with-black spots cow in a shopping cart.

 "The Reaping" Photos

"Yes, even the cow is one of the plagues," Robb adds, giggling. "The cow dies. We're shooting at an abandoned Wal-Mart."

Grinning, she adds the punch line: "You don't really know what you're gonna get at Wal-Mart."

"I saw it rolling by on the shopping cart, so I had to touch it to see what it felt like, but it wasn't real," she says, sounding disappointed. "No real cows have been injured in the making of this film."

Such silliness is present throughout the boarded-up superstore, the floor of which now contains a dingy boiler room, a dusty Catholic school corridor, a tomb and a grocery-laden kitchen pantry, each a few feet away from the next. In the middle of it all is a grimy autopsy area, with a shriveled, naked plastic body lying across a steel table. Prop workers powder the body, touching up a lower-back marking that resembles a cross with a hook at the top of it — a clue within the film's highly symbolic plot.

For the local crew members, meanwhile, 80 percent of whom are now homeless, maintenance of the entire set is yet another well-appreciated task.

"Down here in Louisiana, if you've lost your home, that's one thing," Morrissey observes. "If you lose your home and your job, then obviously things are worse."

"Other than the occasional hurricanes that this state saw, we're having a great time," Swank says with sincerity. "I love the people down here. It's the true definition of Southern hospitality, that's for sure."

"I was here for Katrina and for Rita," remembers Morrissey of the storms. "We were flown out just at the beginning of Katrina, to Austin, Texas. And then we came back after about four or five days. That was a very strange time."

 "I felt heartbroken to see the loss that these people endured." — Hilary Swank

"They had a plane for everybody," adds Swank. "When our producers said that we were going to evacuate because of the hurricane, I was just really sad. I can get out, I can escape. It's not my home that I was going to lose. But I felt really sad for all the people who lived here. I felt heartbroken to see the loss that these people endured. It was horrible and I didn't want to leave."

Swank almost didn't evacuate, but the filmmakers managed to appeal to her common sense.

"I wanted to stay and help," she remembers. "I tried to get back in before we were scheduled to shoot, but they said I couldn't, I would just be another mouth to feed, just another person that needs water down there. There was really nothing that anyone could do at that point. It was really, really, really sad."

The moviemakers then did their part for the area by standing firm in their insistence that the production continue in the troubled state.

"It's one of the great things about being in this business, that it can help the economy," says Swank. "It's definitely helping the economy here. Especially with what they're going through, bringing money here, bringing jobs here — it's a real good thing."

Walking around the set, you can't help but notice the increased camaraderie between everyone involved with "The Reaping." Like the area's residents, they have bonded within tragedy. Between each take, Swank jumps up and down in place to get her energy level up, a tireless enthusiasm that appears to be shared by the entire "Reaping" crew.

 "I walked into the tent, and there were 150 people waiting for me, children, even dogs, [all wearing] masks of my face." — Director Stephen Hopkins

"Hilary's very funny," reports director Stephen Hopkins ("Judgment Night"). "She pulled an amazing practical joke on me. I had a birthday one night on a farm we were shooting on. I walked into the tent, and there were 150 people waiting for me, children, even dogs, [all wearing] masks of my face."

"She taught me how to whistle," beams Robb, cast as a creepy little girl who may or may not possess supernatural powers. "I'm not very good yet. But before, I couldn't do anything. I really love working with Hilary. She always tells me that I do a good job and we kinda work off of each other."

"And," the little girl adds, "she always gives me a hug in the morning."

With the apocalyptic occurrences of this past year behind them, the crew of "The Reaping" is ready to invoke such feelings again, all in the name of a good scare. By the time the movie hits theaters next year such innocent escapism might just feel like another big welcome hug, from Hilary Swank and company to us all.

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