DECATUR — While many tried to catch a glimpse of Matt Damon during his brief stay in Decatur filming "The Informant!," Debra Ashley is lucky enough to say that the star ate lunch outside of her home.
Ashley and her husband, Mort Melnick, were among the crowd of over 450 people that filled the Avon Theatre on Thursday to catch a free screening of the movie. Sponsored by the Herald & Review, the event was held to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the film's production crew arriving in Decatur and starting its six-week shoot in Central Illinois.
People of all ages lined up outside the Avon either to see "The Informant!" for the first time or to reminisce about when Hollywood came to Decatur. As they waited to go inside the theater, Ashley recalled when she and Melnick were approached and asked if the film crew could set up a luncheon on their expansive Ivy Lane front yard.
The couple agreed, she said, and a large tent was set up on the lawn to house over 50 hungry crew members — including Damon.
"He is such a nice man," Ashley said of the actor. "He was so friendly, and we had pictures taken with him, and it was so nice. Nice people."
Released in September 2009 by Warner Bros., "The Informant!" stars Damon as real-life former Archer Daniels Midland Co. executive Mark Whitacre, who blew the whistle on a large, global conspiracy to fix the price of the animal food additive lysine. Whitacre later went to prison for embezzling $9 million from ADM during the same period he served as an FBI informant.
Whitacre's experiences in the film are presented in a far more satirical manner than both the real events and the Kurt Eichenwald non-fiction book the "The Informant!" is based on. When the movie was released, many critics and viewers took issue with its black comedy approach.
Regardless of the tone, Susan Bryant of Decatur said she decided to see "The Informant!" again on the big screen because of its portrayal of corporate espionage. "The business world is pretty interesting, and there's probably a lot going on behind closed doors that we don't know," she said.
Another draw for Bryant is the movie's connection to Central Illinois. "You look up at the screen and just see that almost everything around town has been represented," she said.
Evan Erwin of Forsyth said he was very young when production of "The Informant!" began in spring 2008. He doesn't have any of the fond and fun memories of the experiences that Ashley and others have, but Erwin said he was interested in seeing the movie because of its Decatur roots.
"It sounded pretty fun," said Erwin, 14, who attended the screening with his grandmother and other family members.
"Fun" was also a watchword for Debbie Beckmeier's relationship with "The Informant!". She recalls seeing Damon and other crew members filming scenes at Hickory Point Mall, and remembers him being friendly to all of the community members he interacted with.
Beckmeier said she also was surprised at Damon's appearance, as "The Bourne Identity" star temporarily gained about 30 pounds and donned a mustache to portray the middle-aged Whitacre.
"I don't think I've ever seen him do that for a movie before," she said with a laugh. "I don't think he enjoyed doing that."
Beverly Bramlett missed seeing Damon and many of the movie's other major stars during the filming, but said she and her daughter, Sabrina Wilder, participated as background extras in different scenes.
Bramlett said that shooting her scene in downtown Decatur was long and required a lot of standing, but was an overall memorable experience. Thursday was her and Wilder's first time seeing the movie since it was released, she said. She was looking forward to finding out if their scenes made the final cut.
"It's going to happen so fast," Bramlett said. "I may have to go get the movie and keep it for myself. Who knows?"
After the screening, Herald & Review Audience Engagement Editor Tim Cain took to the Avon's stage and conducted a Q&A session with Scovill Zoo director Ken Frye, former WAND reporter Scot England and retired Decatur police officer Greg Spain.
Cain, England and Frye had small roles in the film, while Spain served as the coordinator of security for the filming. Joining the audience in laughter and joyful recollection, each of the men looked back on the filming as if it happened yesterday.
Frye and Spain spoke on the cordial relationships they developed with Melanie Lynskey and Scott Bakula, who played Whitacre's wife and FBI handler, respectively. Cain remembers the pressure he felt explaining to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns how to spell "Moweaqua" while sitting in the Whitacre's former home, and England admitted that he had no idea who Damon was before he filmed his scene in the movie.
As the night came to a close, the film's impact on the real-life Whitacre came into discussion. England and Cain said that despite the slightly humorous tone of "The Informant!," the former star executive-turned-whistleblower did not seem to mind the most "tragic" part of his life being portrayed as a comedy.
Despite Whitacre's shortcomings, both agreed that his decision to speak out against his company was heroic, and that his kind personality continues to ring positive with almost everyone he meets.
"He's just the greatest guy in the world and I was thrilled to get to know him a bit," England said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect number of people who attended the showing. This version has been corrected.