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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.”

Filmmaking in 2010 alone landed western Virginia more than $1.9 million in expenditures.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a popular filming location, she says; Explore Park near Roanoke was used for 2010’s “Alone Yet Not Alone.”

One upcoming project, “Wish You Well,” is a collaboration between novelist David Baldacci and producer Sara Elizabeth Timmons (involved with the recent “Lake Effects”). A film such as “The Hunger Games” McClenny calls “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Pam Haynes, director of the West Virginia Film Office calls commercials “everyone’s bread and butter, no matter where you live.

“We just hosted a Volvo truck shoot,” she says. “It’s going to be shown globally.” It was produced by a company from Sweden, and shot on the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville and also with the state capital of Charleston as a backdrop. “They hire locally, they still spend locally… they don’t want to fly everyone in from Sweden.” Hiring locally includes logistics people such as caterers and drivers, but also camera operators, sound mixers, makeup artists and location scouts.

West Virginia has put a strong focus on its locations. “We get a lot of requests for ‘Anytown, USA,’” she says, and so the film office developed an “AnytownUSA, WV” brochure.

“We get a lot of requests for historic properties.” Location needs can range “all the way from ‘flat land’ to ‘we need a foot bridge 50 feet above whitewater.’” Or 1970s towns, barns, plantations, 1940s towns, farmland – “there’s no rhyme or reason.”

So West Virginia markets “film-friendly” sites to companies, including “the institution” – a.k.a.  the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston. “River On Demand” – the Gauley  from the Summersville dam – can be available for shoots during the month of November, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducts water releases to lower the lake levels.

“The Road” was a three-to-four-mile section of W.Va. 43 on the outskirts of Morgantown, unfinished for several years because of lack of funding. 2009’s “The Road,” starring Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron, made use of the site. “[The highway] just opened this past fall,” says Haynes, “so we can’t promote it any more.”

The 2011 Steven Spielberg-produced “Super 8” parked in Weirton, W.Va. for three or four months, from pre-production through four weeks of filming. The setting: a 1979 steel town. Hundreds of local residents were extras. “They wanted something they didn’t have to re-create, basically.” The state’s incentive program was also a big part of what brought the film to West Virginia.

“We receive calls every day. We try, and sometimes we win.”

“It was a good year for western North Carolina,” says Aaron Syrett, director of the North Carolina Film Office.

“The Hunger Games” is certainly “The Last of the Mohicans” for 2012, if not bigger. “It was one of those properties we were kind of watching,” says Syrett. A young-adult trilogy that takes place in Appalachia, it promised, possibly, the impact “a ‘Twilight’ would have.”

Tammy Hopkins calls it “fandemonium.” “May, 2011, my phone started ringing off the hook for ‘Artemis’” – the pre-release code for the filming of  “Games.” A year later, following the release, she says she was in and out of DuPont State Forest three times a week, fielding calls from media and fans alike, from people as far away as Chicago, wanting to come down for an adventure weekend – “and it’s all ages.”

On my visit, after the unimpressive attempt at archery, she drove me around movie sites, stopping first in the Hooker Falls parking lot. We climbed up to the Stanton Road bridge and looked out over the Little River below Triple Falls. One camera perched up here, she says, while Katniss rock-hopped below, and she plucks the air, pointing to where the recent rainfall has turned the Little River into a fast-moving, less rock-hoppable rush.

Back in June 2011, “some places were actually completely dry” – the crews had to flood them.

We walk past a swimming hole below Triple Falls where cast and crew cooled off between shoots. She points up to the top of the falls:

“Here’s a scene that was cut from the movie… it was pure movie magic. There were wooden platforms and [Katniss] was on wires,” leaping across the falls. In the end, it might be better that it was cut: no fans will be tempted to try the leap – without platforms and wires.

David Brown, a forest supervisor with DuPont, joins us. He was around for some of the filming, as were a number of the forest rangers, who were on location as part of their job, observing such scenes as a falling tree (felled by a piston, activated electronically, and re-set with a crane) and a forest fire (created with propane gas tubes camouflaged to look like real trees) to make sure there was no damage (there was none). The crew has helped rebuild trails, re-gravel a parking lot and reimburse for other costs to the forest.

“We’ve got lots of big rock, boulders at different places in the forest, but they’re not all easy to get to,” Brown says, so the crew had to bring in fake ones. “They brought in some balled and burlap mountain laurel” as well.

Brown went to the pre-release viewing – “it’s the first time I’ve been to a movie that people were applauding the credits.” He enjoyed the movie, though “I was a little disappointed – the forest is actually more beautiful than the movie portrays.”

“The filming style was so tight,” Hopkins adds.

“‘The Last of the Mohicans’ had so many scenic, panoramic views,” Brown says, but he  still recognized some of the “Hunger Games” locations – the river below Triple Falls, and a scene shot at Bridal Veil Falls.

Bridal Veil is where we take a lunch break, after Hopkins shows me where Katniss came running over rock and hillside to land in a pool of water. The brown bag is labeled “Survival Snacks – Hunger Games Style” and includes bread, beef jerky, raw vegetables, dried cranberries, goat cheese and crackers.

We stop at the airstrip – this was base camp for the cast and crew, where catering trucks and stars’ trailers were parked. And a helicopter, armed with a camera, flew down the airstrip corridor to re-create the view out of a speeding train in the movie (the train was “CGI’d in” later, Hopkins says). On a hillside below the ranger’s house, there’s still a blue strap that held a log for the stunt woman to trip over, and chalky pieces of fake rocks.

The fires are put out, the crews packed up, the film is in theaters and the cast is thinking about the sequel. DuPont State Forest is quiet and empty of trailers, but busier and busier with film-inspired visitors. Why is the film appealing to so many people?

“I think maybe because of the economic situation. People are worried about where we’re going,” says Hopkins. “The older generation went through, or heard about, the Great Depression… and that’s what District 12 is to me. I hope to have campfire conversations about that.”

‘Hunger Games’: Visit the Filming Sites

Walking Tours
July 7, July 21, Aug. 4, Aug. 18, Sept. 29, Oct. 6, Nov. 3

Fan Tour Day Trips
July 14 and 15; Aug. 11 and 12

Fan Tours Adventure Weekends
July 27-29, August 24-26, Sept. 21-23
Contact:; 949-610-5570, 828-553-7117

Recent Releases & Coming Soon!

• “Lawless,” based on Matt Bondurant’s book “The Wettest County in the World” (Franklin County, Va.) comes to theaters August 31.

• “Hatfields & McCoys,” a History Channel three-parter on the West Virginia-Kentucky feuding families and starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton, premiered on Memorial Day. (Read all about this legendary mountain feud right here on Blue Ridge Country!)

Coal: The Reality Show

This spring saw the airing of a reality show based on West Virginia coal mining, filmed in McDowell County between November 2011 and January 2012 at Cobalt Coal Corp.’s Westchester Mine; it debuted on March 30 and resulted in safety citations from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, reports the Huffington Post. The show, a production on Spike TV, was created by Original Productions, which has focused on dangerous work in the past, with shows such as “The Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers.” The cast is made up of real coal miners, working a real coal mine – following a 300-million-year-old seam of coal 600 feet underground – their stories told over 10 episodes.

The show “gave me a better appreciation of the dangers associated with mining,” says Pamela Haynes, who first read about the project in The Hollywood Reporter,  before she was contacted by Original Productions. –CEM


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Hannah Harvey: Telling Tales of Coalminers, Gaelic Fairies and More. (Click to Read More.)

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