Atlantic Southeast Magazine....
IT'S A WONDERFUL WILMINGTON
When filmmaker Frank Capra, Jr., talks about Wilmington, North Carolina, the word wonderful often weaves its way into the conversation. It's no "wonder". Capras father, Frank, Sr. directed the hit 1946 feature, Its a Wonderful Life. That said, its obvious the younger Capras love affair with Wilmington and its surroundings isn't the stuff of film fantasy.
Dino De Laurentiis and I made Firestarter here in the early 1980s, and I simply fell in love with the area, Capra recalled. In 1997, I was asked to come here to run EUE/Screen Gems Studios--and Ive been here ever since.
Screen Gems, as its called locally, is one of many things that makes Wilmington wonderful. Thanks to the studios and unique locations throughout the area, Wilmington has hosted more than 400 productions. In fact, the city is now referred to as Hollywood East, home to the largest working movie production facility and the largest full-time film crew base east of La La Land.
Situated on 45 acres near Wilmington International Airport (ILM), are Screen Gems nine stages (two more are planned). Over the years, they have welcomed feature film productions such as Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Lolita, A Walk to Remember, Blue Velvet, Black Knight, and 28 Days, as well as major television series including Matlock, Dawsons Creek, and the current hit, One Tree Hill.
Barry Corbin currently stars in One Tree Hill as coach Whitey Durham and lives in downtown Wilmington. He said, This is my fourth season here and I love the people and the history.
Screen Gems is bustling with the work of Corbin and many others stars, thanks in part to the states new competitive tax incentive program that went into effect on January 1. We are busier than we have been in years, said Wilmington Regional Film Commission Director, Johnny Griffin. As one Hollywood studio executive recently told me, We told you that if North Carolina passed a meaningful film incentive program, we would bring projects to North Carolina, and now you see that we meant it."
With the announcement earlier this year that Nights in Rodanthe would be filmed here [please see sidebar], more people than ever will want to see the North Carolina coast Nicholas Sparks featured in his novel, said Lynn Minges, executive director of the North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development. Officials at Warner Brothers Pictures cited the new incentive program as part of the decision to film in the area.
Saturday studio tours are popular during the spring-to-fall season. Up to 75 people get an inside peek at the set of One Tree Hill or a feature film in production. At the end of the tour (conducted by Film Studies students from the University of North Carolina--Wilmington), the studios Memorabilia area provides an overview of previous Screen Gems productions (including some of the original sets from Dawsons Creek).
More than Movies--Downtown Delights
What makes Wilmington popular with the film industry also endears it to visitors. The locations that Capra and others love are often tourist attractions--historic homes and plantations, museums, inns, restaurants, and many waterfront locations along the community's signature Cape Fear River.
Bustling downtown Wilmington is a great place to start. Water Street runs right along the Cape Fear, as does the adjacent Riverwalk. Highlights along Water Street include: the Wilmington Railroad Museum (visitors can climb aboard a caboose); the 1919 Federal Building (used in establishing shots for Matlock); and riverfront accommodations, dining, and shopping. Located between the Hilton Wilmington Riverside and the Cotton Exchange (great shopping and dining in a renovated grain mill and cotton warehouse), the Wilmington Walk of Fame features stars for luminaries with local connections--including tennis pioneer Althea Gibson, football star Roman Gabriel, author Robert Ruark, musician Charlie Daniels, broadcaster and journalist David Brinkley, and Frank Capra, Jr.
Horse-drawn carriages, walking tours, and trolley rides can all be arranged at the corner of Water and Market. Situated at Dock and Water, tours, dinner cruises, and more are offered aboard the Henrietta III riverboat. Nearby, the Captain J.N. Maffitt provides narrated sightseeing river tours and water taxi service over to the big USS North Carolina battleship. Docked right across the Cape Fear, it's hard to miss.
Commissioned in 1941, the North Carolina earned 19 battle stars during World War II. It landed in Wilmington in 1961 and has been a huge tourist attraction ever since. Self-guided tours are the norm, but there are often events featuring crew and officers in period uniforms (Wilmington has lots of actors to serve in this Navy). Occasional reunions offer lucky visitors the opportunity to visit with veterans who served aboard the storied battleship.
Back across the river in downtown Wilmington, Market Street runs north of Water and serves as the citys main corridor. The antebellum Bellamy Mansion of History and Design Arts feels like the set for Gone With the Wind and has served in many made-for-TV movies. It was also the location of the wrap party for Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Situated diagonally across the street (past the bubbling Kenan Memorial Fountain thats also been in many films), visitors can view the Carolina Apartments, the building where Isabella Rossellinis character lived in Blue Velvet.
