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Movies in the Mountains

Our beautiful mountain geography; our small, charming, sometimes frozen-in-time towns; our warm welcome; our reasonable prices for things. They’re all part of what brings Hollywood to the Blue Ridge region – to make documentaries, commercials, features and even blockbusters like “The Hunger Games,” which was filmed in large part in Western North Carolina.

“It’s  pure confidence,” she says. “It’s just that simple movement of letting go.”

I am holding a bow and arrow, and “confidence” is not the word that comes to mind. The arrow wavers, falls off the string; my hands shake – when I finally get some arrows in the air, they fall short of the target, fly past it into the grassy hillside, or bounce off it, hardly lethal. One finally sticks. No one would mistake me for a post-apocalyptic teenager out in the woods aiming for rabbits, or – the central premise of “The Hunger Games,” a trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins, and now a film from Lionsgate, filmed in western North Carolina  – teenagers.

Tammy Hopkins, executive director of the Transylvania Community Arts Council in Brevard, N.C., is my patient teacher. She is also an actor, director, producer and co-founder, with Leigh Trapp, of Hunger Games Fan Tours – and a pretty decent archer.

At this moment, we’re standing high above Brevard, on the 83-acre property of Earthshine Mountain Lodge, which is hosting just-launched Hunger Games-inspired experiences – day trips and adventure weekends where visitors can tour film sites and learn some of the skills the tributes used to survive (or not) the fictional Hunger Games – fire-starting, shelter-building, slingshot, archery (which has been rising in popularity). Those signing up for the full weekend enjoy meals inspired by the story, see re-enactments of film scenes, and on Sunday participate in their own Games – for points.

Haven’t read the books or seen the movie? “The Hunger Games” is set in a dystopian, future America, where the population has been divided into districts. Civilization as we know it is no more – there are allusions to a nuclear disaster sometime in the past, and the remade society’s been divided into districts, ruled over by the materialistic, wealthy citizens of the Capitol (somewhere out in the Rocky Mountains). Nearly 75 years back, the poorer districts rebelled, and they’ve been punished – each district must send two young people, tributes, every year, to participate in the Hunger Games, an overhyped, sponsored and live-broadcast fight to the death. One young person survives, and lives the rest of his or her life in bitter luxury.

District 12 is coal-mining country – Appalachia – and it’s not had a champion in years. Its tributes, the bow-and-arrow-wielding Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and baker’s-son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are the heroes of book and film.

And because the movie was filmed in the general area in which much of the books are set, it’s even bigger news for our region. North Carolina hosted cast and crew, and the filmmakers spent about $60 million in the state while working on the film, a good chunk of the $220 million spent overall in 2011 by film production in the state – a record for North Carolina.

Movie business is big business, and many states are trying to entice production companies. Big-budget feature films such as “The Hunger Games” are a major coup, but independent films, documentaries and commercials are sought after as well.

A few years back, South Carolina hosted “Leatherheads,” the 2008 film about 1920s football, starring George Clooney and Renee Zellweger.

“We were vying with many other states for that film,” says Dan Rogers, project manager with the South Carolina Film Commission.

“We try to pitch the whole package – creative and financial,” he says. “It is show business for a reason.” In terms of the creative, time was as important a factor as place for “Leatherheads’” scouts – the film was set during football season in Minnesota. They needed 1920s-era trains, and a downtown that could pass for 1920s Chicago. Greenville fit the bill. Sixty to 70 percent of the film ended up being shot in South Carolina.

But the financial is just as important. “Filmmaking is such an expensive industry,” Rogers says. “You’ve got 200 people, all of them specializing in something. The average cost of film is $120,000, $150,000 a day.” Times 30 to 45 days. “Some are more, some are less.”

South Carolina started its incentive program in 2004. The first major film production it recruited with those incentives was “Walker Payne,” a 2006 period drama.

“Leatherheads” brought major stars to the upstate. The filmmakers used stadiums, “even a cow pasture;” they filmed in the lobby, dining room and lounge of the Calhoun Hotel in Anderson and a mill in downtown Greenville. Clooney and Zellweger’s first kiss happened in downtown Greer. The former Cooper Furniture on Trade Street in Greer “became the interior of the Chicago speakeasy.”

Earlier, 1989’s “The Abyss” brought James Cameron to South Carolina looking for a tank, for a different kind of underwater film from his later record-breaking film “Titanic.” He ended up using Duke Energy’s unfinished nuclear facility outside Gaffney, flooding the containment with 75 million gallons of water to a depth of 50 feet.

“There’s so much beauty in the Upcountry,” says Rogers. He’d like to see more films at the state parks – “they’re treasures.”

Western Virginia has seen its share of films over the years, including such well-loved movies as “Dirty Dancing,” which celebrated its 20th anniversary recently (Mountain Lake Resort, not far from Blacksburg, was a primary film location, and visitors to the rustic retreat can experience a similar old-fashioned stay).

“The state has always been very competitive marketing our superior locations and customer service,” says Rita McClenny, director of the Virginia Film Office, which modeled its own incentive program after Canada’s. “Some of the early successes were ‘FBI Files,’ a series for Discovery Channel, ‘The Day Lincoln Was Shot,’ a TNT movie and ‘Cry Wolf’ a Focus Features film. Right now, locations related to outdoors and cooking shows are very popular as well as automobile commercials.”


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