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By LAURE CIOFFI



Published: Thu, August 22, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By LAURE CIOFFI

VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU

VOLANT, Pa. -- When Susan Gerle was driving home and saw the road near her house on Pa. Route 208 closed, she thought there was an accident.

When she later peeked out her kitchen window and saw a slow-moving pickup truck attached to a larger one outfitted with camera equipment across from a large field on Old Mercer Road, she realized it was the filming of NBC's "West Wing."

"This is just unreal," said Gerle, who along with her 14-year-old son Matthew, drove to the small Amish schoolhouse on Pa. Route 208 just a few hundred yards from their home to get a better view of the action Wednesday.

Lewis Brant of Peak Security, a private security firm hired by the Hollywood production company, said most onlookers have been driving by slowly and watching the filming from a distance.

"Everybody's been very curious about it. It's a novelty for most of these people," he said.

Where they are

The film crew spent the last two days on Old Mercer Road near the Hostettler farm where "West Wing" communication director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and his assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) are hitching a ride in the back of a pickup truck.

The trio gets left behind on a farm during the season premiere after President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) gives a speech. The three actors spend a good part of the two-hour show making their way back to the president.

Producer Neal Ahern said the set hasn't been overrun with fans looking for the cast and crew yet.

"We've included a lot of people already. There will be close to 400 extras here on Friday," he said.

Sheen will be at Friday's shoot that will include numerous extras and a parade scene, Ahern said.

He added that a good quarter of the show's two-hour season premiere will be from the scenes shot in Lawrence County over the next five days.

Choosing the area

Lawrence County was chosen because of its rural nature and old farms, he said.

They had thought of taking the production to Indiana where the scene is set, but instead chose western Pennsylvania because there were film and sound crews already in place that had worked on other Hollywood productions, he said.

"There was a dynamic here that really kind of blossomed. There is an infrastructure of people and equipment here that aren't in Indiana," he said.

Ahern said they've been pleased with the cooperation in the area and the welcome they are getting from residents. Gov. Mark Schweiker is even expected to stop by the set Friday to welcome the cast and crew, Ahern said.

For Gerle, the excitement this week has been watching the actors from her favorite television show.

She had even thought about applying to be an extra.

"I filled out the paperwork, but didn't send in the information because I didn't want to be rejected," she said.

One of the production people passing by Tuesday asked her if she wanted to be an extra and handed her a telephone number to call. She and Matthew plan to be at Friday's shoot with Sheen and the other actors.

"It was totally a dream come true," she said.




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