North Carolina makes Hollywood feel very welcome
Hundreds of movie and television productions companies have filmed scenes in Wilmington — and around the state — in the last few decades.
I'm greeted by a middle-age man draped in Mardi Gras beads and sporting a megaphone, waiting for others to join his Hollywood Location Walk in Wilmington, N.C.
Spiel Stevenberg (Mike Hartle) thrusts a scrapbook at me of author Nicholas Sparks' movies filmed in the area, including A Walk to Remember, The Notebook, and Nights in Rodanthe. He also shows me a signed photo of Michelle Dockery, filming the TV show Good Behavior in Wilmington.
"She loves Wilmington so much she bought a house down the street," he says.
It's no surprise that Stevenberg knows that; he has made it his business since 2001, when he began the tours, to know the what, when, where, and how of film production in his city.
Wilmington was in the news prominently in September because it's where Hurricane Florence came ashore, lashing North Carolina coastal communities with several days of rain and causing extreme damage. But this city of about 120,000 is again ready for tourists, with its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean — and because of its Hollywood connection.
My goal is to locate as many television- and movie-filming locations in Wilmington as I can, a mission I will soon discover can be overwhelming if not impossible. After all, the city has been hosting Hollywood since 1983, when Firestarter (starring Drew Barrymore), was filmed there. Not only has the city changed over the decades, but we're talking about hundreds of television and movie production companies using Wilmington and the surrounding area as backdrops.
Add to this the 50-acre EUE/Screen Gems Studios where, since 1985, more than 400 movie, television, and commercial projects have been undertaken. Recent television shows include Under the Dome and Eastbound and Down. Movie credits include Iron Man 3, The Conjuring, and We're the Millers.
Once everyone for the tour arrives, Stevenberg announces, "Welcome to Hollywood East or, as we like to say — Wilmywood."
It's not just Wilmington that's used for filming in North Carolina. Hunger Games, the original and remake of Dirty Dancing, Homeland, Last of the Mohicans, Cold Mountain, Blue Velvet, The Green Mile, and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood were all filmed in the state. In 2016, the production spending impact was $140 million, according to Guy Gaster, director of FilmNC, the state film office. Nearly 12,000 crew, talent, and extras were hired that year.
Jackson County, about an hour southwest of Asheville, is home to several filming locations, including the train wreck scene in The Fugitive with Harrison Ford and last year's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. (Coincidentally, both movies won Oscars for best supporting actor.)
I headed first to the site of The Fugitive's train-and-bus crash with Nick Breedlove, executive director of the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority. Although the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad has been used in several movies — including My Fellow Americans, Forces of Nature, and Digging to China — it's most notable for The Fugitive.
Railroad representative Sarah Pressley said crews spent weeks setting up the shot — and seconds filming it. "They filmed it twice, using two locomotives and two buses," she said. "They laid separate track and used a crane to lower the locomotives onto the track."
Not much has changed since the day the scene was shot. A train engine and remnants of a bus, well-rusted now, sit off to the side. The only way to get a good look at the wreckage is by being a passenger on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad — or, in my case, by getting an invitation from Pressley to walk up close.
Sylva, the county seat, which stood in for the town of Ebbing in Three Billboards, is where I figured out that the consignment shop Sassy Frass on West Main Street had been the Ebbing police station.
Michael Rivera, a store employee, said the front part of the store was partitioned off for the police station. "This is how they did it," he said pointing to a wall of photographs. "[T]here are several pieces [of memorabilia] throughout the store. That's Mildred's [Francis McDormand] chair, and the chair Chief Willoughby [Woody Harrelson] always sat in is up front. In the window are the burned remains of the Ebbing Police Department sign.
"It was an open set," Breedlove said. "Residents and other onlookers were here every day to watch. And before filming, Woody Harrelson would sign autographs and take selfies with fans."
In the afternoon, I am offered access to the offices of what was the Ebbing Advertising Co., which rented out those three billboards. Tonya Wilson Snider, chief executive officer of the company tenBiz, said she was approached about a year before the film was made.
"These two men came in and said they were from L.A. and London. I didn't know what to think," she said, smiling. "They relocated my offices and told me I could watch them film if I wanted to. I was here every day. They did use my desk and filing cabinets, but everything else was brought in."
Stevenberg begins his tour of Wilmington filming locations at the Alton Lennon Federal Building. He is a one-man encyclopedia when it comes to productions that have been or that are being filmed in the area.
"The federal building was used in the opening scenes of Matlock, he said, and, as we walked, he pointed out specific areas where scenes from Dawson's Creek and One Tree Hill were filmed. For one young man, he identifies where a scene from the 1990 film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles took place.
We continue to Blue Post Billiards, where several productions were staged, including Tammy with Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon. "This is also where Lucas and Brooke went on their 'tattoo' date on One Tree Hill," Stevenberg says.
The tour continues past the alleyway where Jamie (Mandy Moore) tells Landon (Shane West) in A Walk to Remember that she has leukemia, the balcony of the apartment where Julia Robert's character Laura Burney in Sleeping with the Enemy lived, and the Reel Cafe that served as a crab shack in One Tree Hill.
"We have it all here — the river, the ocean, and a Main Street with so many different-style buildings that production crews can create the illusion of just about anywhere in America right here," he said. "The entire city is one of America's largest film sets."
Airlie Gardens, a 67-acre expanse of pathways, flowers, and trees, is another popular setting, including for Dawson's Creek and One Tree Hill. Built in 1901 by Sarah Jones and German landscape architect Rudolf Topel, it is said the term "Keeping up with the Joneses" was coined there because of her lavish parties.
At Lebanon Chapel in the gardens, dating to 1835, the cemetery was used in Sleepy Hollow and for the stables in the Sandra Bullock movie 28 Days.
With his infectious energy on display, Stevenberg does not fail to remind us: "It's always show time in Wilmington!"