Other downtown Wilmington destinations (all within walking distance) include: Thalian Hall/City Hall (a local theater and government office building that has been used as a theater in many films and TV series); the 1852 Latimer House; the Cape Fear Serpentarium (home to more than 100 species of reptiles); and the recently re-opened Childrens Museum of Wilmington.
Linda Lavin (of TVs Alice) liked Wilmington so much that she decided to move to the citys downtown area where she and her husband, Steve Bakunas, have renovated several historic buildings. She occasionally takes a turn on the local stage or in a directors role (Wilmington has a very strong theater community).
Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon in Batman and hundreds of other film, TV, and stage roles) is another actor who fell in love with Wilmington and now calls the city his home when hes not on location elsewhere. We filmed Maximum Overdrive in 1985 with Stephen King. My wife, Julie, and I simply fell in love with the area, said Hingle. We moved to Carolina Beach in 1990. The airports great, the people are friendly, and the studio and Frank Capra, Jr., are such a blessing. Earlier this year, Hingle starred in Tuesday with Morrie at Wilmingtons Thalian Hall.
Get Out of Town
Wilmington is a water-oriented city, thanks to the Cape Fear River and the nearby Atlantic Ocean. Thus, getting out of town often means heading to water.
Wrightsville Beach is a the classic Carolinas oceanfront getaway, with a five-mile white-sand beach, a popular fishing pier, and a wide variety of accommodations, dining, and shopping options. (Sandra Bullock stayed there during the filming of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.)
Situated in a traditional beach cottage moved inland, the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History provides a perfect introduction to the storied island. Its actually reminiscent of the cottage in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (the islands beach filled in for Nantucket in the films sand castle contest).
Back on the mainland, gardening buffs will want to visit Airlie Gardens (airliegardens.com). With close to 70 sprawling acres along the water, Airlie Gardens has been featured in Dawsons Creek Martin Lawrences Black Knight, and Sandra Bullocks 28 Days.
Heading south, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Fort Fisher provide further water-oriented opportunities. More accommodations, dining, and shopping await, as do kayak and other on-water tours, at the 761-acre Carolina Beach State Park, and the Civil War-era network of defenses at the Fort Fisher State Historic Site & Civil War Museum.
One of the trio of excellent state aquariums is also located here. The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher features live animal demonstrations, a touch pool, surf fishing, and much more. It was used for the one-season run of NBCs Surface.
The Fort Fisher-Southport ferry leaves from the tip of Fort Fisher, transporting cars and passengers to the town of Southport (Demi Moore boarded it in The Butchers Wife, as did Bruce Willis in The Jackal). Its a half-hour ride along the Cape Fear River to Southport.
Oozing with small town southern charm, Southport is a great place for a seafood meal, some shopping, and an excursion up to Orton Plantation, where Frank Capra, Jr. filmed much of Firestarter. Along with providing a classic plantation setting that welcomes visitors, Orton has since hosted A Walk to Remember and dozens more films. Of Orton, Frank Capra, Jr., said, Theyre still incredibly welcoming to both large and small productions. Its certainly a welcome place to end a tour of Hollywood East.
Nights in North Carolina
With Nights in Rodanthe would be filming along the North Carolina coast (using Wilmingtons studios, infrastructure, and crew base), Hollywood East is on a roll. Making movies is big business and North Carolina continues to play a leading role, said Governor Mike Easley. Based on the bestseller by North Carolina resident, Nicholas Sparks, the drama stars Richard Gere and Diane Lane.
Sleep Like a Star
Downtowns Wilmingtonian (www.thewilmingtonian.com) is a perfectly appropriate base for a Wilmington visit. Long a favorite of visiting stars, directors, and producers, The Wilmingtonian features a total of 40 large one- and two-bedroom suites in five buildings dating from 1841 to 1994. Built in 1994 to specifically accommodate the film industry (with some casts and crews staying for two or three months), the 11 spacious one-bedroom apartment-like suites in the Cinema House are all based on a classic movie or star and include full kitchens, washers and dryers, and separate bedrooms. Visiting production people from New York City have been known to say the Cinema House suites are larger and nicer than their New York apartments. Some of the suite options include: Marilyn (vintage Marilyn Monroe posters); Music Man (original costumes in glass cases); Around the World (posters from Around the World in 80 Days); and Oklahoma (saddles and more).
The Verandas Bed & Breakfast Inn (www.verandas.com) is another accommodations option with film connections. The upscale inn (and its ever-so-southern front porch) made its film debut in the 2003, feel-good drama The Chester Story.